Work events are really hit or miss. Let’s be honest: How many times have you found yourself anxiously fidgeting with a paper napkin in the corner of a stuffy networking happy hour?
That’s why I was not only relieved, but also surprised and delighted, when I attended a holiday party that featured a live, interactive version of an arcade game.
An entire room had been curated to look like a video game setting, and people were dressed up as characters from it. There was a giant, real-life scoreboard, boppy electronic music, and best of all, there was no tedious small talk.
It wasn’t just another tired work event ... it was an experience. And in our line of work, that sort of thing has a name: experiential marketing.
While a surprising number of people haven’t heard of the concept, it’s kind of a big deal -- there’s an entire three-day summit dedicated to it, and 65% of brands that use it say that it positively correlates with sales.
But what is it, exactly? And how has it been used effectively? We found eight of the coolest experiential marketing campaigns that really break down how it works, and how those lessons can be applied to marketers everywhere.
What Is Experiential Marketing?
To understand experiential marketing, just look to its name. It's a type of strategy that engages an audience with a real-life invitation to engage with -- or experience -- a brand and what it makes or represents. It's participatory, hands-on, and tangible.
It might sound a bit like event marketing, which makes sense -- experiential campaigns do tend to be event-centric. But there are also times when they have nothing to do with a specific event, as you’ll see from the examples we picked.
And when they are event-centric, they’re less dedicated to the type of event -- like a concert, festival, conference, etc. -- and focus more on interaction a specific brand. (If you already have an event in the works, you might want to check out this guide to adding experiential elements to it.)
These campaigns can take an integrated approach. The primary purpose is to experience a brand in a tangible, offline way, but you’ll still want an online dialogue around it. When you consider that 49% of folks create mobile video at branded events -- 39% of which is shared on Twitter -- it makes sense to incorporate a digital element. A branded hashtag, for example, can get people talking about the experience.
8 of the Coolest Experiential Marketing Campaigns We’ve Seen
1) Refinery29: 29Rooms
For about three years now, lifestyle brand Refinery29 has hosted the 29Rooms event: What it calls "an interactive funhouse of style, culture, & technology." As the name suggests, it consists of 29 individually branded and curated rooms -- and attendees can experience something different in each one. The rooms are designed and created with brand partners, who range from personalities like artists and musicians, to consumer-facing companies like Dunkin' Donuts, Dyson, and Cadillac.
Each year, 29Rooms has a different theme, with this year's being "Turn It Into Art." Attendees, it seems, are encouraged to enter each room and use the surroundings to create something -- one room, for instance, invites participants to put on punching gloves and hit punching bags that each produce a different sound when contacted to create a symphony of sorts. A truly hands-on experience, indeed.
Takeaways for marketers:
- Go nuts, but keep it on-brand. An experience should be memorable, but relevant to the people attending.
- Partner with creators like artists and musicians to create experiences, especially if they are recognizeable within the region where you're trying to build or augment an audience.
2) Lean Cuisine: #WeighThis
One night, when I was watching “The Bachelorette” (it’s okay -- I judge myself, too) I started tallying how many commercials told women to change something about themselves. The result: I lost count after about two minutes.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to see brands like Lean Cuisine, whose marketing used to center solely on weight loss, stray from diet-centric messaging. And its #WeighThis campaign is a great example of just that.
As part of the campaign, Lean Cuisine curated a gallery of "scales" in New York's Grand Central Station, and invited women to "weigh in." But here's the catch: The scales were actually small boards where women could write down how they really wanted to be weighed. And rather than focusing on their weight in pounds -- or anything pertaining to body image -- the women opted to be measured by things like being back in college at 55, caring for 200 homeless children each day, or being the sole provider to four sons.
What’s particularly cool about this experience is that none of the participants actually interact with a Lean Cuisine product. No one was interrupted, asked to sample something, or stopped to answer questions. In fact, no one was really asked to do anything -- the display itself was enough to make people stop, observe, and then voluntarily interact.
Lean Cuisine figured out what message it wanted to send: “Sure, we make stuff that fits into a healthy lifestyle. But don’t forget about your accomplishments. That matters more than the number on the scale.” But instead of blatantly advertising that, it created an interactive experience around the message.
Still, the experience was clearly branded, to make sure people associated it with Lean Cuisine. The company’s Twitter handle and a branded hashtag were featured on the display in large text, which made it easy for people to share the experience on social media. And that definitely paid off -- the entire #WeighThis campaign led to over 204 million total impressions.
Takeaways for marketers:
- Don’t interrupt -- especially if you’re trying to grab someone’s attention in New York City, like Lean Cuisine was. If you create an experience that provides value to the people who pass by it, they’re more likely to participate.
- Figure out the message you really want to your brand to send -- that may or may not be directly tied to an actual product, and it might be something that your brand hasn’t said before. Then, build an experience around it.
3) Google: “Building a Better Bay Area”
Corporate philanthropy is definitely on the rise. Between 2012-2014, 56% of companies increased charitable giving, and Google is no exception. But when the search engine giant gave away $5.5 million to Bay Area nonprofits, it let the public decide where that money would go -- in an unconventional, interactive way.
Google allowed people to cast their votes online, but they also wanted to involve the Bay Area community in a tangible way. So they installed large, interactive posters -- in places like bus shelters, food trucks, and restaurants -- that locals could use to vote for a cause.
In the video below, the narrator notes that this experience reaches “people when they had the time to make a difference." That’s a big thing about experiential marketing: It allows people to interact with a brand when they have the time. Maybe that’s why 72% percent of consumers say they positively view brands that provide great experiences.
And that concept works in this experience because it takes advantage of a “you’re-already-there” mentality. In San Francisco, finding people waiting for the bus or going to food trucks is pretty much a given. So while they were “already there,” Google set up a few opportunities:
- To learn about and vote for local nonprofits
- To interact with the brand in a way that doesn’t require using its products
- To indirectly learn about Google’s community outreach
With the help of the online voting integration -- and a branded hashtag: #GoogleImpactChallenge -- the campaign ended up generating 400,000 votes over the course of about three and a half weeks.
Takeaways for marketers:
- Create a branded hashtag that participants can use to share the experience on social media. Then, make sure you’ve integrated an online element that allows people to participate when they learn about it this way.
- Keep it local! It’s always nice when a large corporation gives some love to its community -- in fact, 72% of folks say they would tell friends and family about a business’s efforts like these.
- Remember the “you’re already there” approach. Find out where your audience is already hanging out and engage them there, instead of trying to get them to take action where they don’t usually spend their time.
4) Misereor: Charity Donation Billboard
When was the last time you used cash to pay for something?
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Tough to remember, right? We’re kind of a species of “mindless swipers” -- globally, an estimated 357 billion non-cash transactions are made each year. And knowing how often we whip out our cards, German relief NGO Misereor decided to put our bad habit to good use with its charitable giving billboard.
It was what they called a “social swipe”: Set up in airports, these digital posters would display images of some problems that Misereor works to resolve -- hunger was depicted with a loaf of bread, for example.
But the screen was equipped with a card reader, and when someone went to swipe a card -- for a small fee of 2€ -- the image moved to make it look like the card was cutting a slice of bread.
Even cooler? On the user’s bank statement, there would be a thank-you note from Misereor, with a link to turn their one-time 2€ donation into a monthly one.
Needless to say, this experience required a lot of coordination -- with banks, airports, and a mobile payment platform. Because of that, the experience couldn’t just be a one-time occurrence. The people who interacted with it were later reminded of it during a pretty common occurrence: receiving a bank statement.
Takeaways for marketers:
- Visually represent the impact of participating in the experience. People interacting with this display were shown exactly where their money was going -- like slicing bread for a hungry family. (Infographics work nicely here, too -- check out our templates.)
- Partner with another brand to create an even better experience. In this instance, Misereor worked with Stripe.com for the payment technology, and with financial institutions to get a branded message on users’ bank statements. (And stay tuned -- we’ll talk more about the value of co-branding here later.)
- Don’t be afraid to nurture your leads. Even if you don’t use something like a branded hashtag to integrate the experience with an online element, find a way to remind someone that they participated.
5) Guinness: Guinness Class
One of my favorite types of marketing is the “aspirational” kind -- or as the Harvard Business Review defines it, marketing for brands that “fall into the upper-right quadrant.” Think: luxury cars, haute couture, and private jets. Things we aspire to own.
It’s that last one -- private jets -- that set apart the Guinness Class experience. For a few weeks, ambassadors dressed in Guinness-branded flight attendant uniforms entered bars across the U.K., where they surprised unsuspecting customers with a chance to win all kinds of prizes.
In order to participate, bar-goers had to order a pint of Guinness. After doing that, they would shake a prize-generating mobile tablet that displayed what they won. They could win everything from passport cases to keychains, but one player per night would get the ultimate prize: A free trip to Dublin -- via private jet, of course -- with four mates.
What we like about this experience was its ability to associate Guinness with something aspirational, like traveling by private jet. And according to Nick Britton, marketing manager for Guinness Western Europe, that held the brand up as one that doesn’t “settle for the ordinary.”
That’s important -- and can be tricky -- for a brand that’s nearly 257 years old: to maintain its authenticity, while also adapting to a changing landscape and audience. But Guinness didn’t have to change anything about its actual products in this case. Instead, it created an experience that addressed changing consumer preferences -- for example, the fact that 78% of millennials would rather spend money on a memorable experience or event than buy desirable things.
Takeaways for marketers:
- Think about the things your target audience might aspire to, and that you’d like to associate with your brand. Then, build an experience around that.
- If you do require a product purchase in order to participate in the experience, make it convenient. In this case, people had to buy a pint of Guinness to win a prize, but they were already in a bar that served it.
6) GE: Healthymagination
Think experiential marketing is just for B2C brands? Think again -- 67% of B2B marketers say that events make for one of the most effective strategies they use.
That’s why it made sense for GE to invite industry professionals to experience its Healthymagination initiative. The point of the campaign was to promote global healthcare solutions, especially in developing parts of the world.
To help people see the impact of this initiative, GE worked with agencyEA to create “movie sets” that represented different healthcare environments where Healthymagination work took place: a rural African clinic, an urban clinic, and an emergency room. The idea was that doctors would share their stories -- live, in front of 700 attendees -- that illustrated how GE’s healthcare technology played a major role in each setting.
When people measure the success of experiential marketing, one thing they measure is how much of a dialogue it prompted. And that makes sense -- 71% of participants share these experiences. In GE’s case, the point ofHealthymagination was to get people talking about a pretty important, but uncomfortable issue: Access to healthcare in impoverished parts of the world.
But when you create a way for people to become physically immersed in the issue, it also allows them to acknowledge a topic that isn’t always easy to talk about. And that can have quite an impact -- this particular campaign, in fact, won a Business Marketing Association Tower Award.
But fear not: That concept also works for not-so-serious, but equally uncomfortable discussion topics. Just look at how well it worked for Charmin.
Takeaways for marketers:
- Experiential marketing does work for B2B brands. Think about who you’re selling to, and create an engagement that would not only attract that audience, but also present an opportunity for them to experience your product or service first-hand.
- Get uncomfortable. If your business centers around something that’s difficult or “taboo” to talk about, creating an experience around it can prompt a conversation. But make sure you keep it respectful -- don’t make people so uncomfortable that they have nothing good to say about your brand.
7) Facebook: Facebook IQ Live
Facebook -- who also owns Instagram -- has always understood how much data it has on how people use these platforms. For that reason, it created the Facebook IQ Live experience.
For this experience, that data was used to curate live scenes that depicted the data. Among them was the IQ Mart: A “retail” setting that represented the online shopper’s conversion path when using social media for buying decisions. There was also a quintessential Instagram cafe, chock full of millennial-esque photo opportunities and people snapping them -- latte art and all.
The campaign wasn’t just memorable. It also proved to be really helpful -- 93% of attendees (and there were over 1500 of them) said that the experience provided them with valuable insights on how to use Facebook for business.
But what makes those insights so valuable? Momentum Worldwide, the agency behind Facebook IQ Live, puts it perfectly: “When we understand what matters to people ... we can be what matters to them." In other words, we can shape our messaging around the things that are important to our target audiences.
And by creating this experience, Facebook was able to accomplish that for its own brand. In creating this experience, it also created a positive brand perception for a few audiences -- including, for example, the people who might have been unsure of how to use the platform for business.
Takeaways for marketers:
- Build an experience for people who aren’t sure about how they would use your product or service. Find ways for them to interact with your brand in a way that creatively spells out how it can benefit them.
- Bring your data to life. We love numbers, but creating a live installment that illustrates them can help people understand exactly what they mean. And since 65% of people think that live events help them understand a product, this setting is a great place to do it.
8) Zappos: “Google Cupcake Ambush”
To help promote its new photo app, Google took to the streets of Austin, Texas, with a cupcake truck in tow. But people didn’t pay for the cupcakes with dollars -- instead, the only accepted currency was a photo taken with said app.
And really, what’s better than a free-ish cupcake? We’ll tell you what: A free-ish watch or pair of shoes.
That was the answer from Zappos, anyway. That’s why the brand playfully “ambushed” Google’s food truck experience with one of its own: A box-on-feet -- strategically placed right next to Google’s setup, of course -- that, when fed a cupcake, would dispense a container with one of the aforementioned goodies.
In order to reap the rewards of the Zappos box, people had to have a cupcake. So while only one brand came away from the experience with an epic sugar high, both got plenty of exposure. And since 74% of consumers say a branded experience makes them more likely to buy the products being promoted, Google and Zappos both stood to gain new customers from this crowd.
But what we really like about this example is how much it shows the value of experiential co-branding. Because Google and Zappos pursue two different lines of business, they weren’t sabotaging each other, but rather they were promoting each other (which is what happens when you pick the right co-marketer).
Takeaways for marketers:
- Use experiential marketing as a co-branding opportunity:
- Pick a partner with an audience that would be interested in your brand, but might otherwise be difficult to reach.
- Make sure your partner would benefit from your audience, too -- you want the experience to be a win-win-win: for you, your co-brand, and the consumer.
- When you do pick a marketing partner, build an experience that requires an “exchange” of each brand’s product or service. That way, the audience is more likely to interact with both of you.
Clearly, taking some very calculated risks worked out pretty well for these brands. So when it comes to creating an experience with your brand, don’t be afraid to think outside of the box -- and don’t be afraid to work together on it with someone else.
Invest some time into thinking about the ways people could interact with you, even if it seems a little nutty. If it’s aligned with what you do and executed thoughtfully, people will be talking -- in the best way possible.