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The war marketing can never win

Marketers should stop playing entertainment at its own game and trade fiction for fact to make more impact, says Alex Smith, planning director at real world marketing agency Sense.

Most marketing copies popular media, usually consisting of a fictional story or vignette residing behind four metaphorical walls. These might be the four walls of a page, screen, or in the case of experiential even the four invisible walls of a site space. Within this space, we try to put on a show, communicate the brand message, and hope people notice.

Entertainment works in the same way. Movies, TV shows, theatre and sport all take place in their own world behind these same walls. But as marketing tends to play the same game, the TV ad is compared to the TV show that surrounds it, the magazine ad is compared to the adjacent article, and the brand experience is rather like that show you watched last week – only not as good.

By putting itself in competition with entertainment, marketing has been fighting a war it can never win. Each battle demands more creativity, better production values, more budget, as marketing tries to beat entertainment at it’s own game.

So how can marketing break out of this self-defeating spiral?

Simple – play by its own rules.

Searching for relevance

It’s time to break down the walls and present brands through activities integrated into a relevant real-life context, not some theatrical interpretation. Marketers should not be providing entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but rather solutions – real advice for real people.

This means everything we try to say will have a relevant context somewhere in people’s real lives. The answer is to find out what it is, then tap into. By combining message and context we can open up a creative opportunity that’s both obvious and original.

Economist_Obstacles_experiential_blog_sense_agencyTake the Economist ‘Ignore Obstacles’ example (pictured). In a fictional format, such as a print ad showing, say, a car that had just driven over the middle of a roundabout, it wouldn’t attract much attention. But integrating this unremarkable concept into the right real-world context turns it into a powerful piece of work.

Savings and scale

Placing the creative in the right context also has massive potential to save resources. Real-life scenarios are free, and allow you to achieve scale you’d never have realised with a fictionalised version.

Sense worked with Sky on its Rainforest Rescue Discovery Trails programme, laying permanent interactive walking trails in forests across the UK. Practically speaking, this whole campaign amounted to a handful of printed bits of wood, and the same budget would have made for a pretty tame ‘forest experience’ in a shopping centre. But then why bother faking it when the real thing is right there for the taking? A forest on its own is just a forest. A forest with a sign in front of it is an idea.

The beauty of this approach is its simplicity. The genius comes in matching concept to context rather than constantly striving to be the next creative super hero. The seemingly most mundane idea can shine in the appropriate setting delivering an amazing, believable – and real – experience. The key is finding the real life moment or location where your message is relevant, and then for you to put the two things together.

So it’s time for brands and marketers to leave the entertaining to the entertainers and get back to what marketing should be all about – winning over consumers by delivering advice, solving problems, providing solutions and creating authentic experiences.

Secret Cinema: What Experiential Marketers Can Learn

Identify your consumers’ ‘role’, says Alex Smith, planning director at agency Sense

Back when it was still ‘secret’, the Secret Cinema model effectively involved carrying participants through the journey of the given movie. You’d arrive as an unsuspecting ‘character’, and be drawn through a surprising series of events, all building to a climatic finale, where the film would be shown. For Shawshank Redemption you were arrested, tried, and sent to jail. For Prometheus you were conscripted, sent to an alien planet, and had to battle the force you unleashed. In all cases, you were the character – on an adventure with barely a pause for breath.


Secret Cinema’s Back to the Future

But then things changed. Recent, more ‘mainstream’ Secret Cinemas, such as Back to The Future, have abandoned a narrative approach to experience in favour of a ‘steady state’. Rather than recreating the plot of a movie, they now recreate the world, which you are free to explore unimpeded. The logic of this is pretty obvious, as after the initial buzz on arrival has died down, the next question on everyone’s lips is: “Shall we get a drink?” – a consideration that barely crossed your minds in earlier iterations when you were too busy being rushed from disaster to disaster.

The result of this approach has been to decrease the emotional investment of Secret Cinema visitors (albeit increasing financial investment), as through being left to their own devices they are constantly aware that they are ‘attending an event’ rather than being ‘part of a story’.

The lesson for experiential is that for something to be truly ‘immersive’, participants must have a narrative role, beyond just ‘consumer’. Are they a change agent? A patsy? A victim? An aggressor?

You can create their reality, and in turn product relevance within that reality.


Embrace thrift

The worlds Secret Cinema creates are decidedly rough around the edges. They think nothing of asking visitors to effectively imagine away their budget limits, be it having to close your eyes for a spaceship launch or conduct plastic surgery with marker pen and roll of tape.

And that’s a big reason why it works.

They invest their energy and resources not into production, but into relentless creativity and quirky details. If they build a house set, they don’t sweat over the finish, they sweat over the touches – the letter on the table, the music on the stereo, the blood on the walls, whatever.

Experiential on the other hand, being branded content with all the guidelines that accompany it, will generally spend more time on the font and colour of a sign than its actual content. While this can be necessary with certain clients, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that, fundamentally, the punters don’t care. In fact, as I’ve discussed in my other blog on experiential (Goodbye Mister Clean), they may actually prefer things to be a bit grimy.

The most important things for an experience are content, meaning and engagement. The least important are polish, precision and, yes, brand guidelines. The time dedicated to these matters in experiential often implies the reverse.


This last one is simple: more experiential campaigns should charge for entry. Secret Cinema has effectively created an industry, the famous ‘experience economy’ – so famous in fact that even the name ‘Secret’ Cinema now seems kind of laughable. Pretty much any random idea packaged as a unique experience has the capacity to sell out in seconds – the recently floated Fox Café springs to mind and an interesting idea led by a brand will be no exception.

There are many benefits to charging beyond just earning money. Chief among them is your ability to run for longer to expand your reach, and lending an air of credibility to your idea aiding in coverage and interest. In the world of experience ‘free’ can often appear a euphemism for ‘not worth paying for’.

Brands are, of course, shy about doing this, because fundamentally we’re talking about a piece of advertising here, and who wants to pay for that? However, what this mentality misses is that unlike TV, print and most other forms of advertising, which are forced in front of you, experiential is fundamentally a voluntary medium. Your audience has to choose to participate. If they choose to participate, that means they want to, and the leap from this to payment is a small one, and not really equitable to paying for a TV ad at all.

In summary, experience’, encompassing both advertising and entertainment variants, is a growing and developing field. As with film, the visionaries will come from art, and filter through to commercial uses. Therefore, any experiential marketer has to look to the artists in their field for inspiration. And even with their money grabbing new format, Secret Cinema is among the best.

Goodbye Mister Clean

Grimy, ugly, inconsistent, flaky and risky – these are the watchwords of the future, says Alex Smith of agency Sense

It’s time for marketing to get dirty. Forget the millennials. The future belongs to the post-millennials, born after 2000. And marketers need to get up to speed fast.

There was an interesting piece of research recently, shocking to ad types no doubt, revealing that Generation Z-ers don’t care about design. The media habits they’ve had to employ have left them wired differently from the rest of us, as the likes of Twitter, YouTube, Vine, Instagram et al all require you to filter through a mess of rough disposable information to unearth the jewels.

For them, grime promises rewards, whereas corporate design polish is to be viewed with suspicion – “what are they trying to sell?”. On YouTube for instance, other generations may look at someone like PewDiePie and see poor presentation, production, and content. But to Generation Z, that lack of production is a hallmark of truth.

The upshot for brand experience, and marketing in general, is getting in touch with our dirty side. We are now invited, if not to half-arse our output, at least to give it that air – to not fuss too much over detail and polish, just throw some stuff out there and see what sticks. Your likelihood of creating an ice bucket challenge is slim… but then it’s not exactly hard to give it a try, so why not?

The easiest route is to increase investment in small scale throw-away campaigns. This is a habit that many of the global mega-brands already employ, such as McDonald’s finding space in its marketing plans for such ludicrous – but brilliant – activations as the Fry Defender, a phone-based system to stop people stealing your fries.


A campaign like this, while still being reasonably produced (it is McDonald’s after all), is the Vine video of brand experience. Flippant, cheap, fast, disposable, but also spreadable: a mirror of contemporary consumption habits.

The true frontier – and one for the future – is to completely cede control of your brand to wider culture. That means campaigns conducted on the terms of raw honesty that your consumers use, with the power passed into their hands. Because they’re consumer-led, they’ll be rough and disposable. But the thing that will make them travel is their truth.

We got the ultimate glimpse of this wonderfully anarchic future a few years ago. Across American college campuses, Smirnoff Ice is held in such disdain by students that it spawned its own ironic game – Icing. The concept is that if someone presents you with a Smirnoff Ice in a creative way that results in you “stumbling across it”, you have to down it. Naturally, it gained more cultural traction than any “official” campaign ever. And to this day no one knows whether the brand was actually involved.

Connected society is ensuring that you, as a brand, cannot protect people from the true nature of what you are, and how others see you. So, you might as well use it to your advantage.

So go on, ask yourself what people really think of your brand. Would it be so bad if you were to have some fun with that? Generation Z wouldn’t think so.

The quest for permanence

Brands should build monuments to their proposition, says Alex Smith, planning director at brand experience agency Sense.

Marketing has a general transience; a temporary nature. Perhaps this is a hangover from media buying, where paying for ad space is essentially an act of rental; of artificially inflating something that couldn’t sustain itself. Therefore, it’s natural to assume that marketing couldn’t possibly last.

But if marketing is increasingly taking the shape of actions and experiences that are amplified through media, rather than units of media standing alone, there’s no reason why those actions can’t bring about things that are permanent. And with permanence comes unthinkable reach and engagement.

If you’re a retail brand, you’re at a big advantage. A nice example is the House of Vans – more like London’s only indoor skate park than a shop, with bars, performances, films, art and more thrown in for good measure.


This raises the question of why so many shops are just shops. In flagship retails spaces, there are things that people would probably rather do than browse products, but which sit harmoniously with browsing products, so why would such an approach like that taken by footwear icon Vans not be more common?

This doesn’t mean putting something experiential in your shop, but rather putting your shop in something experiential.

Check out this You Tube clip here of a walk through of the House of Vans.

Away from retail, brands can simply build monuments to their proposition. And if they want to roll in the CSR angle, so much the better! Shell killed about a million birds with one stone by building a soccer pitch in Morro da Mineira entirely powered by the movement of the players. This action comments on everything from Shell’s ability to innovate, to its commitment to community and sustainability.

Permanence gives this kind of project exponential reach over time, and even the opportunity, should a brand wish, to self-fund.

Check out this You Tube clip here of Shell and Pelé‘s soccer pitch

Of course, the more permanent a piece of marketing is, the more it is integrated into its surroundings and the less it looks like marketing in the traditional sense. Yet the more of an experience it becomes and the more people engage with it. Could a brand really put a value on this kind of activity?