Today’s marketing professionals have to get crafty in order to attract eyeballs while simultaneously mitigating eye-rolls. “Thinking outside the box” has become “thinking insideGoogle Cardboard.”
Few PR stunts are as cringe-worthy as train-wreck attempts at IRL activations that miss the mark; and yet, few marketing campaigns generate as much buzz and brand recognition as a beautifully executed, compelling experiential play.
Suffice it to say that a job creating such stunts is a far cry from pushing paper in a cubicle.
For marketing professionals, learning how to bring a brand’s name into the heads of consumers — and into the headlines -– can be a way to flex creative muscles in an innovative, fast-paced work environment. Below is a brief explainer on the state of experiential marketing today, as well as a few potential career paths related to the field.
The evolution of experiential marketing
Though experiential marketing has been around in some form for decades, in recent years, technologies such as 3D video paired with an increasingly connected global marketplace have opened doors for marketers to bring a brand’s presence far beyond the banner ad.
And it’s a necessary shift; consumers today are increasingly unimpressed by traditional advertising.
“People know when they’re being sold something,” explains Josh Harrold, a marketer who has worked on experiential campaigns for brands ranging from Yoo-hoo to Humana for the better part of two decades.
“To me, experiential marketing is the most authentic way to interact with customers.”
“To me, experiential marketing is the most authentic way to interact with customers.”
When Harrold began his career in the early 2000s, experiential marketing meant anything from pop-up shops to street promotions to national tours. Harrold worked on one such campaign early on, in the form of “Yoo-hoo’s Big Stinkin’ Summer Tour,” which featured a 32-foot truck that visited popular concert venues and sporting events around the country.
“Yoo-hoo has a cult-like following, and we were able to generate a lot of buzz by seeking out those passionate fans,” Harrold explains.
These types of promotions have only increased in number and creativity since the days of branded truck tours. A variety of high-profile campaigns have even become household conversation topics. One brand, for example, that’s practically synonymous with experiential marketing success is Red Bull. Who can forget the Felix Baumgartner Stratos stunt, which garnered worldwide attention and record-breaking publicity? And Flugtag, another Red Bull event, isn’t generally viewed by attendees as a PR ploy; instead, it’s a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon with the family.
Particularly for brands introducing a new product, Harrold says, experiential marketing can be an inventive way of getting consumers to touch, taste and try.
Pablo Rochat, a marketer and former art director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, agrees that experiential marketing is an intriguing way to create coveted audience engagement.
“Brands tend to only create [campaigns that have worked in the past] — but by the time they repeat themselves, their audience is already bored,” he says, which is why the majority of traditional advertising is often ineffective. “Brands are scared to take a risk, but that’s exactly what they need to do to survive,” he continues.
Slapping a logo on a beachball, however, is not experiential marketing, says Rochat.
“It’s about immersing people in meaningful events that they won’t forget,” he says.
Career path: Experiential event management and coordination
One of the top ways marketers take brand efforts from blah to BOOM! is by hosting IRL activations. These events span from minor-scale, pop-up shops to huge, sponsored endeavors that may take months to bring to life.
Careers that focus on the ideation and execution of such events range just as drastically, from unpaid interns who hand out flyers and marketing collateral, to full-scale planners and coordinators whose sole role is to seamlessly blend brand messaging with attendee experience.
For Harrold, attaching such an event or campaign to a social initiative has a massive payout.
For example, Harrold worked with Nike on a 2014 campaign for Go Skateboarding Day. By lobbying city officials in Los Angeles to remove skate stops from a legendary skateboarding spot, Harrold and his team helped reopen the West LA Courthouse — a beloved historic spot for local boarders. The event itself, which included celebrity athletes and a live band, was such a hit that the city of LA decided to leave the area un-stopped indefinitely. Today, the plaza memorializes the campaign’s huge success.
For Rochat, tapping into current events and “meme marketing” has delivered promising results. In an attempt to bring a social app, Knock Knock, to college campuses, Pablo and his cohorts brought the online joke of “Netflix and chill” to life in a daring marketing effort.
“We created a Facebook event that went viral — the 1st Annual Netflix and Chill Festival — and had over 30,000 people RSVP,” says Rochat. Eventually, the festival spread across multiple campuses and even grabbed the attention of prominent Instagrammers.
“The students who came to the festival were taking hundreds of selfies, and documenting the event to show their friends on Snapchat and Instagram,” Rochat recalls. “This generated millions of online impressions, and the Knock Knock app went from completely unknown to trending on the Appstore.”
The festival itself, explains Rochat, was basically an experiential meme.
Career path: Internet of Things, wearables and biometrics
Wearable tech has opened up a whole new world, not only for techies and fitness buffs, but also for brands.
Jeff Malmad, managing director and head of mobile and Life+ at Mindshare North America, has been involved with a number of experiential campaigns employing wearable technology and biometrics.
“Leveraging a partnership with a bioanalytics company, we’ve started looking at ways to use wearables and biometric data to enhance campaigns and events,” he explains, detailing a number of creative iterations of this approach.
One of Malmad’s recent success stories includes a program at Cannes Lions, which outfitted attendees with smartwatches and measured data points like heart rate and location. The data helped inform organizers on how to optimize attendance and engagement for the annual event.
Sports are another natural fit for such marketing campaigns — at present, Mindshare is working with the NCAA to incorporate biometrics into the fan experience — and thus careers that meld elements of fitness, sports and biometrics in a marketing capacity may be a perfect fit for professionals passionate about both fields.
Career path: 3D experiences, augmented reality and new media content creation
An almost infinite number of new technologies and platforms present unprecedented opportunities for today’s marketers, says Rochat. Impressive technologies such as projection mapping, 3D printing, Lap Motion and countless other immersive experiences open doors for everything from online gaming to virtual reality.
“All of these new technologies create opportunities to experience brands like never before,” says Rochat.
Not to mention that these opportunities — as well as all of the experiential methods detailed above — have more reach and social amplification than ever before. The right experiential campaign paired with carefully selected social influencers and online content is a winning formula.
“Experiential marketing is inherently social,”
“Experiential marketing is inherently social,” says Rochat. “It’s about creating meaningful experiences for groups of people in the real world. When done well, your audience will tell their friends about it. They’ll document and broadcast what you’ve done to their network. Everyone with a phone in their hand is their own media channel.”
This is nothing but good news for marketing professionals interested in the online or social media element of experiential campaigns.
Another area of career growth, though perhaps not quite as sexy as dabbling in virtual reality or events, is analytics.
“It’s no longer enough to churn through X amount of samples or get X amount of YouTube views,” says Harrold. “To do experiential marketing right, you need to prove a strong ROI. You need to get a lift in sales and show how the perception of your brand is improving through your experiential strategy.”
And data analysis is key for more than just proving ROI. In the Pulse of Cannes activation, Malmad recalls, data played an equally impressive role. “Once all of the information [from the wearables] was collected, we presented our learnings in front of a large audience based on data we had received just two hours earlier,” he says, an element of the activation that would have been unimaginable just ten years ago.
Pablo adds that technological advancements in experiential marketing, analytics and social sharing platforms have opened the field up to a huge range of professionals.
“Great experiential ideas can come from anyone — a designer, an art director, an account manager, a janitor. It’s all about who has a great idea and the chops to successfully pitch it,” he notes.