Stories to tell, not stuff to show: exploring the shift to experiential marketing

Monday 15 May 2017 by Mollie Woolnough-Rai

Money can buy you happiness. It’s an ideology embedded in us from day dot. Wherever we look we are led to believe that buying “things” will cure our woes. From ads in magazines and billboards to animated banners following us around the web, we’re constantly told that products are the answer – whatever the question.

But consumer behaviour is shifting. Products are being traded for real-life experiences that are believed to hold more worth. Research has found that people who spend more on experiences, rather than material items, are happier as they feel their money is better spent on moments that create lasting memories. Compounding this shift is the fact that today many of us have learned to “zone out” classic marketing techniques; an evolutionary feat coined by psychologists as sensory adaptation. Just like when our eyes get used to the dark, when we’re overexposed to the same advertising stimuli our brain gets used to it and effortlessly tunes it out to focus on the important stuff.

All this means it’s now more crucial than ever for brands to get creative and really tap into what makes us happy.

Live a little (spend a lot)

Apple has been a champion of experiential marketing from its inception. Its branding, packaging, products and design are all centred around the “Apple experience” – even the physical stores and sales teams represent and accentuate this. Hundreds of elements combine seamlessly to create a unique experience, which consumers associate with the brand’s quality and minimalist ethos.

In advertising, a new message is emerging: “life’s too short – it’s time to really experience it”. The O2 campaign #FollowTheRabbit taps into the notion that life doesn’t come with a catch-up button. Through O2 Priority, the mobile network’s exclusive offers and discounts service, O2 is gifting free tickets to live events and encouraging its audience to live and breathe these “once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable” experiences. In true Alice-in-Wonderland style, O2 planted a number of six-foot blue rabbits in secret locations around the UK. The first five city-dwellers to discover a rabbit won a pair of VIP tickets to a live event at their local O2 Academy venue.

This month, Marks & Spencer has also launched its experience-based campaign, Spend it well. Its headline TV ad boldly encourages the viewer to have the conviction to say no to wasting time on unenjoyable experiences, extortionate clothing or “disappointing dinners”, and instead “spend well” on exciting adventures.

Neither of these campaigns specifically promote the core products or services of the brands that are running them. Rather, they endorse living life to the fullest – and show how, with the help of these organisations, we can become happier.

An uncomfortable experience?

For all the positive points and innovation within experiential marketing, there’s a risk that it could all go too far. In the future, to experience a brand in a truly immersive way, it’s inevitable that new technologies will play and ever-increasing role.

Despite the hype of Pokémon Go dissipating, augmented reality (AR) has continued to push its way into mainstream consciousness. The band Gorillaz, for example, has adopted the technology to interact with its fans following the release of its new album Humanz. The band is immersing fans in its own fantasy world – filled with the notable Gorillaz characters – by offering exclusive AR experiences. With the app boasting more than 100,000 downloads in fewer than 24 hours after launch, there’s clearly an appetite for these experimental techniques.

But what if everything goes a little 80s sci-fi? Surely it’s inevitable that these techniques will begin to creep further and further into our personal lives. Social media and AR seem like logical partners – but there’s the risk of it all becoming too invasive and too extreme. Snapchat recently released Spectacles – real sunglasses that when worn create shareable video footage through the eyes of the wearer. This world of wearable tech, although admittedly pretty cool, does seem borderline creepy.

And, of course, we can’t forget virtual reality (VR). Mark Zuckerberg recently announced the development of Facebook Spaces – VR chat rooms where you can “meet” and socialise with your Facebook friends through your VR headset without even leaving your home. It’s interesting to think what will happen when brands and their advertising invade this space – will our privacy become compromised as brands enter our new “reality”?

Experiential marketing is only going to become more popular – we’re clearly becoming numb to the same old strategies. But it’s a scary prospect that sometime soon we may not be able to tell where experiential marketing ends and our personal lives begin.


  • Marketing
  • Technology