Stunts and sampling are well-established in the PR world and cynics see the 'experiential' sector as little more than a new haircut for both of these activities. But they are wrong: this year's PRWeek Awards will have a live brand experience category for the first time, and the creation of events that get people talking online and offline is booming.
'Experiential has become the new gold rush for PR agencies,' says Dan Holliday, MD of experiential agency Not Actual Size. 'It's the "real" that people value. Hence the boom in all things "live".'
Experiential activity is used to sell the benefits of brands to targeted groups to increase brand awareness and sales by putting a physical representation of that brand in front of them. And PR companies - with their traditional strength in achieving media coverage - have the skills to get that representation talked about. 'PR and marketing managers within companies are becoming somewhat confused about how to reach out to consumers,' says Sally Durcan, founder of experiential specialist Hotcow. 'There is a definite role for both PR and experiential agencies.'
Frank PR is among the agencies looking to capitalise, and it set up its own experiential division, Sneeze, some time ago. But Johnny Pitt, founder and chief executive of rival integrated marcoms agency Launch Group, does not seem convinced. 'Lots of people misunderstand what experiential is. It doesn't necessarily work so well as a standalone piece of activity; it has to be about an integrated offer,' he says. 'Some agencies have separate divisions but how much experiential work are these doing on their own? Probably not much, if they are honest.'
But this seems to be the point as the PR industry becomes more confident about using a live brand event as part of a campaign rather than just an add-on. Sneeze boss Damon Statt says: 'We have real crossover in terms of delivering on the face-to-face event level but also on coverage.'
And PR agencies are increasingly doing experiential work that appeals to clients. Cow PR was behind the launch last month of the Vauxhall Insignia, which saw an orb 'crashing' near Tower Bridge before it opened to reveal the new car two days later. 'To be outside the motoring pages we have to act like a consumer brand, not just a car company,' says Simon Ewart, manager, consumer comms at GM UK and Ireland. 'But it works only as long as there's integration of the product (with the activity). There has to be a reason.'
Nigel Dickie, director of corporate and government affairs at Heinz, agrees: 'You have to link your proposition (to the PR activity) rather than just badging something.' Cow's work for Heinz included last year's van tour for the company's Aunt Bessie's Mash frozen potatoes. The PR team reinvented the 99 flake as a sort of 'all-weather cone' containing sausage, mash and peas and the van's presence boosted regional sales.
These are good examples of PR working with experiential, but this is not always the case, says Cow director Clare Myddleton. 'I hate the fact that we are often briefed after other people,' she explains. 'PR should be recognised as the starting point of the storytelling. Too often people will say: "We're doing a big event - you need to make it famous." But the events team hasn't a clue what works for the UK media. Unless you have the hook of a story, you're going to miss consumer touchpoints. Experiential agencies have never sold into the hardest of newsdesks.'
That may change as the lines between PR and experiential blur. Experiential work is resource-intensive and can take 75 per cent of a budget in production alone - thus squeezing other budget areas and bringing the issue of return on investment into sharp relief. This is one reason why experiential specialist Beatwax makes media coverage, along with footfall, a key measure of success, getting newspapers, radio stations and so on committed to promoting its events editorially.
'That generates quality coverage, certainly in relation to films: cast, plot synopsis, opening date and embedding the artwork,' says MD Michael Brown. 'We can say to clients: "We've had this idea and here are the media partners we've got on board".'
It certainly worked for 20th Century Fox, which has gone down the experiential route with Beatwax on movies including Silver Surfer, Alvin and The Chipmunks and Meet Dave. Fox marketing manager Helen Davis concedes: 'The first time is a bit of a step into the dark as there are a lot of things to take into account on activity of this nature that perhaps you haven't thought about as a client - dry-cleaning chipmunk costumes, for instance.'
It is a good point: production requires core skills, such as knowing the right people on the council for permissions, understanding health and safety legislation and even how many toilets you need. For those wanting to make it part of their offering, Holliday has some advice. 'Good experiential activity comes down to three skills - production, creative and amplification,' he says. 'PR companies have got the latter locked down; now they need to make sure the creative and production is up to speed as well.'
CASE STUDY - OPENING OF BEE MOVIE
PR team: Beatwax
The Dreamworks animation Bee Movie was aimed at family audiences over the busy shopping period up to Christmas last year - although the summer-themed film needed to be positioned as an alternative choice in the Yuletide market.
To get local media on board and generate advance coverage and communicate key film messages. To secure brand partnerships to co-fund activity and secure national media opportunities.
What the team did
The PR team created a tour, Bee Movie Live, that took in ten cities from Glasgow to London, where it remained for four weeks at the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Attractions included an adapted aeroplane flight simulator using specially created animated footage showing a flight through the eyes of the movie's main character. There was also a giant hive in honeycomb design, in which kids dressed up in Velcro bee outfits and were catapulted on to a Velcro wall.
Who covered it?
Brand partners that contributed to cost included LG (plasma screens), Piaggio (a customised scooter in black and yellow), Xscape Leisure Centres and Activision (gaming pods with Bee Movie games were provided in the hive). Features were secured in regional media including thelondonpaper, Sheffield's The Star, Milton Keynes Citizen, Coventry Telegraph, Yorkshire Evening Post, Brighton's The Argus, Empire Online and Juice Radio.
What did it achieve?
Total footfall was 1.1 million and free media value was £251,000, including seven half-pages in the nationals and ten days of online coverage in the Daily Star. Despite lukewarm reviews, the film took £9m at the UK box office.
CASE STUDY - FIRST NFL MATCH TO BE PLAYED OUTSIDE NORTH AMERICA
PR team: Not Actual Size
American Football's National Football League had never staged a competitive game outside of North America before last October's Miami Dolphins vs New York Giants clash at Wembley Stadium. Not Actual Size was brought on board to promote the match to a public largely unaware of the rules of the game.
To create a vehicle with inherent news value, developing a mass awareness campaign around the Wembley Stadium game, with an emphasis on Miami. To drive ticket sales and use the match as a catalyst for NFL fanbase growth.
What the team did
To create an experience with NFL brand positioning, the team focused on the players. This would give the story a human angle, sidestep the rules issue and connect more easily with non-fans. The solution was to create the biggest animatronic figure ever built, based on a lifelike replica of Miami Dolphins player Jason Taylor, dubbed the 'David Beckham of American football'. It was 26ft high, weighed more than a tonne, had moveable feet, arms and eyes and travelled at 5mph. The week-long tour of London included Trafalgar Square, Canary Wharf and Victoria station.
Who covered it?
There was a 417 per cent increase in Sky's average viewing figures for American football compared with an ordinary NFL game. There were 354m opportunities to see in national press (£3.91m in PR value).
What did it achieve?
Around 500,000 tickets for the match were requested in the first 72 hours of the campaign and a 150 per cent rise in NFL UK membership followed.