Marketers like experiential campaigns because a sense of personal involvement engages consumers with brands more closely than other media.
Using actors and props to build a sense of excitement is an ideal way to grab people's attention and fix a name firmly in their minds.
CPM, the UK's biggest field marketing agency, says the demand for experiential activity is growing, particularly for drinks brands such as Archers Aqua, which sees it as one of the most effective ways of raising brand profile.
"Seventy per cent of purchasing decisions are made in store, and the best way to communicate with consumers is to let them try before they buy," Mike Hughes, CPM's managing director, says.
Increasingly, samples and demonstrations are being offered with an element of entertainment. "The key with face-to-face marketing is to find credible ways to initiate a dialogue and enter a relationship," Andrew Mitchell, the business development director at RPM, a specialist experiential agency, explains. "Tapping into people's lifestyles with interesting brand-based experiences is the way to do that, whereas just giving samples away achieves no cut-through and can even devalue a brand."
But creativity for its own sake would be an indulgence at a time when marketing budgets are being reined back. The reason companies continue to carry out experiential campaigns is their perception, often reinforced by hard evidence, that such activity brings results.
Take the case of Coca-Cola, which has run several campaigns through The Works since last summer that demonstrate the effectiveness of live events over ordinary sampling. Across the board, unprompted brand recall one month later for those who had experienced the full experiential activity was 94 per cent, compared with 77 per cent who had only sampled. And consumption rose by 80 per cent among those who had the full experience, whereas only 47 per cent of those who had sampled went on to buy.
Given the sheer theatricality of these events it is not surprising that they should have so much impact. Helping to launch Vanilla Coke this year, The Works deployed black articulated lorries in busy public areas such as the Piazza at Covent Garden. The lorries were taped off, and surrounded by "bodyguards" and clouds of dry ice - all to create an air of mystery and attract crowds.
When the excitement had built up, the back of the trucks burst open, and staff on bikes, scooters and roller blades emerged to distribute samples. Blacked- out 4x4 vehicles with loud hailers drove around drawing attention to the event, and were backed up by "preachers" with megaphones and placards. The presence of "television reporters" talking to camera also helped create the sense that something interesting was going on. To ensure that the event ran smoothly, the Royal Marines were brought in to handle the logistics, helping to deliver two million cans chilled to exactly minus five degrees.
"The power of the experience really does have a greater impact on sales than giving out samples at a train station," Josh Robinson, the creative director of The Works, says. With the success of previous Coca-Cola campaigns behind him, he has no doubt this new activity will achieve its aim of adding 40 per cent to predicted sales of the new brand, which equates to selling 600,000 units.
Experiential activity is most commonly used for FMCG brands, but it is increasingly seen in other sectors. Kommando recently carried out a £150,000 campaign for Hutchison 3, the new third-generation mobile phone network, to help create awareness of the brand and increase footfall in flagship retail stores in Birmingham and London.
As always, the name of the game was to rise above the general chatter and stop people in their tracks. To achieve this, the agency had television sets fitted with wheels and adapted to run off independent power supplies.
Models dressed in matching outfits then "walked" the TVs through streets and shopping centres in groups of three.
Other three-person teams also walked around attracting attention to the "three" theme, including young men with their heads shaved in the form of the logo. All were issued with detailed route maps and timetables to ensure that they were engaging with the public at the right times in the right place.
The effect on sales of experiential campaigns can be hard to measure, partly because they are carried out with other media rather than in isolation.
What can easily be assessed is their value in terms of publicity, comparing news coverage of a campaign to its worth in advertising terms. In this case, around £30,000 of news exposure was achieved, helping to swell footfall to the stores from curious members of the public.
Mark Evans, the managing director of Kommando, stresses the complexity of these events, which makes it important to work with specialists rather than trying to assemble the required skills and services from a variety of suppliers.
"It only takes one element to go wrong for the whole campaign to fall apart," he says. The ground was reconnoitred, and staff were fully trained, briefed and choreographed to ensure that everything unfolded as planned.
An eye-catching approach was also adopted by Promostaff UK on behalf of the German airline Deutsche BA.
A two-week campaign in May aimed to increase ticket sales of internal flights and encourage the use of the internet for booking.
To attract attention, agency staff toured airports dressed as aliens in bright-green and silver costumes, with antennae on their heads, pulling a replica of a UFO.
By the second week of the campaign, more than 2,000 people had booked a Deutsche BA flight. The campaign also had a lasting impact on sales, according to Linda Denne, the managing director of Promostaff UK.
For a campaign launching a new route to Nice, the agency highlighted the fact that many consumers associate the area with celebrities. Staff therefore took to wearing masks of stars such as George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Robbie Williams, resulting in a more significant uplift in sales than a conventional face-to-face activity would have achieved.
If such approaches sometimes seem gimmicky, there is no longer any doubt that they grab consumers' attention and contribute to bottom-line sales.
So, far from being the flash in the pan that some predicted, experiential marketing is now at a high street near you.
PROVIDING THE FULL BRAND EXPERIENCE
Client: Deutsche BA
Agency: Promostaff UK
Date: March and May 2003
Location: Berlin, Hamburg and other German cities
Objective: Increase ticket sales among business and leisure travellers
Client: Coca Cola
Agency: The Works
Date: May to June 2003
Location: UK cities, shopping malls, live events
Objective: Increase predicted sales by 40 per cent, ie. 600,000 units
Client: Hutchison 3
Date: January to March 2003
Location: London, Birmingham
Objective: Raise awareness and generate footfall in flagship retail
stores in London and Birmingham