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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 carshare in minutes and go on a date with a simple swipe. ‘Uberization’ 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 personalized experiences to next-gen consumers.

Millennials make up for 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 than 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 in history. People were forced to shop online while physical stores shuttered.

However, the cost to acquire customers online has skyrocketed and the introduction of anti-tracking software has created substantial headaches for these brands. As a result of this recent shift, many are ‘going back to the drawing board’, (re)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. Interaction, experimentation, and play are helping foster deeper emotional connections with consumers using smart technologies that unify data. Intimates brand Adore Me, is another perfect example of a digitally native 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 options 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 digitally native brands mature, the realization that the consumer journey is not linear has become very apparent. Rather, it has evolved into 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 and be open-minded to hybrid solutions and/or ‘format free’ briefing 
  2. Zig when others zag – in a world that’s full of ‘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 and retain consumers on an ongoing basis
  4. Team up – look for like-minded 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 to garner confidence and guarantee that cultural nuances are addressed when rolling out larger scale plans
  6. Combine URL and IRL to maximize 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 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 experiential 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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Hidden talents: Inside Sense’s Production Team

Although very much acting behind the scenes, the contribution Sense’s Production Team makes to campaign success cannot be underestimated. Production Director Ben Quarrell and his team’s influence permeates throughout each project.

“We’re involved from the very beginning to check that initial experiential concepts are feasible, affordable and environmentally sound, working closely with the creative team to make sure whatever we’re proposing can be practically executed in the real world and will engage with the target consumer,” Ben explains. “We then continually liaise with the account management team to ensure what is finally delivered is of the requisite standard, does the creative concept justice, and meets the demands of the client’s marketing strategy.”

This involves specifying and sourcing the most appropriate, sustainable, highest quality, best value materials and products for each campaign from a raft of carefully chosen preferred suppliers. “All our suppliers adhere to our own stringent quality and sustainability standards. Each also has their own idiosyncrasies and strengths, and it’s important to ensure the right ones are selected to create the most engaging campaign possible,” says Ben.

From the creative team’s designs, which develop from initial black-and-white sketches through to coloured drawings and, frequently these days, 3D renders, the Production Department works with its suppliers to create the necessary detailed technical plans. These need to be highly accurate with no room for error to avoid problems during the build phase and ensure each brand experience performs as agreed with the client.

The live nature of experiential campaigns means stringent health and safety is paramount to protect the general public and Sense’s team on the ground, and this comes under the production remit. “We write all the health and safety documentation for our projects and ensure that our campaigns adhere to all relevant regulations,” says Ben.

There is no typical day for the Sense Production Team, with variety being the norm. “That’s why I love the job,” says Ben. “On any one day we can be working across numerous campaigns. We could be in a campaign kick-off meeting working out deadlines, finalising budgets, etc. On the same day we could be costing up a pitch, making the final preparations before a campaign goes live, sharing technical details of another that need to be signed off, or working with the creative team on a concept.”

The Production Team also needs to be on the ground when a campaign launches to monitor the brand experience insights and ensure every technical element functions as it should. “This is really exciting,” says Ben. “It’s great when something you’ve been working on for weeks or sometimes months comes to life and you see just how much people are enjoying the interaction. Exactly how many of us are there depends on the size of the campaign. We often have several running at once, and I’ll be managing some projects myself as well as guiding the team on others. There’s certainly never a dull moment.”

So what are the most exciting campaigns Ben’s worked on recently?

“With experiential increasingly becoming a key component of campaigns and our constant push to create more engaging experiences, our activations are becoming increasingly complex and sophisticated taking the Production Team to new heights,” he answers. “Two campaigns spring to mind that have really pushed the boundaries.   

“First is the Coors Light Ice Cave campaign, where we brought the TV ad featuring Jean Claude Van Damme to life in the real world. We had to chill down and modify a touring structure to zero degrees and make it look like and feel like an ice cave with a night club inside, then tour it across five locations over two years. It was essentially a standalone live event. Everything from licensing with the council through to managing the technical immersive elements of the ice cave experience needed to be taken care of.”

Ben’s second choice is the current SEA LIFE interactive brand activation campaign that Sense designed and is running globally for the aquarium brand.

“The complexity of this lies not just in the interactive technology that’s being used, but in the detailed product design required to create a standalone attraction that isn’t manned and that children need to engage with,” he explains. “This could be getting them to test their strength as a crab or sucking up food like a seahorse. So there are the complexities of the various games, but also the technical and language issues of creating something that would work across every site in the world.”

In some instances Ben’s team were working across 12 languages, and he says it’s certainly been one of the most challenging projects he’s ever worked on.

“The great news is that it’s going well,” he says. “Thanks in no small part to the in-depth planning process that we worked with the whole Sense team to deliver. We’ve had some great feedback about how interactive it is, how much visitors are enjoying the experience, and how well it’s working for the client. It’s so rewarding when you put smiles on both clients’ and visitors’ faces!”