There are two ways to communicate: through abstraction and through experience. Both techniques are commonplace in the world of marketing.
If I want to communicate that my product tastes good, I could create an ad that says so hoping you believe it (abstraction), or I could engineer some scenario where you actually taste it and come to that realisation for yourself (experience).
As media has come to be increasingly reality focused, through everything from reality TV to social channels to documentary cinema, the public’s taste has dramatically skewed to favour experience over abstraction, and naturally this has caught the savvy marketer’s eye.
Ed Pilkington, marketing and innovation director of Diageo, recently penned a piece explaining that marketers "need to put amazing brand experiences at the heart of our strategies".
On the face of it, sure, who wouldn’t agree with that? However he went on to raise a critical issue.
As a marketer in charge of largely FMCG products, he noted how these kinds of brands have far less capacity to create meaningful experiences than those with retail space. The canvas for a beer brand compared to, say, a fashion brand, is almost non-existent.
We see this reflected in global brand power. In Forbes’ list of the world’s 20 most powerful brands only one, Coca-Cola, could be classed as FMCG, and by contrast 12 have access to some sort of retail space. This demonstrates the power of experience, as well as FMCG brand’s trouble with it.
So what can they do? What is the solution for those who don’t have the luxury of a lavish store front or drawn-out purchase cycle to pepper with experiences? They have to create their own canvas. Here are three techniques to do just that.
1. Create behaviour
It’s crucial for FMCG brands to recognise that great experiences don’t need a human representative of their brand present. People, normal people, create their own brand experiences all the time.
Alcohol is a particularly rich sector for this phenomenon. The most intriguing example arose a decade ago on American college campuses with Smirnoff ‘Icing’. The perceived naffness of Smirnoff Ice was ironically co-opted to create a game whereby any ‘Ice’ left creatively for an unsuspecting victim to find (in a handbag, baked in a cake, whatever) had to be immediately downed by said victim unless they could brandish a further Ice to "block" their "icing". Naturally, this behaviour wasn’t created by the brand, but is still a rich (if mocking) brand experience.
However, there are plenty of examples where the brand was the author.
Pilkington’s own Pimm’s is a master of this, always prepared with great ceremony and typically only drunk on joyous summer occasions, rendering almost every sip a brand experience in itself. Elsewhere we see similar behaviour creation with the Hendrick’s Gin teapots and the lime in the neck of a Corona.
Building specific behaviours and rituals around your brand is tough and ambitious, but can be the cheapest and most culturally relevant way to foster brand experience.
2. Create assets
The most obvious way to take control of your brand experience, if you don’t have any face-to-face occasions to exploit, is naturally to create them.
This is the Red Bull strategy. Despite being a standard FMCG product, Red Bull creates an incredible number of brand-owned retail opportunities across a bewildering variety of consumer occasions. These run from their student ambassador program right thorough to lavish brand-owned events, like the Air Race, where they can indulge their every experience whim.
Thanks to this people generally ‘get’ what it’s like to deal with Red Bull, just like they do with retail brands – but certainly don’t with their competitors.
3. Take responsibility
The most progressive and forward thinking way for an FMCG brand to create brand experience is to fundamentally rethink what its business is.
Most brands perceive their core ‘product’, the ‘thing they sell’, to be the business they’re in. Pedigree is in the dog food business, for example, with Chum, Kit-Kat is in the chocolate biscuit business, and so on.
This perspective severely limits these brand’s opportunities to take meaningful real-world actions – the cornerstone of brand experience.
The perspective they should be taking is one that defines their product as the end result of what they sell, rather than the thing itself. For Pedigree for instance, this would be dog welfare. For Kit-Kat, break time.
When these brands recalibrate their focus in this way, they suddenly have an amazing canvas upon which to build experience. Pedigree could ‘own’ the dog welfare space by sponsoring dog obedience centres, dog homes, etc, and why not even lampposts!
Meanwhile, Kit-Kat could own the short break through branded public seating – more comfortable designs, consideration of locations with good views, convenience, better maintenance, etc, basically becoming the public bench lobby. In this way, surely Virgin Active, BUPA or even FedEx would be more appropriate sponsors of Boris Bikes than a bank, as this would build the brands’ worth, character and authenticity.
As soon as FMCG brands realise that their place in this world isn’t on the supermarket shelf, but instead is in people’s lives, the possibilities become limitless.
Alex Smith is planning director at real world marketing agency Sense.
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