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Blog: The stealthy meteoric rise of experiential

It’s no secret that there’s currently a sea change taking place across marketing and advertising. The good news is that spend is up – 10.7% in the UK, according to the IPA Bellwether report for the second quarter of 2016 – and has been rising for the past three years now. 

More interesting is what’s driving this trend. Perhaps surprisingly, the main catalyst is real world marketing (events and experiential), with an impressive 13.4% increase in investment. Unsurprisingly, digital marketing follows closely behind with 10.9%, then come main media advertising (9.3%) and PR (2.3%). No other specific discipline posted increased investment.


Random blip?

Is this just a blip; a random quarterly leap? No, investment in real world marketing, as monitored through Bellwether, has been rising each quarter for more than two years. Widen the research net and the sheer force behind experiential becomes astonishingly clear. According to the Pearlfinders Global Index 2016, the number of brands looking to investing in the discipline was up 40% on 2015, which itself reported a 56% rise in experiential activations over 2014. Meanwhile, 75% of brands admitted to growing their experiential budgets in Event’s Power Brands Report last year, with 50% anticipating further rises.

The Pearlfinders Global Index summed up the situation well, saying: “Experiential has come a long way from the sample-driven add-on it once represented. It has become a key player within brands’ marketing communications and this growth looks set to continue.” A long way, indeed!

As to where this extra experiential spend is coming from, 66% has transferred from other disciplines, while 34% is incremental, according to the Event’s Power Brands Report. 

Other signs of experiential’s continued rise include the fact that, since 2012, the number of agency start-ups has exponentially grown with a disproportionate number of these within the experiential space. 

There is also a clear trend in agencies repositioning to embrace experiential activation, from Leo Burnett’s ‘Acts Not Ads’ to AMV Live Experience, and JWT Live, among others. What’s more, leading marketing and advertising bodies the Marketing Agencies Association], the Institute Promotional Marketing and ISBA now offer dedicated experiential training, an industry code of conduct is being planned and experiential award categories have doubled since 2013.

On the radar

So how has a marketing discipline that was fighting to be recognised as such only a decade ago suddenly found itself firmly on the brand radar above most others? 

A key factor is the growth of its close marketing spend running mate digital. The rise and increasing sophistication of the internet and social media has enabled live experiences to be amplified exponentially in terms of reach, hugely increasing the discipline’s cost efficiency. Meanwhile, the content is perfect for consumers’ hunger for authenticity and ‘reality’ from brands. Technology and social have also made the effectiveness of experiential easier to measure. Plus the discipline fuels word-of-mouth recommendation, creating the advocates that brands currently crave more than ever.

This is reflected in research examining experiential’s effectiveness. It topped the poll for ‘most effective marketing tactic’ with 72% of the vote in the Content Marketing Institute’s Content Marketing in the UK 2015 survey. Furthermore, when brands were asked for their top three most effective marketing mediums for the Event Magazine Power Brands 2015 report, experiential came out on top.

One brand that has significantly increased its investment in experiential recently is The Economist. 

“The real world is proving to be a key space for performance brand marketing,” says Marina Haydn, the publication’s senior vice president, circulation and retail marketing. “I’m delighted with our experiential strategy. By using our content and turning it into a real-life activation we can speak to our potential readers in a more exciting and interesting way. Experiential has been a fantastic method of not only changing brand perception, but also converting to subscription. The success is that it’s a genuine experience, people are taking it home with them and talking about it, and there’s a conversation taking place.”

Meteoric rise

As well as growing its own spend levels, there is also evidence to suggest that experiential has had a hand in maintaining digital’s position at the top. 

Experiential and digital channels are not mutually exclusive. There is a popular view that the growth in experiential is contributing to the growth in digital, because: digital/social mechanics are most commonly used to amplify experiential; digital strategies allow data-capture and enable brands to create an ongoing conversation with consumers; and many brands are using experiential to create content to drive digital campaigns.

What’s more, most of the statistics quoted above tend to be based on the more conventional definition of experiential, focused on live face-to-face interaction. By extending the discipline to encompass all ‘real world activations’ – brands creating or doing something in the real world – the growth is likely to be even more pronounced.

As the broader definition and understanding becomes more prevalent and accepted in the market, future reports and statistics are likely to paint an even more positive picture of experiential marketing.

So with investment predicted to climb further and experiential increasingly placed at the heart of many campaigns, it would appear the discipline is primed to go from strength to strength. 

“We’ve been tracking the meteoric rise of experiential as an effective channel in recent years,” says Mike Thorne, editor at Pearlfinders. “Buoyed by sponsors’ increasing activation budgets and better ROI tracking, the number of brands investing in this area will continue to climb through 2016. More significantly, we predict that the scope and scale of projects will also grow.”

Alex Smith is planning director at real world marketing agency Sense.

More: Check out Alex’s blog ‘Three things brands can learn from Pokemon Go’.

Three things brands can learn from Pokemon Go

There have been plenty of discussions about what marketers can learn from Pokemon Go’s mad success. Sense’s Alex Smith pulls out three you may not have considered.

When Satochi Tajiri first created the Pokemon concept in 1995, and released the first two Gameboy video games (red and green) a year later, he would never have envisioned middle-aged bureaucrats running round London (and every other city in the world) trying to catch them all just 20 years later.


Pokemon Go is rapidly becoming the most successful mobile app of all time. It took just 13 hours to hit the top of the US sales charts, and after a global frenzy of anticipation cut that to just three hours for the German charts. It’s lucrative too, topping $2m of revenue per day in the US market, according to Yahoo.

There are lots brands can learn from Pokemon Go, but here are some you may not have considered…

Lesson 1: Reality trumps quality every time

Remember when reality TV came on the scene? “Proper” TV people bashed it, claiming a lack of production values, wit, etc. But people lapped it up anyway.

Why? Because it broke free of the studio and embraced the rough and ready unpredictability of the real world. It was closer to us and, therefore, more relevant. Pokemon Go has done the same.

In spite of its success, it’s considered a poor game by any objective measure. A Guardian review summarised it as “not a good game, but a great experience”.

The fact that it exists in the world around us, not just on our screens, means, like reality TV, that quality doesn’t matter. Take your campaigns out of their media spaces and into the world around them, and the same will apply for you.

Lesson 2: Embrace chaos

Part of the reason why reality is so effective (and part of the reason brands avoid it) is because it’s dangerously unpredictable. You lose control.

However, as we saw even with “brand disasters” like Boaty McBoatface, the unpredictability of something you don’t control can be far more compelling.

With Pokemon Go, the most exciting developments have been where it’s gone a bit off piste, with creatures popping up in all manner of places they shouldn’t. A recent report in The Telegraph found them on the Iraq Frontline, in a cemetery, in court, in a Holocaust Museum and in a birthing ward.

The point here is that while brands care about this stuff, people don’t – in fact, their tastes are often the opposite of brands’, and any brave ones brave enough to push the boundaries will reap the rewards.

Lesson 3: Idea first, tech second

The tragedy of Pokemon Go is that it’s going to herald a flood of poorly conceived AR-based campaigns. Augmented reality (AR) is largely unsuccessful for a reason – its applications are extremely limited.

The key thing to remember here is this: people don’t love this game because it’s AR, they love it because it’s a real world version of Pokemon (which just so happens to use AR).

This no more represents a breakthrough for AR than Cadbury’s iconic campaign represented a breakthrough for gorillas – sure they were great in that context, but that doesn’t mean we all need to sit around thinking of how we can use gorillas in every idea.

As ever, we need to be careful to lead with a great idea (like searching the world around you for hidden Pokemon) and only then think about how we can best execute it, not worrying about throwing the latest tech at it just for the sake of it.

That’s how Pokemon Go became successful, and how you should too. Trying to chase it will see you end up like the thousands of AR apps that existed before Pokemon Go, but for some reason never caught the imagination.

Alex Smith is planning director at real world marketing agency Sense.

Is experiential impossible to define?

The increasing diversity and continual evolution of this growing marketing discipline makes it tough to articulate. But Sense planning director Alex Smith believes he has a solution.

Budweiser’s TV and YouTube ad for the 2015 Superbowl featured a live Pacman game

Over the years there have been many attempts to define experiential marketing, and generally they have fallen short. This is hardly surprising, as recognisable examples of the discipline have taken on an unlimited number of forms.

In fact, they continue to change and push the boundaries, incorporating the latest technologies and techniques to amplify activations, extending their reach through social media, for example, and making them more engaging, such as immersing people more deeply using virtual reality.

This means core experiential activity can now be as varied as two people sharing an experience in the real world or thousands immersing themselves in a brand at a music festival. They can be standalone or part of an integrated campaign. Sometimes they can seem like different disciplines, and don’t even involve an actual physical experience.

Budweiser’s TV and YouTube ad for the 2015 Superbowl featured a live Pacman game at its core with viewers seeing a man taking on the live challenge. The vast majority of the huge audience this campaign reached made no physical contact with the experience itself, viewing it virtually.

This is in marked contrast to The Economist engaging potential subscribers in central London by offering them ice cream containing insects to illustrate a possible solution to the global food shortage issue. Yet both were highly successful and both are experiential. They share no format or formula, goal or purpose, and we wouldn’t even place them in the same strategic marketing territory.

So does this make experiential marketing impossible to define?

No. Actually it’s pretty simple. What marketers need is a holistic definition of experiential that encompasses all the discipline has to offer, acting as a platform from which to create great work yourself.

The easiest way to think of experiential is simple: Communication through creating or doing something tangible in the real world. There is no need to complicate it any further than that.

This definition holds true from the most basic sampling campaign (where you actually get to hold and taste the product), right through to outlandish YouTube stunts, which gain traction through their edgy ‘reality TV’ nature.

The crucial thing to understand about this definition, and experiential in general, which separates it from many other fields of marketing, is this: experiential is a technique, not a channel.

Historically we’ve grown used to discussing marketing disciplines by referencing the physical format in which they’re delivered, their channels. TV is ‘on TV’, print is ‘in print’, and even social is typically ‘on social channels’.

This approach has never worked for experiential (causing great confusion), simply because experiential actions can take on any form you wish. They represent, in effect, an absence of channel – which is why they often work hand in hand with other media for the purposes of amplification.

The clue is in the grammar. ‘Experiential’ is an adjective, not a noun, so describing a campaign as experiential is more akin to describing a campaign as ‘scary’ than outlining its physical format.

It is this ability to think outside marketing channels which separates brands who ‘get’ experiential from those who don’t.

Advertising’s authenticity problem

Thanks to Jade Goody and Jeremy Beadle, experiential can help advertising get real and closer to people’s lives, says Alex Smith, planning director at Sense.

Advertising has always been in competition with entertainment media, and has always tried to copy it in order to borrow some of our attention. We’ve seen our love of movies and drama condensed into 30 second spots. Our tastes in art have carried over to print. In infomercials we see the aping of our favourite chat shows, and in advertorials a shameless camouflage of sales in the trappings of editorial.

Recently however, entertainment media has undergone a far more fundamental change to which advertising is yet to fully adjust.

It all started with reality TV. Pioneers like Jeremy Beadle and Jade Goody have now seen their art form expand, in one guise or another, to become the dominant media style we consume today. When it comes to video, YouTube has of course dramatically advanced this kind of content, but beyond that, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and services like Whatsapp and Tinder have rendered almost all we consume ‘reality’ in some way. What is the Facebook News Feed if not, essentially, a reality ‘TV’ stream of people you know?

The dominance of this kind of content has changed the tastes of the public. People are now trained to respond more favourably to ‘real’ content than fictional – it’s more significant because, ultimately, it actually happened. Even the more traditional media forms have sought to update themselves in order to keep up. For instance, in cinema there has been an explosion of ‘reality’ films, with the number of documentaries released in British theatres growing from a measly four in 2001 to 86 in 2014. They are responding to a wholesale paradigm shift.

Whereas the 20th century was defined by our consumption of slick, professionally produced ‘studio’ content, the 21st century has seen us move to simply consuming what’s going on in the real world. Whether it’s a YouTube video of a guy getting hit in the groin, cruising your friend’s holiday Instagram snaps, or simply responding to a text, we are now keeping it real – and so are our entertainers.

So what about advertising?

In spite of its enthusiastic adoption of new media channels, its utilisation of new media content has remained behind the curve. With its art directors, copywriters, producers et al, the industry has formulated itself perfectly to create world class studio content. Naturally therefore, the industry has tried to apply this expertise to modern channels. What this has created however, is a disconnect; a mismatch between content and delivery channel.

For example, whilst Facebook operates by drawing coverage of actual events into its feeds, brands have been treating it as a micro television or six-sheet, a place upon which to plaster studio content. The consequences have been unfortunate.

Consider this YouTube example. To view a piece of content which matches the medium perfectly – vlogger Zoella pitting her “boyfriend vs. best friend” – we are first compelled to watch an ad.

[Zoella: boyfriend vs best friend]

[Sculpting shine video]

The fact that we have to watch the ad is not an issue. What is an issue is the nature of that ad: a slick mini-movie featuring a Hollywood beauty wreaking havoc on a city street with her new lipstick. This conceit may have sat well in a cinema ad section 20 years ago, but on YouTube today?

We have found ourselves in the bizarre situation where our entertainment – the stuff we turn to in order to ‘get away from it all’ – is more real than our advertising – that service which purports to provide real solutions to real problems. If it was only bizarre, but still worked, that would be fine. But, it doesn’t.

Across the world we are seeing slumps in both brand closeness and brand affection. This trend is particularly pronounced the younger the audience, and the more cosmopolitan they are – in other words, the more trained they are to respond to reality. Reality which brand communications aren’t offering them.

The solution for brands is to embrace authenticity. Amongst the same audiences there is an 89% correlation between perceived authenticity and brand closeness. Brand communications need to adjust to this new reality. And that’s where experiential comes in.

This is an extract from Real World Ideas: A Guide to Modern Experiential Marketing by Sense

Experiential – The 2016 version

We’ve all read about mobile, VR, CSR and 360 video, but what are the really new and exciting undercurrents starting to create ripples in the brand experience pool? Regular Event blogger Alex Smith, from Sense, picks his top three.

Another year, another trends piece. Another opportunity to read about how this will be the year for mobile (again), how consumers will (finally) embrace VR, and how video is back (if it ever went away).

That’s the problem with these trends pieces – trends are gradually moving cultural shifts, which don’t subscribe to a 12-month schedule, so no wonder we get a whiff of déjà vu every January when they roll around.

For this reason, I could happily repeat my 2015 predictions. Brands’ marketing will continue to merge with their CSR programmes, experiences will continue to become more permanent and less campaign-based, and it’s going to continue to become increasingly hard to tell the difference between marketing and product launches. However, it would be remiss not to include something new, so here are three trends which might not be ‘the’ macro trends of 2016, but they are fresh, and so can happily be added to the pile for the next decade.

Experiential businesses

In London, there is one cat café (if you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s basically a café, but with cats in it) – Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium. I was horrified to discover, about this time last year, that to go there for a cup of tea required a booking 50 days in advance. There is a limit to even my cat enthusiasm.

A few months later I was not surprised to learn that someone was planning on opening a – now cancelled – ‘fox café’, which inevitably had run-up a waiting list of thousands.

There’s a pretty clear lesson here. If you’re planning on opening a nice normal café, what are you thinking? There is a ravenous demand, particularly in post-ironic hyper-developed urban locations, for businesses that are highly conceptual. Among the board game bars and cereal cafés, we’re going to see this trend pour into all manner of businesses – especially the service ones. Opening up a dry cleaners? Your staff had better, at the very least, be naked or something.

The benefits of such businesses are pretty clear – their concept is their own advertising. They do, however, present a challenge to purveyors of ‘brand experiences’. Formerly, these kinds of concepts were the realm of ‘stunts’, where brands could ‘go crazy’ without infringing on their core, ‘serious’ business. Now that such businesses are normalising such concepts, stunts suddenly don’t seem so stuntish anymore.

If you’ve got the freedom of a marketing budget behind you, you’d better be planning something special.

Remote experiences

A particular foible of brand experience professionals is their belief that an experience needs to be closely managed in order for it to be fun – kind of like an over-zealous children’s party organiser. The truth, as we’ve seen it develop for some time, is that often the greatest experiences are quite hands-off, with the recipient left to enjoy them on their own terms.

This year, this hands-off quality is going to reach another level, with brands devising experiences that punters can enjoy far away from their meddling influence, even in their own offices and living rooms. A great example of this was Volvo’s cheeky Super Bowl strategy.

Rather than dropping millions on an actual ad slot, they announced that any time a commercial for another car was broadcast, people could tweet #VolvoContest in order to win a car for a loved one.

This experience was neither housed on TV or on Twitter, but in living rooms around the country. It reached out of the media channels to have a life of its own through people’s amusement at the brand’s cheek, and their discussions of it.

The trend was also evident in the WWF’s Dark Tickets idea. To celebrate Earth Hour (where we’re all meant to turn off our electrics), they live-streamed a concert – viewable only if your lights were turned off. Webcams gauged the light in the watching room, and blocked or released the content accordingly.

This remote form of experience is a new territory for experiential. Effective ideas of this shape are tricky to come up with – but if you can, you’ll open up an uncharted level of reach and virality for experience-based marketing.


A general advertising one here. There was really only one seismic event that happened in the industry in 2015 – the Protein World saga, with its Are You Beach Body Ready? campaign. Whenever something like this happens, it changes the ground beneath our feet, and as such there must be lessons – and trends – to be gleaned from it.

The (accidental) genius of that campaign was this: it gained its traction from brand enemies rather than brand fans.

With the possible exception of charities and public health campaigns, brands have always been at pains to be ‘positive’ in their campaigns. To be nice. To not leave anyone out. Have we not all been in client meetings where the most innocuous element of an idea has been picked over and diluted in this way? “I know our target audience is teens, but we don’t want to alienate octogenarians.”

Such a viewpoint has always been a bit misguided. Fundamentally, your product is for some people and not for others. The brands that have more crystallised and specific identities are the ones that make a mark on culture.

What Protein World did was take this truism and prove it in the most extreme way possible. It didn’t only alienate people with its social media responses – it actively tried to. The result was of course no sales from its ‘enemies’, but massively increased sales from its fans.

This example has opened brands up to a whole new strategic world: attack marketing. If you sit on a particular side of an argument with your brand positioning (as many brands do), you identify not your target market, but your anti-market, and go on the offensive. For instance can you imagine a Pepperami anti-vegetarian campaign?

Such an approach is of course tonally challenging, and only appropriate for certain brands – but those with the bravery to adopt it will get unparalleled traction (bad news is more interesting than good news right?), and will gain real fans.

There isn’t too much advertising – there’s too little

If adverts were in more real, relevant places, they’d create deeper brand experiences and be more effective, says Alex Smith, planning director at agency Sense.

We’re all familiar with the idea that the world is oversaturated with messages. Advertising seems to be everywhere, always trying to butt in. “What,” we cry, “doesn’t have a brand tastelessly plastered over it these days?”

Well, actually, pretty much everything.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop as I write and looking around I see tables, chairs, plants, lights, crockery, windows, floorboards, toilets, people, clothes, tills, mirrors, and so on – none of which perform any kind of advertising purpose. They just are what they are.

The same thing is happening out on the street. Cars, doorways, rubbish bins, lampposts, trees, bike racks, street sweepers, benches – these are not advertising, they’re just things, doing their job. Useful things.

It seems that nothing that’s actually a real or useful part of people’s lives does an advertising job, only useless things like poster sites and flyers. What we should be looking at is the communication potential of actual objects, and of the jobs that they’re fulfilling.

Success by association

Every useful thing has built in associations and implications. If brands were to take responsibility for the things relevant to their message, they could create stealthy brand experiences, all the more powerful because they were creating a public service to boot, instead of just throwing up intrusive advertising road blocks as they tend to do now.

Object lesson

But would this type of ‘branded new world’ be a touch insidious, because in this alternate reality you’d effectively be living in the advertising.

But then, would that really be so bad?

Whotells in Barcelona rents out apartments for tourists that have been completely furnished by lifestyle brand Muji. This is a lovely example, working in exactly the right way, since simultaneously those rooms are impeccable, useful and cheap, while also accomplishing a powerful, but entirely unobtrusive advertising job. Muji does not need to stick a giant Muji poster on the wall for this to work. This tasteful, life enhancing piece of ‘advertising’ is archetypal of the way a world of ‘communicating objects’ should operate, whether they using your own products (as Muji have done), or appropriating new ones.

A migration of ad spend away from media spaces and into objects is probably a lifetime away. Agency skill sets, established marketing patterns, legal restrictions, and a raft of other annoyances will see to that. However, the lessons can be applied in modest ways within certain safer marketing spaces, such as experiential, sponsorship, brand partnerships and product placement. Those in themselves represent a world of opportunity, and are a great place to start.

How to give FMCG brands power through experience

Diageo’s Ed Pilkington recently stated that brand experience should be at the heart of FMCG strategies. Sense’s Alex Smith reveals three approaches brands can take.

There are two ways to communicate: through abstraction and through experience. Both techniques are commonplace in the world of marketing.

If I want to communicate that my product tastes good, I could create an ad that says so hoping you believe it (abstraction), or I could engineer some scenario where you actually taste it and come to that realisation for yourself (experience).

As media has come to be increasingly reality focused, through everything from reality TV to social channels to documentary cinema, the public’s taste has dramatically skewed to favour experience over abstraction, and naturally this has caught the savvy marketer’s eye.

Ed Pilkington, marketing and innovation director of Diageo, recently penned a piece explaining that marketers “need to put amazing brand experiences at the heart of our strategies”.

On the face of it, sure, who wouldn’t agree with that? However he went on to raise a critical issue.

As a marketer in charge of largely FMCG products, he noted how these kinds of brands have far less capacity to create meaningful experiences than those with retail space.  The canvas for a beer brand compared to, say, a fashion brand, is almost non-existent.

We see this reflected in global brand power. In Forbes’ list of the world’s 20 most powerful brands only one, Coca-Cola, could be classed as FMCG, and by contrast 12 have access to some sort of retail space. This demonstrates the power of experience, as well as FMCG brand’s trouble with it.

So what can they do? What is the solution for those who don’t have the luxury of a lavish store front or drawn-out purchase cycle to pepper with experiences? They have to create their own canvas. Here are three techniques to do just that.

1. Create behaviour

It’s crucial for FMCG brands to recognise that great experiences don’t need a human representative of their brand present. People, normal people, create their own brand experiences all the time.

Alcohol is a particularly rich sector for this phenomenon. The most intriguing example arose a decade ago on American college campuses with Smirnoff ‘Icing’. The perceived naffness of Smirnoff Ice was ironically co-opted to create a game whereby any ‘Ice’ left creatively for an unsuspecting victim to find (in a handbag, baked in a cake, whatever) had to be immediately downed by said victim unless they could brandish a further Ice to “block” their “icing”. Naturally, this behaviour wasn’t created by the brand, but is still a rich (if mocking) brand experience.

However, there are plenty of examples where the brand was the author.

Pilkington’s own Pimm’s is a master of this, always prepared with great ceremony and typically only drunk on joyous summer occasions, rendering almost every sip a brand experience in itself. Elsewhere we see similar behaviour creation with the Hendrick’s Gin teapots and the lime in the neck of a Corona.

Building specific behaviours and rituals around your brand is tough and ambitious, but can be the cheapest and most culturally relevant way to foster brand experience.

2. Create assets

The most obvious way to take control of your brand experience, if you don’t have any face-to-face occasions to exploit, is naturally to create them.

This is the Red Bull strategy. Despite being a standard FMCG product, Red Bull creates an incredible number of brand-owned retail opportunities across a bewildering variety of consumer occasions. These run from their student ambassador program right thorough to lavish brand-owned events, like the Air Race, where they can indulge their every experience whim.

Thanks to this people generally ‘get’ what it’s like to deal with Red Bull, just like they do with retail brands – but certainly don’t with their competitors.

3. Take responsibility

The most progressive and forward thinking way for an FMCG brand to create brand experience is to fundamentally rethink what its business is.

Most brands perceive their core ‘product’, the ‘thing they sell’, to be the business they’re in. Pedigree is in the dog food business, for example, with Chum, Kit-Kat is in the chocolate biscuit business, and so on.

This perspective severely limits these brand’s opportunities to take meaningful real-world actions – the cornerstone of brand experience.

The perspective they should be taking is one that defines their product as the end result of what they sell, rather than the thing itself. For Pedigree for instance, this would be dog welfare. For Kit-Kat, break time.

When these brands recalibrate their focus in this way, they suddenly have an amazing canvas upon which to build experience. Pedigree could ‘own’ the dog welfare space by sponsoring dog obedience centres, dog homes, etc, and why not even lampposts!

Meanwhile, Kit-Kat could own the short break through branded public seating – more comfortable designs, consideration of locations with good views, convenience, better maintenance, etc, basically becoming the public bench lobby. In this way, surely Virgin Active, BUPA or even FedEx would be more appropriate sponsors of Boris Bikes than a bank, as this would build the brands’ worth, character and authenticity.

As soon as FMCG brands realise that their place in this world isn’t on the supermarket shelf, but instead is in people’s lives, the possibilities become limitless.

Blog (part two): Are you customer experienced?

In the second of a two-part blog, Sense’s Alex Smith discusses how experiential can help FMCG brands play retailers at their own game.

If you look at Forbes’ list of the world’s top 20 brands, only one is FMCG (Coca-Cola), whereas 12 are brands with physical retail spaces that are able to provide ‘real’ customer experiences.

Now I wouldn’t suggest that this customer experience potential is the sole reason for this imbalance, but it’s an interesting observation. Is a ‘real world’ customer experience useful in building a powerful brand? Surely the answer must be yes, as it allows the development of a closer relationship and greater potential to create individual characteristics that will resonate with consumers.

This insight presents a challenge to FMCG brands. How can they too develop customer experiences? We can look to Red Bull to give us a clue.

Red Bull understood that to build customer experiences, it had to develop products and services that people could buy into, which it controlled. It didn’t control the sales process of the vast majority of its drinks, but it does control the sales process of its bars at festivals, of its events, and of its media outlets.

How it’s done

By expanding the remit of its brand into non-FMCG spaces, Red Bull has created ‘advertising’ that works extremely hard, since as well as propagating its core “gives you wings” message, it produced customer experience flows. Indeed, you could even argue that through clever in-bar merchandising, and the subtle propagation of concepts such as the Jägerbomb, Red Bull developed customer experiences by proxy – making ordering its drink in an independent venue a slightly different experience than ordering another.

The result is that people now have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to ‘deal with’ Red Bull as a brand (just as they do with Starbucks, Apple, Ikea, and so on), whereas they have effectively no idea about this for the vast majority of other brands on a supermarket shelf.

There are plenty of different ways to achieve this effect for your brand. You could have people buy your product through a channel you control (like Red Bull’s festival bars). You could develop a subsidiary service related to your product, or indeed you could get them to buy an entirely separate product or service you’ve dreamed up that’s simply related to your marketing goals (such as an event).

All of these things have the trappings of business expansion, but can in fact just be acts of marketing disguised as such. One way or another, you just need to give people the opportunity to act as customers, rather than an audience, and your marketing will take on a whole new dimension.

And perhaps this will be the spark FMCG brands need to become truly great and make a bigger impact on the Forbes list.

Experience counts… particularly in retail

Retailers need to make far more of the special relationship they have with their customers, says Alex Smith, planning director at real world marketing agency Sense.

Customer experience has always been important. Timely delivery and courteous service, for example, have perennially been key to generating loyalty. This has never been more important in the current increasingly competitive business landscape, where many businesses provide similar products and services.

The web, social media and the rise of e-commerce have made customer relationships increasingly complex, and now debate focuses on how online and offline retailers can provide a consistent and strong customer experience across all channels. It’s a conundrum, for sure, but more than that, I’d say it’s a fantastic opportunity.

Any brand with a complex customer infrastructure has unique brand-building capabilities. But this is no longer just about providing great service, consistency, or usefulness (important as these things are); it’s about having a canvas on which to paint ‘strategic idiosyncrasies’, that will set you apart from your competitors and resonate with your customers.

Emulate individuality

With the traditional elements of customer service now being a given, consumers are looking for greater individuality from their brands – quirky differences that are unique to your company. I’m talking about the geniuses in Apple stores, the navigation trails through Ikea, your name on the coffee cup in Starbucks. If you design these differences with your marketing goals in mind, then hey presto, you’ve created effective word-of-mouth advertising within the DNA of your actual company, while simultaneously improving your customer experience and building clearer links between your brand and product or service.

It’s no surprise that these are all tangible experiences in the real world, as the face-to-face experience delivers maximum impact. And this customer-experience-as-strategic-brand-building approach makes complex brand/buyer relationships not daunting, but exciting. Think about a car manufacturer. The touchpoints are endless. There are the phone calls, the test drive booking, the dealership experience, the test drive itself, the purchase process, the customisation, the servicing, the courtesy car, the process of selling the car back to them… all of these are brimming with potential for a unique brand twist.

And that’s only thinking about the ‘standard’ customer moments. The manufacturer can build on these any way they want – events, anniversary presents, concierge services, valeting, foot rubs, you name it. Every tiny interaction has the potential to be something that will play as advertising to the world at large – and build the brand in the eyes of future customers.

So, retailers? You get no sympathy from me. The guys that I shed a tear for are those with such one dimensional customer relationships they never have the chance to exploit these processes – the poor FMCG brands. But more about them in my next blog.

Customer experience is an extremely powerful communications tool, and should always be used as such. As far as retailers go, those that win will be the ones that understand this best and use all the tools at their disposal to realise its full potential, far beyond the traditional techniques.

The age of living dangerously

Be real, embrace risk, and people will love you, says Alex Smith, planning director at real world agency Sense.

The walls that surround traditional ‘fictional’ advertising media – the edges of a screen or a page – are not just a frame that allows creativity to flourish within, they’re a cage. They’re meant to protect us, the public, from the idea within, and protect the idea from us.

When you take an idea out into the ‘real world’ (calling it experiential, physical, live, or whatever), this protection disappears. No longer is the creative cosily incubated in a climate-controlled bubble – things can and will go wrong.

And people being people – they love it! That’s why brands should make taking risks a priority.

In risk there is titillation, the buzz of pleasure at the unfolding of shocking events, the guilty familiarity of schadenfreude – pleasure derived from the misfortune of others – and the adrenaline of fear. When an idea has to perform in the real world, all these things are possible, delivering far more impact.

This can be seen in any piece of ‘prankvertising’, such as the ad for the Carrie movie remake.

Conceptually, it’s basic – someone with Carrie-esque powers throwing people around a coffee shop. What makes it interesting is the belief (unfounded apparently) that these were real people, with all that this implies. Real fear, real bodily harm, real potential for a screw up. Now that’s interesting.

Sense's Alex Smith on the age of living dangerously

No room for compromise

Normal agency and brand behaviour generally revolves around diminishing risk… of consumer disappointment, of imperfection, of unpredictability. This sterilises the power of ‘real world’ ideas, in a way that subconsciously repels people. Your compromise that seemed entirely reasonable on paper will ultimately act as the thimble of poison that makes a great campaign fail. And you’ll probably never even know why.

Instead, manage risk to your advantage. Pizza Hut recently tempted disaster in a smart way by launching a “subconscious” menu, using eye-tracking technology to “read people’s minds” and choose a pizza for them.

I discovered this idea through an email doing the rounds entitled “Isn’t this stupid”, because people generally assumed it wouldn’t work, and that you’d end up with a pizza you don’t want – cue the dreaded customer dissatisfaction!

But that’s the point. Pizza Hut essentially issued a challenge saying: “Drop by and prove us idiots!” But it’s a challenge that still requires you to buy a pizza. If the system was flawless, who’d be interested? In its superfluous crappiness lies the sex appeal. And judging by the “98% satisfaction rate”, which I doubt is a strict measure of pizza choice quality, their customers get that too. It’s a bit of fun. Beats ordering the pizza I actually want in a boring way.

Fail with style

The extreme end of embracing risk would come in a brand deliberately staging a horrible ‘fail’. There are few recorded official examples, because owning up to it would break the spell. But we can imagine it through recent Twitter storms.

The archetype of these was the infamous “I shop at Waitrose because…” ‘debacle’, which made it too inviting for people to finish the sentence with comments like: “…I don’t like to be surrounded by poor people.” I doubt this was intentional, but in an obtuse way this still reinforces what lots of people kinda like about Waitrose. And the brand itself can innocently hold its hands up, free from culpability in this class skirmish.

You can flip the risk too, piling it on the consumer’s head, not the brand’s. Take KLM’s Monday Mystery Ticket initiative. Every Monday people were invited to buy a plane ticket for €99, the catch being they didn’t know where to. Following their purchase, the destination would be revealed, and they’d be expected to fly that very Friday.

There was no risk for the brand here – they were transparent and people knew what they were letting themselves in for – but there was considerable risk for the buyer. And that’s exactly what today’s consumers want. And even if they don’t, they want to hear about it. Which adds up to a superb campaign – ‘customer satisfaction’ be damned.

Basically, people are sick. They want failure, embarrassment, blood and tears. But they’re also realistic – more so than agencies and brands – in that they appreciate that participation is optional, and that uncontrollable campaigns reveal a refreshing good faith on behalf of the brand, the kind that its stage-managed competitors simply can’t compete with.