MARKETING FEATURE: The fight for brand events

Are memorable consumer experiences the job of PR or advertising? Or is it a discipline all on its own? Steve Hemsley investigates.

The experiential marketing sector is on the up. A survey commissioned by MICE Group last year found that, on average, top companies are dedicating about a third of their marketing budgets to experiential. Though still less than one per cent of the total UK advertising budget, as brands try harder to engage us rather than interrupt our lives with traditional advertising, it is safe to ­ass­ume that this will only get bigger.

Ad agencies have tried to take ownership of the experiential sector, but PROs must be wondering why. ‘Brand experiences’ are often based around creative ideas that, in the past, would have been viewed as PR stunts and they certainly need media relations to work effectively.

However, a new breed of specialists with PR backgrounds are starting to wrestle this discipline back from ad-land. ‘PR has been slow in this area, but there is a massive opportunity here to offer clients experiential activities that rely on word of mouth, digital viral campaigns and media relations to succeed,’ says Revolver Communications founder Martin Ballantine, now director of experiential marketing at Launch Group.

One of the main reasons experiential activity appeals to brands is that people actively choose to participate. Few consumers would elect to watch a television commercial. So why the slow development of PR-led experiential marketing?

‘It is odd that the PR industry is not driving this market considering the power it has to devise a creative consumer experience and build a real noise behind it,’ says Mark Cooper, co-founder of Van Communications.

PR agencies with experiential marketing arms will tell you they have had to convince clients their role can be more than simply getting media attention for an event organised by another marketing agency.

They have also faced opposition from PR traditionalists, who grumble experiential projects are ‘hijacking’ marketing cash that should be flowing into ‘core’ PR budgets.

Brando is a hybrid agency blending PR with live experiences, and managing partner Paul Lucas says PR must fight its corner. ‘Some clients are allocating a pot of money for “experiential” work and getting their various marketing agencies to share it,’ he explains. Brando’s work includes the ‘Living by the Book’ campaign to promote BT’s Phone Book. Contestants in a ­radio competition had to complete tasks with just a phone book and a phone. For Haribo, Brando arranged for children to run the factory for a day.

Sneeze Marketing, the experiential division within Frank PR, regularly ­uses actors to create brand exper­iences. For thelondonpaper, it positioned large purple sofas around the City and invi­ted passers-by to sit down and read an edition. More than 330,000 samples were distributed and the activity generated significant media coverage.

Experts argue that as consumers gradually gain control of brand messages through digital media such as ­online social networks, their willingness to be involved in what is a ­commercial marketing exercise will become invaluable.

It does, however, mean brand ­experiences must be relevant and ­topical. ‘PROs know what news is and how to inject news value into brand ­experiences,’ says Dan Holliday, co-founder of Thefishcansing and now a partner at experiential agency Not ­Actual Size. ‘This is where they can ­really add value.’

While it is true experiential work has grown out of field marketing, it is arguably the PR sector which has the more suitable skills to help clients maximise their return on investment.

It also holds true that without PR most experiential activity will fail. An occasion needs publicity before it happens to ensure people turn up, and requires a PRO’s skills during an event to keep journalists happy and handle any crises. PROs are also in ­demand after an experience to generate the third-party endorsement that brands crave.

‘Consumers and journalists are happy to have a conversation with a brand if it is giving them something back, while post-event PR is crucial ­because only a limited number of people will ever be able to attend,’ says Gary Berman, media director at experiential agency Momentum.

In many ways experiential marketing is about bringing advertising, field marketing and PR together, and to life. But as it relies heavily on active participation and word of mouth, it is only a matter of time before PR becomes the driving force.

Ben & Jerry’s©

Creative consultancy Cake Group provides clients with experiential and PR services under the Brand Enter­tainment umbrella.

In July it will repeat the Ben & Jerry’s© Sundae music festival on London’s Clapham Common. Scottish eighties pop icons The Proclaimers will top the bill.

The concept is simple: 18 to 35-year-olds will try the ice cream while at the gig. Their friends and family – and the wider public through media coverage – will then hear about the experience.

The 15,000 visitors at last year’s event ate an average of ten free scoops of ice cream each, with chocolate fudge brownie the most popular. About 20,000 people are expected to attend this year.

Ben & Jerry’s© says the branded festival, which takes place over the weekend of 28-29 July, has helped it to retain the number one spot in the UK ice cream category.

Its sales are up 26.5 per cent this year nationally and by 28 per cent in London.

Cake will be hoping to improve on last year’s PR results, which generated more than 140 pieces of coverage with an estimated PR value of £479,191.

‘We have to continually look at ways to enrich the brand experience,’ admits Cake’s head of PR Chris Wood. ‘But this remains an ideal way to reflect the brand’s values and engage consumers.’

He says a considerable amount of ­research and planning is involved in ­organising such an experience.

‘Experiential work must be insight-driven. Initially we launched this family event because we realised a lot of people in their late twenties and early thirties would love to go to a music festival but felt unable to because they had children.’

The brand experience also fulfils Ben & Jerry’s© aim to make a contribution to the local community. In 2005 and 2006 the company promised to help fund the restoration of the band­­stand on Clapham Common. This year the festival is also being promoted as a carbon neutral event.

Sensory heavy or Live PR: campaigns that enable consumers to touch, taste, see, smell or hear a brand.

JARGON BUSTER

'Brand bonding': without PR an experience is just an event. PR generates the third-party endorsement that cements the bond a consumer has with a brand.

'Communication currency': giving target consumers such a positive experience that they have bragging rights among their peers. This might be exclusive tickets for a music event.

'Affinity shift': when an experience convinces the consumer to change their attitude towards a brand or alter their buying behaviour.

'Whispering campaigns': representatives of a brand talk up an exper­i­ence. Think actors with mob­ile phones talking about a brand event, or the marketi­ng team adding positive comments to relevant blogs.

'Engagement index': the measure used by any agency to evaluate whether a brand experience worked.

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