A pre-pandemic Ad Age article suggested that experiential marketing might have reached its peak and, in supporting its argument, cited Instagram-worthy installations like the Museum of Ice Cream and The Color Factory. The problem is that while both installations are fun activities in their own right, they’re not actually examples of experiential marketing. They’re photography-oriented theme parks designed primarily for entertainment and social media sharing.
Experiential marketing shouldn’t be reduced to a fad or merely a marketing tool (and it can’t be in this era of physical distancing, anyway). Rather, it’s a strategic discipline and a powerful way to build emotional connections between consumers and brands. It isn’t just about Instagrammable activations, noise, and short-lived fear of missing out.
It’s about placing consumers at the centre of the brand, understanding their mindset, and creating experiences that demonstrate the brand’s point of differentiation and why it’s relevant to consumers. And it’s about strategically showing up in locations that tap into those consumers’ passions — such as music, food, or sports — or professional interests.
Gigabyte, for example, immediately pivoted when it found out that one of its most important exhibition events was canceled because of COVID-19. By offering a digital, clickable booth tour that walked visitors through their latest developments in 5G, the computer hardware company met partners, customers, and users where they were (online). This agile experience was strategically created to provide the same value that attendees would expect from the live event.
The social media myth
Brand experiences weren’t originally designed to create the fastest route to landing on social feeds. While social amplification is an important aspect of experiential marketing, it’s not the only goal. Before the pandemic, you couldn’t just install a flower wall and expect consumers to flock to your activation and organically share. There’s a bigger strategic vision involved, and the coronavirus’s in-person limitations highlight this.
Experiential channels don’t generate standard costs and measurements, so brand managers have had to think about the quantity and the quality of impressions. Social media impressions create a paper trail. They fill in the numbers. But in doing so, they might overshadow the original objectives of the experiential program. For some, social currency has become the goal of the experience.
Experiential marketers need to step out of the social media world and focus on time spent with consumers. An experience is a living advertisement — one that requires high-quality strategy and creativity. Brands need to target what is most meaningful to consumers and demonstrate their products’ purpose through the experience.
Of course, content marketing must be a seamlessly and strategically integrated component of an experiential plan. It shouldn’t rely solely on consumer shares; media buy-in can be a far more authentic way of capturing the experience. A well-crafted campaign should be designed with influencers, brand content creation, social engagement, and paid amplification in mind.
Brands need to take a risk in measuring the success of experiential marketing by thinking long-term and creating “heavy impressions” through high-quality productions than simply putting the onus on short-term social impressions.
From millennial to Gen Z
Experiential marketing is about building brand love, not driving impressions. It’s an investment in a long-term relationship with consumers, and it’s the best way to approach Generation Z.
Generation Z accounts for 32% of the world’s population. As a group, they consume media differently from those who came before them. They watch less TV, and they’re suspicious of social media ads. As consumers, they value offline communication. They’re more influenced by niche nano-influencers and people they know and trust rather than celebrity influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers.
Human interaction and authentic experiences drive Gen Z consumption, so brands need to provide those kinds of opportunities online. An incredible 99% of Gen Z shopped in stores regularly before the pandemic, and pop-up stores were especially prized. These young consumers expect brands to act like humans and express empathy. And experiential marketing is the best channel to do just that.
Experiential marketing has been confused with social media and the FOMO phenomenon, but it’s time to move beyond impressions and get back to its true purpose: building an authentic relationship with consumers.