Marketers experiment with innovative live promotions

So you're hoisting a brewski at your favourite pub when you hear what sounds like police sirens at the door. Suddenly, in bursts a team of what looks like cops. They head straight for you. And the next thing you know, you've been slapped with what seems to be a ticket for drinking beer instead of Smirnoff Ice vodka.
Welcome to the lively, often wacky, and definitely proliferating new style of on-site sampling, now increasingly called 'experiential marketing.'

So you’re hoisting a brewski at your favourite pub when you hear what sounds like police sirens at the door. Suddenly, in bursts a team of what looks like cops. They head straight for you. And the next thing you know, you’ve been slapped with what seems to be a ticket for drinking beer instead of Smirnoff Ice vodka.

Welcome to the lively, often wacky, and definitely proliferating new style of on-site sampling, now increasingly called ‘experiential marketing.’

The ‘smirnofficers,’ who are starring in pretend raids at bars across the country this summer, aren’t sending anyone to jail. What they’re really doing, says Steve Doyle, is writing citations for such offences as ‘being insufficiently stylish,’ which are redeemable for shots of Smirnoff Ice.

Doyle is the Smirnoff Ice brand manager at the Toronto office of Diageo, the global conglomerate Forbes magazine recently dubbed a ‘booze behemoth.’ He says shticks like his bar raids are a new and humorous way of tackling the traditional marketing tasks of ‘raising awareness of your product and prodding people out of entrenched habits so they’ll sample it.’

Other major marketers are also sponsoring innovative experiential campaigns.

*Unilever recently launched Degree [deodorant] Gel for men with a basketball-themed campaign in Vancouver and Toronto during the Final Four Playoffs. It was designed with Montreal’s Gearwerks, whose president, Adam Starr, explains that a colourfully logo’d van was outfitted with basketball hoops and driven by teams of peppy young women, outfitted as cheerleaders, to various events. There, consumers were encouraged to toss balls into the nets, photographed with Polaroid I-Zone instant cameras and then, in addition to product samples, they were given sports cards with their faces superimposed onto the body of a slam-dunking player.

On the reverse side of the cards were, not the usual sports stats, but instructions for logging onto the Internet and trying for prizes in a contest called ‘In the Clutch.’ This name – as well as the street scenario of performing under stressful conditions – tied the elements to the overall theme for the Degree Gel launch together, says Michael Alexandor, director of skin care and deodorants in Unilever’s Toronto office.

*An elaborate street campaign, now underway to promote Microsoft’s Xbox, has helped boost the Canadian division to number-one status worldwide, according to Xbox Canada group marketing manager Ryan Mugford – who was personally presented with a congratulatory gold watch by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Operating mostly on campuses across the country, logo’d cube vans filled with Xbox consoles offer gamers a chance to play inside. Meanwhile, outside, team members with plasma screens attached above their heads wander around chatting with consumers and inviting them to try an Xbox.

*Nike Canada recently launched its Presto brand with a street team campaign in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver designed with Toronto’s Youthography marketing consultants. The program is more like spontaneous street busking than old-style street sampling, says Youthography president Max Valiquette. ‘We’ve got DJs, breakdancers, bucket drummers and graffiti artists…and we’re finding that a lot of consumers are joining in the performances.’ The giveaways are super-bouncy Presto balls and fridge magnets with comical advice for becoming a street performer.

*When Virgin Music Canada was planning the launch of an upcoming Boomtang album called Wet, it contacted Tania Koster, CD of Toronto’s Ground Control Marketing, because of her experience in pretty much pioneering new-style street teams for Chupa Chups lollipops and Skechers sports shoes. What Virgin and Koster came up with is a provocative trio called ‘the wet women.’ They are costumed to resemble the ’50s-style stewardess in the album’s video and began making appearances in clubs and at events such as Vancouver’s recent gay pride festivities this spring, handing out Boomtang singles.

And there are many more such experiential marketing efforts underway on both sides of the border, says Claire Rosenzweig, president of New York’s venerable Promotion Marketing Association.

‘There’s a definite upsurge in this type of promotion, as we saw among the winners of our most recent Reggie Awards (viewable at The beauty of [this method] is that it can help achieve both a marketer’s short-term goal of lifting sales and the long-term goal of building a brand.’

Rosenzweig says this contention was backed up by the results of two recent PMA surveys. One found that some 69% of respondents said product demonstrations and sampling opportunities influence their purchasing decisions more than TV or radio ads. The other survey concluded that ‘Promotions serve as a point of differentiation that can help a brand stand out in a category, regardless of product attributes or prices.’

PMA’s findings don’t surprise Xbox’s Mugford, whose company determined that fully 15% of Canadian Xbox purchasers ‘have actually interacted with our trial teams. That tells us this is an incredibly successful means of getting our message out. So we expect to keep on expanding, evolving and improving this sort of direct dialogue with customers.’

Ditto for Gearwerks’ Starr, who says he’s currently doing experiential marketing for Rimmel cosmetics and Jamieson Laboratories’ SlimDown weight management products. He also has ‘a bunch more coming up this fall,’ the details of which he’s keeping hush-hush.

Starr is adamant about switching to live-action promotions whenever they’re appropriate. ‘The way [on-site sampling] was done in the past, with very passive people walking around saying, ‘here, take this,’ just doesn’t cut it anymore. Today, people are bombarded by freebies on every street and by different media coming at them 24/7. So to stick out from all that clutter, you really have to challenge yourself to come up with creative, surprising campaigns.’

It’s obvious that experiential marketing can spell fun for consumers. But it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing in terms of ‘translating into equity for the main brand,’ says Peter Heywood, VP of brand strategy in the Toronto office of Watt global brand consultancy.

‘I think the reason this is on the rise is because marketers are running out of ways of differentiating themselves on TV and in other forms of media. Do I think this is the way of the future? I think it’s one of the ways. But what it all boils down to is really understanding what you want your brand, product or company to represent to people, and then being as broadminded as possible about all the tools you have at your disposal for conveying that in the most effective ways.’

And what those tools should build, says Ed Freibauer, managing director of Toronto-headquartered FutureBrand Canada, is a consistent, seamlessly integrated story.

‘Every [well-known] brand has its own narrative, which will be known before a team hits the street. That’s what allows a relationship to happen. So if you’re looking to support a brand, then everything you do should tell the story the way you need it to be told and connect emotionally in the same way. But if there’s a disconnect between the consumer’s understanding of your story and what’s about to transpire [in the street promotion], then you’ll have a harder time engaging people.’

That kind of dissonance is not the only risk that must be considered in planning experiential marketing. Watt’s Heywood points out that the Smirnoff Ice raids might be committing the cardinal marketing sin of accidentally inducing anxiety. He thinks some bar patrons might not enjoy the association between drinking and being accosted by police officers, even ones who are patently phoney.

‘On the other hand, in the right kind of environment, [the raids] might be a good way of repositioning Smirnoff’s image as an old, kind of fusty brand of vodka – although I don’t know if that serves the master brand. I think they’re taking a bit of a gamble.’

Another risk of experiential marketing is creating situations that are too in-your-face to be enjoyable. An example of this was experienced recently by a Strategy staffer. His pleasant pub conversation, and every other patron’s at the upscale establishment, was interrupted by a bumptious actor costumed as Captain Morgan, who first took over the P.A. system and then ‘ran around annoying people who were trying to ignore him.’ No coupons were offered, only thimble-sized plastic cups of Captain Morgan’s Gold rum and a ‘treasure chest’ of trinkets.

Yet another key consideration, says Ground Control’s Koster, is ensuring that street performers accurately reflect the brand personality in attitude and style and are knowledgeable enough to handle consumer queries. ‘I give my teams complete training sessions, including background information on the brand, what we’re trying to communicate and what their role is in doing that.’

Koster adds that any marketer employing street teams will get better results by treating these people considerately ‘so they will feel enthusiastic, energetic and engaged’ throughout their performance.

While it’s clear that the use of experiential marketing is increasing, both Freibauer and Koster caution that this technique would not be appropriate or effective for every brand or product. ‘I’m not about to stop on the street to discuss financial services, for example,’ Freibauer explains.

And Koster doesn’t consider something on the lines of last year’s La Senza Bra Patrol a particularly smart move, even though she does other kinds of promotions for La Senza. Speaking of the lingerie-clad models who appeared in various venues in Toronto to present ‘the latest bra technology,’ Koster says, ‘I know they were trying to showcase their product in an interesting way, but I saw [the Bra Patrol] at a movie screening and thought it seemed a little strange and uncomfortable. It was the wrong environment.’

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when considering whether to try experiential marketing? ‘There’s an old saying that if the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,’ says Heywood. ‘If marketers use a bigger tool box, they’ll find they have a whole range of ways in which to reach their targets.’