Blog: Experiential - The 2016 version

We've all read about mobile, VR, CSR and 360 video, but what are the really new and exciting undercurrents starting to create ripples in the brand experience pool? Regular Event blogger Alex Smith, from Sense, picks his top three.

Smith discusses three, not so obvious, trends for the new year and beyond
Smith discusses three, not so obvious, trends for the new year and beyond

Another year, another trends piece. Another opportunity to read about how this will be the year for mobile (again), how consumers will (finally) embrace VR, and how video is back (if it ever went away).

That’s the problem with these trends pieces – trends are gradually moving cultural shifts, which don’t subscribe to a 12-month schedule, so no wonder we get a whiff of déjà vu every January when they roll around. 

For this reason, I could happily repeat my 2015 predictions. Brands’ marketing will continue to merge with their CSR programmes, experiences will continue to become more permanent and less campaign-based, and it’s going to continue to become increasingly hard to tell the difference between marketing and product launches. However, it would be remiss not to include something new, so here are three trends which might not be ‘the’ macro trends of 2016, but they are fresh, and so can happily be added to the pile for the next decade. 

Experiential businesses

In London, there is one cat café (if you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s basically a café, but with cats in it) – Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium. I was horrified to discover, about this time last year, that to go there for a cup of tea required a booking 50 days in advance. There is a limit to even my cat enthusiasm.

A few months later I was not surprised to learn that someone was planning on opening a - now cancelled - ‘fox café’, which inevitably had run-up a waiting list of thousands.

There’s a pretty clear lesson here. If you’re planning on opening a nice normal café, what are you thinking? There is a ravenous demand, particularly in post-ironic hyper-developed urban locations, for businesses that are highly conceptual. Among the board game bars and cereal cafés, we’re going to see this trend pour into all manner of businesses – especially the service ones. Opening up a dry cleaners? Your staff had better, at the very least, be naked or something.

The benefits of such businesses are pretty clear – their concept is their own advertising. They do, however, present a challenge to purveyors of ‘brand experiences’. Formerly, these kinds of concepts were the realm of ‘stunts’, where brands could ‘go crazy’ without infringing on their core, ‘serious’ business. Now that such businesses are normalising such concepts, stunts suddenly don’t seem so stuntish anymore. 

If you’ve got the freedom of a marketing budget behind you, you’d better be planning something special.

Remote experiences

A particular foible of brand experience professionals is their belief that an experience needs to be closely managed in order for it to be fun – kind of like an over-zealous children’s party organiser. The truth, as we’ve seen it develop for some time, is that often the greatest experiences are quite hands-off, with the recipient left to enjoy them on their own terms.

This year, this hands-off quality is going to reach another level, with brands devising experiences that punters can enjoy far away from their meddling influence, even in their own offices and living rooms. A great example of this was Volvo’s cheeky Super Bowl strategy.

Rather than dropping millions on an actual ad slot, they announced that any time a commercial for another car was broadcast, people could tweet #VolvoContest in order to win a car for a loved one.

This experience was neither housed on TV or on Twitter, but in living rooms around the country. It reached out of the media channels to have a life of its own through people’s amusement at the brand’s cheek, and their discussions of it.

The trend was also evident in the WWF’s Dark Tickets idea. To celebrate Earth Hour (where we’re all meant to turn off our electrics), they live-streamed a concert – viewable only if your lights were turned off. Webcams gauged the light in the watching room, and blocked or released the content accordingly.

This remote form of experience is a new territory for experiential. Effective ideas of this shape are tricky to come up with – but if you can, you’ll open up an uncharted level of reach and virality for experience-based marketing.


A general advertising one here. There was really only one seismic event that happened in the industry in 2015 – the Protein World saga, with its Are You Beach Body Ready? campaign. Whenever something like this happens, it changes the ground beneath our feet, and as such there must be lessons – and trends – to be gleaned from it.

The (accidental) genius of that campaign was this: it gained its traction from brand enemies rather than brand fans. 

With the possible exception of charities and public health campaigns, brands have always been at pains to be ‘positive’ in their campaigns. To be nice. To not leave anyone out. Have we not all been in client meetings where the most innocuous element of an idea has been picked over and diluted in this way? "I know our target audience is teens, but we don’t want to alienate octogenarians." 

Such a viewpoint has always been a bit misguided. Fundamentally, your product is for some people and not for others. The brands that have more crystallised and specific identities are the ones that make a mark on culture. 

What Protein World did was take this truism and prove it in the most extreme way possible. It didn’t only alienate people with its social media responses – it actively tried to. The result was of course no sales from its ‘enemies’, but massively increased sales from its fans.

This example has opened brands up to a whole new strategic world: attack marketing. If you sit on a particular side of an argument with your brand positioning (as many brands do), you identify not your target market, but your anti-market, and go on the offensive. For instance can you imagine a Pepperami anti-vegetarian campaign? 

Such an approach is of course tonally challenging, and only appropriate for certain brands – but those with the bravery to adopt it will get unparalleled traction (bad news is more interesting than good news right?), and will gain real fans.

Comment below to let us know what you think.

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