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June 16, 2008

Matt Jones :It’s time for experiential marketing to grow up

Experiential marketing continues to be a hot topic among the marketing community and has been tipped for great things, but if it is to achieve the success it has within its reach, it has to grow up – and fast.

Last November, I attended and spoke at Australia’s first experiential marketing conference. A number of speakers pigeon-holed experiential marketing as a cool new take on consumer promotion. I offered a counter view that experiential marketing doesn’t exist, because it’s a philosophy not a channel. Furthermore, it’s a philosophy that shouldn’t be limited to consumer-facing activities. It’s something I have said before and will continue to say because, defined as a consumer promotion tactic, experiential marketing is a faddish bubble that will soon burst.

The experiential marketing philosophy should be understood as a commitment to building brands by creating authentic experiences that engage all stakeholders in long-term, two-way relationships. It has the capacity to deliver extraordinary results, but only if it sits near the top of the agency tree, not somewhere near the bottom. So we need to grow up, and fast.

Facing marketing reality
The truth is that clients need us to grow up too. After all, the current system is failing many of them. Consider advertising, right now the discipline that sits at the top of most trees. In truth, it’s a specialism, vital but limited. Great at driving awareness, providing information, and reinforcing emotions, but poor at changing fundamental behaviours or deeply-held views (of employees, partners, shareholders, politicians, journalists, or consumers).

As a result, my colleagues and I are increasingly being thrown challenges by brands that need to shift lingering perceptions, stir fresh emotions, engage different audiences, revitalise old relationships, fix underlying cultural problems, shape new customer experiences, and start new conversations. Stuff traditional one-way media just can’t do in isolation.

The challenge is that experiential marketers frequently only get started with brands once advertising and media planning agencies have finished with them. In other words, brands focus on the talk (brand communication) before they get to the walk (brand behaviour). And that massively limits our ability to deliver the results clients need. In future, brands should focus on the walk and the talk at the same time.

All in the mind

But it’s no good moaning about the fact that the system isn’t working. We have to fix it. Experiential marketing as an industry needs to develop the narrative and ambition to change the status quo. We need to have the confidence not to reach for tactical definitions, like consumer promotions or events, just because we find it hard to demystify what we do. We have to embrace the fact that shaping brand behaviour and creating brand experiences is a fundamental task; long-form and multi-dimensional, it’s about the hardest job in marketing. And we need to attract the people who can help us deliver on our ambition and narrative. Which brings me to Daniel Pink.
Daniel Pink’s fascinating book, A Whole New Mind, argues that society needs to balance its traditional focus on rational left-brain-driven thinking by embracing more emotional right-brain-driven qualities. He talks about six key aptitudes crucial to success today for both people and businesses: design (creating experiences that are emotionally rewarding); story (compelling people through narrative not hard facts); symphony (putting pieces together to create a bigger picture); empathy (understanding what makes people tick); play (encouraging people to have fun); and, meaning (seeking purpose within everything).

Coming of age
The requirements Pink identifies are a perfect summation of what we need to do as a marketing industry. We need a new and whole-minded method of building brands; a broader, deeper, more integrated approach. We have to stop separating and staggering our thinking. We have to pursue better design, tell better stories and demand greater authenticity. And we have to consider everything we do as part of the same mission.

It’s an approach that will need to draw on a broad range of agencies and capabilities. And it will require experiential marketers (with our commitment to design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning) to be centrally involved at the outset.

But experiential marketers can’t expect to be invited to sit at the top table if we still think and talk like members of a tactical consumer promotions or events industry. Which is why it’s time for experiential marketing to grow up.

Matt Jones is creative strategist at Jack Morton.

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