The Great Experiential Salvation
What’s experiential marketing, exactly? We went to a morning trend briefing to find out.
It’s official: experience is the latest addition to our ever-growing list of gag-inducing words, right up there with moist and millennials. Today, experiential marketing is a catchall term for everything from live events to PR stunts. Drop the vowels, slap a serif font on it and hand out VR headsets — voila! An experience-driven brand is born.
The experience economy has come a long way since the Harvard Business Review first identified it back in 1998, citing trending kids’ birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Businesses in competitive markets have slowly moved away from solely extracting commodities and making goods to delivering services and staging experiences. In the experience racket, everything is up for grabs. Not even dentist’s offices and churches can escape its long reach.
So when senior analysts Maxwell Luthy and Lisa Feierstein from TrendWatching’s New York office decided to host a morning briefing about The Future of Experiences, we were all ears. Even the venue, Metrograph, felt like a strategic choice. With its bespoke red velvet seats, Wes Anderson-meets-1920s interiors and Hollywood-style commissary, this art house movie theater on Manhattan’s historic Lower East Side was the perfect backdrop for a live event about experiential marketing.
Luthy and Feierstein highlighted a handful of trends around the world reshaping customer experiences in 2019 and beyond. Their target audience: mainly B2C brand managers interested in fresh in-person marketing strategies. We covered a lot of ground in a couple of hours — some expected (zero-waste everything, the glow-face epidemic thanks to screen addiction) and some eyebrow-raising (vitamin vapes, mock prisons, hyper-personalized 3D-printed sushi).
Luthy’s talk hinged on the Maslow-inspired idea that at the heart of any great experience there is a core human need being served, be it convenience, delight, relevance, status or self-actualization. “When change — social, political, cultural or environmental–-bumps up against core human needs it creates tension. Trends emerge [when] innovators resolve this tension by addressing our needs in novel ways.”
Indeed, in the 10 years since Uber first came into our lives the on-demand economy has transformed how convenience is addressed as a need. On a scale of one to Amazon-Lockers-at-Coachella, we may have reached peak convenience. We’re seeing the “atomization” of experience, where brands are injecting their presence in small doses through increasingly fragmented channels. The pay-as-you-go, multi-use 3DEN at Hudson Yards is an atomized “third place”, mini karaoke booths in Chinese shopping malls is a form of atomized entertainment, and AI-driven, unstaffed one-minute clinics offer atomized healthcare. Shared virtual experiences have gained new high-culture cred now that you can step inside a Rembrandt painting at the Mauritshuis museum in the Netherlands. EDM DJ Marshmello’s virtual Fornite concert attended by 10 million people means that a new generation’s Woodstock could likely occur within a video game.
Businesses not satisfied merely with peddling convenient or delightful experiences are opening their own temporary stores, where every aspect is tailored to transform mundane shopping trips into unique experiences in and of themselves. “Pop-up shops have become all brands’ favorite cheat code,” said Feierstein, proving her point with a single Google Maps search for “pop ups” in the city. From Recess IRL’s brand new outpost to Macy’s newly acquired West Chelsea boutique STORY, NYC could reasonably claim to have the largest concentration of experiential pop-ups on Earth.
In its endless iterations, experience-driven commerce revolves mostly around engaging the senses, but risks tipping over from sensory stimulation into overload. With #doitforthegram going strong at 403,500 posts and FOMO fueling travel plans people can’t afford, the experience economy might be running on fumes. Can it be salvaged? According to HBR, “commodities are fungible, goods tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable.” The experience-driven brand has to remind itself that it’s in the memory-making business. Feierstein hit the nail on the head when she said the experience-first revolution can’t stop at stimulating the senses — it must “seduce the soul.”