Much of the comment about the experiential industry over the last year has been lamenting the lack of live events, but the often missed, and positive, story is that the last year has allowed the true breadth and potential of experiential marketing to be revealed.
What needs to change
If there's one sector that best exemplifies the need for experiential thinking it is banking. Over the last year, they have been the one sector with the biggest opportunity to alleviate the anxiety, hardship and challenges of millions of people. Yet they are the ones most guilty of approaching it with comms shaped solutions. How many emails from a bank with a comic sans "personal" signature from the CEO? How many ads telling you "how much they care"? To paraphrase the old quote about not telling me you're funny- don't tell me you care, solve my problems. With experiential thinking at the heart of a brand, this is avoided. A start-point of questioning whether activity stands up to experience and observation means you cannot make brand promises without some proof underneath.
One of the best examples of experiential thinking in the financial services sector is Habito, the mortgage provider. They make a very clear promise in their comms of "Mortgages made easier", a promise similar to many other mortgage providers. The big difference is the proof of the experience, it really is easier. From the app experience to the mortgage application, to the supporting content demystifying the industry, it's all so easy and so unlike the normal mortgage process. Even the brand design feels easier on the eye and less "banking". It's no coincidence that this experiential thinking is from a new brand that has started with product design before developing comms to promote it. Proof then promise. But does that mean experiential thinking is less relevant to legacy brands?
No, it's even more relevant, but it's harder. The nature of this legacy means that often promises are made in comms that aren't backed up with any proof due to the company structure. It's different teams with different objectives and different timelines. If the marketing team's audience insight shows a need and desire for something but the only thing that team can influence is the comms, they will just make promises about it. It would be a brave marketer that said we're not going to spend on marketing this year because we need to put everything into ensuring there is something to talk about. Sorting our proof before we make any promises. But there is another way, to create some proof in your marketing by acting on something to put some real meaning behind what you're trying to say.
There have been some great examples of this across various sectors during the pandemic. EE's "Lockdown learning" providing free data for homeschooling parents and carers, Olio's "Cook4carers" for the NHS (as opposed to certain global brands stating their love for the NHS while dodging the taxes that fund it) and ITV's "Britain get talking", all standout.
This activity proves that EE connects people, Olio is a community minded food service, and ITV is central to British life and culture. The things their marketers want to be known for. This is proper actions-speak-louder-than-words, proof-over-promise marketing and comms. Two of the three are also long-established big brands.
There's nothing wrong with talking about what you are doing in comms, in fact it makes advertising work even harder. As opposed to the tired v/o led ads "At *insert name of brand* we believe..." why not ads that talk about the initiatives, partnerships and NPD that prove the point you're wanting to make. Experiential should not be seen as a media channel separate from others, but a creative technique that can work within them, even drive them. The brand proof that backs up the brand promises. Involving experiential thinking early in the process to help shape strategic brand activity, as opposed to late in the process for purely executional thinking is key.
It's time to embrace experiential thinking, to put it at the heart of brand building, and do away with the outdated notions of what experiential marketing is, and can be.
Will Worsdell is global strategy director at The Park