Sameer Tobaccowala
Feb 12, 2020

When the lights dim and the show begins...

When anything can go wrong, staying cool, calm and clear-minded is the key to survival in experiential marketing, along with checking and double-checking.

When the lights dim and the show begins...

Conversation subsides.

Cellphones are switched to silent.

An expectant hush descends upon the audience.

Its 6 pm, the lights are dimmed, and the show is about to begin.

Welcome to the world of experiential marketing, where the next few minutes can either make you or break you as you have only one chance to get it right.

The experiential narrative is one of direct audience engagement and often the quickest mode to take consumers on the joyride of awareness, purchase and advocacy. It comes as no surprise that experiential has meteorically grown to demand its own space in today’s marketing mix and in the C-suite’s headspace.

However, behind the rush of adrenalin is a tale of grit which makes the medium one of the hardest to manage.

Murphy’s Law

Visualise this scenario of a brand launch from the early '90s; a grandly set up stage with the choicest bells and whistles, a proud brand manager eager to unveil his company’s latest product through a PowerPoint animation using state-of-the-art technology—a laptop. On cue, a bottle of champagne is presented, and the moment celebrated with a champagne toast. It may as well have been a Murphy popping the cork as it misses the bull’s eye and the champagne is sprayed out directly on to the laptop, leading to an array of avante garde graphics that replaces the product image on screen before it all goes blank.

Fast forward a decade and well-known US auto brand is launching in the Indian market with a show-stopper—a special “building wrap” in the southern Indian city of Chennai. Mind you, this was the era of the manual, before the advent of flex and digital printing, so the entire canvas wrap was hand painted with the brand message. Once again, Murphy, colluding with the meteorological department, gate crashed—as two hours before the activation went live, the heavens did. And while the paint survived the onslaught of the torrential rain, the fabric ended up looking like a large piece of dripping, sagging laundry hung out dry. Sadly, the only salvation in this case was a very understanding client.

Or to take an example of a recent event leveraging the launch of a new SUV. The product revelation involved a grandiose albeit complex mechanics of the screen splitting up in three sections to enable the theatrical orchestration of three cars driving off. Murphy decided to strike in the form of a missing driver, seconds away from the unveiling, creating a panic of sorts. One of our team members—reasonably adept at piloting a vehicle in confined spaces—jumps into the driver’s seat—and a crisis is averted. Only a very alert audience would have noticed that slight hint of an embroidered Shobiz logo on one of the driver’s shirts. In case you were wondering about the missing driver—well, he chose the most importune moment to heed to nature’s call. Well, as they say, you gotta go when you gotta go!

If there’s one place in the world marketing that Murphy’s law is most applicable—it's experiential, as in spite of meticulous planning, anything can go wrong and the lessons learnt in Shobiz over the last 40 years form a sort of oral history handed down from experienced campaigners to the next generation. Along with being prepared, staying cool, calm and clear-minded is the key to survival.

The devil is in the detail

This is perhaps the only marketing discipline which breeds a special breed of nocturnal animals working relentlessly behind the scenes, because a single slip-up could mean the difference between applause or debacle. To take the example of an awards show activation.

To the audience it is as simple as stepping on the stage to receive an award, but behind that moment likes a complex set of interconnected cogs—where are these awards stored? Are they stored in the same sequence that they will be received? Is there adequate light backstage to read the names on the plaques? Will the hostess enter from stage left, or right? To which side of the presenter will the awardee stand? Should the stage be marked so the awardee knows where to stand? How long does it take for the hostess to move with the award from backstage to the presentation area?

Or take the example of a mind bogglingly complex annual review of an Indian conglomerate. The on-ground event had to link the company’s offices in the Far East, Africa, Europe and America via a live satellite link for the chairman’s presentation. For an initiative of this scale, absolutely nothing can be left to chance. The mantra of check, recheck and double-check with merciless testing is a norm to ensure flawless delivery as the medium demands questioning of the seemingly obvious to the complex and everything in-between.

The journey from events to experiential 

One of the earliest business books “The Experience Economy” explains that human psychology is such that consumers are willing to pay a premium for products and services that offer an experience along with the purchase as it plays a transformative role in value creation.

As a discipline, we have come a long way from the car shows, World Fairs, however, the core rules of engagement have not changed, though we have a much wider and effective canvas to work with. In today’s era, hyper-personalisation across all touchpoints of the experience is the defining factor that can make or break any further conversation. The pace at which technology is evolving means that virtually every time a brand opens a conversation with a customer, it can do so through a different tech tool. AR, VR, mixed reality, which is redefining the customer experience.

While, customers today are likely to open the door purely due to the novelty value associated with a technology medium, once the door is open, it is the responsibility of the brand and the agency to create a message that consumers can take home.

Data and technology create infinite possibilities to bolster a lasting connection between customers and a brand, but you still get only ONE chance of getting is right, once the curtain opens. That is what keeps this discipline on it toes and paves the way to make it even more meaningful and innovative in the marketing mix.

Sameer Tobaccowala is the CEO of Shobiz at Havas Group.


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