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Big brands are heavily investing in experiential marketing. What’s that all about?


Well, we’re looking at a world that’s so plugged-in. Customers don’t just carry cell phones; they’re armed with them. Checking for better deals. Influenced by social media. Shooting off and devouring online reviews. Buying the cheapest products, from the nearest locations.

In that landscape, loyalty is hard earned.

It’s no wonder experiential marketing budgets rose 19 consecutive quarters to Q2 in 2018 (Econsultancy). Within the current hyper-connected, digitally-driven business landscape, brand ‘happenings’ (like activations) are the best way to stand out.

Because even though we’re in a technology free-fall, our brains are still wired for tangible, rewarding experiences. Like puppy cuddles, freebies, live music concerts, relaxing holidays and yes, even innovative branded moments.

As a recent  article from puts the trend in context:

Experiential marketing isn’t a new idea, but it’s come into vogue thanks in part to the global market’s changing demographics and values — and the push for more personal and memorable marketing campaigns.


The focus is on brand experiences

John Hamm, global chief creative officer of Geometry Global, describes brand experiences as “the ecosystem that exists around a brand or product”.  He explains:  “That could be packaging, retail, innovation, communications, events, customer service, social media, CRM, etc. – all those are component parts of the ecosystem that is the brand”.  And his ideas are supported by experience:

I’ve seen a big shift in clients from seeing their brand at the centre and a collection of things around it, to seeing those things as being the brand. The reality is that that’s how people think. My experience with a customer service representative is as much an experience of the brand as a product I may have purchased.

It’s an exciting idea.

But not every business is able to sprinkle brand magic over all their customer touch points and turn every moment of the customer journey into a brand experience. Which is another reason why brand activations, experiential marketing, and rewards are such important tools in the current real-world, marketing renaissance.


But aren’t activations and experiential marketing the same thing?

The differences are quite subtle. Both have event-like execution strategies. But brand activations traditionally put your product in your audience’s hands; whereas experiential marketing gives you the freedom to develop an innovative brand storyline (one that doesn’t necessarily speak to product benefits and features).

The truth is, as we hone our focus towards creating great customer experiences (and the elusive, holistic brand experience) the line seems to have blurred between these two pieces of the marketing puzzle.


For the record

Brand activation is about getting your audience to see the value in your offering. Mostly, that involves bringing them closer to your product in very tangible ways. Essentially, piquing customer interest by giving them a chance to use or experience your product or service. And in so doing, living up to the promises you made in your marketing communication. For example:

Google hosted an interactive, conference installation that showed dad bloggers how to teach online safety to their kids. It was a carnival themed activation with mini basketball hoops, a machine claw and bean bag toss. All aimed at creating a fun experience that highlighted the need for parents to start talking to their kids about their internet footprint.

Travellers experiencing flight delays at São Paolo airport are soothed and rewarded with Kit Kat chocolate bars from a branded vending machine.

From social currency stores to creative pop-ups, you can find a comprehensive list of 38 activations to inspire your own strategies at Trend Hunter.

Experiential marketing leans more towards developing emotional connection. This usually involves creating immersive moments that hardwire your brand to the hearts and minds of your customers. For example:

Netflix team created 200 pop-up Luke’s Diners around the US to serve complimentary coffee to fans for the launch of the latest Gilmore Girls season.

Gatorade’s SXSW activation, G-store, was a futuristic AR pop-up. Using immersive technology, guests were given a chance to find Gatorade products that fulfilled 4 categories : hydration, energy, recover, and endurance. They’d unlock different levels and complete tasks in a scavenger hunt-inspired AR game. At the end, finding their way into a Virtual Reality fridge stocked with other games and sports-based experiences.


Is it really that important to differentiate between them? 

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity recently changed the Promo and Activation category to Brand Experiences and Activations. According to their website, this award aims to, “celebrate creative, comprehensive brand building through the next level use of experience, design, activation, immersive, retail and 360-degree customer engagement”.

Considering that they set the benchmark for the global marketing industry, the refocus of their awards criteria highlights why we’re all finding it so hard to separate activations from experiential marketing.

So, no, you don’t need to differentiate between the two. What’s really important is to find the right way to optimise all the points on the customer journey in such a way that you increase brand affinity and commercial success.


Where do rewards fit in?

Progressive marketeers, like John Hamm, feel that experiential marketing has no future and in as much as it’s a powerful engagement and education tool, much of it lacks purpose. He aims to change that by moving experiential marketing “away from the idea of ‘sheep dipping’ people in a brand, to focusing on creating behavioural change”.

The rewards industry is totally in sync with this thinking, because the core of any program is to affect behavioural change. We figured out a while back that frivolous giveaways, and knee-jerk promotions aimed at driving sales (both ‘sheep dipping’ in nature) weren’t getting optimal results. And today, with more and more opportunities to personalise through data-driven, curated recognition experiences, we’re able to refine things even more.

In the process, many companies are using loyalty programs as the backbone for innovative activation and experiential marketing ideas. W Hotels introduced a luxury yacht experience for its loyalty program members at the Coachella festival. Sony ShowStoppers gives their members a chance to bid for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And members of the NikePlus community can gain access to coaching audios, exclusive event activations, and connect directly with sports experts.

What these big brands already know is that rewards are a direct line to the unconscious mind which, studies show, is where 90% of purchasing decisions are made. Activations and experiential marketing also speak to the part of the brain that is mostly impulsive and responds to emotional stimuli. Putting them all together is a potent combination.


We’re looking at the future of  your brand experience

Given that experts predict a decline in traditional forms of online advertising in the next year, the smart choice is to align your strategies towards defining your brand experience. Rewards, activations and experiential marketing campaigns can help you focus on creating real behavioural change.  So, perhaps it’s not what the future of these 3 marketing tools may be, but more that they are the future.


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