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Experiential marketing not the same as PR stunts

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24 September 2009

A few years ago I had a chuckle when a friend of mine and co-founder of Cow Africa – Donald Swanepoel – told me about experiential marketing and PR companies like Cunning Stunts. Ha ha! Funny name.

Yesterday however, the importance and role of experiential marketing hit home to me.

Everything we do, we do within a framework of our understanding of how digital media has opened up the media landscape to everyone. One of the obvious conclusions for some time now is that word-of-mouth marketing and therefore by extension, product, is key. This is especially true online. Google beat Yahoo!, Altavista and Lycos to be top dog because of their product, despite their competitors’ massive marketing spend.

It turns out that this principle holds true in a wider sense as well. We recently met Jonathan Baskin, ex-brand manager and author of Branding only works on Cattle. He argues that even brands like Nike were first built around superior product before anything else. Digital media just throws this truth in much sharper relief.

Anyway, Gerrie and I were in Brussels yesterday where we dropped in at Demonstrate (their website does not do them justice) under recommendation of Stefaan, copywriter and blogger behind Knotoryus. Demonstrate is one of the largest experiental marketing ‘agencies’ in Europe.

They occupy a huge warehouse on the northern outskirts of Brussels. One part of which is just that, an area called The Platform that’s full of props, toys and gadgets – the tools of their trade. Half a football field of the stuff. I kid you not.

And then there is a creative hub, off to the side, where strategy, account management and the creatives reside.

But what we found truly interesting was the chat with Kate Stockman, Demonstrate’s creative director.

Kate speaks fast. No need for her to ponder or um and ah, because she’s been there and done it.

“We don’t do PR stunts for PR stunt’s sake. Publicity is not why we plan an event or an action. We plan it around customer experience. “

If it generates publicity, it is not an unwelcome by-product, she ads. But it’s not the aim. The aim is to get the customer to try the product. If it’s a drink, get them to taste it. Simple.

Or it could be added value. She explains how they rigged a mobile bar where punters could learn how to pull the perfect pint.

On the web all the talk is about how to move away from advertising to product or if not that to content, i.e. offer some real value and sponsor it. Is this not exactly what Demonstrate is doing in the streets?

Also consider this. Online, music and video are ubiquitous. It’s easy to copy information and content. Being there -  the live experience – will become more important and not less.

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  • Posted by Donald
    September 24, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Cool article and thanks for the mention. I agree with Demonstrate’s approach to some extent. When it’s possible to create a brand experience that gets coverage then that’s great. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s possible to get some great PR coverage through a stunt and by doing so you use the media to spread that experience through PR.

    We’ve done stunts that we’re not open to the public – only to media, but through reading about it or seeing it on TV the general consumer gets to experience the brand.

    Average House for Office for National Statistics is one example like that:

  • Posted by Wybe
    September 25, 2009 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Sampling or any creative derivative from it is one of the most undervalued marketing channel. It is often somewhat frowned upon by certain agencies as it condures up images of promo girls giving away yoghurt pots in Asda.
    But as indeed no long term brand success has been build without a great product, people can be really convinced after trial. When done in a engaging way it will only get more powerful. Do bear in mind that giving away yoghurt pots at Glastonbury for breakie is not the best of ideas unless you like the idea of paving the festivals mud with plastic white cups.

  • Posted by grr
    September 28, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Gents, thanks a lot for the comments.
    Agree with most of it.

    @Donald: I think Demonstrate’s approach is slightly different, it’s ‘product first’. And if that is done engagingly, press will follow. Their main target is not to get press.

    And with the risk of splitting hairs, in your example, I don’t think the ‘consumer’ gets to experience the ONS-product. It’s still an awareness campaign.
    Having said that, getting people to experience a consumer product is a whole lot easier than a statistics service. So I think your ONS campaign is a lovely piece of work. I mean, how the hell do you deal with a brief like that? Well done!

  • September 28, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I think your example (almost) stumped me Donald.

    But I think its very particular example as the product of ONS is not a fast moving consumer good, or high-end fashion, motor vehicle, or a service – it’s information.

    So I would slightly differ from Gerrie. In my opinion he is correct that its first and foremost an awareness campaign, but I think there’s also something else to it.

    And this might explain the difference – With information as your product its possible to become aware and experience something at the same time. The Economist could make a short documentary of a story for example – and you get to know the information in a more accessible way – is that not similar to what you did?

    So I’d say you did a brilliant campaign that both makes people aware and gets them to ‘know’ the product?

    I’d be interested to know if you could think of an example – where the product is tanglible and not info – where it’s possible to get some great PR coverage through a stunt and by doing so you use the media to spread that experience through PR.

  • Posted by Donald
    September 28, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Well another example would be the Adidas, Impossible is nothing campaign where they played football on a billboard in Japan.

    It’s not experiential in the true sense because it doesn’t allow the consumer to get involved and experience the brand. Even though they do indirectly experience what the brand is about by just witnessing the event or reading about it through PR coverage. So I guess my question is Are you saying that it’s not worth doing?

    I think Demonstrate’s focus on product first is great, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing a stunt with the aim to get coverage. Because coverage in effect is a way to spread the brand experience to a wider audience, albeit 2nd hand and not quite as exhilarating as being suspended from a billboard yourself.

  • September 28, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Yes that is the key question. Are awareness campaigns always a bad thing?

    We like to approach this question in the way Forrester outlined them in their Groundsweel book. Ie, Ask yourself what kind of a problem does the brand have?

    Do they have a word of mouth problem, are their customers hard to reach, or a complexity problem (a product thats hard to explain or complex) or do people not even know about them.

    If its the latter then an awarenss campaign is just what the doctor ordered.

    So there is a place for awareness campaigns, but they don’t build a brand, they build awareness AND I’d argue, that’s where almost all advertising dollars went until fairly recently.

  • Posted by Donald
    September 28, 2009 at 3:43 pm | Permalink


  • Posted by London PR
    April 6, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting article. I agree with Demonstrate’s approach.

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