Close-Up: Live Issue - Has experiential marketing matured?

Brands are now taking a medium formerly associated with stunts seriously, Mark Johnson writes.

Is the advertising industry ready to embrace experiential marketing? The news last month that Andy Bellass is to leave his post as the strategic director at Mother to join the experiential marketing company Splendid confirmed the allure of the field to senior ad talent. But are brands ready to use it as the bedrock of their brand marketing strategy?

That's how its leading proponents argue experiential marketing should be treated. Sky, Nike and Strongbow are among a growing number of brands in recent years to have plunged more confidently into brand experience marketing, but the majority are sceptical. They wonder how effective it can be.

Events such as last summer's Sky Festival in Manchester, aimed at giving consumers a more friendly experience of the Sky brand than the overly commercial, big corporate image they had been living with, have proved it can work. Over two days in August, 36 free events, ranging from an A1 Grand Prix-style race around the city centre to a casino, gave 250,000 people a fresh experience of the Sky brand. Research showed that, although other marketing had largely failed to shift brand perception, the Festival made 57 per cent of attendants feel better about the brand, according to RPM, the agency behind it.

Bellass takes the medium very seriously, too. He argues that, although it's too soon to say, experiential marketing has "come of age". He says: "Increasingly, I'm finding, as a practitioner of advertising and as a consumer, the stuff that influences me is the stuff that physically engages me. It's becoming more difficult to build relationships and engage when you're waving from outside. Advertising is not dead, but until we complete the circle of getting people to experience the brand, we're standing on the outside."

So what is holding the industry back? One of the biggest problems has been in defining experiential marketing. Its downfall lies in its roots. Often dismissed as little more than glorified product sampling, or a new take on traditional live events, its proponents argue it is now more sophisticated than that. The marketing director of Sledge, Ian Irving, says: "It is a medium that is focused on creating one-to-one experiences that engage consumers in deeper and more memorable ways."

Others explain it's about integrating brands into people's lifestyles, and adding value to the consumer experience of the brand - engaging, rather than interrupting. Cameron Day, the business development director at RPM, argues that providing a clear definition is problematic. He says: "It's very broad and getting broader by the day. But we define it as connecting brands with consumers emotionally in the live environment."

Whatever the definition, traditional agencies have noted nervously how swiftly budgets are being reallocated in its favour. Research by HPI, for instance, shows that 68 per cent of clients were spending more on experiential marketing in 2005 than they did in 2004. Eighty-nine per cent were expected to spend more last year. Extrapolation points to a boost in investment this year, and such growth has only increased the respect the medium receives from advertising agencies.

Neil Dawson, the co-founder of Hurrell and Dawson, believes most agencies and brands realise it is far more than sampling. "It is an attitude which all brands must embrace. The delivery of compelling experiences is critical for both differentiation and survival," he says.

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EXPERIENTIAL CREATIVE - Mark Whelan, partner and creative director, Cake

"A Guardian G2 article described it as a new marketing approach so toe-curlingly shameful that I now tell people I work in blood diamonds. The notion of guerrilla tactics is appalling, and so last decade. Only 30 people at a time have the misfortune to encounter it.

"Experiential should be 'brand entertainment'; the most memorable ads are 30 seconds of pure brand entertainment, but will people see them? Experiential has come back, rather than come of age.

"The challenge is numbers. The Evian Lido, a brand experience you could literally dive into, has reached millions in media coverage. The Motorola Red concert in Trafalgar Square got more than two million viewers. Numbers to be proud of."

EXPERIENTIAL STRATEGIST - Andy Bellass, strategic partner, Splendid

"No, it hasn't come of age, but it's moving in the right direction.

"It's misunderstood, often seen as 'stunts' or 'sampling'. We spend so much time making the ad gorgeous that we forget to make the place where the consumer physically experiences the brand gorgeous.

"It's too low down the strategic food chain. It becomes an executional outlet of another idea rather than the core idea itself.

"Measuring the value of engagement and word of mouth, which we know is more powerful, is less clear-cut versus the easier to measure but more impotent measures such as cost per thousand.

"Only when we address these can we truly say that brand experience has come of age."

EXPERIENTIAL CREATIVE - John Carver, co-founder and executive creative director, Cunning Worldwide

"We've witnessed clients wake up to the fact that there's more to life than TV and print. Yet most marketing budgets are still spent in the same old way.

"Inventing possibilities should be an agency's mission. Take the product to the people, give them a reason to let it into their lives; do what it takes, rather than what's expected. Engaging experiences touch, move and inspire more readily, effectively and rapidly than predictable, pedestrian paths. The 20-year-old definition of advertising needs to be updated. These days, advertising is anywhere and anything."

CLIENT - Amanda Jennings, head of brand, O2 UK

"Above-the-line agencies have been chiselling away at advertising for more than half a century, whereas brand experience in the past ten years is emerging as a way of turning customers into fans.

"Experiential marketing has been around for the past five or ten years, but it's really only going to 'come of age' this summer. That's when AEG and O2 rebrands and launches the former Millennium Dome as The O2.

"O2 is five years old this May, and I've been looking at ways of creating the ultimate brand experience for customers. That means a permanent structure, as opposed to one-off events.

"It won't be a logo-fest, it's about making our customers feel special."


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