Let’s say that, for the first time in your life, you have just eaten ice cream studded with grasshoppers. Wouldn’t you go home and share this odd story with your friends or your family? Yes, you probably would. It’s a funny story and it doesn’t happen every day. But this is not just a funny story, it’s also a true story, and it is a story of how experiential marketing works.
Much of the marketing world at the moment is focused on the hype around digital, but at the end of the day, even though we are spending a lot of time on our smartphones, we’re still human beings who crave experiences. This is why experiential marketing has emerged as an incredibly effective way to engage audiences in 2015 and why a number of agencies are specializing in experiential—and doing well.
However, these brand experiences aren’t a replacement for digital marketing, but rather a complement to it. They take place in the real world, and whereas audiences can feel pressure from so much mobile-facing activity, experiential marketing is often a much-welcome, and even tantalizing, real-life reprieve from our hyper-connected existences. Target audiences do not receive a free gift or a trial, but an experience interesting enough that they take home with them a story worth telling.
It’s important that these campaigns are not done as mere stunts. They are an opportunity to deliver an incredibly content-rich package that tells an on-brand story. For instance, when The Economist poured Londoners a free cup of coffee last month, we also served them information on how coffee production waste can be used to create advanced biodiesel fuel rather than contributing to the 20 million tons of waste coffee grounds produced globally every year. This experiential coffee campaign was sparked by an article The Economist wrote on how used coffee grounds could be turned into biodiesel, which gives us the opportunity to show that the publication is focused on more than just business, finance and politics. Likewise, when we gave away insect ice cream from a branded tricycle we wheeled around London this past summer, we weren’t just there to inspire shock. The global population is swelling and food security is a real issue, as outlined in our Sept. 2014 article “Why Eating Insects Makes Sense”; our zany ice cream campaign underlined what could become a new normal in the western diet.
Moreover, we felt the oddball challenge presented by insect ice cream would match us perfectly with our target audience. We seek the progressive, the intellectually curious, those that want to broaden their horizons. By offering up an unusual experience during which someone would need to leave their comfort zone and do something that they wouldn’t do every day, we won the time and mindshare of a self-selecting target audience. During this time, this audience steps into our world through this experience, takes a turn around, and sees that The Economist is a publication that challenges and surprises its subscribers. Our experiential subscription campaign has now generated a 191 percent return on investment—as well as a great deal of media attention.
More and more brands are picking up that experiential is an important space. Heineken, too, has intrigued its audience by taking them out of their comfort zone—literally—as its “airport departure roulette” campaign put people aboard an airplane headed toward an unknown destination. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz recently spotlighted the safety of its vehicles by creating toy cars for children that—because of two very strong opposing magnets—were impossible to crash together. And to illustrate the efficacy of its waterproof mascara, L’Oréal screened a film about a "romantic story of an impossible love" for a cinema full of women. Though many tears were shed, before and after photos of the movie-goers displayed still-immaculate lashes.
As recently as a couple of years ago, experiential marketing was basically the modern way of saying, "I’m going to organize a client event." But experiential now encompasses a more innovative suite of options through which we’re seeing people get more creative about how to engage their target audiences. Where marketing of the past was a broadcast mix and a one-way conversation, it’s completely natural that in 2015 audiences are expecting a two-way conversation. Experiential is brilliant in that it gives a brand a moment to have a two-way conversation in person with a highly targeted audience. Done well, these brand experiences can be just uncomfortable or surprising or thrilling enough to be unforgettable—which is precisely what most brands would hope to be.