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Experiential MarketingThe term is the talk of marketing circles and boardrooms everywhere, but wasn’t it always about the experience when it comes to marketing? Yes and no. In the pre-digital days of the print ad or radio or television spot, clever marketers went about the business of showing or telling people the very best features and benefits about their brands. However, that sort of conversation is very much like watching a play — it’s a one-way dialogue with the audience. Although traditional marketing does build brand awareness,  experiential marketing allows companies to truly design their user experience.

When a company really wants people to live and breath their brand — touch it with all five senses — they practice a number of experiential marketing techniques that provide a full, immersive experience. It’s really just next-generation guerrilla marketing if you want to get technical. The end result is giving customers an emotional connection with the brand, one that is meaningful and memorable — a reason to return.

When the Marketing Tide Turned

Traditional marketing looks at the consumer as a rational decision maker who is more concerned with a product’s features and benefits, while experiential marketing thinks of customers more in terms of emotional beings who want to experience something unique and different.

Bernd Schmitt, a professor in the marketing department at Columbia Business School is big on the customer experience and has written many books in the field of experiential marketing. Born in Heidelberg, Germany Schmitt joined Columbia in 1988 and taught courses in consumer behavior and advertising management. His PhD in psychology was the foundation for the psychological concepts described in his writing, which he applies to marketing and business. Using examples from opera to the arts, his case studies build upon concepts from sensory, cognitive and social psychology. He often cites Starbucks as an example of experiential marketing in motion, because they’ve created a place that is comfortable and relaxed, beyond a great cup of coffee (the product). It’s about customers coming together to share experiences.

Schmitt also talks about how important it is to innovate experiences, create new thoughts and enrich people’s lives to ultimately makes customers happy. If companies learn how to create the right experiences, they create happy customers. From packaging to point-of-sale, every communication must be truly customer driven. To be a successful brand, you need the right “surrounding decoration.” This requires that every touch point be managed consistently. What we’ll see in the future is that this experience will be more and more design driven.

Millenials and Experiential Marketing

The entrance of the millennial generation has presented roughly 2 billion new customers worldwide and a third of the U.S. population, which requires marketers to tune in to ways to use experiential marketing to reach them. Millennials or Generation Y is the demographic group of people with birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. Researchers often describe this group as more upbeat about America’s future than their older counterparts.

Millenials are a tricky bunch and are essentially unreachable through traditional media. Coming of age in the technology and information era has made them skeptical of hard-sell tactics plus technology such as Chromecast allows them to stream exactly what they want, thus blocking out commercials on traditional TV stations. This group would rather attend live marketing events — one of the cornerstones of experiential marketing — than watch a YouTube commercial.

Capturing the attention of this savvy technological set requires experiential marketing at its finest. It has to be a one-of-a-kind experience that gets their attention and leaves enough of a brand impression that they will tell a buddy or co-worker the next day around the water cooler.

Millenials aren’t the only group who prefers a two-way dialogue; many other consumers of all different ages are starting to tap into messaging that plays to people’s lifestyle preferences in order to serve up meaningful brand interactions. The key is knowing how to market your business.

Who’s Doing it Right

Ikea’s sleepover event is a great example of experiential marketing that provides an incredible experience with a brand. The furniture retailer invited 100 lucky Facebook fans to spend the night at its London Essex store. The fans received goodie bags and snacks, while being treated to massages and manicures — basically what you would expect on a sleepover.

Ben & Jerry’s is another brand that has the concept dialed in and one of its most successful campaigns was simple, inexpensive and brilliant. They just tweeted, “We are in Burlington. Who wants ice cream?” Crowds rushed out for a free scoop, while posting pictures of the event on Instagram.

Coca-Cola is another mega brand that looked to experiential marketing to promote its theme of happiness and joy. Agency great Ogilvy & Mather in Singapore was the brainchild behind an idea to put a Coca-Cola vending machine on campus at the National University of Singapore, which dispensed free cans of coke when given a tight hug.  Students responded well to the campaign designed to deliver a dose of happiness in a very unexpected way.

Keep in Mind

Unlike traditional media where you pay for placement, plus all creative expenses associated with developing a campaign, experiential marketing can be very cost effective. The premise of it relies more on out-of-the-box creative thinking as the cornerstone for success. When done well, it’s a powerful tool to get people talking, which will ultimately lead to increased sales. So how does a company do it right? The following few steps are good guidelines when wading into the area of experiential marketing.

1. Creativity is king: anything boring, un-original or potentially unsafe has no place in a campaign that is designed to fuel positive conversation about a brand. There is definitely such a thing as bad publicity when it comes to experiential marketing. Cartoon Network learned the hard way with a big fail when trying to promote their show Aqua Teen Hunger Force. They used wire-filled LED signs installed on structures around Boston, Massachusetts but unfortunately the signs were mistaken for explosive devices. The debacle was so bad in fact that the head of Cartoon Network was abruptly fired.

2. Have a product tie-in: the same way that Super Bowl ad spots often lose in the area of brand recall because they are too obscure or clever can happen with experiential marketing. It’s not enough simply to put on a good show. The brand, its attributes and selling angles have to be woven into the concept at every turn to encourage people to seek out more information and eventually make a purchase.

3. Build a crowd: any major event is enhanced when there’s a large group of people around to share the experience. It’s no different when it comes to experiential marketing. Ideas must be centered on ways to bring large groups of people together, because that’s where the magic really happens.

4. Listen to customers: social chatter isn’t always positive about an event so it’s always good to check-in with your audience to find out what resonated and what didn’t related to an experiential campaign. You’ll know right away if something isn’t working at the first event, so it’s easy to adjust and make changes for the next one. It’s really a good practice to do regularly anyway, but particularly when measuring if an event was a huge success, or not.

Where to Start

The first step is to really understand the customer. That goes beyond an age or profession demographic to how they tick, what they enjoy doing in their free time, what values drive their everyday decision-making. More traditional marketers might refer to this as psychographics or lifestyle data. Knowing what people are interested in and what will appeal to them will help drive the big idea.


Real estate developers and people who design and manage public spaces have also ventured into the world of experiential marketing with a concept called placemaking. It’s essentially a movement within the field of urban planning that leverages the people and assets of a particular place to reinvent these spaces into something more memorable. It’s not that different than how brands are doing it with experiential marketing.

Southwest Airlines is a brand that is actually working with Project for Public Spaces to improve and revitalize public spaces in a number of cities across the nation. They did a few projects last year under the radar in Detroit and Providence, R.I. Another project in the historic Travis Park section of San Antonio is slated for this year.

It’s a process that takes into account the needs of the people living and interacting in a particular space and looks at how urban design can be enhanced to provide a more engaging experience.  Much like pure experiential marketing endeavors, projects are usually low cost and require a big creative idea at the core.

Technology’s Role

Experiential marketing has digital marketing management to thank for a new avenue for brands to connect more personally with their customers. People can now take control of their brand experience, which was never really available in the past with traditional advertising. Brands are taking advantage of technology as a pre-cursor or extension to the brand experience. Take retailer Kate Spade when introducing a new weekend-wear line. The company created four digitally powered interactive store- fronts in New York, where customers, via a touchscreen, were able to browse and buy products from the new lines.

Making it Click

Experiential marketing is a way to forge unbreakable bonds with customers, when it’s done right and follows a well-thought out plan. You have to know your brand, inside and out. Staying consistent with a plan and the messaging is another way to be successful. That means sending out the same message in social channels and traditional print alike. When it comes to a campaign remember, one event is not an entire campaign. Much like running a print ad in several magazines or a television spot repeatedly on targeted stations, a brand must commit to a certain number of events in order to make a big impact.

Think of social media as an extension of the event. A company might have reached several hundred people by staging something in their store, but they have the potential to reach hundreds of thousands or more through Twitter for business and other social media channels — so make them work.

More and more companies these days are adopting experiential marketing as a backbone to their overall branding plans. By including an engaging two-way dialog with consumers, companies move a giant leap closer to the Holy Grail of relationship building. 

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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