Brand Experience: Beyond Sampling

Article excerpt

Experiential marketing has evolved into a tangible and highly engaging discipline - and clients are taking advantage. Drew Barrand reports on exclusive research into the growing use and reputation of the medium.

It would be a surprise if there is a marketer left in the UK who has not encountered the word 'experiential' over the past 12 months, so ubiquitous has this buzzword become. As clients hunt more targeted ways to communicate with consumers, it could offer the answer.

Once viewed as nothing more than a bolt-on piece of sampling, experiential marketing is now seen as a means to create one-to-one brand experiences with consumers. The increasingly sophisticated techniques involved are certainly catching the attention of marketers. According to an exclusive survey of clients' views of the industry commissioned by experiential agency iD and conducted by HPI Research, 68% of respondents are spending more on experiential marketing this year than last year, and 49% anticipate a further increase in spend for 2006. Only 6% predicted a decrease in experiential budgets, the majority of whom attributed the fall to cuts in marketing spend rather than a negative attitude toward the discipline.

'The research reflects what we are seeing in the market, which is vastly heightened interest in experiential campaigns,' says Paul Ephremsen, managing director of iD. 'They are starting to view it as an important tool in its own right, rather than a tactical supplement to other marketing methods.'

The rise in interest stems from marketers' belief that experiential activity leads to a closer relationship with consumers, and that it successfully encourages brand loyalty: 89% and 72% of the survey's respondents agreed with the respective notions.

'Good experiential marketing allows brands to cut through the environment in which it is being executed and engage deeper with the recipient's mindset,' explains Joel Kaufman, managing director of field marketing and brand experience agency Link Communication. 'It has the capability to evoke emotions and inspire aspirational brand values among consumers by involving them in a way that more traditional, non-experiential types of marketing do not. The discipline is now becoming prolific among industries that would previously have considered it too left-of-centre to award it budget.'

Unilever Home and Personal Care, which is working with iD on a 'Hair history experience' campaign for Dove Hair, is one convert.

'Experiential has become a crucial part of our marketing strategy,' says Dominic Grounsell, Dove Hair brand manager. 'Not only does it give customers the chance to experience the product, but we can also portray brand values to them. It gives us the opportunity to translate lots of different messages to the consumer - messages that are very difficult to convey through other marketing channels.'

Glenfiddich is another brand impressed with the results of experiential campaigns. 'Over the past year we recruited 54,000 25- to 34-year-olds to Glenfiddich in a category that has lost about 80,000 drinkers,' says Nick Williamson, senior brand manager. 'That is quite a turnaround, given that a quarter of the brand's drinkers are over 65.'

Memorable alternative

According to the research, the impact on the consumer is seen by many as the discipline's chief advantage. Experiential marketing was ranked as the most memorable medium by marketing directors, ahead of TV ads and sales promotion. As a result, it offers an effective alternative to brands targeting sections of society other media fail to reach.

'Experiential marketing is a potential point of difference if you have the courage to go for it,' says Sharon Annette, marketing manager at Scottish Courage. 'If, for example, you are not targeting housewives with children, but young male adults, your options in terms of media buying are limited. A spot during Coronation Street is not going to do it. You have to go after those consumers in different ways.'

Clients agree, as they are increasing their focus on experiential activity as part of the marketing mix. According to the HPI research, marketers currently spend up to 10% of their overall budget on experiential activity, a figure that rises as high as 24% among those respondents who predict a rise in spend in the coming years.

This begs the question of which sectors are seeing a reduction in budget to pay for the experiential work. Bruce Burnett, managing director of agency i2i and formerly a marketer at Nestle and Cadbury Schweppes, believes the principal vehicle to feel the pinch has been shelf promotions.'Clients are moving away from them in retail spaces,' he says. 'While it is a cheap medium to buy, it is not easy to target, and so is less attractive to brands wanting to make an impact with consumers.'

Beyond FMCG

Experiential activity has principally been the domain of the FMCG sector, but there is growing evidence that brands from several other industries are now taking an interest in it, such as telecoms, IT and travel.

'There is a real opportunity here for brands that do not have a high-street presence to put a human face on their business,' claims Barnett Fletcher, chief executive of agency Vibe. His company has been working with financial services firm ING Direct to create an integrated communications campaign based on experiential activity. 'Experiential work gives the consumer an opportunity to interface with the brand that has never previously existed,' he adds. 'It has been incredibly successful in providing a tangible interaction. This is where brand experience can really deliver.'

iD's Ephremsen agrees that there is huge growth potential for the discipline across several industries. However, he believes that FMCG will continue to provide the core revenue for agencies.

'It is probably still a little early to talk about widespread use across all sectors,' he says. 'There is still so much left to achieve in the FMCG market that this will continue to drive experiential forward. The main challenge is to increase the level of spend per client.'

To this end, agencies are keen to convince marketers that experiential work can be more than just a short-term tactical device, creating long-term brand values and customer relationships. The HPI survey indicates that the message is getting through, with 70% of respondents stating that experiential marketing can be applied to both a product launch and throughout a product's lifetime, which means it could be used for more than just a launch mechanic, which has been the most common application of the medium in the past.

Despite these findings, retention of agencies on long-term contracts is still not common, and much experiential work is handed on through sales promotion agencies, often involving little direct contact with the brand owner.

Long-term relationships

Hugh Robertson, managing partner of agency RPM, has noticed a shift in the way brands use experiential activity. His firm has seen an increase in strategic work and forged retained relationships with brands such as Strongbow.

For Robertson, these long-term ties are crucial to successful campaigns.

'The advantage of retained relationships is that we have become the lead agency for some of our clients, and we work with other agencies to ensure that campaigns are creatively and executionally correct,' he says. 'Without this approach, true brand experience activity cannot happen.'

One of the biggest challenges that experiential agencies face is educating clients about the difference between themselves and more traditional field marketers. This confusion came across very clearly in the client survey, according to David Iddiols, managing director of HPI. 'There seems to be quite a lot of confusion about experiential marketing, no doubt because its development is still at a relatively embryonic stage,' he says.

Iddiols believes that some sceptical marketers still see experiential work as 'merely a dressed-up form of field marketing'. This group takes issue with the veracity of reported results and points to difficulties in measuring the effectiveness of experiential techniques.

Paul Jeffries, managing director of agency Zak Facta, admits that providing accurate measurement tools is crucial if experiential is to become a properly recognised part of the marketing mix. 'We have to ensure that we are providing informed and accurate services that truly deliver for the client and provide a measured return on investment,' he says.

Jeffries believes that these measurement techniques will enable experiential agencies to differentiate themselves from field marketing firms. However, confusion over the relation between the two disciplines is not confined to marketers. Several in the agency world argue that the two cannot be classed as totally discrete techniques. 'Field marketing and experiential marketing are related,' says Alison Williams, chairman of the Field Marketing Council. 'The follow-on sales from a great piece of experiential work cannot be maximised if the product is not available, visible and plentiful within the retail environment, which is a part of what field marketing does.'

Delivery on brief remains the central concern for experiential marketing practitioners, and there are many issues still to be dealt with in this area. According to Tanya Sargeant, managing director of Arc Live, which has worked on experiential campaigns for brands such as Pampers, agencies need to be firmer with clients when setting the initial objectives of any experiential activity. 'We have a responsibility to ask what is right for the client,' says Sargeant. 'There is a lot of activity that is fundamentally a bad fit for the brand and consequently stands little chance of working.

If you do not set the goals early, it becomes impossible to measure whether or not a campaign has been successful.'

As with any emerging sector, there has been a series of experiential agency launches, in the shape of both start-up firms and new divisions of existing shops. But established agencies believe this rush to join the industry is adding to the problem of confusion and could ultimately damage the industry.

'It seems that the more attention brand experience gets, the more people try to jump on the bandwagon without any real knowledge of what they are selling,' says Vibe's Fletcher. 'They see client spend moving into areas they cannot control, so they try to get involved, underselling the cost of the activity, not to mention being unable to deliver on the brief.'

For Fletcher, the future of experiential marketing depends on establishing what the sector should be doing and ensuring agencies do it. 'Experiential is on the cusp of something big,' he concludes. 'But we have to make sure we have quality control or clients will turn away as quickly as they are coming in.'

68% of clients are spending more on experiential marketing this year than last

METHODOLOGY BOX

HPI Research carried out 11 in-depth (45-minute) interviews and 53 shorter telephone interviews (total sample 64) with brand managers, marketing managers and marketing directors, all of whom were responsible for allocating marketing budgets and had some experience of experiential marketing. The majority of respondents have worked in the industry for six to 10 years.

To download a copy of the complete 2005 research paper as well as the 2004 survey into what consumers think of experiential marketing, visit www.experientialmarketing.info.

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