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If you had to pinpoint a specific place in time, the first seminal moment in brand experience likely came in 1998 with the publication of The Experience Economy by B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore. The book was one of the industry’s most influential, predicting a new economic era in which all businesses would be compelled to orchestrate memorable events for their customers. Conceptually, it was fueled by what was seen as a shift in our definition of self: from “relationship to things” to “relationship to experiences.” Even before that, the 60s and 70s in retail represented a breakthrough as individual expressive brands like The Gap and Urban Outfitters presented a world of colliding ideas with experiences that emanated out of their retail spaces, creating new destinations for younger, engaged shoppers.
However, even with this noted potential, experience as a differentiator saw a glacial pace of growth and in many ways has continued to suffer its own global warming effect with many brands leaving the discipline as quickly as they arrive. Only very recently has experience retaken the mainstage, partially driven by social media and its ability to turn brand experiences into marketing moments.
At their best, experiences designed and built to inspire participation and social sharing can be invaluable platforms for deep consumer engagement with brands.
Today, we are seeing a change as brands start to understand the value of an experience well beyond the immediacy of sales. They are also realizing how the moments these experiences create become powerful brand building tools on platforms like Instagram. Architecting an experience, whether in retail or on the street activations, puts social amplification at the center of the experience. With the right experience, consumers will happily do the brand’s advertising for them, on social media and beyond.
When Experience Works
At their best, experiences designed and built to inspire participation and social sharing can be invaluable platforms for deep consumer engagement with brands. For example, we recently launched innovative tech brand Hive in North America focusing on seven key test markets. While Hive is well known across Europe and is the number one smart home solution in the UK, the company entered North America as a complete unknown. Working with Hive, we chose to kick off their North American engagement with hands-on product activations specifically focused on garnering press, building local interest and establishing a social presence. With each interaction directly with the products, the users could experience and understand the brand approach to creating a seamless way to a smarter home.
But when considering social amplification, we were challenged. Why would anybody get their phone out to capture a shot of these products? Why would they share those photos? Our solution was to leverage Hive’s colorful “Let’s Get Living” campaign by creating a playful experience where people could capture themselves having fun in different interactive environments. Visitors could dive into a pool of plastic balls, play in the mobile app-controlled shade, or rest on a hammock and enjoy a fan-assisted moment in the sun, all powered and controlled by Hive’s smart home system.
These were experiences people really wanted to engage in that also organically incorporated the products. As a result, the brand reaped the reward of positive social buzz and a new group of enthusiastic online ambassadors. After all, who doesn’t want to capture a shot of themselves falling into a swimming pool? And because product placement and brand language were tastefully incorporated into each environment, any photos captured and shared carried the message beyond those directly experiencing the space.
The Right Consumer Experience
But brands beware: focusing on social amplification alone is dangerous behavior if it ignores the needs of the consumer. Even as they look to get the most out of every experience, brands should have a discipline in place for every engagement they create. Experiences must bring value to the consumer, not just the brand. This is important as younger, media-saturated consumers on social media are savvy enough to know when they are doing a brand’s work for them. Millennials especially, who make up the bulk of valuable Instagram users, are less than trustful of brand content.
That’s not to say that they don’t mind participating as long as they’re aligned to a brand’s purpose or the experience itself rewards them through discovery, education, entertainment or simply quenches a need. If a brand experience does none of the above, it’s social activity that will either produce lackluster results or worse, turn against the brand.
Designing the Experience
But making sure there’s something in it for the consumer is not the only step leading to a successful socially-led experience. Experience design also plays a key role in the success of a space. Some common mistakes involve flow management – forgetting that people need to flow through a space while others are capturing a moment. Also, shareable moments must align to a central brand message, otherwise each image is a missed opportunity. The absence of branding or a clear indicator of the brand is still a surprisingly common mistake.
Lastly, brands must remember that what gets posted to social doesn’t go away. While you can attempt to edit and shape certain outcomes, themes get developed through social in such powerful ways that it has to be carefully considered at all points of the brand’s journey. It’s tempting to think that an activation is just for the visitors in a specific market so less rigor needs to be given to aspects like social, but this is just not the case. Whether you launch in one place or multiple places, as far a social media is concerned, you have opened a door to the brand and so you must protect it from start to finish.
Experience for All
When approaching the development of an experience whether permanent, in retail or simply a two-hour activation, brand owners have to understand the limits of their brand when it comes to social. Not all brands warrant the same approach. Some brands bring immediate signals of familiarity like Coca Cola or Red Bull and their visual ID enables an approach that is more playful because people immediately recognize them. Other brands, though, require a more direct branding and messaging approach because they’re new or lack familiarity.
Still, regardless of size and scale, developing and leveraging a social component can not only complement a brand’s strategy, but help define its identity. While shareability doesn’t always ensure a brand’s success, creating compelling, socially-driven experiences that engage consumers and elicit interaction can prove to be less a perfunctory exercise and more a powerful tool.