Public Purpose: Why Brands Should Embrace Experiential Marketing

By Tania Hew
September 2nd, 2014


More brands are putting purpose before product and are turning to experiential marketing to spread the message. In her latest think piece, marketing consultant Tania Hew shows the ROI of IRL.

Red Bull Stratos may have been the knockout media event of recent memory for Red Bull, but don’t underestimate the success of its humbler and dorkier grandparent, the Red Bull Flugtag.

The Flugtag is an annual open competition inviting anyone over the age of 18 to build a human-powered flying contraption and launch it off a pier. Points are awarded for distance, creativity and showmanship, and the wipeouts are epic.

Some might dismiss Flugtag as just another gimmicky summer contest. But Red Bull knows better. Dating back to 1992, it’s the brand’s original experiential marketing campaign, and it’s getting bigger each year.

Experiential marketing – essentially brand messaging people can physically interact with – predates television. Leading experience marketing agency George P. Johnson has been around since 1914. But lately brands of all stripes have been growing their experiential marketing budgets.

Last year, spend in the category increased by nearly five percent, twice that for brands with more than $1 billion in total revenue, according to Event Marketing Institute.

So why are brands jumping on the experiential bandwagon?

It’s purposeful

Today’s smartest brands aren’t marketing themselves; they’re championing a purpose. It’s why Red Bull organizes events instead of only sponsoring them, and it’s why Converse creates recording studios instead of only television ads. Brands that take this principle to heart also tend to have successful experiential campaigns.

Just ask Converse CMO Geoff Cottril, the man behind Converse’s Rubber Tracks Studio. After discovering that young creative people compose the core of Converse’s consumer demographic, Cottril convinced the brand to partner with agency Cornerstone to build a recording studio in Brooklyn. Artists could apply and use the space for free, no strings attached.

“Our hypothesis from the beginning was, do something really good for your core consumer, don’t ask anything in return, and watch what happens,” said Cottril at the 2013 Forbes CMO Summit.

Since the launch of Rubber Tracks, Converse’s Facebook fan base has grown from 6 million to 40 million, making it the third most popular Page on the network.

Meanwhile its Rubber Tracks initiative has expanded into a thriving, global brand of its own. Just last month Converse launched a successful festival in Sao Paulo Brazil under the Rubber Tracks brand.

As Cottril recently told Adage, “No advertising campaign will get you the kind of credibility that a meaningful experience will.”

It’s targeted

Offline events can be extremely targeted but reach can be minimal, which is why it’s no coincidence that experiential marketing is becoming more popular as social media matures.

“The modern ecosystem of marketing is the interplay between experiential and digital. There’s been a lot of attention put on digital but less so on experiential,” says experiential marketing vet, Max Lenderman. Brands that understand that experiences are, as Lederman says, “the conduit that allows people to engage digitally,” are doing very, very well.

Take Ford India. Before the launch of its new EcoSport SUV, Ford India gave 150 experts and media professionals the opportunity to test-drive the vehicle for two weeks.

Then the company targeted one hundred influencers and offered them the chance to drive an EcoSport, with the promise that one among them would win the car at the end of the campaign period.

In return, the influencers were asked to share their experiences via social media each time they discovered a remarkable spot in their cities. Within a few months of its launch, the company had 60,000 bookings.

The campaign ended up being one of the few shining lights in what was one of the worst years in a decade for the Indian automobile market, and Ford was recognized as one of the top five automobile brands of the year, according to India’s Business Standard.

The Ford EcoSport Urban Discovery contest invited social media influencers to test drive the car and blog about their experiences.

The Ford EcoSport Urban Discovery contest invited social media influencers to test drive the car and blog about their experiences.

It doesn’t have to break the bank

Like any form of branded content, measuring the value of experiential campaigns is a convoluted exercise. Which metric matters most? Should brands care more about return on engagement than dollars spent?

For Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, CMO at American Express, the brand’s groundbreaking experiential campaign Small Business Saturday isn’t about ROI. Instead, she says, “You have to be true to the principles over time.”

For Converses’ Geoff Cottril, the investment in Rubber Tracks was minimal and worth it: “We gave up one good six week run of TV ads to run a studio for five years. A little money can go a long way towards changing people’s lives and creating brand advocates at the same time.”

Ted Sabarese, the man behind a slew of recent experiential marketing successes by yogurt brand Chobani, agrees, telling Adage, “From a financial perspective, if we can do a great experience that touches consumers, we can achieve comparable results to other types of advertising at a fraction of the cost.”

Still, not all campaigns will achieve expected results and a poorly executed campaign can have the reverse effect – attracting negative media coverage or none at all.

American Express has invested heavily in Small Business Saturday, which operates on arms length from the brand. Image via Facebook.

American Express has invested heavily in Small Business Saturday, which operates at an arms length from the brand. Image via Facebook.

It works

For Matt Walsh, executive experience director at Crispin Porter and Bogusky, forging personal connections is what experiential marketing is all about: “Once you start to have shared experiences, you make a mental connection. You put a face to the company. It becomes unbelievably powerful,” he said in Forbes.

And there’s plenty of data to back him up. A 2012 survey from global brand experience agency Jack Morton found that 79 percent of American customers “only advocate brands when [they] have had great personal experiences with them.”

The book Marketing Metrics shows the probability of selling to an existing customer is 60 to 70 percent, while the probability of selling to a new prospect is much lower, hovering around five to 20 percent.

Research published in Psychology Today found positive feelings for a brand have far greater influence on loyalty than trust and other judgments, which are based on a brand’s attributes.

In short, brands that embrace a purpose and invest in experiences that serve it are the same ones we’ll be following on Twitter and watching on the news. As experiential pioneer and Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz, put it: “If our results or activities are worth reporting, you will read about them.”

Tell us about your favourite experiential campaigns in the comments below.

About the Author

  • Tania Hew holds an MBA from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School and a B.Sc. in Computer Science from Ryerson University in Toronto. She currently works as a Marketing Consultant & Web Developer for individuals and businesses.