Stakeholders in every alternative communication industry from online and experiential marketing through to SMS marketing and CRM are competing for their space under the sun.
Marketers are faced with many challenges in the modern world; consumer segments and tastes are fragmenting faster than ever before, there is product, channel and communication clutter and to top it off, traditional tools such as above-the-line advertising (ATL), aren’t producing the results they used to. And yet, they are still expected to exceed last year’s targets.
This current context has forced marketers to find new ways of attracting and retaining customers.
A consequence of this movement is that the stakeholders in every alternative communication industry from online and experiential marketing through to SMS marketing and CRM are competing for their space under the sun. Their key target? The ATL behemoth, controlling just under 70 percent of the South African marketing budget.
You won’t struggle to find commentary from many of these alternative communication stakeholders branding the continued use of ATL as lazy marketing and pre historic thinking. What you will struggle to find however, are stakeholders from the very same industries interrogating themselves and their own paradigms for reasons why marketers aren’t sending more loot their way.
This paper looks at the reasons why experiential marketing wears the second fiddle tag around its neck and argues that a redefinition of the industry is what is needed for it to take its rightful place as a key medium in the mainstream marketing mix.
There are two forces keeping experiential marketing in the marketing dog box. The first is the marketing fraternity, this isn’t finger pointing, it’s a reality that needs to be recognised and tracked – the marketing fraternity is configured to promulgate ATL marketing. The second driver is the experiential industry itself. These forces will be dealt with separately.
The institution of marketing is designed and resourced to support and promulgate predominantly ATL communication.
Agency teams design ATL campaigns briefed in by their clients – who equate advertising with marketing. Research companies test likeability, comprehension and recall. Media agencies place more and more advertising on ATL mediums. Then more research companies audit the effectiveness of media placement.
This cycle is worth a lot of money and prestige for both clients and agencies. It should come as no surprise then that not only are the highest accolades in the marketing fraternity awarded to those involved with ATL campaigns but also that as an unintended consequence, the level of non-ATL work is often of a lesser standard.
In other words, marketers have failed to apply the same level of strategic thinking, evaluation methodology and budget to make experiential as effective a medium as it can be.
However not all the blame can be laid at the doorstep of marketers and ATL agencies. There are three key issues that perpetuate the experiential industry’s position – firstly, it doesn’t have an effective peer review system, secondly, it has no methodologies that ensure the robustness of its work, and finally it’s stuck in the set-piece paradigm.
The lack of a recognised and respected peer review or awards system means that the best experiential work is not celebrated and best practice is not shared. The Loerie Awards are a great advertising awards ceremony and that’s all they should be. Advertising and experiential have different skill sets and hence, should be evaluated differently.
This brings us to the next weakness in the experiential industry – it has no credible models that guide the work it produces. Models allow you to understand why some things work and others don’t. They are a set of principles adapted over time to deliver increasingly effective solutions. Our sense is that the lack of these credible industry models, have added to its second fiddle perception.
Joseph Pine and James Gilmore present a couple of such models and methodologies in their seminal book The Experience Economy. The most pragmatic model is called Experience Realms where they map four experience zones by placing two continuums across each other.
The first continuum on the x-axis, tracks audience participation. Passive participation is on the left hand side and active participation on the right. The second continuum on the y-axis, tracks the objective of the environment the audience is in. Absorption is at the top of the continuum – describing environmental experiences that are meant to be absorbed, such as television. Immersion, at the bottom of this continuum, describes experiences that an audience is immersed in such as a drive through a game park or the Grand Canyon – the audience is part of the environment but can do very little to change it.
These continuums create four quadrants, entertainment and educational, top left and top right respectively, and aesthetic and escapist, bottom right and bottom left respectively. Entertainment, educational, aesthetic and escapist describe the most effective uses of each of these experience zones.
Each of these zones has specific characteristics that can be leveraged to create more effective experiences. For instance if you want to teach an audience something, then the most effective experience is to create one where they are actively participating and interacting with the information provided. Most modern education systems are now based on this principal. While this sounds obvious, think about all the conferences you have attended where all the speakers stood behind a podium and delivered a PowerPoint based presentation to a mass of people in a darkened room.
A sound methodology would not only help the experiential industry produce better work, but it would also add gravitas to its productions and differentiate the offerings of the established players from the many new entrants in the industry. Without credible models, it is easier for marketers to view experiential marketing as just “fancy events”. This “fancy events” perception brings us to another paradigm shift that the industry needs to make.
The experiential industry is stuck in the set-piece paradigm. Most experiential projects manifest in set-piece productions that take place in one location over a limited time period such as launches, road shows, industrial theatre and so on. These are the bread and butter of the industry but also the things that hold it back.
Brand and product experiences happen everywhere all the time whether it’s in the bank queue or the showroom floor of a car dealership. All of these “physical” scenarios are platforms for the brands they represent to fulfil the promises they propagate through various communication mediums. This context represents the biggest growth opportunity for the experiential industry. Experiential marketing’s role in helping companies live up to their brand promises at the point of purchase can only grow as consumers put more and more pressure on companies to fulfil those promises.
The retail space provides an especially opportune environment for experiential applications. The current retail model is operationally based and is designed to facilitate efficient transactions with customers. Companies such as McDonald’s have spent the last 50 years refining these efficiencies. What is becoming more apparent however is that the experiential component of the system is the new frontier and it too needs to be operationalised to deliver a consistent experiential message across all guest interactions.
We need to make it clear that we are not referring to promotions and activations at the point of purchase – that would be a traditional experiential application. What we are referring to is experiential agencies enabling front line staff of companies to deliver effective experiences themselves.
The industry however, has been slow to recognise this opportunity. It hasn’t realised that the scenarios mentioned above and many like them are no different to the events they stage – they all have sets, costumes, scripts, characters, and a start and end time. They need to be conceptualised, directed and measured. Why then can the industry not apply its craft to these non-traditional environments?
This application of experiential marketing would work against the perception that the work lacks the scalability of ATL too. Yes, one event with an audience of 5000 people has a much higher cost per point than a TV commercial that reaches a million people. However if you consider the retail environment of McDonald’s, which reaches 50 million guests a day worldwide, you have a highly influential channel that’s just waiting to be activated.
So what should the experiential industry do to shed its poor cousin status?
It needs to flip the issues raised in this paper on their head and start the process of redefining itself.
It needs to develop models and methodologies that ensure the robustness of its offerings. It needs to break out of its set-piece paradigm and give itself scale by applying its skill in the every-day-experiences market. It needs to develop a well-respected awards ceremony that celebrates its best work and helps it share best practice.
Achieving this will offer the marketing fraternity a scalable experiential application they can integrate into the mainstream marketing mix.
The challenge has been set for the industry. Whether it can step up to it, remains to be seen.
Abey Mokgwatsane is Marketing Director of Experiential Marketing specialists – VWV Group. He is a former Brand Manager at The South African Breweries (SAB), where he was responsible for Miller Genuine Draft. He is Chairman of Young Business for South Africa (YBSA).
Sechaba Motsieloa (pictured above) is currently the Marketing Director for McDonald’s South Africa. Motsieloa is a classical marketer with ten years experience in global FMCG organisations. In his last move before McDonald’s, Sechaba was Export Brand Manager of Kimberly-Clark where he was responsible for