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Below is the fifth installment in our series, The Power of Immersive Experience, in which we explore the key aspects of immersive experiences (directed attention, expanded perspective, human connection) with the goal of understanding how they relate to building collective intent and spurring organizational change.

Experience marketing has stormed the gates of the brand and advertising world. This impactful approach, centered on events and live experiences, reminds us of the important role that immersive experiences play in forging human connection. CN’s Senior Principal Hamilton Ray and I had the pleasure of catching up with Ben Hawkins, Executive Producer at the experience marketing giant George P. Johnson. He gave us the inside scoop on maximizing the effectiveness of experience marketing.

Hamilton Ray: Give us a quick rundown on what experience marketing is all about?

Ben Hawkins: The goal, as we understand it at George P. Johnson, is to move the audience through a personalized journey—a journey that is premised on the fact that a company is selling to an emotional, social, human being. This allows us to build a personalized relationship between a customer and a brand or product.

Marsha Dunn: Human connection is central to the approach.

Ben: We are sensitive to the fact that we are dealing with a human being who is going to have to live with the purchase decisions they make; this isn’t about duping the customer or selling to a statistic.

I am reminded of a quote in my colleague’s office along the lines of, “if we spoke to each other like advertising speaks to us, we would be punching each other all of the time.” Traditional advertising is that aggressive, but we are conditioned to the bombardment and so we forget that there is another way for companies to relate to customers.

Hamilton: So experience marketing is a different way to talk to customers?

Ben:  First of all, experience marketing recognizes the importance of being with customers face-to-face. Big companies want to go to where their customers are rather than transacting through intermediaries. This means brands are shifting from B2B to B2C. For example, beer companies are setting up venues at Formula One races rather than marketing via a bar. In the past these companies might have sponsored billboards at such events, but now they are creating a holistic experience on site. They want to connect directly with customers in an honest, human way and they want to build out the associations customers have with their brand by bringing in great bands, celebrity sponsors, etc.

In any ad agency today you will hear a version of the mantra, “tell me something and I may remember, show me something and I probably will remember, make me feel something and I definitely will remember.” This is an obvious but important statement.

Marsha: Can you share an example of a brand successfully using experience marketing to make their audience “feel” something?

Ben: The recent launch of the 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon provides a great illustration. Leading up to it’s official launch, the car was featured in music videos, the trailer for The Fate of the Furious: Fast and Furious 8, and an elaborate online campaign, which cast the car as a caged demon that transforms into a powerful drag car. When we reached the New York International Auto Show in April, we forewent the traditional launch in the automotive hall, and instead transformed Pier 92 into a drag strip complete with arena seating. The advance build-up had created the sense that this car was so remarkable it could only exist as a prop vehicle. As a result, when the Demon, the first ever street-legal drag car, screeches into real-life, ready to be purchased and driven, it creates a moment that is incredibly exciting and feels completely honest and transparent.

Marsha: And this reveal occurred within a larger immersive experience that you had created?

Ben: We wanted people to feel like they were at the center of an unmissable event. We did a live link-up with viewers around the globe (think Times Square on New Years Eve). The goal was to build a dialogue of enthusiasm. For the remote viewers the link-up brought them closer to the live action and enriched their experience. For the folks at the physical location, they felt even more affirmed that they were in the right place at the right time.

The event itself featured industry celebrities telling their personal stories and a launch speech by the brand’s CEO. Capitalizing on our cross-media build-up, we introduced rapper Wiz Khalifa of The Fast and Furious soundtracks, gifted him a set of keys and set him up to DJ for the rest of the evening.  Then the movies’ star, Vin Diesel appeared and endorsed the Demon. All of this was done amidst massive pyrotechnics and other special effects.

While one could argue that webcasts, celebrity appearances or special effects are nothing new to marketing, what is unique is the holistic experience—the conflation of so many elements.

Marsha: Can you talk about the ways that experience marketing allows for a personalized experience for customers and prospects?

Ben: People bring something of themselves to these marketing events. In the case of a tech conference, it is a shopping list of things they want to learn from talking to experts and colleagues. With a car launch, it is their enthusiasm and the desire to share that with others. The role of the marketer becomes one of facilitating these exchanges. Companies must accept that their brand is also owned by the brand enthusiasts.

Hamilton: I like the notion of the marketer as facilitator; you are facilitating a connection between the brand and the hearts and minds of the audience.

Marsha: And the audience is able to shape their experience.

Ben: Not just by deciding which lecture or session to attend, but by participating in an environment designed for conversation and sharing. In experience marketing you must design for serendipity. It is about being a total control freak in the planning and then letting go so the participants can own the experience. And this extends to the ways in which customers further personalize their experience through the one-on-one interactions enabled through social media.

Hamilton: This approach requires openness and vulnerability on the part of the brand and the audience.

Ben: Engagement with the brand is valued in and of itself. And the brand is genuinely interested in a long-term relationship.

Marsha: What principles would you extend to organizational leaders seeking to market their ideas in an authentic way?

Ben: It comes back to the human connection: the need to curate environments in which people can play around and come to their own understanding of and connection to ideas. Leaders need to avoid being didactic and embrace the serendipitous.

[Photo: George P. Johnson]