Experiential marketing takes many forms but at root, it's all about taking the brand to the consumer and offering experiences that are memorable, personally engaging and immersive. But with live events still constrained by the long tail of the pandemic, brands and their agencies have had to rethink their experiential marketing strategies, not least in terms of location choices. So, is now the time to become more adventurous?
Experiential marketing specialists have faced some pretty major challenges over the past twenty-four months or so. Since the Covid outbreak was officially declared a global pandemic, restrictions have come and gone in response to wave after wave of the virus, resulting not only in lockdowns but also much more cautious behaviour on the part of consumers. And according to figures published by Location Live - a UK marketplace platform connecting space providers with brands and agencies -one by-product of the pandemic has been a willingness on the part of marketers to consider a wider range of possible venues for events.
Covering 350 locations and around 1,000 experiential spaces,the company's data suggests there were fewer brand activations in big cities last year and a marked trend towards events in smaller towns. In addition, venues such as beaches, university campuses and festivals also saw interest rise and there was a preference for external rather than internal spaces. Location's Live's Chief Technology Officer Kevin Cavilla, says there were several factors at work. For one thing, consumers were (and quite possibly still are) in different places geographically. "During the pandemic, travel restrictions meant that consumers stayed at home," says Cavilla. "Consequently brands had to look at the places where people congregated." In addition, footfall in main shopping areas - not just covered malls - has remained depressed. In the UK, footfall was down 24% year-on-year as late as January 2022.All this created demand for alternative venues.
A Sea Change?
So, are we witnessing a sea-change in experiential marketing tactics and strategies? Well, It's important to stress that brands are not deserting the big cities - for instance, Location Live's data suggests London was still the most widely searched location by brands and agency bookers, and other big cities such as Manchester and Bristol also remain popular. This is confirmed, by Dominic Franks, co-founder of experiential marketing creative agency, The Persuaders. "There has been a lot of talk about touring towns and smaller cities," he says. "But in reality, most of our clients are continuing to opt for the major cities." However, what he has seen has been a much greater demand for events staged in open spaces.
So perhaps the truth is that big cities continue to dominate, with alternative venues providing a wider range of options for brands wishing to experiment. Cavilla sees this diversity as a good thing - not least because brands can choose from locations that allow them to focus on specific demographics. "If you choose a location that allows you to target a particular audience - such as beach or university - that can be very effective," he says. Equally, unusual or previously underused spaces open up the opportunity to create new kinds of experiences. "The industry can become more creative," says Cavilla.
But there are challenges. One key role of an experience is to get the product in front of the consumer. Sometimes the venue and the brand objective are perfectly aligned. This is certainly true of shopping malls - places that consumers go to with the express intention of interacting with brands. And as Franks points out external spaces can also offer receptive crowds. "If it's something alcohol-based, a location such as London's Covent Garden is a place where people are prepared to swing by and take part," he says. Spaces such as parks or beaches are arguably tougher. Put simply, people aren't there to encounter brands. They have other things on their minds, so how do you involve them?
"By being interesting,theatrical, impactful," says Rupert Pick, founder and director of retail experience agency, Hot Pickle. "Like any other form of comms, we have to interrupt people as they go about their planned mission. In the planning process, we think about how we can grab people's attention." But what does that mean in practice? Martin Rothwell, is Client Relations Lead at Gottabe Marketing.He cites an experience created in collaboration with global money transfer company, Western Union celebrating, Diwali, the Hindu and Buddhist Festival of Light. Located in London's Trafalgar Square the experience included Rangoli arts and crafts opportunities for children and the making of small paper boats to float on the fountains. As such it was engaging, immersive and memorable. At the same time- from the Western Union point of view - it provided a means to interact with communities that are likely to use its international payment and remittance services.
As Dominic Franks sees it, when creating experiences in open spaces, it is often best to start with something that is beautiful or arresting rather than being purely product-oriented. "Very often the brief is of the make-me famous variety," he says. "Brands are looking for something that people will talk about and share on social media."
Nevertheless, reaching the right audience with the experience is crucial. "We would rather have 500 people who are the right people than 1,000 who aren't, " says Martin Rothwell. Location Live's analysis suggests that once marketers begin to look at a wider range of potential spaces, they can, potentially at least find their ideal audiences. That might be students in university towns, homeowners in suburbs or indeed high densities of certain ethnicities. For instance, Gottabe uses UK resettlement applications to target high migrant areas where money transfer services are likely to be popular. "That kind of data gives you a real picture of the diaspora," says Rothwell. The broader principle is that the location dictates the event.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing experiential marketers is also a perennial one. You can be creative, engage the public and put the brand front and centre, but how do you prove ROI. Live events certainly raise awareness but that doesn't necessarily translate into leads or sales. But you can build a sale into the experience, even when the audience does not necessarily want to be sold to.
Rothwell cites a Gottabe campaign developed for Domino's Pizza, rolled out in universities during Freshers' Week. Pizza samples were on hand, but the lure for students was a spin the wheel game with prizes ranging from promo codes to clothing. "What Domino's really wanted was for students to download the order and delivery app," says Rothwell. "So in order to play the game,you had to download the app." Experience marketing has changed over the past two years and it was perhaps inevitable that marketers would look at alternative venues. The pandemic won't last forever and as Rupert Pick observes, the pendulum is already making a return journey. "The traditional venues are coming back," he says. "Locations such as shopping malls are crying out for retail theatre to lure consumers back."
But in the meantime, a wider range of venues remains available as a spur to creativity and a means to reach new consumers.