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Globally, experiential marketing is the future, but what does it look like here in SA?

When it comes to exciting business opportunities, customer experience is ranked top of the list for 2020. That’s because customer perception is lucrative. Not to be confused with traditional CRM and how you handle your complaints (although those customer touchpoints could become exciting brand exercises). The future lies in how you treat or inspire your audience within curated, brand moments.

That’s one of the reasons why marketing budgets are being shifted away from traditional campaigns to the creation of immersive brand worlds delivering personalised customer experiences. The kind of experiences that show your audience you understand them and their needs.

What’s the state of experience marketing in South Africa?

To find out, we chatted with the heads of two progressive, boutique, full-service South African agencies: Jason Stewart, co-founder and Managing Director of HaveYouHeard and Duncan MacLennan, Director of ANDPEOPLE. Here’s what they had to say.

What kind of experiential marketing trends are you seeing in South Africa?


I think the big thing that is happening globally is that tech is coming into the space of experiential. So, what we’re seeing are fully immersive digital experiences. 

We are quite interested in Augmented Reality and elements such as projection mapping. There’s a company called teamLab that we visited in Tokyo a while back when we were doing some research work. They use that type of advanced technology to create these other-worldly experiences that normally wouldn’t be possible. 

You step into immersive works that speak to really important stuff. Like the idea of experiences that connect people to each other, and themselves, and nature. Which is really important because people are faced with this issue of disconnection at the moment. 

So, tech is a big trend we’re watching. Being more soulful is also on the radar. And social responsibility. That ranges from the way you get rid of waste at an event, to giving people a chance to do something positive for the environment. 

And then all the jobs that we do, it’s about building it to broadcast. So that you can take an experience that only 50-200 people shared and broadcast to a wider audience online. 

For us, it’s about experiences as a currency. We’re looking for experiences that no one has had before. It needs to be very special. It needs to matter. But we also need to be able to broadcast it.  

We’re also picking up that the world and South Africa are going through certain economic constraints. In the last year, we’ve seen brands pull back and be more conservative. Budgets are impacted and we are having to be smarter with how we spend. Experiences aren’t as grand or opulent. Which is also driven by consumers who don’t want to be as flashy and wasteful. 


That’s quite an interesting question. Because I think the word ‘experiences’ has become overused in the market over the last couple of years. 

What that means, I suppose, is that a lot of brands are starting to explore the space and really look at the role of experiences as a wider part of their program. Which is good. 

In terms of trends as a whole, we’ve started to see brands recognise the importance of curation. To think about who they are creating experiences for. And also about creating more high-value, immersive and interactive productions with their budgets. 

That trend is being driven by consumer behaviour, but also our economy. Brands today are a little more budget conscious and cautious of spending on TV commercials and integrative campaigns. 

So, that’s actually opened up a door to experiences. It’s also opened the door for tech-driven trends in VR and AI. Brands are looking for more personal, seamless interactions between themselves and their audience. The negative side is that a lot of the tech ideas we’re seeing are quite frivolous. They capture attention because they are new. As opposed to tech that can make an experience richer. 

Can you paint a picture of the South African experiential marketing industry at the moment?


In South Africa, it’s still very much about badges and showing off. Customers want brands to give them the opportunity to improve their social status. 

Our country has such a different culture to the rest of the world. So everything needs to be locally relevant. Something we put together in Pretoria would be very different from an experience in the Westen Cape. And I think it’s not just about having a bland American or European view of what an event is, but something relevant to the culture here. 

There’s a gap in the tech market too. The majority of South Africans don’t want to waste data and battery, so there are limitations. They say Virtual Reality (VR) is the next thing for the next 5-6 years, but I haven’t seen it happening yet. VR is cool to share online, but it’s an amazing experience for one person and no one else. I think projection mapping and what you can do with lighting is going to be what we play with locally over the next couple of years. AI has limitations too. I haven’t seen it used exceptionally well here.

But that’s fine because when we talk about immersive, that doesn’t always speak to digital and tech. The focus for us locally is on creating completely overwhelmingly sensorial experiences. 


The challenge we’ve got is the diverse audience landscape. We’ve also got a really young consumer group. And a lot of brands talking to the same people. So, it’s become a little bit of a fight for attention.

When I take a look at the landscape, a lot of brands are doing very similar things. That’s largely driven by the fact that SA is a lifestyle market. The alcohol brands, for example, are driving the future of entertainment. No one else out there is spending the money that they are spending. They are the only people that have the means to bring out international acts. 

There is also a lack of differentiation that exists. You know, there’s a bit of a formula that people follow. And really you could be swapping logos out and not be able to tell who hosted an experience because there’s a bit of a generic template. They’re using influencers to promote something. They’re hosting an event. They’re bringing out an act that they’re revealing. Then they’re finding ways to socialise the experience so that people who don’t attend the event are exposed. But everyone is doing it the same way. 

The global market seems to be hooked on brand experiences, what do you think speaks to the South African market the most?


I think the reason why people crave experiences is because they are wanting to live a more fuller life where work plays an important but less dominating role than it did in the past.

Media has exposed us to what is possible in the world and we have become hungry for these moments – milestones to make our life matter – just like badges.

Our experiential needs are very similar to the world in the sense that we use them to measure the success of our lives, we want novel experiences that show we are special and unique (different and better than others) and we also use them to express ourselves and showcase who we are.

Where we are different is in what those experiences are. They need to be locally relevant, for example in our unique music styles. They must be a celebration of who we are (proudly African) and not a global copy and paste.


I think the important thing right now for the South African industry, is to recognise that there is a little bit of a mindset shift that needs to happen.

We are still largely thinking of experiential as events. And experiential isn’t just that. It isn’t a traditional campaign. It’s pretty much every interaction that the audience has with a brand. So you’ve got to be thinking about it at the point of purchase, what is that experience? You know what I mean?

There has to be a synergy between how someone is experiencing the brand or product in a high-value event, when they are having a one-on-one moment with your product, to taking it out of the fridge in a store. That’s all part of the experience. That is the brand experience.

So, the shift that needs to happen in the South African market is, yes you’re starting to look at experiences differently, but we need to elevate that now to look at experiential not as an event, or sampling or giving product away, or activating a brand. It’s the interaction that your audience is having with your brand.

We’re still a bit traditional in South Africa. We still talk about above the line and below the line marketing campaigns. That’s not how our consumers behave or interact. Marketers are categorising channels, not behaviours. So we need to recognise that shift.

We see a lot of brands doing that really well. The likes of Nike, Vans, and Adidas do it really well locally and internationally. The guys that are playing in streetwear are doing really well because they represent the brand through the people. They think about the experiences people have when they go into a transaction environment.

In a nutshell…

There really is no one-size-fits-all formula for good experiential marketing, although it does seem like many local brands are relying on a tired entertainment mechanic. And that probably needs to change.

South Africa is certainly a unique melting pot and so what’s happening in America and Europe may not work here. That’s not to say we can’t aspire to create richer brand experiences that mirror the most innovative, technology-driven overseas projects.

But perhaps the most important trend to follow in experience marketing globally is that of getting to know your audience. From those insights, you can build your experiences. And then expand the reach to a larger audience through social media or other broadcast mechanics.

Sounds so simple, right? We’re still sticking to what we know, which is seamless reward delivery. And leaving the complex, creative, engagement strategies to Andpeople and HaveYouHeard.

The conversation continues. You can read Part two here.


Duncan headshot

Duncan MacLennan is Director of ANDPEOPLE. A creative agency of youth engagement specialists with studios in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Sydney.

We guide brands in connecting authentically with youth culture through custom solutions, which create sustainable value for both brand and audience.

Jason headshot

Jason Stewart is the co-founder and Managing Director of HaveYouHeard. A communication agency immersed in culture to influence it.

We uncover unique insights to create innovative ideas that influence the audience by bringing the brands we partner with to the center of culture.





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