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Experiential marketing/branding and the newfound power of Gen X

In an article called “Enjoy the experience turn on, tune in--and pay attention,” (December 3, 2007), Brandweek talks about the trend toward experiential marketing—“essentially, a sophisticated term for getting into public spaces and letting the consumer interact with your product personally.” Apparently giving consumers a live experience with the brand is proving to be a successful way of reaching people. Here are some examples of companies and what they’re doing to give customers a branded experience:

* Panasonic is parking tractor trailers labeled “Panasonic. Living in high definition.” outside Best Buy and other retailers. The trailers have had a makeover designed to look like “a guy’s dream living room,” complete with all the Panasonic electronics it can hold. Sales of Panasonic HDTVs are up an average of 30% at every retailer that’s had the truck parked outside; Panasonic has set aside one-third of its 2008 marketing budget for experiential initiatives.

* The Wii videogame has been on tour to U.S. shopping malls, where consumers can experience what it’s like to use it.

* For Paramount Pictures’ The Spiderwick Chronicles Experience, the company sent “a customized vehicle loaded with digital equipment that stopped at schools, malls and museums, where kids who ventured inside could see how CGI animation works.”

* “DeWalt tools now spends 50% of its marketing budget on nontraditional advertising, including experiential efforts such as Rolling Thunder, a roving display that parks at Nascar events and allows the public to have fun playing with its newest power tools.”

* “Air New Zealand is hitting the streets of California in an ice-cream truck. Free treats are meant to remind customers that there's beautiful summer weather in Kiwi land. ‘It gives a face and personality to our airline,’ said marketing manager Jodi Williams. ‘This approach gives us more buzz for our buck.’”

Experiential marketing is working well right now because consumers are sick of being bombarded with in-your-face TV, radio, and web advertisements, and are shutting them out with TiVo, satellite radio, and simply clicking away from online ads. (Not to mention the do-not-call laws restricting telemarketing.) In contrast, experiential marketing is an interactive, personal, tactile experience that takes place at the discretion of the consumer.

Experiential marketing is not new, notes the article…as long ago as 1911 Heinz sent door-to-door representatives to do taste-tests with consumers. And the tactic worked.

The article also notes that experiential marketing comes with potential pitfalls, such as spoiled food, people who “simply don’t want a leaflet thrust at them,” and with legal issues that come up. But I think one of the biggest potential pitfalls is to create a marketing experience as opposed to a brand experience. People should not just experience the product, they should experience the brand. That is what builds loyalty over the long term, rather than just having the consumer encounter the product and walk away with a shrug and a “that was nice.”

Speaking of experiential marketing, Brandweek also (December 17, 2007) has a case study called “Schwab’s (Gen) X Files,” about an event targeting 25-to-34 year olds in New York in which “teams of financial consultants and brand ambassadors” took up posts at kiosks and “roaming the streets in a 37-foot ‘Talk to Chuck’ RV. They gave out calculators that compared the yield of Schwab’s own checking account vs. the national average, gave out fake ATM cards which people exchanged for $2 bills (and some $100 bills), and also gave out checking account applications. Schwab is pleased with the results thus far. Interestingly, targeting Gen Xers was cited as a priority by 86% of top marketing executives in a recent survey commissioned by the Marketing Executives Networking Group and conducted by Anderson Analytics. This is a very high percentage and only two percent shy of the percentage who said baby boomers are “still the most sought-after demographic.”

I say this is interesting because it seems to me that it is Gen Xers who are leading the charge when it comes to taking their thoughts about brands to the Internet (a la Citizen Marketers), and it is probably . Gen Xers who are the ones tuning out TV with TiVo and turning on satellite radio. The power of this group to completely shift the marketing and branding paradigms we know of today seems very much unrecognized by the marketing media, so it was nice to see the marketing survey come out which pointed to the influence this generation is having.

Now here’s a piece of can’t-turn-away-from-it marketing that clearly doesn’t work. In “Fast food gets its greasy hands on report cards,” the Chicago Tribune talks about a school in Florida that partnered with McDonald’s to feature a cartoon of Ronald McDonald along with an ad for a “food prize” for “elementary school students who had good grades, behavior or attendance.” The idea was for parents to reward their high performing children with a trip to McDonald’s. The promotion, in which the sponsor paid the cost of printing the report cards in exchange for an advertisement on them, totally offended parent Susan Pagan, who was “told that she was the only parent who thought it was inappropriate to put fast-food ads on the report card jackets.” But apparently it’s been going on for the last decade, and Pizza Hut used to be the sponsor. Here is a way, the article notes, that McDonald’s is “branding its product early and often in impressionable young minds to build loyalty and create lifelong customers.” This even though McDonald’s has recently stated that it will “stop marketing all food or beverage products in elementary schools” and will “advertise only its healthier options to children younger than 12.” Pagan is likely a Gen Xer herself; and I am not surprised that her story is all over the Internet.

The bottom line: Gen Xers are taking control of the marketing and branding marketplace, influencing everything about this field in a big way. Nobody is talking about it much, but they really should be. We are witnessing a key generational shift.

“Curator Culture” and Branding

In a recent article on his blog, Steven Addis, the CEO of the CEO of Addis Creson, a Berkeley, CA based branding firm, postulates that we have shifted into a “curator culture.” Like museum curators, the new consumer has “unlimited resources to research products, review them for others, and expose the disingenuous….the ability to transmit on a mass scale…. with credibility corporations have all but squandered.”

This idea is not new, although the terminology may be unique. It is similar to the premise of Brand Hijack and Creating Customer Evangelists and my own writing on the subject of customer co-creation and brands. And earlier than that, in 2001 and before, brand futurist Marian Salzman was talking about the “prosumer,” or “empowered consumer,” noting that customers had seized the reins from marketers and were increasingly demanding—and getting—their way.

What is unique about the curator culture concept? The role of brands, which has shifted. As consumers enjoy a higher-level status, companies’ status has been lowered to that of potential peer. And curator customers only trust peers that behave in a certain way. In effect, brands need to step off their high horses and get into the mud with the average consumer, becoming one of them—like them—no higher in level. Addis outlines several ways that companies like this “are earning our trust”:

1. Locate and serve a niche market: “Consumers reward the brands that speak directly to them. The more they feel understood, the more they bond. In spite of this, the natural tendency of companies is to extend their brands as wide as possible in the hopes that they might appeal to everyone. These mega-brands inevitably fall on their own weight as they lose the connection with their core audience.” Companies can serve the masses, but they have to do so by hosting “a portfolio of narrowly defined brands.” He gives the example of Toyota, which created the Lexus brand for luxury buyers, and the Scion brand for the polar opposite—urban youth without a lot of money. He notes that Scion billboards proudly state: “So wrong for so many.” Personally, I’m not sure this is an aspect of curator culture, but rather the continuing kingship of positioning, which has recently come under attack.

2. Act trustworthy: This is a no-brainer. Addis writes: “The Curator Culture cuts both ways—consumers reward the sincere and expose the disingenuous. As John Feldman, partner at the law firm Reed Smith said, ‘If you’re in the business of selling candy, sell candy; if you’re in the business of selling burgers, sell burgers.’” You can be a “bad” brand, as long as you’re honest about it, but if you act like a “good” brand and are not, you’ll get trounced. “An infamous example of corporate duplicity was the controversy surrounding the Working Families for Wal-Mart blog,” he states as an example. “At first glance, the site appeared to be a grassroots organization countering the public criticism of Wal-Mart by union-backed groups like Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch. But it was later revealed that this site was actually created by Wal-Mart and their public relations company, Edelman. Wal-Mart was publicly flogged for creating the impression of spontaneous, grassroots behavior.”

3. Invite customers to co-create the brand: “In the current zeitgeist, the ‘tell-and-sell’ approach of traditional advertising is waning. Today’s consumers have become accustomed to having a growing impact on the success of a brand. So, when a company invites its customers to participate in their brand, it’s saying that it values them and their opinion.” Examples range from letting M&M consumers vote on a new candy color; letting LEGO customers “design and buy their own custom LEGO models, and share their designs with others”; a director meeting with “nontraditional media” (e.g., bloggers) to generate publicity for the movie Superman Returns; and even allowing customers to create the TV commercials for Doritos and Chevy.

4. Act as an advocate for other consumers. “Some companies actually rise to the level of peer by putting the consumer’s interests above its own.” This is notable, he says, in the Progressive Insurance business/brand strategy of showing customers quotes from itself as well as its competitors.

5. Be original—independent of other brands. “The new consumer values originality and can easily perceive ‘me-too’ brands,” writes Addis. “The courage to differentiate from other brands is a weapon against mediocrity. Nobody rushes to share a mediocre experience with a friend. But, I underscore ‘courage,’ as most companies’ tendency to frame brands errs to the familiar, leaving the courageous few to be envied. Part of this differentiation is creating “a great story,” as the Verse Group has also emphasized. Of course, as noted above, other peers (consumers) to the brand will want to have a hand in generating those stories themselves, now that we are in the age of YouTube.

6. Provide an experience of elation—more than just satisfaction. “A common misconception is that the opposite of dissatisfaction is satisfaction. Satisfaction falls in the middle of the continuum. The opposite of dissatisfaction is something more like elation. Satisfaction should be the bare minimum companies expect from us,” writes Addis. An example Addis provides is JetBlue giving customers great snacks “like Terra Chips, pistachio biscotti, and jumbo cashews—and they certainly don’t charge for them. Every seat has DirectTV and XM Satellite Radio, and in select airports, free wireless hotspots are provided. Best of all, they keep their prices competitive, which has earned them a loyal, evangelistic customer base.” (He adds: “This, coupled with its CEO’s sincere apology posted as an online video, got them over a dramatic lapse in their service last winter.”)

Addis argues that consumers “do feel special bonds with the very few brands that rise to the level of peer….While you might not be able to put your finger on exactly why you love the brands you do, they stand out above the others by instinctively understanding the power of the Curator Culture.”

I think these points are well worth companies’ pondering. As much as other books and articles have provided a cultural context and some understanding of the elevation of today’s consumer, this article provides some concrete guidance for brands seeking to cope in this new environment.