The year is 1997. You are probably using Lycos or Yahoo as your preferred search engine (Google is yet to exist), and the Internet is on the verge of transforming all areas of marketing forever.
While brands focused on nurturing audience advocacy back then, analogue tactics meant small audiences experienced more but the impact rarely reached anyone beyond the event’s four walls. Such experiences were a broadcast medium for brands and a must-attend event in the annual calendar for consumers as they promised information that couldn’t be attained elsewhere. "There was a structure and a rhythm to people’s lives, and to their communication channels. News came from the morning paper, with a recap via the TV in the evening," remembers Michael Wyrley-Birch, chief operating officer, EMEA, of TRO.
However, all this was set to change.
The digital and technological age
With the Internet came a boom in technology and the emergence of new communication channels, allowing marketers to tap into the mind and voice of the consumer more easily.
Real change arrived with increased connectivity, says Ben Atherton, client director of technology at WRG. He explains: "The near ubiquitous ownership of smart mobile devices, generous data plans and, more importantly, apps has driven an inevitable desire to connect tech, audiences and experiences. Forgetting devices for a moment, tech is simply the enabler that has allowed a greater democratisation of a brand’s content – it’s more accessible, easier to engage with, easier to share and comment on."
Human behaviour began to change rapidly as a consequence, says Kim Myhre, senior vice president International at FreemanXP. "Today, we have greater access to information, everything is much more immediate, we share our experiences and have shorter attention spans. We watch TV with multiple screens in front of us and are more selective over the information we consume. It is easy to navigate away from things we are bored by, such as advertising."
The shift in consumer behaviour has had a lot to do with how experiential has evolved. "As news and information is consumed in real-time and on the go, we expect the content to be dynamic," says Wyrley-Birch. "As a result, the nature of experiential has changed – it is far more about the immediacy of something."
While guerilla marketing, trade shows, hospitality events and pop-ups have a place, experiences have become more immersive and strategic. "There is no question that interactive, participatory events with bite-sized content that is relevant, beneficial and entertaining, leads to deeper audience engagement," adds Wyrley-Birch.
Myhre agrees: "New models involve participation. Some 18 years ago, events were a broadcast medium. It was about getting as many people into a room as possible to talk at them. Today, it doesn’t fly. The stage representation is becoming obsolete. Events are no longer constrained by the barriers of time and space. Activities before, during and and after an event can be broadcast beyond its walls.
"Brands realise that by putting products in people’s hands and by creating experiences that are meaningful and inspiring, it engages audiences and helps them to build an affinity with a brand. This makes them better customers and potentially brands advocates."
The impact of reality TV
Big Brother, The X-Factor and the abundance of reality TV shows in the last decade have played their part in the evolution of experiential. Wyrley-Birch says: "Reality TV has had a huge impact. Its unplugged nature appeals. Audiences don’t need a formulaic, almost parental way of communicating to them. Consumers want authenticity. They will not listen to what a brand has to say. Instead, they will read online reviews that enable them to make up their own minds. They want to decide who they believe and trust."
Coming of age
This is all good news for experiential. In 18 years, the industry has got bigger, stronger, more knowledgeable and has become much more widely recognised as a marketing discipline in its own right. RPM’s managing director Dom Robertson explains: "In the past, experiential possibly wasn’t considered in a brand’s communications strategy. It was seen as very event- or sampling-led – it felt like it was a tactic. However, over the past six years, it has very much been understood and recognised as a key part of the communications platform."
Stuart Bradbury, managing director of Avantgarde, believes the power of experiential has placed it at the heart of the marketing mix. He says: "Experiential has been moving towards becoming a mainstream marketing platform. We’re all bombarded with messages all the time, but the most powerful way a marketer can communicate to their target audience is by getting them to remember something, by doing it face to face and creating an experience that the consumer wants to be part of and wants to pass on to other people."
In fact, social media amplification alone can provide a 365-day global opportunity for brands beyond their events, which pushes the events industry into the realms of advertising.
The emergence of a global audience has changed experiential marketing too. There is far more integration between markets as the differences are not as pronounced as before.
Kate Marriage, European experiential marketing manager of Spotify, takes a global approach to experiential. She says: "We're focused on maintaining a coherent brand identity across all our activity globally, while creating scaleable digital to live experiences that all markets can make use of at a local level.
"We've created some great activations that are activated around experiential but lead directly back to Spotify via mobile. The nature of Spotify means we're able to build instant, personalised playlists relevant to events and festivals we partner with."
As for the near future, big data is consistently pegged as the game changer for many industries, and experiential is no exception. Data allows marketers to know their audiences inside-out and to create tailored, personalised experiences that cut through media clutter. "The marketers that are analysing big data will be the big winners in the future," predicts Myhre.
However, despite the huge potential of big data, the future isn’t challenge-free. Experiential is at the "teenage stage and needs to mature" says Wyrley-Birch. "The art of engagement needs to become more scientific and data-focused. Most businesses have their own measurement tools, but the industry has not collectively agreed on what to measure and how to measure it. There needs to be a standardisation across the industry, as there is in France, for experiential to become an accountable marketing discipline."
Whatever the future holds, one thing is for sure. Continuing changes in behaviour will continue to challenge traditional thinking of experiential marketing. Alec Braun, managing director of Slice, envisions the sector in 2033 – 18 years from now. "Bio-technology will replace the immediacy of today’s physical technology with ‘always-on’ people.
"People will live in a world of utter connectivity. Anything from homes to vehicles will all respond to the needs of the consumer. Mobile, social and digital will have combined and evolved to simply be personal. And in a connected personal world experiential will reign supreme as the channel for brands to stand out from the competition. Bring it on."
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