What is experiential marketing? Also known as engagement marketing, experiential marketing is the process of creating a unique, meaningful experience with customers or prospects in order to change or reinforce their perceptions of a brand. The experience generally entails an invitation to participate in a physical interaction that offers the potential for fun, surprise or adventure, all with the underlying purpose of allowing customers to shape an image of a brand beyond the product it is ostensibly trying to sell.
What are Examples of Experiential Marketing?
- Heineken’s “Departure Roulette” campaign hit all the right notes as a great example of what makes successful experiential marketing so powerful. At a few busy airports around the world, the Dutch beer company invited travelers to press a button on a display board, which spun letters to reveal a surprise, exotic destination anywhere in the world. Meant to mirror the “thirst for spontaneity and adventure” of Heineken drinkers, travelers who agreed to participate were rewarded with a free flight, all-expenses paid trip with $2,000 in spending money – provided they agreed to forego their existing plans and – on the spot – head off for the new destination.
- Lean Cuisine’s “WeighThis” campaign was a masterstroke in experiential marketing that empowered customers to not only shape a new perception of a brand, but to do so in a way that positively reinforced their own self-image. With a pop-up display in Grand Central Station, the brand invited women to write on a scale how they weigh themselves – exclusive of the usual concept of pounds or body image. “I’m 55 and back in college,” “Caring for 200 homeless children”, “I saved my brother’s life” were among the hundreds of messages posted on a wall. Like the Heineken campaign, apart from a Lean Cuisine logo, the brand’s products were nowhere to be seen.
- JetBlue’s “Ultimate Icebreaker” campaign, while more directly tied to promote a specific product (direct flights from New York to Palm Springs, Calif.) still qualified as an innovative experiential marketing campaign, particularly through a unique gamification idea, a staple of . many experiential marketing campaigns. To promote the new direct flight, the airline encased summertime accessories (golf clubs, a tennis racquet, beach chair, etc.) inside an enormous block of ice that was placed on a busy New York sidewalk at the outset of winter. Passers-by were welcome to chip away at the ice with whatever they had on their person and were welcome to keep any of the items they uncovered.
Characteristics of Experiential Marketing Campaigns
These and other successful examples of experiential marketing share some common traits. They invite customers or prospects to participate in an outside-the-box experience that is not directly tied to the selling or promotion of a product. They entail a social media campaign to spread awareness and tie back to other brand messaging around the campaign. And they encourage customers to re-think perceptions about what a brand stands for. Heineken = adventure. Lean Cuisine = powerful women. JetBlue = Escape winter doldrums.
Done well, experiential marketing is about creating a memorable experience that delivers an authentic connection with a brand, apart from the product. I may be dating myself with this reference, but the Pepsi Challenge was such a memorable experiential marketing campaign that it is still culturally relevant 45 years after its debut. The brand famously asked passers-by to participate in a blind taste test to determine what tasted better – Pepsi or Coke. Even though here the experience did involve the product, the experience itself was such a completely novel concept that it didn’t even matter. Rather than thinking they were being sold a product, participants instead felt like empowered executives – generals helping to determine an outcome in the ongoing soda wars.
The challenge was – and is – a great example of how successful experiential marketing helps to change a perception of a brand – with consumers taking the lead.
Why Try Experiential Marketing?
There are many reasons why brands explore experiential marketing. Changing perceptions, as we’ve seen with the above examples, is one. Another reason, of course, is profit.
Lean Cuisine’s WeighThis campaign was brilliant in many ways, not least of which is that the campaign – along with a broader re-branding – is credited with a $58 million year-over-year sales increase. After four years of declining sales totaling $400 million, 2015 started with more double-digit losses in Q1. By Q3, the re-branding – which included removing the word ‘diet’ from packaging – combined with the WeighThis campaign resulted in double-digit gains.
Another reason why companies are eager to try experiential marketing is data. Misereror, a nonprofit in France dedicated to ending world hunger, is a great example of an innovative experiential campaign where consumers willingly exchange personal data in exchange for controlling the experience.
In this “social swipe” campaign, the company used interactive digital posters in airports to collect donations. When a person swiped their credit card to make a small donation, the poster showed a loaf of bread being virtually sliced and a portion going to a hungry recipient.
A thank you note from the charity accompanied the donor’s bank statement, and asked if they would like to extend their initial donation into a monthly donation. Of course, because the donor had already provided their credit card information as part of the experiential marketing campaign, agreeing to the recurring charge did not entail having to collect additional information.
Even experiential marketing campaigns that do not ingeniously have customers willingly provide credit card information still receive personal information – names, addresses, email, etc., JetBlue, Heineken and Lean Cuisine among them. With customer data harder and harder to come by thanks to GDPR, CCPA, the loss of third-party cookies and a deepening mistrust, experiential marketing helps bridge the widening gap.
Experiential marketing counters consumer mistrust by changing the formula of a brand retrieving consumer data for the purposes of selling a product. Instead, when consumers engage with experiential marketing, they tacitly acknowledge that the experience is relevant: it encapsulates a personal trait, a goal, a desire. The Heineken campaign, for example, played on consumers’ sense of adventure and spontaneity. The personal data that is provided is a reward for the branded experience controlled by the consumer.
Experiential Marketing and Competing on CX
There are many similarities between experiential marketing campaigns and the growing trend of consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies opening direct to consumer (DTC) channels. Both aim to retrieve consumer data in unconventional ways, and both aim to reshape brand perception.
While there are distinctions – the actual experience in experiential marketing chief among them – they’re really just different sides of the same coin, which is that brands are now competing on customer experience (CX). A McKinsey study published in June identified “dynamic customer insights” as one of three pillars that will define customer experience in the post-pandemic era, along with digital excellence and safe, contactless engagement.
Experiential marketing accomplishes much of what’s needed to compete on CX by providing a differentiated customer experience, while also collecting personal data and insight about what’s important to a customer. Certain industries, like travel, are leaning heavily into experiential marketing. By tying consumers’ perception of a brand to experience rather than price and product, brands have a foundation for building on a positive image with subsequent interactions that are personalized and relevant to an individual customer’s preferences and behaviors.
Experiential marketing provides brands with an important head start in competing on customer experience because, at its core, the exercise invites customers to judge the brand on the experience that’s provided. By completely changing the dynamic about what it means to engage with a brand, experiential marketing empowers consumers to begin to shape their journey with a brand. The differentiated customer experience sets the tone, putting competitors on notice that a brand will not take a back seat when it comes to competing on experience.