Prologue: Reading the last rites for experiential marketing
Last week I was caught in traffic as I was driving to get some supplies. I decided to catch-up on some podcasts. Just as I tuned in, I was rudely interrupted by a minibus on a town-storm. “Town storming” is a technique employed in experiential marketing where you go around with a vehicle and a loud sound system raising awareness for an event, brand, campaign etc. These people were so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. I wondered what value this town storming was delivering. As I thought more about it, I could not help lamenting the death of experiential marketing as a strategic marketing tool. Experiential campaigns are now just about making as much noise as possible, and interrupting and disrupting customers for the sake of it. How did things get to this?
Act One: The glory days (1980 to 2010)
In the beginning, experiential marketing was meant to provide a platform to enable brands to build affinity through experiences. The theory was that if you delivered a memorable experience, customers would associate the happy memories with your brand. And it worked! In the hey days of experiential marketing, we had audiences of over 5,000 people per roadshow. Some clients would pay us a year in advance, we made 6 figure revenues and travelled the continent staying in 5-star hotels. The reasons for the initial success of experiential marketing include the following:
- Lack of alternative media/entertainment
In the early 80s going into the mid-90s, brands had few options to reach customers. Rural and low income consumers that formed the bulk of their audience did not have TVs and literacy levels were low. There were few options to reach them except through live events. The events were well attended because the people had few entertainment options. They reacted well to simple games and incentives. Brands could easily drive awareness and sales using experiential campaigns. Sampling campaigns were also successful especially for launches because people could not resist the lure of freebies.
- High Message Retention & Recall
Research on message retention and recall supported the case for experiential. We discovered that the higher the number of senses that you engaged in delivering your message, the higher the chances that the audience would remember it. Research showed that engaging one sense yielded the lowest return (channels such as radio, press and outdoor that appeal to one sense had the lowest message recall). You need to engage multiple senses for maximum effectiveness eg TV engages sight and sound for increased effectiveness against, say, radio. Experiential was therefore highly effective because it was the only channel that could engage ALL 5 senses. Consumers could touch and smell a brand on promotion, hear how it worked, see it and if it were a food item, they could even taste it!
- Word of Mouth
Experiences drive word of mouth. Internal research at our agency showed that over 60% of people that attended an experiential event told other people about it. Getting customers to spread the word for you is incredibly effective because people trust their peers more than they trust corporations or brands. People also hate being driven to buy through advertisements, so if you can get them to talk about your brand themselves, you can trigger organic growth. This is obviously a cost effective and more sustainable way to drive growth.
Act Two: The Slow Decline (2011 to Present)
There are several factors that have brought about the decline of experiential marketing:
- Audience Fatigue
There are just too many in-store activations, road shows, town storms etc. People are tired of the same me-too offerings by brands. The lure of freebies is not as great anymore
- Lack of Differentiation
Most of the experiential events are the same. Loud music, dancing, a drama skit with a predictable narrative structure (someone has a problem, they muse about it, a brand user walks in, presents the brand as a solution, the first person vows to start buying the brand!) Nothing is as removed from normal conversation as experiential marketing drama scripts. No-one speaks like that! People are naturally tired of seeing the same activation format over and over again.
- Movement Away from Customer Centric Communication
Most of the campaigns we see today seek to interrupt customers with no regard for their time, goals and aspirations. Someone shouting loudly in my face about soap, a mobile network competition or a new beverage is merely annoying me with no respect for my time and no interest in helping me achieve my goals. Brands seem to be interested in nothing but their own commercial interests. Consumers today demand more consideration than that.
- Lack of Measurement
Experiential is expensive with very high costs per contact. Despite this, measurement models are not well developed. You frequently find brands using sales and attendance as the primary measures for experiential. This has stifled innovation. Meaningful measurement models would have forced marketers to abandon tactics with no return on investment.
Epilogue: The Beast Can Rise Again (2021 & Beyond)
A return to customer centric campaign design can resuscitate experiential marketing in Malawi. Instead of doing roadshows/in-store activations etc to tick a box, marketers should start with a keen understanding of the customer to create experiences that actually add value. Often, experiential is not the most effective intervention. Crafting meaningful interventions takes time and money but its worth it. It does not help a brand to interrupt customers for the sake of interruption. Lean start-up methodologies are perfect for experiential marketing, allowing quick experiments and rapid innovation to create experiences that are relevant to the target audience.