2013 - The Year of Experiential?

Shareen Pathak at Ad Age recently published an article titled "“Agencies Ready for the 'Year of Experiential.'" While the article praises the uprising of "stunt marketing", it misses the mark on why experiential marketing is important right now. 

Ad Age points out that many traditional ad agencies are embracing experiential marketing. But why now? Why is 2013 the tipping point for this type of tactic? Let's dive in.

Experiential marketing helps consumers to better understand a product through a first-hand participatory experience or product trial. The ultimate goal? Obtaining that precious consumer testimonial; better known today as word-of-mouth. This is advertising 101 people - peers influencing peers.

Look at any part of history, for as long as people have been selling things to other people, and you'll find the customer testimonial at the crux of every marketing strategy. Look a little further and you'll find experiential marketing. But to really understand the value of this medium, we need to understand why it works & how brands benefit. If it is true that what's old is new again, then let's go way back to 1896. 

William Crush worked for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. Trains were kind of a big deal at that time and his company was upgrading to newer, better models. Crush wanted to attract attention, so he came up with a publicity stunt. What did he do? He designed an event where two locomotives would careen towards each other on the same track, culminating in a spectacular head-on collision. With corporate approval, he took the locomotives on tour across Texas to drum up excitement and promote the big day. The event was free to attend, but earned money by the tickets sold to ship in spectators from afar on their new rail cars.

Nearly 40,000 people showed up in "Crush, Texas" to see the stunt that day.  And as promised, two trains collided in a high-speed explosion of shrapnel and fire right before the grandstands. Unfortunately, a few people died.  Crush was immediately fired, yet re-hired the following day (and continued his career there until retirement). As a marketer before his time, Crush realized how a well planned experiential marketing effort could get people excited and impact his company (no pun intended). Luckily he even captured it all on film so we can relive this epic stunt in the modern day:

From PT Barnum to the Pepsi Challenge, experiential marketing has carried on for more than 117 years. This tactic is nothing new, so why now? Why are agencies suddenly championing experiential marketing so much that a major industry publication declares this to be “the” year? 

The advertising industry has arrived at a crossroads. In the rear view mirror is a long straight road. Things looked so much better back there: simple, clean, organized. Make an ad, put it on TV and wait for the phones ring. If you followed the template, things usually worked out quite well.

The road ahead is not so straight. We see lots of twists and turns, hills and potholes. The future is very exciting, but difficult to predict. People have new and vast choices on where and how they consume entertainment and information. Habits are evolving, communication is changing. As we begin our journey forward, the go-to advertising templates of yesteryear are starting to feel obsolete.  It’s time to adapt.

You see, this isn't just the year of experiential. This is the year we lay the groundwork for the future of advertising. A year when technological miracles like Google Glass are poised to revolutionize the way we interact with our environment. A year when the iPhone is now a legitimate medical device.  A year when people can sit at home and 3D-print almost anything, including bongs and firearms. 

Consumer choices are abundant, purchasing decisions made in a blink of the eye. Simple brand perception can make or break a company and the views of one can spread across the innerwebs to influence thousands, maybe even millions, in a matter of seconds. This is the world we live in. The brands (and their agencies) that adapt will modify their marketing mix to deepen relationships with customers and amplify the brand experience. That’s how mind share is won in 2013.

This year shouldn't be about how we suddenly discovered buzz stunts. That’s been done. Instead, it should be about our ability to increase brand perception and drive purchase through a much richer consumer experience. This isn't just what marketers are pushing; this is what the people want. 

Paul Soseman