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How US brands use experiential to deeply connect with audiences

05 December 2023

Marketers are often wary of new channels, but those trying experiential acknowledge the benefits are strong, creating tipping point moments for your brand.

Marketers are often at the leading edge of change – it’s part of the job after all. The past couple of years have represented a significant acceleration of this change. Now, with a potential recession looming, budgets are contracting. Every buck counts.

According to our research, this change has prompted an unprecedented number of companies to fundamentally reposition their brands in response to this squeeze and evolving consumer preoccupations.

Seven in ten (71%) US companies plan to reposition their brand in 2023, according to our research. By any measure this is an extraordinary statistic.

The Great Repositioning has begun.

The experiential advantage

We know that experiential is a critical component for successful brand repositioning. But we also know from our research that it’s a polarizing channel.

Those that have not tried experiential are wary of it. Those who have tried experiential are eager to use it again.

Eight in ten (80%) US marketers have used experiential marketing, and there are good reasons for this.

Almost two-thirds (63%) of US marketers in our survey say experiential is good for shifting brand perceptions with a similar number (62%) saying experiential is good for conveying new ideas—both essential to building and maintaining brand equity.

For example, when autonomous driving leader Aptiv launched its new cloud-native DevOps platform at CES 2023, the brand did so by inviting attendees to a hyper-realistic demo ride in a stunning weather chamber to allow visitors not only to learn about its capabilities but to experience them first-hand.

This gave attendees an immersive view of what the technology can do, and its benefits.

US marketers see experiential as an effective strategy to involve and engage audiences, with 65% saying they choose experiential specifically with this goal in mind. There are excellent psychological reasons for this. Audiences that actively participate bring those audiences closer to the brand, tipping them over from passive observers into active participants, or from brand-positive to brand advocates.

The Old Forester Distilling Co. on Louisville’s Whiskey Row saw these benefits after opening the doors to their new brand home, which acts as a flagship experience for Bourbon fans. The hands-on experience, combining production with customer engagement, increased brand loyalty and helped lean into customer conversations.

The experience was voted as one of the top 10 new attractions by USA today, and the brand’s gross profit increased by 9%.

Of course, in such a time of uncertainty, it’s easy to see why some marketers are cautious about trying new approaches and sticking to the marketing channels they have always used.

But this would be a mistake – experiential will continue to be a critical way to tell new and dynamic brand stories that hit home.

The tipping point

Today, every marketer is rightly laser-focused on ROI. Many who have not used experiential believe this to be a pain point – that ROI is sometimes difficult to measure.

Perhaps in the past this was true, but it’s certainly no longer the case. Experience is a phenomenally good way to invest in your brand, give it presence, and get it in front of the right audiences.

If we think in terms of the marketing funnel, the top, awareness level, where potential customers are introduced to your brand, has always been a showcase for experiences. Think of companies sponsoring stadiums, and building an association with the fans that congregate there.

As we move down to the middle funnel, this is where experiences can actively tip people over into deeper association and where engagement and favorability can be dialed-up.

We can measure experience through engaged minutes, social shares, and the perception of brand through methods like Net Promoter Score. These all show a deepening of engagement that can be quantified.

Again at the middle funnel is a second tipping point, moving those engaged with a brand into those actively considering a brand through activities like product demonstrations or trials. It’s difficult to overstate how powerful this can be.

This is where leads are generated and can be attributed easily.

Reach should not be the only consideration – it’s the quality of that reach that’s important. When people can actively experiment for themselves, this triggers key psychological processes that deepen the association with a product.

This is where you change minds, so those who are on the fence or are just brand aware move into active consideration.

Emotional connections – the peak-end rule

It’s not enough to say experiences will drive sales or tell your brand story. Experiences can do both these things, but they must be carefully crafted to work to maximum effectiveness.

Think of the Peak-End rule. This is a simple cognitive bias backed by science that tells us we remember most clearly the emotional peak and the conclusion of an experience.

Hollywood filmmakers have used this approach for decades, so people come away with strong and memorable images and memories.

You can see this principle in action even in short ads.

For example, Ford’s BlueCruise ad introduces a new feature in a surprising way, meaning that this brief sequence about hands-free driving gives you a startling benefit and a product benefit at the same time.

Following a similar route, Apple’s iPhone 14 R.I.P Leon ad uses humor to introduce an unusual situation, and then lean into that situation to explain a new product feature, which is to recall a text, seamlessly.

Approaches like these stick in the mind because they surprise (give you an emotional peak), and then inform you about the product (the end). The peak-end rule. They also marry the emotional to the rational, which is the balance you need to make persuasive pitches that hit the head and heart.

These ads are superbly crafted, telling a micro story very quickly.

Experiences can do something similar, but have the luxury of greater depth thanks to active participation and length of engagement.

Experiences like these can also be measured through qualitative metrics, such as strong and lasting memories of the experience, in addition to the ROI measures listed above. Strong memories should not be underestimated – they form the basis of powerful positive associations with brand.

These emotional peaks are what we strive to produce for clients because they leave a strong memory and association that bring consumers closer to clients and help to tip them on the way to advocacy and to buy.

Marketers will continue to be at the leading edge of change, particularly now we’re entering the period of intensive focus on brands.

It’s time to look again at experiential approaches and make those emotional connections to tell your new brand story.

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