Nathan Sykes
November 8, 2018
Experiential Marketing

A lot has changed about how marketing campaigns are designed and delivered in the modern age, where technology seems to power everything. It could be that we’re seeing the last days of traditional billboards and static advertisements in magazines. These days, it’s videos, blogs, live events and interactive media that seem to capture the public’s attention and imagination most effectively and spread virally.

But there’s an important undercurrent here, and it involves the human need for “experiences.”

Sure, we expect more from our advertisements:

  • More information
  • More transparency or something else of value in exchange for our time. (That “value” may simply be making us laugh for a moment.)

But what seems to drive digital marketing these days is the creation of an experience that appeals to the heart instead of the head.

This can take many forms. But the mission is always the same:

To shorten the distance between a company and the place that company occupies in the “real world.”

Let’s dive in and figure out what that means and how to do it.

What Need Does Experiential Marketing Meet?

You’ve likely read and heard all about the importance of employing a consistent design language and brand identity. Everything about how you portray yourself to the world — including colors, images, fonts, logo design and more — helps create an emotional reaction. And, if you’re lucky, it also creates brand loyalty.

When customers have to choose between two products that compete with one another, and they can’t tell them apart functionally, the deliberateness of design in one product versus another is often the tie-breaking vote.

But we’re not as interested in static advertisements anymore. Billboards are eyesores and nuisances. And as newspapers and magazines continue their shaky digital transitions, we’re going to see fewer scratch-and-sniff full-page fragrance adverts sent home in copies of Wired and Cosmo.

Experiential marketing breaks from tradition and satisfies three important requirements:

  • It provides a type of interaction not possible before with fixed, static images.
  • It can blend physical and digital outreach in the form of in-person events, often simultaneously live-streamed to a wider online audience.
  • Last, it better fits into the dynamic digital landscape. This is defined by videos and gifs — and more broadly, by “storytelling” rather than straight-up “selling.”

But what are some of the ways companies are creating these experiences?

Types of Experiential Marketing

You won’t be surprised to learn this, but consumers today find modern advertisements far too intrusive for comfort or effectiveness. Some 90 percent of the public you’re trying to reach holds digital advertising in contempt. There’s particular disdain for online pop-ups, mobile ads, pre-video advertisements and flashy banner ads.

This is part of what we mean when we say there’s “distance” between the modern consumer and the brands that are trying to reach them. Targeted or shotgun-blast advertisements are extremely presumptuous. They insist upon themselves. They don’t try very hard to portray these products and services in a relevant, relatable way. And they don’t seem to exist on the same plane of reality as the consumer.

Experiential marketing shines because it helps people make the intuitive leap from “being advertised to” to actually picturing themselves using a product. In some cases, we can interact with the people behind the brands, such as product designers, creatives, and material engineers.

Even a trade show display can come alive if it breaks the unbreakable marketing “fourth wall” in an appealing way. It could, for example, offer a photo op or another interactive experience.

Let’s take a look at the advantages — for everybody involved — by way of an example.

The SWSX Example

If you’re familiar with South by Southwest (SXSW), you know it’s a festival in Austin, Texas. Every year, it hosts:

  • Major keynote speakers
  • Live events
  • Product showcases
  • Screenings
  • Performances and premieres of films, television shows, and video games.

Each year, the festival reaches a larger audience thanks to streaming video. People across the internet increasingly feel like they’re part of the event and experiencing the same surprises in real-time as those attending in person.

SXSW outdid itself recently by further honing the ideal balance between local events and digital reach that all experiential marketing must pursue to be successful.

To celebrate and spread the word about the newest season of “Breaking Bad” spinoff “Better Call Saul,” AMC’s showrunners built a real-life replica of a chicken restaurant, “Los Pollos Hermanos,” that’s common to both fictional universes. Attendees of SXSW could visit the restaurant, order from its menu and interact with the stars of the show.

Naturally, the whole thing was very thoroughly filmed and dispatched to the furthest corners of the internet — and not just by professional pundits and influencers. It enjoyed significant “organic” traction. And why wouldn’t it?

Not every experiential marketing event has to be this elaborate. Anything that helps your company engage in community bonding could have serious traction.

Another example was the recent pop-up “bartershop” campaign by Harry’s, a subscription-based company that sells men’s razors. During this experiential, locally focused marketing blitz, Harry’s opened a SoHo “razor exchange” to help convince loyalists of other razor brands to trade in competing products for a discount on Harry’s Razors.

Why Does Experiential Marketing Work?

These experiences work because some of the best learning happens while we’re performing hands-on tasks and experiencing something real, genuine and organic.

Some types of experiential marketing are fairly sophisticated and might require a large budget. But others are entirely within reach even for small businesses with more modest budgets. These kinds of events include:

  • Live performances
  • Appearances by personalities and internet influencers
  • Product samples and demonstrations
  • Giveaways, raffles, and contests
  • Crowdsourced creative works and public exhibitions
  • Interactive product displays
  • Virtual reality experiences
  • Longform video that tells a story involving a product or the story behind the company

In other words, the best experiential marketing efforts are those that appeal to the senses and the emotions. They are events that create a rapport between the brand or product and that product’s intended audience. To put it another way, experience will trump mere observation every time.

What else trumps observation? Participation in culture. Comic-Con sells massive amounts of merchandise and raises awareness of entertainment franchises that the public might not know about otherwise.

But the enduring appeal of the event isn’t just about connecting “customers” with “entertainment products.” It’s about fostering the sense that event attendees — even those watching the keynotes and trailer premieres from the comfort of their homes — are participating in culture, even as they’re being advertised to.

That’s a powerful feeling. The desire for inclusivity is strong in all of us and always has been. So it’s no wonder it’s become a key ingredient in modern, memorable and impactful marketing campaigns.


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Nathan Sykes enjoys new technologies and the ways in which they can be used to enhance business strategies. Follow him on Twitter to stay up to date with his latest articles.