I know – that’s a little unfair. Call it semantics, but if you’re having an “experience” of any kind with a brand, that brand should strive to make it a good experience; visually, sonically, haptically, even through smell. So in a literal sense, every time you’re branding, IRL or URL, you’re crafting “experiential.”
But it’s not enough to say that all marketing is experiential. Also, the more you move customers toward a “pure experience”, the more you move them toward a deeper relationship with your brand.
Why is this true? What do I mean by “a pure experience”? Is this a thing?
When you end up on an LA beach with a long-lost friend at 3am, drinking out of a shared bottle of Jameson, looking at the moon on the ocean, you’re having a “pure experience.” You’re not thinking about your social media numbers. You’re not even thinking about the brand name I dropped two sentences ago – it fits naturally into the scene; it feels like a tiny part of the memory you’re making.
A “pure experience” is an authentic, emotionally relevant, you-defining moment of your life. And brands want few things more than to be authentic, emotionally relevant, and self-defining for their customers.
To accomplish this, it’s important to pay attention to your emotions, and to reach outside the realm of “experiential marketing” or even “marketing” for ideas. If you want to make something authentic, you can’t just imitate the culture – you have to help CREATE the culture. So you have to understand how authentic, original culture-creation works; you can’t just copy what’s already been done.
Let’s take a look at a few example brands, to clarify.
1. RED BULL MUSIC ACADEMY
So many in marketing love Red Bull Music Academy precisely because they approximated this kind of “pure experience.” The messaging and live activations were so cohesive that to fans, Red Bull was a true partner for the culture. Red Bull allowed the most revered members of the independent music community to shape what was happening in the Music Academy.
Red Bull didn’t dictate. They listened, and behaved like an old-school art patron, not like a salesperson. That’s the only way a brand ends up sponsoring, say, a two-hour sit-down between Robyn and one of her favorite producers that her fans are itching to hear.
That’s not an ad. That’s a pure experience.
2. NIPSEY HUSSLE
Late rapper Nipsey Hussle poured resources back into his south LA Crenshaw neighborhood. He was working to establish a STEM education center there, had his own Marathon clothing boutique on the corner where he used to sell drugs, and existed as a living symbol for the elevation of south LA from poverty and gang activity towards something existentially greater.
Nipsey didn’t just represent his neighborhood, he WAS his neighborhood. So when Nipsey decided to charge $1,000 per mixtape, people paid it – because by paying it, they were investing in their community. For them, there was no distinction between Nipsey and themselves, and that “proud to pay” moment served as a massive publicity-garnering activation.
Imagine a customer community excited to overpay for your product, and imagine making that moment of contribution sharable, the way Nipsey did with the #proud2pay hashtag.
The experiences Nipsey created were pure experiences. He was open about his love of success, and honest about giving back, and this was felt in all his brand touchpoints, events, and products.
Brands like Amazon would do well to take note; if you pour generous resources into local communities, that will dramatically change their experience of your brand. You’ll be co-creating something greater than a profit-margin, and the world will notice.
Walt Disney might be the 20th century’s most dramatic innovator in experiential marketing, and Anaheim’s Disneyland was his stake in the ground. Walt wanted to establish a magical kingdom on earth – the kind of place where dreams come true. He did it with immersive installations, brand ambassadors, and interactive experiences – the same ways we in experiential marketing do it.
But Disneyland has a place in the memories and hearts of billions of children and adults the world over, and this is because even though Disneyland is (clearly) a branded exercise, Walt’s original approach prioritized the magic of the experience itself. He said:
“Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.”
Disney takes calculated risks. Pirates of the Caribbean (first the ride and then the movie franchise) are high adventures, and have a tang of sea-salt air around them that most “safe” branded media wouldn’t touch. But in Walt’s mind, that feeling of adventure was the point. He was after pure experience and green lit the ride in 1967. Even today, the extent to which Disney continues to succeed (or, periodically, fail) mirrors their commitment to that pure experience.
We can talk about authenticity and purity, but it’s important to provide a counter-example so that we know the boundaries; so that we know what NOT to do. If we’re going to define “pure experiential”, we need to know what it isn’t.
The sentiment gap between Disneyland and the current state of Facebook, for example, is vast. Facebook not the company it was a decade ago. But at the end of the day, both Facebook and Disney wanted to create a customer community with a deep emotional connection to their brand. The magical experience, in Facebook’s case, was the experience of connecting and forming communities across vast distances.
But at some point, Facebook drifted away from “pure experiential” and toward a more ad-driven revenue model. They prioritized using their data to target us as consumers, or to drive our addiction to the platform. They were no longer using their data to refine toward “pure experience”.Instead, they were refining the experience in order to best harvest data. Their priorities had reversed, and this left the platform open to exploitation.
Data is crucial, if data helps us improve the customer experience and add to brand love. But the moment data stops helping us do those things, it becomes useless.
Pure experiences don’t have to be complicated or conceptual. We provided an air-conditioned Chill Zone for festival-goers to cool off, some exclusive acoustic-style performances from their favorite headlining artists, a DJ in between, and some opportunities for lounging while watching a main-stage feed. Basically, all the things you want when you take a break from hiking across a hot summer festival to watch band after band.
Instead of trying to shove some new idea or narrative down the audience’s throat in the middle of their concert quest, we provided them a taste of the VIP “backstage” experience.
This came from an effort to understand how the brand could support the community, not the other way around. We connected to that community, learned their needs, and gave them something they actually wanted – something that would support their passion; the pure experience of watching great live music.
A NEVER-ENDING QUEST
“Pure experiential” is a target in the sky – we rarely achieve it completely. But it’s our job to try.
When we look at brands like Nipsey Hussle or Disney or Red Bull, we remember that the reason we love to create experiences, and the reason clients pay for them, is because we have some sense that there’s more to effective marketing than attracting eyeballs for a split moment, or even for an afternoon. There’s this secret hope that a customer could actually fall in love with our brand – that we could invest resources not just into changing their minds, but into changing their lives.
This is the core fire that fuels good experiential marketing. Because on some level we know that relationships and trust are concrete, long-term projects, and that everyone is looking for a little bit of magic.
The brands that have the courage to provide that magic are the ones we remember, and the ones we love.
Advantage currently supports various brands on the development of sponsorship strategies and experiential activations all around the world. If you need help bringing your brand to life through the power of experiential, we would love to hear from you. Feel free to shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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