Experiential Marketing

Experiential marketing—also known as “engagement marketing”—is at the forefront of our awareness these days, as nearly every company you can think of is applying the realization that today’s consumers—especially Millennials—value experiences above all else, and said companies are doing everything they can to create, or be a part of, said experiences. The following article, by Laura M. Brown in Columbia Magazine, was written some time ago, but it does a good job of describing the phenomenon. After Ms. Brown’s piece, I show how radio has been doing experiential since way before it was a thing.

Take a moment and think about some of the intriguing new products that appeared on the market in the last couple of decades. Volkswagen’s New Beetle, Apple’s iMac computer, the iPhone—all boast innovative design and promise superior function, but perhaps even more creative and innovative than the products themselves are the ways in which they are being marketed to consumers. Rather than focusing on rational notions of value and economy, today’s marketing campaigns are making appeals to our feelings, intellect, curiosity and self-image to sell a product. This technique, dubbed “experiential marketing,” is turning up in all facets of marketing and advertising, from packaging to television spots to retail store design to websites, and it is being used by companies as diverse as Procter and Gamble, Andersen Consulting, and Starbucks Coffee.

According to experiential marketing theory, an “experience” can be defined as a private event that occurs in response to some kind of stimulus, be it emotional, tactile, esthetic or intellectual. Furthermore, experiences are usually not self-generated but induced; they are born of something external to the subject. The goal for experiential marketers, then, is to provide stimuli that will induce particular kinds of experiences for consumers, experiences that become part of the notion of a product’s overall value.

Columbia University marketing professor Bernd Schmitt wrote a book on the subject: Experiential Marketing: How to Get Customers to SENSE, FEEL, THINK, ACT and RELATE to Your Company and Brand. According to Schmitt, experiential marketing is fast replacing more traditional marketing strategies that he refers to as “features and benefits” marketing. Most of us grew up with the features and benefits approach and are familiar with its focus on the functional characteristics and benefits of products—gas mileage in a car, durability in a major appliance or cleaning power in a detergent, for example. Traditional features and benefits marketers have tended to craft their campaigns with a view of customers as rational decision-makers who weigh such features and benefits against one another, carefully selecting the product with the highest overall utility. The marketers of the industrial age and the early stages of the consumer age who developed the features and benefits approach were often engineers who viewed the world—and their customers—analytically and rationally. In today’s branding and information age, however, marketers recognize that customers bring along a very different set of expectations when they go shopping.

Experiential marketers regard consumers as being emotionally as well as rationally driven, just as likely to make purchase decisions based on their feelings about a product as on the product’s functionality. Rather than scouting out the best values based purely on economy and utility, customers expect to buy and use products that not only function well but also look good. They want store environments that are exciting. They want efficient and attentive service, whether in a real store or in e-commerce. They want products that match their lifestyles or that offer the allure of sharing in the lifestyle the product represents. In short, customers want experiences—and those experiences count when they consider the “value” of a product.

Taking It to the Streets

How we and our clients can use experiential marketing

One of the great things about publishing this newsletter is doing the research to become a quasi-expert in whatever topic is front and center. This week’s featured topic was triggered by a discussion I had with a branding expert about the fact that successful marketing campaigns nowadays involve at least an experiential component, if it’s not the component.

As I gathered more and more information about the subject, it dawned on me that radio, once again, was doing experiential marketing long before it had a name, or was a thing.

Think for a moment about all the promotions that we’ve done over the years that have been nothing but experiential:

HANDS ON THE [VEHICLE]. This one is truly touchy-feely, with a dozen or so contest qualifiers trying to outlast one another keeping their hands on the car or truck or boat or whatever. It’s directly experiential for the participants, and viscerally so for those who watch the spectacle.

PACK YOUR BAGS. Run a contest to give away some sort of trip (weekend getaway, five days/four nights in the Caribbean, etc.). The qualifiers are invited to a meeting/lunch/dinner where the final winners will be chosen—and the qualifiers are told to pack their bags, because the winners will go on from the event directly to the vacation.

TURKEY BOWLING. This Thanksgiving staple can be something you do at any time merely by changing what you bowl with. Again, the idea is to get people doing stuff.

OFFICE OLYMPICS. In this one, you have qualifiers competing in various oddball “sports” involving office activities and/or office supplies: office chair races, paper-clip chains, stapling contests, wastebasket basketball, etc.

DASH FOR CASH/GRAB THE GROCERIES. What could be more engaging than one or more qualifiers who are given X number of minutes to grab all the stuff they can, whether in a bank vault or a supermarket?

HOME SHOW/OUTDOOR SHOW/BOAT SHOW/BRIDAL FAIR/WHATEVER. When you are planning an event of this type, do some brainstorming about ways to make a visit to the show in question as experiential as possible. Encourage the vendors to think that way: their booths can include some sort of game; they can give out promo items liberally; and so on.

Then, you, who are coordinating the entire event, can sprinkle your own experiences throughout the show: roaming mime, troubadour, magician, juggler, clown, etc. (I say “roaming” because you want your entertainment component to draw people to your vendors’ booths, not away from them.) It’s best to avoid entertainment that distracts from the objective of getting people to visit the vendor booths—like any kind of stage act.

Engagement at the Client Level

But event marketing is only a subset of experiential marketing. Work with your individual clients to make what they do—and what you do together—more of an experience. Even the old standby, remote broadcasts, can be enlivened by brainstorming new ways of engaging attendees and listeners alike.

Engaging our audience is easy; we’ve been doing it for 100 years. Just don’t fall victim to the adage, “It worked so well, we quit doing it.”