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April 4, 2008

Justin Foxton: Experiential marketing simply lacks experience

I’m afraid that I can shut up no longer, and although this is the industry that pays my mortgage, it is time that a few industry lies were exposed. Critics may well view this piece as vitriol for vitriol’s sake. They may also suggest that I am promoting CommentUK by slagging off the rest of the industry. Those would either be our experiential industry counterparts or our competition.

Fact is, I don’t care.

Great new hope
I would like to begin by taking a step back a decade or two to the early 1990s. This was a time when all marketers were being pedaled the great new hope of all commercial hopes, the advertisers Holy Grail, every marketers nirvana: a website.

In those days, clients were being sold sexy online brochures without any functionality (because it hadn’t been invented), without animation (because it hadn’t been invented) and without the ability to sell anything (because such commercial interactivity hadn’t been invented).

These websites were being sold for extortionate prices, by instilling fear into clients. “This is the future,” they were told. “People all over the world are ‘surfing the net’. If you don’t get online, your business will die.” Sites were being sold with no ability to track visitors, and, in fact, no way for ‘the surfer’ to even find the site (because search engines like Google hadn’t been invented).

Experience fever
Fast forward a decade or two to the 2000s. A funky new medium has been added to the marketing mix and is being sold with similar fear tactics. This time the tactic is to rubbish the measurability and effectives of above-the-line in order to flog clients the all new clutter-cutting, sexed up and sassy experiential marketing.

The Guardian is suddenly writing articles on the power of this new and dynamic marketing medium. Experiential marketing agencies are springing like PR agencies in the 1970s and 1980s, and interactive agencies in the 1990s. Clients have an experiential marketing budget. Scottish and Newcastle has apparently doubled its experiential marketing spend in just one year.

The experiential marketing industry is now worth in excess of £200 million per annum. I hear the poor clients crying out: “Experiential marketing…where hast thou been all my marketing career?”

A waste of clients' money
But the bottom line has to be that most experiential marketing is simply one of the sexiest bandwagons that marketing has thrown up for decades. For the most part, it’s poorly conceived and a complete waste of clients' money. But, as the Bard would have asked: “What is in a name?” I will tell you – £200 million is in a name.

The term experiential marketing now has a £200 million price tag on it. When consultancies were flogging over-priced websites to clients, experiential marketing wasn’t worth quite as much. Maybe a tenth of that. It was called something different too funnily enough. It was called product sampling.

From brochures to websites. From sampling to experiential. Sexier name, sexier budgets. And the loser has always been the client.

Simply sampling
We've all suffered the utter irritation of semi-comatose teenagers in brightly coloured T-shirts and baseball caps limply handing out samples of shampoo or coffee. This, in combination with some ‘funky music’ and an over-priced ‘sampling rig’ and presto, the client has an immeasurably useless experiential marketing campaign, and the agency shareholders have another bolt-hole in the Cotswold’s.

It is this tired, warmed over form of field marketing that is being sold to eager clients by some cynical marketing companies as experiential marketing. But I ask you, where is the experience?

We assume that by Experience the industry means a positive, good, entertaining, different, brand-enhancing experience. In truth, most experiential campaigns provide an experience of sorts, but it is a bad experience. One that you will neither remember nor talk about, and it won’t change your purchasing behavior. In truth, it is sampling pure and simple, and as such, no more than a cynical attempt by agencies to extort lamb budgets for mutton campaigns.

The real deal
The above describes the overwhelming majority of experiential activity. At the other end of the scale it can be results oriented, bottom-line driven, creatively innovative, cutting-edge stuff that truly builds sales and enhances brands. Enter such experiential giants as BEcause and Blackjack.

If you bump into an experiential promotion conceptualised and coordinated by agencies like these, you will be lucky enough to have a totally unexpected and memorable experience. You will be aware that you are being marketed to, but you will be happy about that because you aren’t being treated like a bleeding idiot and, for that reason, you will consider changing your consumption behavior.

One such example of a true experiential campaign was a recent game of interactive tennis staged in cinemas across the country to demonstrate the Nintendo Wii sports package. The game was played by two planted members of the cinema audience of Pirates of the Caribbean 3. The audience could then play the game live on a console in the foyer after the movie. This is experiential. A great product marketed in such a way that the public gets to EXPERIENCE it. The campaign is something you'll certainly remember and undoubtedly tell your circle about. And these should be the main objectives of all experiential campaigns: recall, word of mouth and positive behavioural change. Recall of 89%, word of mouth rates in excess of 1:5 and the viral spread of the message into the online and offline press has seen unprecedented results for a simple piece of highly creative experiential activity. Currently a Google search on this campaign yields some 15,000 articles.

The dangerous truth for marketers is that the experiential campaigns they are currently buying might just totally lack any chance of an experience with their brand. Add to this the sheer ineptitude of practitioners when it comes to calculating the return on investment of the activity, and what you have is one of the biggest cons of 20th-century marketing.

Justin Foxton is the chief executive and founder of CommentUK

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