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From URL to IRL: How digitally native brands are harnessing the power of experience

We are living in a “I want it now” reality. Consumers can have what they want when they want it. Instant gratification has become an expectation, rather than an exception.

This habit of impatience is apparent across most industries. People can order groceries to their door within the hour, watch shows on demand without commercials, hop in a cab in minutes and go on a date with a simple swipe. ‘Uberisation’ has disrupted industries globally and has arguably become the most popular business buzzword of our time. The pandemic has given rise to an explosion of direct-to-consumer (DTC) businesses and the On-Demand-Economy, which is fulfilling needs by giving instant access, convenience, and personalised experiences to next-gen consumers.

Millennials make up for around half of the On-Demand consumers, which means activity and growth will likely persist. According to PwC research, it is estimated that the On-Demand Economy will soar to reach a whopping $335 billion by 2025. Coupled with this, millennials are the first generation that would rather stay in that go out, which has helped drive this trend.

From URL to IRL – Giving Rise To In-Person Experiences

From Stitchfix, Quip, Away, to Harry’s, what these businesses have in common is that they are digital natives. Born and bred online, these ‘faceless’ challenger brands are growing up and discovering the same truth we all do as we mature: sometimes those who came before us had the right idea.

Initially, these digitally native brands were pumped full of venture capital, aggressively marketing via paid online advertising in order to drown out the competition. This catapulted many to success, aided by the pandemic, which invited some of the highest sales as people were forced to shop online while physical stores shuttered.

However, the cost to acquire customers online has skyrocketed, coupled by the anti-tracking headaches these brands now face. As a result, many are ‘going back to the drawing board’, turning to in-person experiences to acquire new consumers and drive brand equity.

Brand experience is what people want

While the pandemic saw a huge boost in DTC sales, these success levels are beginning to plateau as people go on digital detoxes, seeking to get back to a greater level of ‘normal’ in the real world. Browsing for goods in person is part of this, with approximately 82% of millennials believing it’s important for a brand to have a physical store.

With growing consumer concerns over screen addiction and a desire to seek tangible, real-world experiences post pandemic, brands have an opportunity to exploit the multidimensionality and multisensory possibilities of physical spaces in new and imaginative ways – at every step of the consumer journey.

Creating real-world experiences that drive acquisition, equity, and retention 

As digital customer acquisition costs soar, we’re seeing brands attract new consumers IRL through reactive, hyper-local activation teams – particularly with product sampling in the meal and grocery delivery sectors. In a crowded digital sphere, this is an effective way to drive awareness and stand out amongst the fierce competition. It adds a personal touch to the recruitment process, delivering brand experiences that are memorable and drive loyalty.

Gorillas: Always-on acquisition program

Kickstarted by digital darlings Warby Parker, we’re witnessing a click-to-bricks’ expansion trend, with interaction, experimentation, and play helping to foster deeper emotional connections with consumers. Using smart technologies that unify data. Intimates brand Adore Me is another perfect example of a digitally native brand and start-up using data to strategically enter the physical retail market, poaching customers from its rival competitor, Victoria’s Secret, while giving people a new way to immerse themselves in the brand through in-person experiences.

The pop-up shop, although nothing new, has become the go-to test solution – and nowhere is more booming than New York’s SoHo. In 2021, self-storage brand MakeSpace launched an instagrammable space, offering in-store appointments and meditation space for consumers – a move that made them stand out amid an increasingly crowded digital ad ecosystem. “A lot of people think we’re crazy,” said Miriam Kendall, SVP of marketing, adding that MakeSpace found that customers wanted an in-person experience based on their feedback. “Why would you open a physical store during a pandemic when ‘retail is dead’? But we think differently.” Stores have become their very own ads – immersive billboards that drive awareness and sell.

These digitally native brands are also producing exceptionally creative experiential moments to gain earned media and grow brand love. To position themselves as the experts in sleep, native online mattress brand Caspar hosted a glamping trip during the last total solar eclipse and even set up a $25-a-pop nap hotel called the Dreamery.

Casper: The Dreamery in New York

DTC brand Babe Wine created a socially distanced manicure truck to deliver much needed TLC and real-world experience to New Yorkers during the pandemic. They partnered with Bumble to help fans survive lockdown breakups and released jockstrap-scented candles. It’s these types of curated brand experiences – ones that answer consumer needs and engage on a deeper level – that can help brands build lasting relationships with consumers.

Babe Wine: Manicure experience

As they mature, digitally native brands are realising that the consumer journey is not linear. It’s an ongoing cycle, whereby businesses cannot sustain growth via digital marketing alone. As Diageo’s CEO Ivan Menezes explains, “it’s not about doing ‘digital marketing’; it’s about marketing effectively in a digital world”.

Here are some key principles for brands who are planning to include in-person experiences in their marketing efforts in the year ahead:

  1. Think idea first, media second – having separate budgets for ‘digital’ and ‘non digital’ is outdated. Plan your marketing strategy by ditching the D word
  2. Zig when others zag – in a world that’s rife with blanding, it pays to think up fresh and innovative ways to connect with audiences beyond the screen
  3. Take a 360 approach – real world experiences can be used strategically to recruit as well as to retain consumers on an ongoing basis
  4. Team up – look for likeminded brands to collaborate with to extend reach and provide credibility to play in new creative arenas
  5. Test and learn – consider testing on a local level before rolling out larger scale plans with confidence, ensuring that cultural nuances are addressed per market to ensure resonance
  6. Combine URL and IRL to maximise success – use technology and the vast level of data available to create a seamless customer experience between online and in-person experiences
  7. Know what success looks like – be clear on your KPIs and ensure you have a comprehensive evaluation plan in place before embarking on the work

Hayley James is vice president at brand experience agency Sense New York.

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How Challenger Brands Drive Acquisition With Brand Experiences

Challenger brands have a bold vision to transform the market they exist in, to disregard the odds, and in doing so accelerate business growth and bring change to the industry. They have clarity around their purpose, which leads to a drive and identity that even market leaders struggle to match. Many of these challenger brands have been able to drive acquisition with brand experiences. This is how they did it.

The Thinking That Separates Challenger Brands From Everyone Else

Challenger brands know that it’s not the size of your media budget that defines you, it’s how you tell your story, how you choose to innovate and the way you push the category forwards in a consumer-centric way.

More and more of these companies are turning to brand experience to gain attention, drive acquisition, and sustain loyalty. It’s in their DNA to defy the rulebook, often looking beyond traditional marketing channels to deliver memorable, meaningful, and useful brand experiences that surpass all expectations. The result is challenger brands rising to the top, creating unforgettable brand engagement experiences at every touchpoint of the consumer journey.

Communicating Brand Values To Drive Acquisition

Challenger brands are defined by their state of mind. They have an idea of what the world should be like, and they work tirelessly to achieve that change.

A great example of this is Tony’s Chocolonely, a brand that challenges the ethics of the chocolate industry and commits to “100% slave free” chocolate production. The Netherlands-based business became the leading chocolate brand in its home country without the use of paid ads. Consumers are more willing to recommend a brand that supports a good cause over one that doesn’t, proving that it’s likely this ethical stance is driving word of mouth and rapid growth.

From the unequal and uneven pieces of chocolate itself (cleverly representing the cocoa industry) through to the convention busting aesthetic, Tony’s Chocolonely tells its story at every available opportunity. There is no better way of doing this than showing up in the real world, with a meaningful brand experience tour.

A Brand Experience Can Humanise Your Brand

The most successful companies humanise their brands in ways that make their marketing more relatable and magnetic. A recent study reveals that brands who deliver humanised experiences were twice as likely to outperform the revenue growth of their competitors.

Swedish oat milk brand, Oatly are the masters of this. Famous for their simple, humble, and irreverent tone of voice, they have historically avoided traditional marketing channels and instead opted for grassroots guerrilla tactics, such as murals, fly posting, and product sampling. This grassroots approach even goes so far as to make fun of marketing, which is refreshing for consumers, positioning Oatly as the favoured underdog.

When launching in the US, rather than investing in droves of Google ads, Oatly decided to expand its commercial reach and raise vital product awareness by going straight to the front line – the coffee shops. This approach saw Oatly team up with a selection of artisanal coffee shops, positioning itself as the greatest alternative to dairy, searing its name (and taste) into the minds of satisfied coffee drinkers across the nation.

See Everything As A Medium – With A Generous Dose Of Creative Courage

The most successful challenger brands take a format-free approach to marketing, which results in original experiences that cut through and don’t cost the earth.

Babe Wine, fronted by The Fat Jewish, embodies this way of thinking with its unconventional marketing campaigns. After giving away millions of dollars’ worth of wine on social media at the beginning of quarantine, the brand created a socially distanced manicure truck to deliver much needed TLC to New Yorkers, partnered with Bumble to help fans survive lockdown breakups, built its own Monster Truck, and released jockstrap-scented candles.

These newsworthy experiences, combined with its consumer-savvy, social-first strategy, have kept the sales fizzing, building on its DTC efforts.

Stay Tuned In To Opportunities That Drive Acquisition

Challenger brands are typically fast to react to their environment, using all viable opportunities to drive brand engagement and customer acquisition. Unlike above-the-line channels, brand experience can often be deployed quickly and at little relative expense, meaning it’s a helpful tool to have in the armoury.

Miami-based debt relief app Relief recently disbursed 10,000 lookalike business cards, inviting recipients to take practical steps to get their finances in shape, playing on the theme of the Netflix hit show, Squid Game. This is not only a highly PR-able stunt but also a hardworking and cost-effective acquisition driver.

Reactive marketing can be increasingly difficult to pull off. The fallout from badly received content can cause immense damage to a brand’s reputation, sometimes so that it would have been better to remain silent. It’s important for marketers to time campaigns wisely and treat reactive marketing as more of an occasional opportunity within a wider marketing strategy.

Spark Joy And Reap The Rewards

For those challenger brands who may be looking to go public, it’s worth knowing that guerrilla marketing campaigns that draw on emotions like joy are associated with positive activity on the stock market, according to a study published by the Journal of Advertising Research.

Dating app Bumble, who went public earlier this year, has caught consumer attention through high-impact stunts, gimmicks, and events since their conception in 2014. These experiences have ranged from handing out yellow roses on Valentine’s Day, raising awareness of catfishing through The Great Catch food truck, and taking over coffee shops for the Bumble Hive experience. Understanding how investors respond to these initiatives can guide marketers as they map out their brand plans.

In today’s fast-moving and volatile market, it pays to have a challenger mindset. Covid-19 has shaken up industries across the board and no matter your company’s size, your survival is at risk if you fail to disrupt, excite, and prove your innovative edge. These successful challenger brands maintain a fresh outlook on experiential marketing and focus on delivering incredible, format-free brand experiences with a nimble, bold, and creative approach to everything they do.

Driving acquisition through brand experience is not limited to challenger brands. By the same token, operating with the mindset of a challenger brand is not something out of reach.

Sense invites you to explore the opportunity that exists in brand experience and engagement. Take a stroll through our brand experience portfolio to see how we’ve pulled it off for many brands – both challenger and non-alike.

Hayley James is Vice President at Sense New York.

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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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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.