Gone are the days when retailers wondered how to magnetize and mesmerize shoppers. Today, it’s widely understood that it all comes down to experiences, and the execution of that delicate dance between brand and consumer can make — or break — that special bond that keeps them coming back.
And that’s why A Non-Agency, led by founder and president Michelle Collins, specializes in consumer experience marketing — think of it as marketing’s new frontier.
Collins’ firm has worked with agencies of record such as Publicis, M&C Saatchi and Big Spaceship, as well as luxury and other global brands, including Richemont North America, Lancôme, Van Cleef & Arpels and Google Play, to develop and deploy ultra-cool experiential marketing initiatives.
Here, Collins talks to WWD about the lasting power — and current critical need — of experiential marketing, and how brands have creatively interacted with consumers during the coronavirus pandemic.
WWD: What are the key components of a successful experiential marketing event?
Michelle Collins: I like to frame experiential marketing as a form of dating that hopefully manifests into a lasting relationship. Chemistry is at the heart of the spark that attracts people, and while some say it’s inexplicable, we in experiential marketing know that it is our job to create the spark. The secret sauce is a trifecta of ingredients:
• The right people. Opinion leaders and influencers serve as matchmakers, hosts for others seeking the newest and attention-worthy brand, product or event. Likewise, the challenge is to attract desirable attendees and those who can create a social dynamic and compelling user-generated content to elevate the experience.
• The right place. This is the heart of user experience design whether this be physical space or a virtual environment and sets the tone for a personalized moment.
• The right time/timing. A relationship takes time to develop. Experiential marketing events that are only connected to purchasing and consumer spending do not create loyalty or true brand affinity. Consumers seek those Brands that offer education, shared equity, and opportunities to influence others.
WWD: What aspects of marketing must brands consistently take into consideration in a virtual setting?
M.C.: Virtual can mean many things. With video, live-streaming events are virtual, but challenged by the limited viewing real estate, participation numbers and elimination of olfactory and other sensory tools, which can drive human emotion. Virtual settings need to offer something better than a video conference call with a host, videos and a static background. Brands should offer branded backdrops and personal expressions.
In the current environment, brands need to be mindful to engage audiences in virtual settings that feature environments, products and activities with the user experience in mind. They should be mindful to offer an initial guided introduction, incremental gesture interactions, while offering real human interactions.
WWD: How have brands adapted to the “new normal” of employing video and technology-reliant mediums for experiential marketing since canceling events due to the coronavirus pandemic?
M.C.: Brands are widely hosting live events and prerecorded at-home performances as a means to deliver content. While this has helped with immediate entertainment and content needs that presumably fill the social interaction void, it will not replace the depth and multisensory programming we crave as human beings.
I’d love to see the introduction of creative direction that unifies different spaces, people and activities in the virtual world the way we design in the physical. Each of us has our own unique look and feel within our home, space and lives. This should not create a barrier for brands to offer their customers and influencers a custom-created branded backdrop in physical or augmented reality form.
WWD: What is the design process for creating a compelling experiential marketing activation?
M.C.: More than just a “cool” concept, compelling experiential marketing should deliver on the emotional impact that connects us to an experience, people and place. As an experiential marketer, I have to ask the questions: What’s the story? What’s the emotional takeaway? How does it add value? Starting with the story and mapping it to different customer journeys is critical, as is the thoughtful introduction of a technology or product.
We need to democratize planning and value engineering to offer unique equity to all the partners involved. A Non-Agency was built upon the principle of disrupting the old methods. We encourage sharing, giving and different thinking across all teams, including the media and production groups. When all the experts have a seat at the table at the start of a project, you honor a different set of brand ambassadors and a compelling plan in which all parties have equity.
WWD: Has the role of brand ambassadors or influencers evolved or redefined in experiential marketing?
M.C.: In this age where social distancing has refocused our attention to those that are within our inner circle, credibility and authenticity are now as important as the number of followers.
I see an opportunity in this new age of reality live-streams for those who are loyal and actively engaged brand followers to become brand ambassadors with a unique influence status. It’s almost as if we are witnessing a global casting call for creativity with widely used video, live chats, TikTok and other platforms that showcase individual personalities and production capabilities. LinkedIn, too, is getting in the game by launching a pilot Live program, which enables individuals and organizations to become an influencer host.
Influencers who were once engaged for a wide spectrum of appearances and other limited-attendance social activities will now be challenged to be more creative in how they produce their content and cultivate relationships with followers. Beauty industry giants such as Estée Lauder, L’Oréal and retailers such as Ulta are perfectly positioned to create a new channel for day-to-day conversations among influencers, brand ambassadors and experts.
WWD: Would you elaborate on “privacy-unveiled” environments? What does this mean for marketing, and how does it impact the consumer?
M.C.: We’ve now seen the homes, furniture and non-glam squad faces of our biggest celebrities and talents. In a single frame, consumers have been invited into the private lives of those that were once veiled, impacting how we perceive those personalities. Someone who once seemed the epitome of style, taste and innovation is now just a person sitting in front of a camera or computer. Consumers may feel disconnected from old, perfectly staged, “from the studio” format.
There is a positive to this: production costs and marketing budgets that were once bogged down by studios, remote sets, complicated post-production and other budgets can now be reevaluated to embrace this new entertainment style. We know that consumers can and will positively receive a less-produced show, set and live program.
WWD: Are there any emerging technologies or trends on the horizon for experiential marketing?
M.C.: Certainly, the growth of at-home live-streams with easy, lightweight multicamera systems and platforms will continue to grow, creating a whole new way of livestreaming from different locations in real-time without the dependencies of a broadcast production team. Networks of talent can create their own program shot in real-time and live from their homes, studios or wherever. It’s a new collaborative approach to user-generated content.
The fashion industry will find sustainability and other gains through VR and live-stream shows that focus on delivering multiple experiences to simultaneous groups, direct customers and business transactions without the production-related costs of physical “fashion” shows. Through VR, the fashion industry can find both efficiencies and creative expressions.
We’re all watching to see how fashion week evolves. In the current environment, we shouldn’t be locked into the seasons and manufacturing demands of yesterday. [It’s great to] see how innovators such as Moda Operandi are bringing to light new designers, trunk shows and limited production on a weekly and even daily basis.
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