Brands have long opined about the need to get customers to interact meaningfully with their products. The rising use of field marketing agencies suggests they might have found an answer.
Many claim this growth is being driven by the adoption of experiential marketing strategies, borrowed from a discipline that has evolved out of traditional field marketing. Put simply, experiential marketing is a live interaction with the consumer created to communicate a brand's personality and values.
The increase in experiential marketing initiatives has been such that experiential agencies have now formed their own trade body, the Live Brand Experience Association (LBEA), to both differentiate them from traditional field-marketing agencies and provide a focal point for brands to learn about experiential practices. It's a move that has caused division among practitioners.
For Paul Ephremsen, managing director of iD, which has Lever Faberge and Marks & Spencer on its books, field marketing and experiential marketing are related disciplines "but only because there is a common factor between them: field staff. The similarity ends there."
With the formation of the LBEA, the distinction will continue to become clearer for any confused parties, he asserts.
Ephremsen argues that experiential marketing is "no longer a 'nice to have' part of brand communication but a hard-working medium in its own right that needs to be represented at the brand planning table".
He adds: "The LBEA aims to develop a currency for the discipline, invest in research to prove its value above traditional measures, and demonstrate the effect, impact and reach in talk terms relative to other media."
That sounds laudable enough, but a number of leading agency figures believe this split has been harmful for the sector's evolution, creating confusion among brand owners. This is especially harmful considering that field marketing as a discipline has only just managed to get its foot in the door when it comes to allocation of strategic budgets.
Influencing emotional triggers
Lynda Edge, chief executive of Headcount Worldwide, says: "Experiential marketing is just one of the many field-marketing disciplines - it doesn't matter what you call it, it is still a face-to-face communication between the brand and the consumer. The question of which trade body represents it is good for headline grabbing and raising awareness, but we mustn't lose sight of the key objective: influencing an emotional trigger so the consumer buys the brand we are promoting. We should focus more on results and return on investment (ROI) than on terminology."
Whatever the label on its box, the growth of the discipline cannot be denied. Key proponents come from the FMCG food and drink sector - unsurprising given such clients' long-held recognition of sampling as a critical factor in launching new products or for encouraging brand reappraisal.
What has changed is that these brands now place more emphasis on delivering samples in imaginative new ways and locations to make trials more memorable.
Dale Barker, group account director at Arc Live, says: "Clients are ever more understanding of the need to engage and interact with consumers. For example, Procter & Gamble has doubled the amount of experiential activity undertaken on its brands this year. The main reason is simple: an increased understanding of what brand experience can do. As clients embrace the discipline, more data from past campaigns is becoming available, highlighting the success of brand experience in aiding recall and driving sales."
FMCG brands will remain the core revenue stream for experiential marketers, but iD's Ephremsen believes there are many more markets to exploit. "Our challenge is to help non-users increase their in-house knowledge to become aware of the total experiential offering," he says. "This will highlight how it fits strategically into the marketing mix, demonstrating its measurement, accountability and bottom-line impact."
Proof that such strategies are no flash in the pan is coming from those brands that have already adopted such initiatives and seem ready to follow them up with more long-term strategic investment. Lever Faberge's Domestos has commissioned follow-up work through iD off the back of the initial contract for a project that involves using drag queens in retail outlets to promote its Pink Power variant.
Steph MacKenzie, Domestos assistant brand manager, says: "iD managed our 2003 in-store activity, delivering up to 4,545 per cent sales uplift on campaign days. We have appointed iD to manage the live campaign for Pink Power. The creative is fantastic - how often do you see glamorous drag queens in-store discussing the benefits of bleach?"
Such longer-term contracts allow experiential marketers to bring a stronger emphasis on ROI, a primary objective.
Ross Urquhart, managing director of RPM, believes discussions about ROI are crucial to the future growth of the discipline. The agency has signed up clients such as Birds Eye Wall's ice cream and Strongbow over the past couple of years. He states: "ROI is at the centre of any promotional marketing discipline, and experiential marketing is no different. At the moment, the industry lacks a comparable evaluation tool, but the nature of our work means one model can never fit all campaigns."
He adds: "We've seen a big shift towards more open client briefs over the past year. Clients are looking to us to deliver strategic brand thinking and create platforms for below-the-line campaigns. Instead of coming to us with a specific kind of campaign in mind, they're prepared to wait and see what creative solution we recommend."
Progress on this front is certainly being made, but there is a feeling that brands require a link between experiential marketing and the more traditional aspects of field marketing from which the discipline sprang.
David Louis, managing director of The Blue Water Agency, says: "Experiential is often seen as exciting, but although it can gain excellent results, one must not forget the importance of other FM disciplines - for instance, developing your proposition at the point of sale and improving compliance are critical to increasing sales."
Real business tool
He adds: "Field marketing and brand experience activities both require field staff who understand the product, the brand and the target market. It is great to create theatre, but field marketing can and should be used as a real business tool with all related disciplines providing clear return on investment."
Matt Ogden, senior marketing manager at Nokia, a client of The Blue Water Agency, concurs. "The Nokia-branded retail programme is a core part of our marketing strategy; with Blue Water we are better understanding the way consumers buy products at retail," he says.
Experiential strategies are clearly breaking through into brands' marketing approaches. As is the case with any evolving discipline, it is not without its drawbacks, as traditional field marketers will point out. But brands that have adopted experiential work say it provides benefits other disciplines cannot, not least the most direct contact channel with the target audience.
EXPERIENTIAL LEAGUE TOP 23 AGENCIES
Rank Agency Turnover HQ: field Total
2003 (pounds) staff face-to-face
(numbers) (£1 RPM 9,156,000 55:65 0
2 iD 7,360,000 51:2900 736,000 (10%)
3 REL Field Marketing 10,950,000 65:1500 6,570,000 (60%)
4 The Russell Organisation 6,850,000 120:80 685,000 (10%)
5 Carbon Marketing 4,841,920 25:300 677,869 (14%)
6 Professional Exhibitions 3,814,808 35:147 762,962 (20%)
7 Lime 3,000,000 11:60 600,000 (20%)
8 Virgin D3 2,000,000 23:1000 1,000,000 (50%)
9 Raisley 2,069,393 10:175 889,839 (43%)
10 LoewyBe 2,623,242 17:250 786,973 (30%)
11 Marketing Dynamic Intl 4,356,129 15:110 435,613 (10%)
12 Zoo People 1,890,599 18:0 378,120 (20%)
13 FDS Group 20,051,688 105:1632 401,034 (2%)
14 PMI FM 5,600,000 45:2500 392,000 (7%)
15 SMC Field Marketing 5,800,000 20:195 290,000 (5%)
16 The Blue Water Agency 2,803,635 17:154 504,654 (18%)
17 MBA Field Marketing 1,097,829 6:58 0
18 The Brand Company 6,533,000 50:1000 326,650 (5%)
19 Field Sales Solutions 4,603,313 80:200 0
20 Link Communication 1,560,000 12:4500 78,000 (5%)
21 NMS (UK) 375,000 4:50 112,500 (30%)
22 NOP Field Marketing 1,100,000 9:6000 22,000 (2%)
23 UK Field Marketing Co. 1,117,000 7:40 11,170 (1%)
Rank Agency Total Total
1 RPM 9,064,440 (99%) 9,064,440
2 iD 6,624,000 (90%) 7,360,000
3 REL Field Marketing 0 6,570,000
4 The Russell Organisation 4,110,000 (60%) 4,795,000
5 Carbon Marketing 3,873,536 (80%) 4,551,405
6 Professional Exhibitions 3,051,846 (80%) 3,814,808
7 Lime 1,800,000 (60%) 2,400,000
8 Virgin D3 1,000,000 (50%) 2,000,000
9 Raisley 869,145 (42%) 1,758,984
10 LoewyBe 918,135 (35%) 1,705,107
11 Marketing Dynamic Intl 1,089,032 (25%) 1,524,645
12 Zoo People 661,710 (35%) 1,039,829
13 FDS Group 601,551 (3%) 1,002,584
14 PMI FM 448,000 (8%) 840,000
15 SMC Field Marketing 290,000 (5%) 580,000
16 The Blue Water Agency 56,073 (2%) 560,727
17 MBA Field Marketing 373,262 (34%) 373,262
18 The Brand Company 0 326,650
19 Field Sales Solutions 230,166 (5%) 230,166
20 Link Communication 78,000 (5%) 156,000
21 NMS (UK) 0 112,500
22 NOP Field Marketing 0 22,000
23 UK Field Marketing Co. 0 11,170
Source: Marketing magazine.