Every business, big or small, strives for more than one-off purchases—they want their customers to become lifers. Often, establishing brand loyalty in your customers means proving to them, over and over again, that your product or service is the best they’ll find. Or, you could cut to the chase and draw in those loyalists through experiential marketing techniques… but what is experiential marketing?
Essentially, experiential marketing is a modern marketing strategy that engages potential customers through innovative, immersive experiences. These experiences don’t just sell products—they facilitate a customer’s identification with a brand as a whole. And, as you likely know, brand loyalists are loyal to those brands not merely because the products or services work. It’s because they feel connected to that brand’s messages, aesthetic, and values, too.
Plus, experiential marketing is one of the best marketing techniques for boosting your business’s visibility—by which we mean these events, pop-ups, activities, and installations are extremely social-media-worthy.
Also known as “engagement marketing,” “participation marketing,” “live marketing,” and “event marketing,” experiential marketing is often confused for “publicity stunts.” But experiential marketing strategy is exactly that—it’s a strategy, and it requires a good amount of research and planning to pull off well.
Here’s what you need to know to make experiential marketing work for your small business.
What Is Experiential Marketing?
At its heart, experiential marketing is a marketing strategy geared toward promoting a brand’s message, rather than focusing solely on selling the brand’s product. And where traditional tactics (think print ads, TV and radio commercials, and billboards) market products to a passive consumer, experiential marketing encourages active participation with that brand by engaging as many of the participants’ senses as possible: hence Orangina’s “broken” vending machine, Lean Cuisine’s #WeighThis installation, and Ikea U.K.’s in-store sleepover.
As with other modern lead generation strategies, experiential marketing aims to attract, engage, and convert as many customers as possible. But experiential marketing campaigns are designed to activate a consumer’s emotional connection to a brand’s holistic identity—and, by extension, facilitate a long-lasting relationship with that brand, rather than a one-time purchase of a product or service.
Not only are participants inspired to become customers, but they’ll become “brand ambassadors” and share their memorable experiences with others. This kind of on-the-ground marketing is a powerful sales tool: Research conducted by McKinsey shows that word-of-mouth recommendations drive 20% to 50% of all purchase decisions, and experiential word-of-mouth recommendations account for 50% to 80% of all those recommendations.
Pop-up shops are probably the most common types of experiential marketing campaigns out there. But other forms of experiential marketing include:
- Classes or workshops
- Product testing or tasting
- Factory or headquarter tours
- Giveaways and competitions
- One-time phenomenon like street art, installations, pop-up concerts, and even pranks.
Because experiential marketing campaigns are one-time events, they’re best used in tandem with more sustained forms of advertising, like inbound marketing, digital marketing, and other, free marketing ideas that boost sales and keep budgets in check.
Experiential Marketing Fosters Community
At its core, experiential marketing is all about facilitating consumer interaction. These unique experiences allow consumers to meaningfully connect with your brand, of course, but customers can also meet and mingle with each other. In that way, this marketing tactic is just as much about building a community of like-minded consumers as it is about selling an individual product.
In a roundtable conversation with media researcher PSFK, Ron Faris, the general manager of NYC Digital Studio and the SNKRS App at Nike, said, “[Experiential marketing is] about building the types of experiences that are more immersive that would make you feel the same way attending … a music festival—sparking a type of energy that goes far beyond ecommerce and a store.”
Essentially, the most successful experiential marketing campaigns provide experiences so emotionally affecting that consumers identify with the brand, and other brand loyalists, as much as they identify with the crowd at their favorite concert.
Like a music festival, experiential campaigns are often ephemeral experiences—like Google’s interactive posters in the Bay Area, on which passersby could vote on the local nonprofits that would receive funding from Google; or a pop-up shop that remains open only for a few weeks or months.
But the best experiential techniques tell a story about a brand, leaving a deeper emotional and mental imprint in a participant’s mind than, for instance, an email blast would. So, these interactive campaigns, though fleeting, are memorable. And if a participant remembers having a positive experience at the event/pop-up shop/product testing your company hosted, they’ll be inclined to keep patronizing your brand in the future (and bring all their friends along with them).
Experiential Marketing Captures an Important Market
If you’ve done your research into any kind of marketing, you’ll probably find a lot of articles about attracting and converting the millennial generation. It may feel repetitive to read so many think-pieces on millennial pink and avocado toast, but there’s a reason for that: As of now, millennials are America’s largest living generation, and they’re reaching their prime spending ages. And evidence shows that this generation, who were born roughly between 1981 and 1996, values experiences over things.
“Right now, we’re seeing that the consumer, especially the younger consumer—the mobile millennial—is very picky about the brands they’d like to pay patronage to,” Faris says. “Their relationship with a brand is far more emotional than it was in the past. It’s no longer the brand dictating the terms of the relationship, but the community.”
The best way to prove to your biggest potential customer base that your product is worth buying, then, is to provide them with a memorable experience that emotionally connects them to your brand.
Of course, experiential marketing doesn’t only serve millennial consumers. It does, however, tap into another millennial-driven marketing strategy: social media.
So, what is experiential marketing? Great experiential marketing campaigns are social media-worthy. And the more your participants post, pin, and tweet about your campaign, the more potential consumers they’re attracting for you.
5 Effective Experiential Marketing Examples—and Why They Worked
Once you know what experiential marketing is, you’ll probably recognize that almost every major brand employs these interactive strategies as a part of a holistic marketing plan. These strategies may have been tough to recognize or define, though, because they’re not always obviously about selling products.
What all of these experiential marketing campaigns do achieve, though, is engaging potential customers in creative, fun, or unusual experiences that activate both their senses and their emotions.
What: In March 2018, NYC-based beauty brand Glossier took over Rhea’s Cafe in San Francisco for a full month. The cafe created a new, limited menu for the collaboration, and Glossier’s products were displayed throughout the restaurant so that diners could test, and buy, their products while they munched on fried chicken sandwiches.
Why: A brand with an extremely strong visual identity built mostly on Instagram, Glossier brought their curated aesthetic to life by inviting customers to live inside their brand while trying products they could usually order only online. Glossier also took advantage of their brick-and-mortar scarcity. With a showroom only in New York City, the brand created the limited-time pop-up on the West Coast, adding a sense of urgency to drive traffic in store.
What: Premium paint brand Dulux may now be best known for their Dulux Color Runs, which occur several times a year in major cities across the world. In this untimed 5K run, participants of every athletic experience and ability wear white to the starting line—then, a team of “smiling faces along the course … douse you in colorful powder to ensure that you look like you ran through a beautiful rainbow by the time you cross the finish line.”
Why: Beyond building major brand recognition as Dulux’s sponsorship built their name into the official hashtag, Dulux has been able to separate themselves as a lively and colorful paint brand—something that’s pretty tough to do. You know, since usually paint is as fun as, well, watching paint dry.
In the centre of Sydney, 400 yogis joined @lululemonausnz in two classes of flow yoga. There was peace in the middle of the hustle and bustle and it was a moment that made an impact on the community. The energy continues as the opening of our Westfield Sydney City store approaches—see you on March 29th! #thisisyoga
What: Athletic apparel brand Lululemon regularly hosts free yoga classes in their stores and outside around the world.
Why: To build their #thisisyoga branding, emphasizing the democracy of what yoga looks like today, Lululemon appears to practice what they preach allowing everyone to join in with them. These sessions allow direct interaction with the brand—and it doesn’t hurt to watch hundreds of people sweating it out in Lulu gear.
What: Before opening their first brick-and-mortar store, a beauty product subscription service Birchbox opened a Birchbox Man pop-up shop in December 2014 to sell their products directly to their male consumers. The store included an interactive “BYOB” (“Build Your Own Box”) station, so customers could get hands-on with the brand, and walk away with free products.
Why: Two difficult tasks—getting acquainted with direct-to-consumer brands and getting men comfortable with beauty products—become much easier when consumers can interact in a very cool, comfortable space. Birchbox allowed consumers to make a relationship with potential customers and break down the impersonal wall, plus explain how their new service could help—and consumers walked away with plenty of swag.
What: In April 2015, Carlsberg beer set up a billboard on London’s Brick Lane, a busy pedestrian street (and hub for eaters and drinkers), that read “Probably the best poster in the world”—a cheeky update of their classic slogan. What made this the “best poster in the world”? The fact that it dispensed free beer from an attached tap, of course.
Why: Free beer, of course. But a great interactive brought consumers closer to a brand that they might not have tasted before, and Carlsberg created a fantastic asset that we’re still talking about years later.
How to Build an Experiential Marketing Campaign
As you’ve probably guessed, building an effective experiential marketing campaign requires a lot of preliminary research and planning. If you want to take a stab at this marketing technique, keep these seven steps in mind as you consider, design, and implement your brand’s event.
1. Gather feedback on your current customer experience.
Experiential marketing is absolutely consumer-centric. After all, your goal is to tailor an experience exactly to your consumers’ tastes: It has to draw them in, engage their senses, and leave an impact strong enough to make them want to come back for more.
So, before you dive into an experiential marketing strategy, you need to understand how your customers currently interact with your products, and how they emotionally connect with your brand. Then, you can figure out an experiential strategy that aligns with, and leverages, the messages or offerings that most appeal to your customers.
For many businesses, both big and small, that feedback platform is primarily digitally-driven. In particular, social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Snapchat plus feedback forums on your small business website, all facilitate direct interaction between you and your customer. These digital platforms are fast, simple, and mostly-free ways to gather intel on how customers experience your brand. That way, you’ll make sure you deeply understand your customers’ behaviors before launching into an experiential marketing campaign.
2. Define and hone your brand experience.
A successful experiential marketing campaign means deeply understanding your brand, your target audience, and how your product serves that audience in a tangible way—or, why your product is an indispensable part of your customers’ lives.
So, once you’ve gathered data on your consumer base, you’ll need to answer, some key questions that further define your brand’s core values. Start with questions like:
- Who are you, and what do you stand for?
- How does your product or service make your customers’ lives better?
- What do you offer your customers that your competitors don’t?
An experiential marketing campaign translates those core values into an interactive experience. Here’s the ultimate goal for a successful experiential marketing tactic: Your brand is so well-defined, and your interactive experience is so aligned with that message, that your customers will be able to answer all those questions themselves when they take part in your campaign. Then, they’ll be so excited by that message that they’re inspired to become loyal customers.
3. Design your brand experience.
We get it: “Designing your brand experience” can seem like a big, overwhelming task. How, exactly, can you engage your customers in new and innovative ways, all while conveying your brand’s core message?
In this case, let emotion be your lodestar. Use all that customer feedback you’ve garnered to discern how your customers feel when they use your product or service. Do they feel comforted? Energized? Cared for? Inspired? Design an interactive experience that envelopes your customer in that core emotion.
Another way to zero in on what makes your company unique is to identify how your product or service fixes a problem in your customers’ lives. Then, your experiential campaign can deliver the solution to right to them.
In that PSFK roundtable discussion, Monica Brouwer, an Experiential Marketing Director, explains how she designs brand experiences for Casper mattresses. Brouwer’s method is to “understand the pain points” their customers face in a certain environment.
Then, their most successful experiential campaigns “create … rescue moments where we come into a space … and provide temporary relief, whether it’s a nap or to recharge your phone or finding a hotel room last minute.” In fact, Casper provided all of the above in a hugely successful experiential marketing campaign at SXSW festival in 2017.
4. Create a detailed campaign plan.
Experiential campaigns require organizing a lot of moving parts, so write a step-by-step plan for how you’ll implement your campaign. And, as you plan, start to expect the unexpected: As with any human-driven event, it’s unlikely that an interactive campaign will go exactly according to plan. So consider a few worst-case scenarios, and create contingency plans around them.
5. Consider a partnership
Casper has conducted some of its most successful experiential campaigns by partnering with large companies or brands, including SXSW, The Standard Hotel in New York City, and Target. “When we’re coming in and identifying brand partners, we try to carve out our own space by being adjacent to the activity, not directly involved,” Brouwer said.
Small businesses can follow Casper’s lead here. If your company offers a niche product or service, partner up with a larger company whose values overlap—even a little bit—with your own. By partnering with a bigger company or event, like a festival, you’ll share the costs of the campaign, use the physical space in which they’re executing their own marketing campaign, and, ideally, draw in a whole new segment of customers to whom you may not have had access before.
6. Design a share-worthy campaign.
Okay, we have to expound upon the importance of social media one more time.
Just to reiterate, experiential marketing campaigns aren’t only about selling products—they’re really intended to promote a brand’s message and reputation.
In some campaigns, in fact, a brand’s products aren’t for sale in the campaign’s space at all. Take a closer look, for instance, at Lean Cuisine’s #WeighThis campaign, which took place in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Participants in the campaign didn’t actually buy any frozen meals at Grand Central—instead, this campaign established a 428% increase in mentions on social media and, as a part of a holistic brand redesign, led to the company’s increased sales.
So, don’t underestimate the role of social media in contributing to your experiential campaign’s success. Even if you only host fifteen people at your bakery’s bread-making lesson, all of those fifteen people may post on their social media channels, and tell (hopefully) everyone they know, about their positive experiences. In other words, all the customers you reach through your experiential marketing campaigns can become your brand ambassadors, who’ll do a lot of the selling for you.
Plus, the content you and your participants generate can far outlast a campaign that lasts only a few months, weeks, or hours. So when you design your experiential campaign, think about its “shareability” factor, and how those images and tweets will convey your brand’s message to an untapped audience.
for my own scale at #grandcentral for @leancuisine #weighthis campaign put on by @360i i wrote that i want my worth weighed by the #love in my heart. i typically don’t share photos of friends, partners or family on @instagram but in reality i am more proud of my relationships than any piece of lettering i’ve ever done 💖
7. Stay on budget.
We know what you’re thinking: As a small business owner, it’s unlikely that you have the budget required to erect a beer-dispensing billboard outside your office.
But it is possible to create Instagram-worthy experiences for your potential customers without a Carlsberg-sized budget. Consider experiential marketing initiatives that leverage your existing resources.
For instance, if you own a brewery, you can host a tour of your facilities and provide a tasting session at the end. You can even partner up with a nearby restaurant and do a beer-and-food pairing.
If you own a pet grooming company, take a cue from NYC’s Tompkins Square Park and host a dog parade in your local park, then award your merchandise as prizes to the best-dressed dogs.
Or, take a page from Lululemon’s book and offer a free demo of your services—whether that’s yoga-teaching, teeth-cleaning, or business accounting—at your local job fair.
Again, experiential marketing provides potential customers the opportunity to interact with your brand face-to-face—and that doesn’t always require splurging.
Does Your Business Need Experiential Marketing to Win Customers?
In a nutshell, experiential marketing is a modern marketing technique that invites consumers to actively engage with a brand. These innovative experiences engender positive experiences, and memories, in a participant—making that participant much more likely to become a brand loyalist than a traditional marketing strategy would.
Experiential marketing tactics have worked wonders on almost every major brand out there, including Ikea, Lean Cuisine, Lululemon, and Carlsberg. But should you include experiential tactics in your small business’s marketing plan? You’ll need to consider the pros and cons first.
On the upside, experiential campaigns are some of the best ways to differentiate yourself from your competition and meaningfully engage customers with your brand. Done well, these campaigns establish brand loyalty, word-of-mouth recommendations, and popularity on social media, all of which are powerful revenue streams.
On the downside, experiential campaigns involve a lot of preliminary research. It’s likely that the campaign itself will involve intensive logistical planning, too. As a result, experiential campaigns can be more time-, labor-, and cost-intensive than other forms of marketing. So, it’s best to implement experiential marketing techniques occasionally, either when your budget allows, or when an opportunity (like a festival, expo, or partnership) arises.
Ultimately, experiential marketing tactics can get you big results, but you have to be willing to contribute an effort to match.
So, if you’re revved up by the prospect of providing your customers with fun, interactive experiences that give them a real feel for what your company offers, start small. For example, consider partnering up with a local festival and offer a free demo, class, or workshop at the event—and don’t forget to create a hashtag. (Seriously.)