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How US and UK perceptions of experiential are converging

It’s no secret – the past 16 months have been tough for experiential agencies. So, it’s thrilling to see live brand experiences bouncing back strongly. It’s also important to acknowledge and applaud the innovation we’ve seen during this time, fast-tracking industry progress and stretching the possibilities for brands, beyond what might have seemed possible pre-pandemic. The brand experience landscape is forever changed. As are the perceptions of it.

What does this mean for the future of experiential? What is the impact in terms of how brands (and which brands) are using the discipline, and how and why does this differ by market? Starting with those at the forefront; the US and UK.

The omni-channel mindset

Before the pandemic, US brands were more inclined than their UK counterparts to view experiential campaigns with an open, omni-channel mindset, looking to their agencies to create engaging experiences, regardless of the channel and developing more integrated activities. This forward-thinking “format-free” approach was not being embraced in the UK to the same extent.

Agencies could often be siloed or selected for their “specialisms”, and briefs were often more prescriptive, at times stifling the creative possibilities. The same brand types would incorporate brand experiences into their annual plans in the UK, in a somewhat formulaic style. While several of these brands remain on the experiential sidelines, we’re seeing the challengers stepping forward, with a more flexible, open-minded approach. Fully embracing the lull, or lethargy, from their big-brand competitors.

As US brands emerge into the recovery, it seems their hunger for this free-thinking approach has grown, as is their reliance and trust in their agencies to advise on the best and most appropriate approach.

Increasingly and refreshingly, brands are supplying briefs with no specific format in mind for their activation, willing to let the agency lead on how best to engage the target audience to meet campaign objectives. Idea first – execution second.

A cautious return

An activation for Henkel brand Zotos Professional (ZP) started out as a more traditional brand experience brief in a live environment, but evolved into a purely digital campaign, in order to deliver the best, most relevant and engaging experience for the audience in question. ZP was comfortable with the shift in format, so long as the integrity of the idea was maintained. It is one of a number of post-pandemic US activations being digitally led.

Indeed, the term “hybrid” appears to be the new normal, with agencies now able to offer clients the best of what went before, while also drawing on the innovation seen during the pandemic to amplify and deepen experiences. Live activations have a live-stream element. Digital is booming.

Brands are understandably cautious, so it makes sense that they’re leaning towards digital/virtual activations, but with more live elements being built into the mix than was the case a few months back. In this way, digital technology is helping to accelerate the experiential revival in the US.

There’s been a similar, if slightly more cautious, return to brand experiences in the UK, but in a more traditional way, with touring activations across the country still popular to reach consumers nationwide, rather than digital amplification.

However, there are signs that UK brands are taking a broader view. A recent survey of about 100 brand marketers found that 91% felt brand experience didn’t just have to mean live, which is unlikely to have been the case 16 months ago. So it appears that brands are starting to open their eyes to other forms of activation and potentially looking to their brand experience agencies to offer this range of options – just not as enthusiastically as in the US.

The contrast could well be due to the sheer scale of the US compared with the UK, forcing brands and agencies to explore efficient ways to achieve reach for the experiences they create, making PR-able stunts and campaigns with a social or digital aspect more typical.

However, by embracing a hybrid, omni-channel future, the UK will not only be able to rise to consumers’ hunger for experiences, but also deliver more effective activations that also acknowledge the acceleration of digital technology that’s taken place during the pandemic.

The future of experiential

It’s telling that YouGov’s tracker informs us that “boredom” and “frustration” are the strongest emotions currently felt by the British people, replacing “stressed” and “scared”.

Brands can meet this demand with exciting, engaging activations delivered in the most appropriate way, not only with respect to health and safety restrictions but also reflecting where the audience is and what they want to do, embracing digital technology and social media to build engaged communities united through experience.

US brands are setting the pace in this new world of experiential and, as if often the case, we foresee a similar trend emerging in the UK.

Sarah Priestman is President at Sense New York, and Nick Adams is Global CEO of Sense.

This article first appeared in Campaign Magazine, July 21st 2021.

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The future of the airport experience must be extraordinary and experiential

Evolution is a slow process. Although the world around us changes rapidly, human beings remain relatively unchanged. Our hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, wills and won’ts are fundamentally the same as they were thousands of years ago. The marketing world often forgets this. We can’t resist the next big thing – the must-use platform or the glitzy new gadget. We forget the fundamentals of what makes people tick.

When looking to grow a brand, rather than worry about TikTok or blockchain or cryptocurrency, think first about the golden rule of business – how can we provide a good customer experience?

Take Apple, for example. On May 19, 2001, the first Apple store opened in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The idea of a tech company launching a physical retail space was seen by many as a huge risk, with Businessweek even commenting, “Maybe it’s time Steve Jobs stopped thinking quite so differently”.

Some 17 years later, Apple launched its 500th store in Seoul, South Korea. Apple is now as much a retail brand as it is a tech company. What opportunity did it see that so many others missed?

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back towards the technology – not the other way around,” said Steve Jobs.

Apple understood the value in providing its customers with an amazing experience. Enough was enough. The previous model of watching commission-hungry sales people push their products in drab surroundings was no longer good enough. The company needed to go to extraordinary lengths to provide a better experience for prospective and existing customers. The investment was worth it. The gamble paid off.

The American Society for Quality conducted a survey on customer loyalty. One question asked why companies lose customers:

  • Customer influenced by friends – 5%.
  • Customer lured away by competition – 9%.
  • Customer dissatisfied by product – 14%.
  • Customer turned away by attitude of indifference by the provider – 68%.

The results are significant. The retail experience provided by frontline staff is nearly eight times more important in maintaining customer loyalty than the actions of a company’s competitors.

A study by PwC told a similar story. Their research showed 85% of brand opinion is driven by everyday interactions with the brand; only 15% is driven by traditional comms. Put simply, the frontline of a business matters. Like Apple, companies willing to go the extra mile to make the experience on their frontlines extraordinary tend to succeed.

An experiential future
We are living through a period of rapid change for customer experience. For thousands of years, all business was conducted face-to-face. However, the last 100 years has seen the development of a vast array of new technologies, which have divided most company’s frontline. People can now connect with businesses via their phones or emails, social networks or chatbots. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the uptake of several new technologies that puts even greater pressure on face-to-face experiences.

Why go into a bank when I can speak to an advisor over Zoom?
Why go to the cinema when I can watch a film on Netflix?
Why go to the shops when I can buy an outfit at the click of a button?

The answer to these questions is the same as the one Apple gave us when it launched its first store 20 years ago: Extraordinary experiences drive an extraordinary level of customer loyalty and advocacy.

While nobody is doubting the unparalleled level of convenience digital experiences provide, there is nothing quite like the immersive power of experiencing something in real life. It is for this reason we are seeing, and will continue to see after the pandemic, more and more physical spaces investing in delivering an amazing experience on their frontlines.

A brand does not have to build an entire store like Apple to improve their customer experience – this can simply mean augmenting existing touchpoints to become more experiential.

In a world where 81% of people choose brands based on recommendations, according to Brand Love, businesses will need to unlock the potential of turning their existing customer base into their marketing department. The best advert of all is a satisfied customer who spreads the word.

Rather than fear digital technology, physical experiences should use it as a reference point. Businesses should ask themselves what value digital provides in their field and then look to provide a different experiential value with their physical touchpoints.

For a retail brand, digital technology provides amazing speed of purchase. A physical retail space should provide the opposite: a slower experience where customers can browse, try on the clothes, and be immersed in the brand’s identity.

For an entertainment brand, digital technology keeps us amused in the comfort of our own homes. A physical space, such as a theme park or an exhibit, should leverage everything we can’t do from our sofas: move us around, create an active and invigorating space where we experience and learn with all five of our senses.

The past few years have seen wonderful experiential innovation within airports as brands look to provide something different to the digital world:

Luton Airport – Christmas Activation Airport Experience
In the peak of Christmas holiday season, enhancing the traveler experience is high on Luton Airport’s agenda. In 2018, the airport created a package of seasonal treats including entertainment, children’s activities and themed Santa’s Helpers strategically positioned during the land-to-airside customer journey. The airport also had the world’s first Christmas lightshow featuring an A320, from easyJet, which was wrapped in Christmas lights.

Qantas – Frequent Flyer Pop-Up
In 2019, Qantas opened its first pop-up store, the Frequent Flyer Rewards Room, at Melbourne Airport’s domestic Terminal One. Members could shop a range of popular items in-store, such as Bose’s noise canceling headphones and the latest Fitbit and Lego sets, and earn 100 Qantas points just by walking into the store and providing their frequent flyer details.

Denver International Airport – Ice Rink
To raise spirits during the Christmas travel rush, Denver International Airport has an ice rink in their open-air plaza. Travelers can use the rink free of charge. The ice rink has previously hosted several special events including a movie screening of ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ and an ugly sweater party.

How can brands leverage the experiential future of customer experience?
There are three key components brands should consider when improving their customer experience:

  1. Audience – a brand should conduct research into its customer base to understand what they consider a good experience and what they want when interacting with the company’s frontline. So much of good strategy comes from the simple act of listening.
  2. Brand proposition – a brand should consider what it uniquely stands for in its market. For example, if a brand is the most luxurious company in the category, its experiences should continue to provide more luxury. If the brand stands for health, it should create experiences that help people become healthier.
  3. Touchpoints – finally, a brand should map its entire frontline to work out which touchpoints could become more experiential. Maybe it’s the home delivery, the in-store experience or customer service desk? Mapping out the frontline of a business helps to identify gaps that need improving.

The combination of these three considerations should allow any brand to create experiential customer experiences.

The next 12 months
As we move through 2021 and into 2022, it is likely the world will slowly begin to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. And it is likely consumers will rush back to real world experiences when possible.

The balance between our physical and digital lives will be restored. The challenge for brands is ensuring their frontlines are extraordinary enough to satisfy the raised expectations of their customers. Apple Stores show us the size of the prize for those willing to go the extra mile. The consequences for those who provide something sub-standard is customers leaving to find something remarkable.

Vaughan Edmonds is Planner at global brand experience agency Sense.

This article first appeared in Passenger Terminal Today on 23rd March 2021.

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The future retail experience must be extraordinary and experiential

Evolution is a slow process. Although the world around us changes rapidly, human beings remain relatively unchanged.

Our hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, wills and won’ts are fundamentally the same as they were thousands of years ago. The marketing world often forgets this and leaves behind the experiential. We can’t resist the next big thing – the must-use platform or the glitzy new gadget. We forget the fundamentals of what makes people tick.

When looking to grow a brand, rather than worry about Tik Tok or blockchain or cryptocurrency, think first about the golden rule of business. How can we provide a good customer experience?

On 19 May 2001, the first Apple Store opened in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. The idea of a tech company launching a physical retail space was seen by many as a huge risk.

“I give them two years before theyre turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake,” said Retail Consultant David Goldstein.

“Maybe its time Steve Jobs stopped thinking quite so differently,”  commented Business Week.

“Apples problem is it still believes the way to grow is serving caviar in a world that seems content with cheese and crackers,”  observed Joseph Graziano, ex-Apple CFO

Retail experience innovation

Some 17 years later, Apple launched its 500th store in Seoul, South Korea. Apple is now as much a retail brand as it is a tech company. What opportunity did it see that so many others missed?

“Youve got to start with the customer experience and work back towards the technology – not the other way around,” said Steve Jobs.

Apple understood the value of providing its customers with an amazing experience. Enough was enough. The previous model of watching commission-hungry salespeople push their products in drab surroundings was no longer good enough. The company needed to go to extraordinary lengths to provide a better experience for prospective and existing customers. The investment was worth it. The gamble paid off. Brand experience innovation won the day.

The American Society for Quality conducted a survey on customer loyalty. One question asked why companies lose customers:

  • Customer influenced by friends – 5%
  • Customer lured away by competition – 9%
  • Customer dissatisfied by product – 14%
  • Customer turned away by attitude of indifference by the provider – 68%

The results are significant. The experience provided by frontline staff is nearly eight times more important in maintaining customer loyalty than the actions of a company’s competitors.

A study by PwC told a similar story. The research showed 85% of brand opinion is driven by everyday interactions with the brand. Only 15% is driven by traditional comms. Put simply, the frontline of a business matters. Like Apple, companies willing to go further with their experiential platform to make the experience on their frontlines extraordinary tend to succeed.

An experiential future

We are living through a period of rapid change for customer experience. For thousands of years, all business was conducted face-to-face. However, the last 100 years have seen the development of a vast array of new technologies, which have divided most company’s frontline. People can now connect with businesses via their phones or emails, social networks, or chatbots. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has accelerated the uptake of several new technologies that puts even greater pressure on face-to-face experiences.

  • Why go into a bank when I can speak to an advisor over Zoom?
  • Why go to the cinema when I can watch a film on Netflix?
  • Why go to the shops when I can buy an outfit at the click of a button?

The answer to these questions is the same as the one Apple gave us when it launched its first store 20 years ago: Extraordinary brand experience innovation drives an extraordinary level of customer loyalty and advocacy.

While nobody is doubting the unparalleled level of convenience digital experiences provide, there is nothing quite like the immersive power of experiencing something in real life. It is, for this reason, we are seeing, and will continue to see after the pandemic, more and more physical spaces investing in delivering an amazing experience on their frontlines.

A brand does not have to build an entire store like Apple to improve their customer experience – this can simply mean augmenting existing touchpoints to become more experiential.

In a world where 81% of people choose brands based on recommendations, according to Brand Love, businesses will need to unlock the potential of turning their existing customer base into their marketing department. The best advert of all is a satisfied customer who spreads the word.

Rather than fear digital technology, physical experiences should use it as a reference point. Businesses should ask themselves what value digital provides in their field and then look to provide a different experiential value with their physical touchpoints.

For a retail brand, digital technology provides an amazing speed of purchase. A physical retail space should provide the opposite: a slower experience where customers can browse, try on the clothes, and be immersed in the brand’s identity.

For an entertainment brand, digital technology keeps us amused in the comfort of our own homes. A physical space, such as a theme park or an exhibit, should leverage everything we can’t do from our sofas: move us around, create an active and invigorating space where we experience and learn with all five of our senses.

The past few years have seen wonderful experiential innovation within the retail sector as brands look to provide something different to the digital world:

Vans – House of Vans

Situated in the former Old Vic tunnels in London, Vans has transformed the 30,000 sq ft space into a hive of cultural activity. Part skatepark, part retail space, House of Vans has become the poster child example for the experiential future of shopping.

Timberland – Best Then, Better Now

Timberland worked with renowned artist Tim Cockburn to create live ‘Best Then, Better Now’ murals in UK stores, promoting the chance for customers to personalise their Timberlands with bespoke boot art.

Charlotte Tilbury – Magic Mirrors

Charlotte Tilbury wanted to enhance the in-store experience at its flagship store in London. Customers now can access two touchscreen Magic Mirrors – fairytale-style screens allowing people to ‘try on’ each one of Tilbury’s 10 signature looks in as little as 40 seconds. No more messing around with tester pots and samples – now customers can layer on the look digitally and get a feel for what suits.

Fortnum & Mason – In-Store Events

Fortnum & Mason has a whole section of its websites dedicated to its latest in-store events. From a Glenfiddich Whiskey Distillery pop-up, where shoppers tour the famous distillery using VR technology, to the Midnight Food Hall Feast, Fortnum & Mason is using brand experience innovation in order to offer a more experiential retail experience.

How can retail brands leverage the experiential future of customer experience?

There are three key components brands should consider when improving their customer experience:

  1. Audience – a brand should conduct research into their customer base to understand what they consider a good experience and what they want when interacting with the company’s frontline. So much of good strategy comes from the simple act of listening.
  2. Brand Proposition – a brand should consider what they uniquely stand for in their market. For example, if a brand is the most luxurious company in the category, their experiences should continue to provide more luxury. If the brand stands for health, it should create experiences that help people become healthier.
  3. Touchpoints – finally, a brand should map their entire frontline to work out which touchpoints could become more experiential. Maybe it’s the home delivery, the in-store experience, or the customer service desk? Mapping out the frontline of a business helps to identify gaps that need improving.

The combination of these three considerations should allow any retail brand to create experiential customer experiences.

The next 12 months

As we move through 2021 and into 2022, it is likely the world will slowly begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s likely consumers will rush back to real-world experiences when possible. It’s a key moment for brand experience innovation.

The balance between our physical and digital lives will be restored. The challenge for retail brands is ensuring their frontlines are extraordinary enough to satisfy the raised expectations of their customers. Apple Stores show us the size of the prize for those willing to go the extra mile. The consequences for those who provide a sub-standard retail experience is customers leaving to find something remarkable.

Vaughan Edmonds is Planner at global brand experience agency Sense.

This article first appeared in Talk Retail on 19th March 2021.

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This winter is the most exciting in recent memory for brand experience innovation

Brand experience innovation is changing the immediate future for experiential and all the benefits that come with it.

Crowds: a thing of the past and a distant sniff of the future, but traditionally a magnet for brands engaging in experiential marketing.

For the past 12 months, brands have been teased with groups coming back together only to see them quickly retreat under shifting guidelines. This has made it near impossible for brands who are largely experience-fuelled to find a physical platform to connect with their audiences. Or has it?

What’s changing?

The past year has taught us a great deal about the art of brand experiences. First, it has shown us the exceptional resilience of the industry and the people within it to keep the ball rolling during troubled times.

Second, we’ve learnt that brand experiences were never really about the environments they took place within. They are about people – brands augmenting their lives to make the every day a little more exciting. Just because the people weren’t on the streets didn’t mean the show couldn’t go on for experiences.

Where is everyone?

It doesn’t take the latest in-depth webinar series to know where people have gone. It turns out we’re adaptable. Rather than turning our back on the activities that were once only possible outside our front doors, we’ve brought our favourite past times into our homes.

According to data from McKinsey, we’ve seen a global increase in intent for activities such as cooking (+54%), at-home entertainment (+40%) and home improvement (+22%). Zoom’s daily user base grew from 10 million to 200 million in the initial three months of lockdown as working away from our offices became the norm. And, according to Shopify, there has been an 18% increase in e-commerce use in the UK for products normally bought in-store as a result of Covid-19.

The challenge for brands

These changes in behaviour have created unexpected new challenges for brands. The issues range from the very broad to the very specific.

For some brands, product trial may be the cornerstone of a marketing strategy. With the dramatic reduction in footfall in environments like commuter hubs and events, these brands now face the challenge of sampling efficiently.

For other brands, engagement may be the foundation of their approach. Content only goes so far – some brands need tangible interactions rather than passive absorption.

Then there are the brands with specific problems that seem almost impossible to overcome in the current climate. For example, the market for on-the-go products bought in convenience stores between the Tube station and the office. How can we address this most specific of problems?

The solution

The good news is solutions do exist for brands with these sorts of issues. Innovation is occurring that represents the immediate future for brand experiences and all the benefits that come with it. And the past few months have seen brands from all categories focusing their attention on reaching audiences at home to great effect.

Seedlip’s latest Dry January social sampling activity used targeted Facebook and Insta ads to allow users to request a sample can, which was then delivered to their home.

Camden Hells partnered with Hello Fresh to offer a profiled audience product samples to complement meals within their weekly recipe boxes, supported by social posts.

John Lewis & Partners offered Christmas virtual crafting workshops and sponsored alcohol-tasting sessions, while Blue Bunny’s “Ice Screen” driveway movies in the US invited neighbourhoods to use social media to request a doorstep visit from the brand’s promotional truck, which turned front yards into outdoor at-home movie theatres.

The common thread here is the continued brand desire to connect with their audience while recognising behavioural and cultural shifts.

Looking to the future

Despite a turbulent few months, this winter is the most exciting in recent memory for brand experience innovation. A few brands have pioneered the “at-home experience movement”, innovation that was necessary regardless of a global pandemic.

Whether or not we are back in festival mode or swarming to city centres, brands no longer need to be driven by these environments to interact with their audiences. The opportunity to engage with consumers in their homes exists. For those willing to grab that opportunity, the chance to stand out from the crowd and drive brand advocacy is enormous.

Lou Garrod is managing director of Sense London, a global brand experience agency.

This article first appeared in Campaign Magazine on 17th February 2021.

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The art of customer retention through community building

As people struggled to stay entertained and informed while in lockdown, their media consumption exploded – and that’s not just for popular streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, but also for magazines and newspapers.

In fact, publishers have not only attracted more readers during the pandemic, they’ve also seen subscriptions boom. Bloomberg Media witnessed record subscriber numbers, with the average daily subscriber count being three times higher than usual. The New York Times subscription revenue rose 5.4% during three months in 2020, gaining a record 600,000 new digital subscribers. Major UK publisher Dennis Publishing recently reported that subscription rates across all its titles have grown by 9%. Similarly, Condé Nast has seen new subscribers in the US double, with subscription orders for UK titles up 420% compared with the same period in 2019.

As publishers contend with diminishing ad revenues, customer acquisition becomes even more vital to success. A bigger challenge is ensuring customer retention. That these new customers stick around once the world returns to some form of normality and stability, and people leave their screens behind, emerging blinking into the daylight. And, of course, this is already starting to happen in many parts of the world.

The value of subscription retention is clear, particularly when you consider that it’s four to five times cheaper to keep existing subscribers than acquiring new ones, according to research from the Financial Times.

There are several common tactics used to increase retention. New product development, pricing strategies, newsletters, events, apps and perks to name a few. These are designed to do one thing: develop a relationship between a media brand and its customers. But in the rush to attract and then lock in subscribers, those titles that look beyond traditional publishing strategies and innovate to boost reader engagement and strengthen relationships will be the winners. 

For example, the idea of community is an overlooked aspect of driving customer retention. A subscription to a magazine is a part of someone’s self-identity. Building a community of fans around this self-identity is the key to increasing loyalty and love.

Look at the support sports teams like The Chicago Bulls and Manchester United have built. Players and coaches come and go, but love for these organisations will never fade as they are at the centre of a community.

So, how can publishing brands create a community of fans? The key is driving human connection under the banner of the brand; essentially, to step off the page and into people’s lives. Taking a look outside publishing can provide key inspiration as to how to achieve this.

Some of the most successful brands in other categories have built an almost cult-like following by bringing together like-minded people under a set of shared values. Several have used this principle to drive loyalty.

Take Vans, for instance. It has built a mainstream following, but its core fans have always been in the skating and snowboarding community. To prove its support and dedication to this group, Vans has built enormous skateparks in a number of cities worldwide, coupled with annual extreme sports and music events – demonstrating it’s more than a company; it’s a way of life.

Meanwhile, in the drinks sector, BrewDog has grown one of the most engaged communities of any beer brand. From Chain Gang cycling groups and a crowdfunded hotel, to creating a TV network and selling company shares in their pubs, BrewDog has led the way in terms of customer engagement and loyalty by focusing on consumer passion points and bold creative branding.

Customer Retention Through Purpose

Right now, purpose has never been more powerful. By learning from other brands, this can provide a key way for publishers to galvanise their audiences.

For example, politics is a part of the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia’s identity. It was one of the pioneers of the Stop Funding Hate movement, which boycotts advertising on Facebook, as well as creating a text petition for Americans to lobby the government to remove all climate deniers from office. This willingness to stand up for what it believes in alienates some but fosters deep devotion from others.

From its support of Colin Kaepernick to its Running Clubs, despite being a global sports brand, Nike has always put itself at the center of its community. For example, in 2015, it collaborated with fashion brand Pigalle on the stunning renovation of a basketball court in the heart of Paris, showing its commitment to athletes in deprived communities. 

The most successful brands in the world create environments for communities to form around them, with activations and experiences playing a key role in their strategies. To boost retention, publishers should take inspiration from them and create mechanics in their marketing to bring like-minded people together under a set of shared values. It’s an opportunity to create cut through by taking the brand off of the page or the screen and into the real world.

A good example is The Texas Tribune’s tiered approach, which treats every reader who pledges ongoing support as a member, each enjoying key benefits. First-tier members gain access to behind-the-scenes insights, including Q&As with reporters, together with discounted rates and priority status at its annual festival. Those making higher donations receive invitations to exclusive experiences where they can rub shoulders with political insiders and other influential figures, as well as network with fellow community members and industry colleagues. They even get discounted rates for the Tribune’s event space.

When taking this approach, three factors are key to success: Be different – the best marketing is distinctive and genuine; be agile – keep up with and, if possible, anticipate your audience’s next move; be committed – building a loyal fan base doesn’t happen overnight.

If publishers follow these rules consistently as part of an ongoing engagement strategy, while continuing to learn from the innovative and creative approaches of other brands, their loyal audience community will start to grow. Customer retention will happen naturally, and they will not only retain subscribers, but also capture more, helping overcome falling advertising revenues and driving future success.

Hayley James is Vice President at global brand experience agency Sense New York.

This article first appeared in What’s New In Publishing.

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Experiential. Neither dead nor forgotten, but redefined

It wasn’t long ago that experiential marketing was hailed the future for most industries… but since the Covid-19 crisis, experiential is facing a seismic shift with many questioning its ability to bounce back and its place in the marketing mix.

This has led to a dizzying use of the word ‘pivot’ and multiple brainstorms debating, “how will we use [insert latest hot new ephemeral geo-fenced live-streaming video social platform]?” 

This kind of thinking could be true of experiential if you define it as a marketing channel that only serves up virtual events – or face-to-face experiences, such as events, conferences, pop-ups, sampling and so on.

However, experiential marketing is in fact a whole lot more than that. It is a technique that represents the absence of channel. It’s format-free – designed to be disruptive, relevant, and inspiring – meaning the creative opportunities are truly endless.

Experiential Marketing Campaigns During The Pandemic

Since the start of the pandemic, communities worldwide have been applying this experiential technique on a grassroots level, with incredibly creative results. We’ve seen numerous drive-in raves, neighbors in Ireland enjoyed projected movie screenings together, artists have been leaving rainbow benches across London, and florist, Lewis Miller, thanked healthcare workers through flower flashes in New York.

Experiential activation for brands is about adding color to somebody’s day. About truly standing out and resonating in a way that a 2D experience often cannot. It’s when a brand becomes human, feels empathy, uses humor, and says it how it really is. Something, no doubt, that we’re all craving right now.

An experiential moment with a brand can take place in many forms. It’s walking into an Apple store that’s designed to feel like a ‘town square’. It’s Patagonia telling you not to buy their jacket to help tackle the issue of consumerism. It’s Purina creating interactive billboards that scans canine urine for diseases. It’s the Nike x Pigalle technicolor basketball court that brightens up an otherwise grey street. It’s Google’s AR experience that tells stories of the Stonewall Riots. More recently, it’s Trojan’s recent ‘Rising Time’ cookbook which is designed to spark passion during the lockdown, and Burger King encouraging people to use their billboards as Zoom backdrops for money off coupons.

In June, we saw Babe Wine take to the streets of Brooklyn, with their baby pink socially distanced truck, offering free manicures to New Yorkers – and much welcomed TLC. The founder, Josh Ostovsky – the man behind the popular Instagram account “The Fat Jewish” – came up with the idea. It was designed to be a one-off experience, but the brand is now brainstorming additional locations, due to the huge amount of PR and social traction received – and lines seen around the block. This proves the huge demand for safe, real-world experiences and is hopefully a sign of what’s to come from brands.

Experiential digital moments have undoubtedly served us well these last few months and will continue to do so in the future. However, as people step back into the real world, brands should relish this chance to deliver unique creative moments to capture the hearts and minds of those craving life beyond the screen.

Taking this on board, the approach to briefing for great experiential ideas is this:

  • Keep the brief focused on the business problem – stay media neutral and avoid getting prescriptive 
  • Ask heretical questions about your brand and business challenge. Encourage your team to be brave and open-minded to do the same. Instil the mentality that no idea is a bad idea
  • Seek out productive tension. Tension makes people pay attention, especially in today’s crowded market. In a tedious world of routine, it pays to be different    
  • Never be afraid to think big and push the boundaries. Experiential is meant to leave a lasting impression so constantly test yourself, your team and the limits of your creativity
  • Analog and digital are not concepts that should be considered in a dichotomized way. They must and should coexist
  • Be agile. The future belongs to the fast

For brands looking to cut through and build relationships in this ever-changing world, the brand experience marketing agency must not forget that experience is everything.

Experiential needs a more holistic treatment to reveal its full potential. It’s isn’t dead, it’s just being redefined.

This article first appeared in Campaign US and UK.

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The COVID Divide

Over the past few months, COVID-19 has been described as the ‘great leveller’. Although many have debunked this label due to the virus’s disproportionate impact on certain communities, the idea that we’ve all been impacted in the same way has led to a lack of nuance in the way brands have approached their recent comms. 

Put simply, some brands have failed to consider their audience or their product when planning their brand communication in response to COVID-19. We have all seen the generic ads. The tinkling of a piano, the smiling faces on Zoom, the ‘unprecedented times.’ This approach lacks empathy at best and is boring at worst, the cardinal sin for marketing. 

COVID-19 Considerations For Brand Communication

Research undertaken by The Futures Lab paints a different picture regarding the differences in attitudes towards COVID-19. Take age as an example. There are stark differences in opinions towards COVID-19 in those aged under 45 years old versus those over 45. The following statistics are taken from YouGov and represent statistically significant differences between demographics:

  • 19% of under 45s say they are not coping well with the current situation compared to 8% of over 45s
  • 51% of under 45s are worried about their financial situation compared to 42% of over 45s

There are differences between the attitudes of men and women also:

  • 76% of women describe themselves as worried about their family’s health compared to 65% of men
  • 45% of men say they are not scared of COVID-19 compared to 30% of women

And differences between social groups:

  • 39% of ABC1 are not worried about losing their job compared to 30% of C2DE

It is simply not true to assume all people have been impacted by COVID-19 in the same way. It is essential for brands to consider this when planning their next steps. The short term is over. The time has come for long-term thinking. There are big opportunities for those who embrace the nuance and connect with consumers in a more targeted, personal, authentic way.

As we emerge from lockdown, while the average person may still be hesitant to venture out, younger demographics are desperate to return to the social environments. This provides a great opportunity for brands to connect more deeply with their audience by pioneering the return of experiential marketing and in-person experiences with the appropriate social distancing and sanitisation measures in place. When it comes to marketing, it is always good to be distinctive. However, for some brands, it essential to push forward and create the new world. Especially when it’s what their audience is demanding. 

Vaughan Edmonds is Planner at Sense.

The Futures Lab by Sense examines changing consumer behaviour to understand how people and brands can continue to connect in the real world.

This article first appeared in Advertising Week.

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In-Person Experiences Will Come Back Stronger Than Ever Post COVID-19

The experiential and events industry has been ravaged financially by mass cancelations and postponements, causing thousands of lay-offs and widespread business uncertainty. There has been a dizzying use of the word “pivot” as companies scramble to reimagine their events and physical stores digitally or virtually. BrewDog has lined up a series of virtual events including beer tasting, homebrewing masterclasses, live music, pub quizzes, and comedy, while daily Chipotle Together lunchtime hangouts on Zoom are drawing 3,000 fans.

However, not all experiences can – or arguably should – be digitized.

Experiential moments are designed to evoke the senses and connect people on a more human level. Can you imagine viewing Refinery’s 29Rooms maze-like art experience through a livestream, or the truly immersive production Sleep No More without the physical company of others? It’s clear nothing beats the magic of IRL, even if that means dealing with crowds jostling for the perfect selfie.

Nobody knows how the next few months will play out, but China offers a glimmer of hope, with relative normality gradually returning to the country.

As John F. Kennedy noted, “crisis” in Chinese carries two elements. Danger. And, Opportunity. No matter the difficulty of the circumstances, at the heart of each crisis lies hope for a better future.

Setting the stage for a new normal

For now, we must be patient and hope the impact on our industry is temporary, using this time to think about how we can evolve in-person experiences to ensure we return stronger than ever.

Revive human connection: When the crisis recedes, many of us will want to put virtual happy hours, online yoga and binge-watching behind us and head to cafes, bars and events to catch up with friends – and finally meet that guy from Hinge. This makes creating time and space for conversation at events critical, such as analogue zones that help attendees stay present, which in turn incites serendipity.

Keep it real: Contemporary audiences will demand more authenticity through deep, impactful experiences. So now’s the time to analyze who our audience really is and how we can improve their lives. Our core mission and real-world purpose must shine through, so that branding isn’t the main focus. If we’re working with influencers, let them be themselves. Let’s collaborate with partners in more thoughtful ways and integrate them from the outset. Let’s create casual and spirited environments that make people feel inspired.

Know when and how to digitize: We’ve seen brilliant advances in technology, from live-streaming and social-casting to next-gen augmented and virtual experiences. But it’s vital the goals dictate the platform. What’s the story we want to tell and how can we capture our audience’s attention? How can we focus on community and create that feeling of togetherness, without overwhelming? What does success look like and how will we measure it? Are we giving our audience a truly meaningful and unique experience?

Test and learn: Running large events takes big budgets and months of planning. Post pandemic, brands wanting to connect with their consumers will likely prefer smaller, intimate gatherings that provide a brilliant opportunity to test and learn new approaches and ideas to roll out when appropriate. This also allows us to trial new technologies to extend reach and find more unique spaces to make events really stand out. 

Embrace mindfulness and wellbeing: Hustle-mania phrases born out of millennial angst, like “you snooze, you lose” and “grind now, shine later” may fizzle out, as we realize the importance of time spent recharging. Expect to see more events incorporating “brain breaks” to inspire creativity, outdoor activities to let off steam, and clean eating to keep attendees sharp.

Support small businesses: Local businesses bring growth and innovation to our communities and economy. When seeking vendor support, look first to small, independent companies that are likely suffering the most. Use this downtime to reach out to new experiential agencies, production houses, caterers, etc to develop relationships and scope out capabilities.

Re-consider the need for travel: As it turns out many meetings could have been an email or Zoom call, it’s now our responsibility to question whether it’s critical to jet from New York to LA for a pitch, or fly from London to Dublin for a meeting. Let’s follow Greta Thunberg’s lead and consider a flight diet, putting pressure on employers to follow suit.

Waste not, want not: Sustainability will continue to top the agenda, so seriously consider how we can do more to reduce our impact, from banning single-use plastics and digitizing swag to offering charitable donations, providing leftover food and drink to local communities and offering more plant-based catering. We should question vendors and each other, ensuring we’re all doing our part.

Keep it clean: Whether you’re doing it singing Happy Birthday or your national anthem, it’s safe to say you’re doing it often, and this newfound hypersensitivity to hygiene will persist. This means not only making hand-washing more accessible, providing anti-bacterial sprays and improving cleaning regimes, but also designing event spaces to reduce crowds, increasing ventilation and having a plan to deal with suspected cases – and ensuring insurance policies incorporate satisfactory cover.

Immerse the senses: Bowing, elbow bumps and footshakes may be more appropriate currently, but when multi-sensory events eventually become the antidote to digital overload we should look to blur the boundaries between these experiences and more traditional events to create something more memorable for guests.

Let the chaos fuel your creativity: A coronavirus culture is emerging, with brands devising imaginative ways to provide support. Dyson has developed the ‘CoVent’ ventilator, KFC has partnered with nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack to provide meals for kids in need, and the Mattel Playroom delivers activities and tips for children, to name just a few.

 If we can combine creativity, technology and humanity in the right way, we will once again be a truly unstoppable force. As experiential agencies, we should continue in this spirit by thinking even further out of the box with every brief, keeping innovation and dexterity front of mind, whilst embracing the positive change experienced during this crisis, to move the industry forward for good.

This article was published by the Vendry

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Now is the time to be a good brand

We find ourselves in incredible times. On 1st January 2020, no one could have predicted where we’d collectively be three months into the new decade. A global health crisis appearing from nowhere, costing lives and straining the world’s already stretched health services. A terrible economic cost, with many jobs lost and businesses folding. There have been winners and losers, the majority losers with falling revenues for many products and services.

It may seem insensitive to talk about the brand building potential of these strange times. However, if Coronavirus has taught us one thing it is the importance of a healthy economy. When people stop moving and spending, jobs are lost and lives are impacted. If businesses and brands are successful, we all win. That’s capitalism!

“Chaos is a ladder” – Petyr Baelish, Game of Thrones.

Without sounding too heartless, the chaos caused by Covid-19 provides a huge opportunity for businesses. It is an opportunity to reinvent, redefine and reinvigorate, to stockpile that most important of commodities – consumer trust. Now is the time to lay the foundations that will determine whether a business will falter or flourish in the coming years and decades. 

From media companies hit by fake news to FMCG brands tainted through association with damaging online content, the trust gap has widened in recent years, killing whatever customer loyalty existed. In a world where we are bombarded by advertising and marketing in different forms, how come only a handful of brands garner our attention? Hint: it’s to do with long-term thinking. 

The shift towards marketing with real-world purpose has helped to a degree, but so often efforts have lacked authenticity or smacked of tokenism. However, a global crisis provides an opportunity to reverse this trend, with brands and businesses making a difference in the real world by showing altruism when people need it most.

The situation may look grim, but at some point, life will return to normal. As spring arrives, we’re already starting to see the shoots of recovery in China almost five months after the first cases were recorded in the country. When this happens in Europe, the Americas, Australasia, Africa and other parts of Asia, it’s key for brands to be as prepared for it as possible. How? Not by planning the next ROI driving campaign, but by building their brand now through meaningful campaigns.

Some excellent research carried out in the past couple of weeks provides a useful road map. Kantar’s COVID-19 Barometer surveyed 25,000 people across 30 markets between 14 and 23 March, providing a guide to what people want to see brands do during times of crisis. The most popular response is telling: “look after your employees and help national and global efforts where possible.” Some 78% of those surveyed expect companies to worry about their employees’ health, and to favour flexible working. Meanwhile, 41% are looking for support for hospitals, and 35% help for government. The second message is that brands shouldn’t just do good stuff, but also talk about how they are being helpful (77%), inform people about how they are reacting to the new situation (75%), and offer reassurance (70%).

Will brands that act well during these times see tangible business results? According to GfK’s poll of 1,000 US consumers, 73% of those surveyed say the way companies act during the crisis will affect future purchase decisions.

There are already some great examples. Making a direct impact on people’s physical health, a number of alcohol brands, including BrewDog, Psychopomp Microdistillery, 58 Gin and Verdant Spirits in the UK are manufacturing hand sanitiser gel from denatured alcohol and giving it to hospitals for free. Dyson is manufacturing much-needed ventilators.

FMCG giant Unilever has committed €100 million to curtail the spread of the virus through the donation of soap, sanitiser, bleach, and food to help protect the lives and livelihoods of consumers, suppliers, and its workforce. To help the world’s worst-hit country, Vodafone Italy has launched a campaign filmed entirely from the crew’s homes which simultaneously shows the importance of connectivity and raises money for The Red Cross. Even the Royal Mint is getting in on the act, using its manufacturing facility in South Wales to make medical visors to protect frontline care workers, spurred on by its engineers who kept to help the NHS. And who can’t love Joe Wicks and his morning, online PE lessons?

Not every business can support the healthcare effort, so others are devising innovative ways to keep up the spirits of the global population in not-so-beautiful isolation. Uber Eats lifted delivery charges and has offered discounts on food deliveries, helping people on lockdown and struggling restaurants. BrewDog has created a virtual pub to bring people together and promote social distancing, while restaurant chain Chipotle is hosting virtual lunch hangouts.

What all these examples have in common is they actually make a difference. All will be feeling the impact of the lockdown themselves, yet they show people their conscience. Building trust in this way will drive future recovery and long-term success. Employee morale should not be underestimated either.

These extraordinary times require an extraordinary response. Businesses and brands face scrutiny and rightly so. Rise to the challenge and brands can build a platform of trust that will prove invaluable in the future. The world won’t forget those that did what they could when the chips were down. 

Vaughan Edmonds is a Planner at global brand experience agency Sense.

This article was published in Advertising Week.

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How to run a successful experiential marketing campaign

Running a successful experiential marketing campaign takes planning and processes, as well as preparing for the unexpected.

We’ve learned this the hard way from our 15 years on the front lines here at Sense. As with all marketing campaigns, your experiential goals should align with your wider brand and business objectives. So, to maximise your campaign’s consistency and impact, you’ll need an agreed process that your whole team can work through together.

Experiential marketing campaigns are different to traditional campaigns in that they always involve an element of direct customer interaction. This needs to be built into your campaign process from the strategy stage, because it’s often at the heart of the campaign itself. Every experience is different, but here are six fundamental and future-proof steps to make sure your experiential marketing campaigns have maximum impact.

1. Understand your goals

First, it’s a case of scrutinising the brief and working out the best team to deliver the campaign. What special creative skills and experience does it demand?

Once an initial team of account handlers, planners, creatives, production and staffing personnel has been formed, it’s time to sit everyone down and go through the brief thoroughly. This is the time to work out what the brand requires, identifying critical areas. It’s also the time to question the client and partner agencies for any areas that need clarifying, and get any additional information. Goals are the grounding for every great campaign. We’ve waxed lyrical about them here, so have a read before getting creative.

2. Creative, strategic planning and budget harmony!

With your brief on the table and your team in place, you’ll need to work with everyone to build an exciting creative concept backed with a solid strategy, and all within budget – easy, right?

Your planners should work alongside creative and production to dig into consumer insights and build concepts. Alongside this, you’ll need to establish the cost of the experiential marketing execution, taking all elements into account. The live part of the experiential campaign means there’ll be one or more events to organise, possibly a tour. This needs to be costed as accurately as possible, along with internal resources, developing and producing the creative, production requirements and supporting staffing. And all while staying true to the brand’s goals. Carefully sourcing suppliers with the right skills and experience is vital, as well as negotiating the best deal.

If your client has set a budget in the brief, how does your estimated figure compare? If it’s higher than specified, look for ways to reduce costs without impacting the effectiveness of the campaign.

If you feel that the campaign ROI could be compromised by the budget, it’s important to make this clear to your client.

Key to this is the brief response…

3. Get campaign sign off

With the campaign planned and an initial budget calculated, it’s time to present your creative ideas. For many, this is one of the highlights and “big buzzes” of agency life. It’s arguably even more exciting with experiential marketing, as there’s more theatre involved.

Your pitch shouldn’t focus solely on the campaign, but rather how the activation will achieve the goals and objectives while staying true to the product, company and brand. You need to give the client the confidence that consumers will get an accurate brand experience, because no other type of campaign has such a personal touch.

Be as transparent as possible and invite feedback. An open and honest discussion at this stage is vital to managing expectations and agreeing on an accurate budget.

A pitch should inspire and motivate while highlighting your true understanding of the brand. After all, if an agency can’t engage a client at this point, how will the campaign engage the target audience once it’s live?

4. Plan and prepare the activation

There could be a little back-and-forth after presenting the brief response, but once the client’s happy with the proposal, it’s time to flesh it out. This involves working closely with your team and your chosen suppliers to formulate the full timing plans and get the financials nailed down.

Designing and making the key physical creative elements of the campaign can take the longest time, so this needs to be up and running as soon as possible.

Recruiting appropriate brand ambassadors is also vital. Rather than simply pulling them from an existing ‘staffing pool’, it’s best to source them specifically to meet the requirements of the campaign, so they perfectly reflect the brand. Your chosen team of brand ambassadors and influencers then needs to be thoroughly trained.

The location should be carefully selected to enable the activation to engage with the target audience and bring the experiential concept to life. If this is a tour, the logistics must be planned out and booked.

This stage can take anything from three weeks for a tight turnaround on a sampling campaign, to up to six months when planning a roadshow or live event. PR stunts and integrated campaigns involving other disciplines are more complex so demand more time to align strategies.

5. Go live!

No other type of campaign is as involving or exciting as an experiential marketing activation because it takes place in the real world and directly engages with customers. When dealing with real world situations anything can happen, from a festival being cancelled to staff illnesses, so all eventualities need to be planned for and contingencies put in place.

Before live, it’s vital for experiential marketing agencies to do a mock set up of the activation (if appropriate) and make final checks on all aspects to iron out any last-minute glitches. Be ready to act on any problems as soon as the campaign’s live so they can be dealt with quickly and effectively. The account management team should carry out ongoing monitoring of the activation to ensure it runs smoothly, looking for ways it can be improved.

Initiatives need to be in place to assess the success of the campaign, from measuring footfall to interactions to social media posts generated. This should be based on the goals of the campaign and designed to assess whether they’re being met. The activation can then be tweaked while it is live, if necessary.

6. Research and evaluation

The work doesn’t finish when the activation stops. Once the campaign is over, you’ll need to assess how successful it was by measuring experiential efforts.

The key metrics put in place during the campaign need to be analysed against the objectives to assess true impact. Depending on the type of campaign and its aims, you might need to contact consumers who took part to assess their recall of the activation, how the experience influenced their opinion of the brand, and whether it generated the right response.

It’s often said that experiential campaigns are difficult to measure, but if firm objectives and assessment criteria are set early on, it’s easier to accurately measure success and ROI. This is vital in developing ongoing relationships and provides key learnings and brand experience insights that can be taken forward to continually improve campaigns. Here are some tips on how to accurately measure your campaigns.