From home-made flying contraptions to intimate gigs inside a camper van, experiential marketing comes in many guises.
Marketers are using more innovative ways to bring their brands to life, turning routine product sampling exercises into memorable branded experiences and events.
Experiential fuses elements of direct marketing, field marketing and sales promotion but has carved its own niche, thanks to the emergence of specialist agencies.
Yet for many brands, experiential remains a tiny fragment of the marketing mix. Often misunderstood, the discipline tends to be used as a 'bolt-on' rather than a vital cog in an integrated campaign. But in these recessionary times, experiential could come into its own as brands look to build more personalised and targeted campaigns.
The medium's greatest appeal is its ability to engage with consumers on a highly personal level. 'Above-the-line ads have their place, but they don't allow the personal dialogue that experiential activity does,' says Sharon Richey, managing director at experiential marketing agency BEcause.
Bruce Burnett, chief executive of i2i Marketing, adds: 'An experience gives consumers the opportunity to question, as well as gain hands-on experience of a brand, allowing them to be more intimate with it, leading to a high conversion rate.'
For energy brands, which do not have a tangible product, experiential is invaluable. 'You can't touch or feel energy, so experiential marketing enables people to interact with our brand,' says Phil Boas, head of sponsorship and events at E.ON.
Another benefit of experiential, especially for FMCG brands, is the opportunity to get as close to the point of sale as possible, an achievement that has proved tricky because of supermarket rules on in-store activity.
It is also a highly flexible medium. 'It can be used any time, any place, anywhere,' says Hugh Robertson, managing partner at experiential marketing agency RPM. 'It is not constrained by platform, or media.'
Rob Allen, chief executive at experiential agency TRO, points out it also allows for instant data capture, as well as the flexibility to make changes. 'If the message needs to be amended three days into the activity, for example, this is very easy,' he says.
Proponents of experiential also argue that it has a powerful fit with other marketing activity, especially digital, PR and sponsorship as part of an integrated campaign.
On the downside, although the total cost of experiential activity can be relatively cheap compared with above-the-line campaigns, in terms of reach on a per person basis it is proportionally more expensive.
Getting the most value for money from an experiential drive is therefore vital. One crucial consideration is to choose the right environment for the activity. To ensure this happens, brands must be absolutely clear about what they want to achieve.
For example, experiential activity in a retail environment is effective if the goal of the activity is immediate sales. Dairy Crest assigned Haygarth to create experiential work for its Cathedral City cheese brand. The agency produced a campaign called 'The Big Cheese Tease', which turned an ice-cream van into a 'cheese-on-toast' van that toured Sainsbury's and Asda stores across the UK; 200,000 samples were distributed and the coupon redemption rate exceeded 20%.
Danone used a similar approach, employing nutritionists, who talked to consumers close to supermarkets it was targeting. The campaign, by Woo, resulted in the distribution of 250,000 samples and coupons, with an average redemption rate of 40%.
Conversely, if boosting awareness or providing entertainment is the aim of the activity, an event or entertainment venue is more appropriate, because brands can attract consumers' attention during leisure time.
Events where consumers are in a receptive frame of mind, also provide a wealth of good opportunities for experiential. The Cathedral City campaign visited The Vitality Show, for example, while coffee brand Lavazza hired Iris Experience to give it a presence at The Good Food Show.
Sports events, too, provide a unique opportunity. Whisky brand The Famous Grouse, for instance, worked with Woo to target young men at rugby matches. Similarly, music festivals offer a chance to engage consumers at a time when they are relaxed. Right Guard appointed TouchDDB to help it target a younger audience through a partnership with Yahoo! Music, using a VW camper van as a touring music venue.
Some brands go further by creating their own branded event. Ben & Jerry's annual Sundae on the Common event in Clapham, London, has been a big success in its own right, in turn generating extensive press coverage. 'This is a bonus in terms of boosting awareness,' says Vicky Willis, sundae girl at Ben & Jerry's.
Similarly, beer brand Beck's Fusions events, created by Woo, have united leading musical and artistic talent across the UK and garnered extensive brand exposure via media coverage.
Another consideration when picking a location is knowing where to locate the brand's target audience.
The COI worked with BEcause on experiential activity for the RAF (see box, right), which targeted places such as The Lanes shopping district in Brighton - an area popular with young people - offering the opportunity to engage in a range of consumer challenges, including fitness tasks.
Occasionally, a more unusual venue can reap rewards. Kellogg hired Iris to run experiential work to boost interest among mothers, so it ran activity at play centres. Elsewhere, RPM targeted mountain chairlifts in Scotland for a Scottish tea brand.
Tropicana, meanwhile, wanted to engage a younger audience with the launch of its Spirit brand and hijacked a Red Bull Flugtag event, entering the competition with its own would-be flying craft and setting up a purpose-built fruit stall.
For many brands, a mix of approaches proves most effective. Gillette took its activity to shopping centres and music festivals, as well as the British Motor Show; while Dr Oetker briefed i2i Marketing to create a campaign for its kids' dessert range, Paula, named after the cartoon cow that adorns the packaging, that toured supermarkets and the Legoland theme park.
However, Ben Reed, head of experiential at Woo, warns that brands need to know their consumers and study their behaviour in different situations very carefully. 'A creative execution that is successful within, say, a shopping centre or railway station environment may fail within a highly competitive festival setting and devalue the brand's equity in the long term,' he says.
'Decisions should be guided by data and research and driven by the brand, the brief and the business challenge.'
E.ON's Boas believes that experiential should add value or improve the consumers' experience of an event. 'Offering branded incentives is a simple mechanic to gain goodwill, but only by offering a great experience will you ever create loyalty, change perceptions and increase commercial opportunities.'
Ben & Jerry's Willis flags up the importance of incorporating a fun element but ensuring that the activity is 'well executed to really connect with consumers'.
Being visible is vital. The environment, noise and buzz generated by experiential activity must be able to attract consumers. Consequently, brands need to make sure such work is in an open environment so that people can see what is going on. Using a team of brand ambassadors who give off an air of openness and clarity is key to grabbing attention. 'Experiential is also about the spectators, as they take something away with them,' says Anthony Donaldson, head of insight at Haygarth. 'The more entertaining and more visible the work is, the better.'
There are plenty of examples of highly successful experiential campaigns, but there are also some all-too-familiar pitfalls. Poor planning is the biggest of these. 'Whether the goal is awareness, advocacy or rate of sales, evaluation of the effectiveness of the activity needs to be measured against what its goal was,' says Reed.
It is a mistake, too, to think only about footfall. 'A Tube station, for example, delivers huge footfall, but commuters are very busy, and the stations themselves are urban, dirty, and not the most salubrious of venues to be associated with,' points out Donaldson.
A focus on being relevant is critical. There is little value in consumers coming away thinking the activity was great but having no clear impression of what brand it was for.
Underestimating budgets is another common mistake, which leads to agency overspend. Many brand marketers fail to take into account unforeseen expenses, or do not understand health and safety regulations.
Problems with logistics and weather can also play a part. Experiential is a complex discipline involving a creative strategy, execution and delivery alongside unmanageable aspects such as these. Boardmasters, a surf, skate and music festival in Newquay, for example, has to be organised on a flexible basis, because even if it rains, the experiential work must carry on.
Experiential has come a long way and many now view it as closer in strategy to sales promotion compared with simple field marketing. With careful planning and targeting, it is an effective means of engaging with hard-to-reach and media-saturated consumers. In the tough year ahead, its ability to provide creative, tailored solutions for brands on a limited budget should stand it in good stead. While its ability to make consumers smile and inspire goodwill to a brand is more important than ever.
GILLETTE: SHARP EDGE
Gillette launched its five-blade Fusion razor in 2006 and followed this up last year with a global 'Champions' campaign, featuring sports stars Thierry Henry, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, to support the range.
It briefed Haygarth to create an exciting and engaging experiential tour to bring 'Champions' to life. Haygarth came up with the 'Evolution of excellence' tour, which incorporated 60 dates across the UK at shopping centres, events and music festivals.
The proposition was that the best equipment leads to the best performance, creating direct analogies between sporting and shaving performance. Participants tested older sports equipment and modern equivalents to see how performance improved, while bespoke 'shave pods' offered full barber shaves and the opportunity to use Fusion products.
Event participation was followed up with post-event personalised emails, with scores attached, relating to the performance achieved with the sports equipment they had used.
The tour provided engagement, footfall, product demonstrations and interactive game participation: 160,000 educational leaflets were distributed, 140,000 samples were given out, there were 5000 interactive game participants and 7000 shave trials took place.
Gillette claims that 83% of consumers who used Fusion did not go back to its predecessor Mach 3.
RAF: SMOOTH LANDINGS
The COI handed experiential marketing agency BEcause a brief to raise awareness of career opportunities in the RAF. The agency was asked to provide bespoke information and career advice to boost the number of recruits to the service.
Based on the strapline 'Creating a team for any challenge', an RAF-branded experience was developed, featuring a number of engineering, intelligence, fitness and logistics challenges, each relating to a different career in the air force.
Potential recruits were invited to take part to win prizes. A 'lifestyle' section enabled brand ambassadors to chat with potential recruits and distribute leaflets. RAF recruiters were also on hand to give first-hand accounts of life within the air force.
Prior to the roadshow, which toured seven cities in September 2008, a team of brand ambassadors visited each city's surrounding areas to raise awareness of the visit.
As a result, 1583 people were introduced to RAF recruiters, of whom 594 went on to register their interest in a career. More than 29,000 RAF leaflets were distributed to potential recruits and an average of 150 people competed in at least one RAF challenge each day.