First it was new. Then it was now. Now it’s old.
It’s just marketing at this point, isn’t it?
Yet, for all its sheer efficiency, digital marketing has always felt a bit … cold. (And no, scraping data to include my name in the subject of an e-blast doesn’t make it feel any warmer.) Which has paved the way for the next era of marketing: Experiential.
For all its popularity, “experience” is a regrettably vague (and ubiquitous) term. But in terms of marketing, let’s define an experience as anything that combines analog and digital elements in an interaction between a consumer and a brand.
Where some “traditional” advertisers hold to a Draper-esque ideology with white-knuckled determination, and “digital” marketers have turned away from the art of our work in lieu of the science championed by Silicon Valley, the smartest creatives view branded experiences as a way to leverage the full scope of opportunities at our disposal.
The industry’s increased emphasis on branded experiences just makes sense: It’s simultaneously bigger in scale and more personal in effect than anything you can experience on your screen, and yet their execution typically has the “viral” legs you’d want for a big marketing investment.
Scaling an experience is as simple as filming your stunt or pop-up and editing a video for social. Pair that with the inherent PR-value of creating something big, exciting, and surprising and you’ve turned an activation targeted at a few hundred into a piece of content that reaches millions.
As such, it’s little surprise that 1 in 3 CMOs is expected to allocate 21%–50% of their budget to build brand experiences over the next 3–5 years—these experiences are truly “disruptive” in a way that banner ads, social posts, or pre-roll videos can’t hold a candle to.
Striking the Right Balance
Some experiences lean heavily on digital elements. Nike won a Cannes Lion for its digital track, which allowed users to run against LED-illuminated shadows of themselves.
Other times, they are much simpler. At last year’s SXSW, in anticipation of The Handmaid’s Tale TV series, Hulu sent dozens of actresses dressed in the iconic garb of the eponymous literary classic, where they silently lurked outside the Austin Convention Center. There was nothing explicitly digital about it, save the fact that Hulu understood that it was so haunting and interesting that SXSW goers would tweet about it.
Because it was visceral and real and elicited a strong emotional response. People were invited to be a part of the branded engagement, rather than to watch it passively on their phones. And that real connection is more personal and intimate than any data the internet can scrape from your internet history. It elicits a much more important response than liking or retweeting something online.
It gives you a story to share with your friends.
What Does It Mean?
What if brands looked to infrastructure as the new official canvas for their commercials? Imagine a Pfizer-branded ferry. An entire airline terminal brought to you by Citibank, rather than filled with random spots and dots. A new light-rail line with pleasing colors and comfortable seats, rather than our horrific commuter train system.
At their best, branded experiences give a taste of this—they create an ownable space where brands invite users to get fully immersed in their messaging.