Design Talk by MV no. 12 - That Hard-to-Wrangle Concept That's All Around Us: Insights on "Experiential Marketing"

WTF is experiential marketing? It’s everywhere right now – some say by necessity, for business owners and brands – and it’s taking on many different forms. I’ll use the next two weeks to explore the concept and illustrate its flubs and its shining moments. Together, we’ll wrangle this beast of a new-age (or is it…?) concept!

Owning and operating a business – successfully, that is – requires attention to the bottom line. As a designer, I admit that’s not always the most fun. When I’m making decisions, though, I have to acknowledge the fact that I need to profit off of my endeavors to keep the doors open and the wheels turning.

Defined by AdAge in 2014 as “messaging you can touch, feel or view in a physical space,” experiential marketing, in the grand scheme of things, is a recent strategy for getting, and holding, consumer attention. But it really isn’t new: experiences, if we’re thinking about the ways in which a brand is encountered in the physical world, have been happening in deliberate ways, with the end goal of consumer interaction, retention, and patronage, for a while. There’s the (former) iconic piano at FAO Schwarz*, fashion shows that for decades or longer have put clothes on display firsthand, the brand-heavy annual Macy’s Day Parade, Oscar Mayer’s cross-country Weinermobile, and tons of other ways that brands have breached the traditional boundaries of interaction with their customers or followers.

It’s very true that experiential marketing, as an ad industry term, has narrowed and fine-tuned its definition to mean something quite specific now. But, with the oversaturation of the market, product information, and general opportunity to “experience,” I ask myself, what’s really effective as experiential marketing, as we’re witnessing it today? What’s relevant to customers and to business (rather, the “bottom line”)? And when are we, as brands getting creative with our retail and marketing strategies, losing sight of the important business-minded intention of these sorts of strategies? This and next week, I’m going to offer up four trends I’ve witnessed and/or executed under the umbrella of experiential marketing. I’ll point out some good and some not-so-good that come of each, and will wrap up next week with some questions that can help guide us, as businesspeople or self-branders, in the right direction toward meaningful, effective experiential tactics.


Trends in “Experiential” 

No. 01 – The Party  
There’s definitely crossover between plain and simple party throwing here. But parties, or cocktail events, whose focus is socializing and networking and enjoying the commerce (if we’re talking storefront or showroom, here) is being pushed toward extinction in an era of the Instagram age. Now, parties have to be “elevated” to be memorable. They must offer something more than just a good crowd and cool stuff; they have to offer an experience worth engaging in. Some ideas have gone too far, like the infamous Jägermeister party whose liquid nitrogen stunt ended up creating a toxic cloud over the pool (memorable in a totally undesirable way!). Others have been surface-level, and purveyed free drinks to crowds who don’t even know the brand they’re there to celebrate. I admit that in the past, I’ve thrown parties in the shop that have resulted in few personal connections, zero sales, and have ultimately felt unrewarding. Although fun and immersive in the sense that they felt somewhat exclusive and introduced people to the curation of my store, I didn’t feel like they had been conscious enough to produce lasting brand connections in their attendees.


No. 02 – The Showroom  
An interesting trend in experiential has been the showroom space, whose focus is often somewhere away from sales. These spaces are aimed more finitely: the goal is to create that lasting memory with the customer in the hopes that a relationship with the brand follows, is retained, and eventually leads to purchasing or group influencing. One example is the Eddie Bauer experiment in Columbus, Ohio, The EB Ice Box. The venue is kept at 13 degrees, and customers are encouraged to try on and test out the brand’s winter wear in a true-to-usage climate. Another example is designer Virgil Abloh’s new “gallery” in SoHo. Creator behind the brand Off-White, the space, which, as Vogue reports, isn’t a “store,” per se, is meant to appeal to those who appreciate the ethos of the brand, and not just its commercial products. That’s completely admirable, and the fact that Abloh uses the space as a sort of artist incubator and showroom is great. But even for brands who can afford it – money or reputation-wise – one thing to keep in mind with this strategy of consumer engagement is there’s an off chance that, like at a useless party, people may takeaway the interesting memory but not retain the brand name attached to it.

According to a leading retail real estate company’s business investor deck, put out through, there’s a new, clear, “sustainable relevance” cycle for businesses these days. They must offer a differentiated consumer experience, which leads to dominance (or worthiness) in their trade area, which results in a sustainable competitive advantage, which evolves back through the cycle necessitating continued differentiation through experiential.

So it’s not only business owners, but also the gatekeepers to brick and mortar business – the real estate companies – that are on board with the efficacy of experiential marketing. How are you noticing people, brands, or business owners are responding to changing retail circumstances? Are you seeing marketing trends like these? What’s effective about them, and what have you seen that isn’t quite right? I’d love your feedback as we stew this over till next week, when we’ll continue this discussion!



As told to Emily R. Pellerin

*Even icons like this toy store are adopting creative retail tactics to stay afloat or, in this case, revitalize. FAO Schwarz has reopened as none other than a temporary guest shop inside Bergdorf Goodman!

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