The idea of forging a connection between brand and customer through immersive marketing experiences is as old as branding itself. We take a look at the history of experiential marketing, and attempt to forecast its future.

The most effective way to achieve brand activation is to create a link between the product and consumers’ emotions and memories, which are then evoked every time they use or hear about said product. A time-tested method of solidifying such links is by creating an experience that showcases the brand in a unique and memorable way. Savvy marketers have been crafting events and presentations to encourage a bond between customer and product for centuries, using the available technologies to their advantage as they share with audiences what their product is about.

Experiential Marketing Through The Ages

The power of experience-based marketing was first demonstrated in the 19th century, when the World Fairs were held in New York, Paris, London and other major cities. These huge, widely publicized exhibitions were major venues for inventors and entrepreneurs to showcase innovations in design and technology. The 1893 Chicago Fair saw the debut of several brands that are still hugely popular today, like Wrigley’s Gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and a prototype of something you’re probably wearing right now: the zipper. Linking these brands with a dazzling, large-scale once-in-a-lifetime event made a permanent impression on many consumers.

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As new media channels emerge, smart advertisers quickly discover how they can further leverage brands into public consciousness. TVs became popular living room staples in the 50s, and advertiser sponsored programming swiftly followed, with popular TV shows peppered with mentions of sponsoring brands. In the minds of 50s marketers, making their company’s product “responsible” for some of America’s favorite evening programming was an express pass to a positive brand connection. Product placement is more subtle nowadays, but still figures prominently in modern TV shows and movies, though successful examples of modern brand integration rely on subtlety and apposite pairing: compare Carrie Bradshaw’s iconic Mac laptop to Hawaii 5-0’s sad attempt at verbifying Bing.

Modern Marketing Is A Two Way Street

While we still look to music, television, and film stars as veritable cultural influencers, the popularity of social media has fundamentally changed the nature of marketing itself, and especially experiential marketing. Before, advertising was largely a didactic process, where consumers were told what a product represented. Social media allows customers to interact with businesses in the same space as their social group. This access acts as an equalizer and changes both the tone and directionality of the conversation: now, it’s as much about what the customer has to say to a brand as it’s about what a brand has to say to its potential and existing customers. In order to succeed in this market, brands need to be prepared to interact with the public and take account of their input.

For example, Nike’s Moscow Instaposters were as much about the athletes they depicted as Nike’s products, and arguably even more so. By putting the spotlight on their customers, Nike subtly but powerfully made the connection between their brand and fearless, uninhibited women. Selecting hashtagged images to make further posters stimulated even more attention and engagement, creating a snowball effect of Nike-related hashtags. Nike inverted the focus of standard advertising, showing off their customers instead of their products, which highlighted their brand all the more.

Social media also figures in the structure and format of marketing functions. Social media’s biggest perk is its capacity for wide and far-reaching dissemination, meaning that one entertained and satisfied customer can become a free brand ambassador, sharing their experience with their social group. Brand events have evolved from early demonstration-centric displays and are increasingly designed for maximum visual impact, tempting bystanders to spread the word. Word of mouth is still the most effective sales driver, but with the added reach brought by virality, word of tweet, Instagram, or check-in even more potent.

Experiencing The Future

Even though the way we interact with the world has undergone huge changes during our lifetimes, nascent technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning may mean that we’re in for similarly significant paradigm shifts in the next few decades.

Already, marketers are using our data to tailor their advertising to customer needs and preferences. For example, Universal Pictures’s research showed varying familiarity levels with hip hop group N.W.A. in different ethnic groups, so they created two different trailers for the biopic Straight Outta Compton, shown to two groups of Facebook users based on their data-indicated ethnicity. In general, we can expect targeted advertising algorithms to become more sophisticated and better at treading the line between showing ads to the wrong customer, and over-specific advertising that feels invasive.

The Internet Of Things represents another possible source of data for increasingly targeted marketing. For example, one logical future application of IoT marketing would be for marketers to track when a device is coming to the end of its predicted lifespan, and send out coupons to that device for a replacement. Push notifications and sponsored ads that appear based on a potential customer’s location and demographic are another logical development with the evolution of ad tech and programmatic advertising.

Already, the convenience of shopping for goods and services online is making the process of going to a store and browsing the aisles a thing of the past, and brick and mortar retail locations may eventually disappear altogether with the emergence of virtual reality IoT applications. The rise of augmented reality in the form of Oculus Rift and Google Glass has future-minded marketers boggling with the possibilities. These devices can whisk away consumers into immersive 360° landscapes without their needing to stir a step. The tourist industry has been an early adopter of this technology, as giving would-be travelers a taste of exotic locations is an almost surefire way of convincing them to book a flight.

Other factors like the devlopment Drone delivery could vastly reduce the cost and time needed to deliver goods, making it trivial for companies to send out free samples — it’s not quite Willy Wonka’s TV chocolate, but it’s close.

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The speed of technological improvement and the scope that new advances bring make it hard to predict what marketing will look like in the future with any certainty. But in every era so far, the key to successful experiential marketing has been a clear brand identity and using available media to its full potential. At the core of every successful campaign is a brand’s understanding of a customer’s wants and needs, and effective demonstration of what the product can offer its users, and we’re especially excited to see how experiential marketing evolves as we enter the infinite potential of the Internet of Things.

Longneck and Thunderfoot offer B2C content marketing services to help your business reach the audiences that matter with smart, useful content that delivers the right message at the right time. Learn more about B2C content marketing here.