Social campaigns can no longer be a bolt-on to an experiential marketing plan."

The worldwide trauma of the pandemic taught us many things about humanity, including our deep need to be together and share a common experience.

Although digital experiences became our social go-to early in the pandemic, as time went on and we were able to safely reengage with in-person events, people’s pent-up desire to get out and be together set the stage for experiential marketing to come back strong.

Don’t get me wrong. Experiential marketing has come back strong, but it’s changed.

Our recent work for clients as diverse as a sustainable produce company and an emerging ice cream brand has proven experiential marketing is a winning tactic for new-brand and new-product launches. But in today’s marketplace, producing a winning experience means working through event-staff shortages, wage increases, supply chain disruptions and cost increases, even on event basics. Who knew an order for a barrel cooler or embroidered T-shirts could cost so much ― and take so long to produce? There’s extremely low inventory for rental vehicles; refrigerated trucks and warehousing are especially difficult to source for our sampling programs. Shipping event items to venues can still be quite undependable and come with unexpected delays. In the past, we could rely on two-day shipping. Now those promised two days could stretch to two weeks.

The net-net is in this evolved world of experiential marketing, we do whatever we need to do to be good agency stewards for our clients. We’re building accurate activation lead times that are often triple that of pre-COVID activations. We’re creating backup plans to the backup plan to the backup plan and being as scrappy and nimble as possible, while being keenly strategic and focused on client budgets. As our clients feel the squeeze of increased production and labor costs and shrinking marketing budgets, we need to do more with less.

Still, while much has changed, the foundation of — and need for — experiential marketing and sampling hasn’t. First, everyone, from Boomers to Gen Z to Gen Alpha, are yearning for brand experiences and like getting free samples and swag. Second, experiential marketing remains an extremely influential force in shopper behavior. Exhibit A: “Gen Z Wants Product Samples, With a Few Changes, Please,” based on a July 2022 Advantage Solutions survey of more than 1,000 13-to-25-year-olds, reveals seven in 10 Gen Z shoppers consider food samples “often a deciding factor” in their post-sampling purchases.

Caring About Sharing

Even as the pandemic caused a seismic shift in shopper behavior, the goal of experiential activations has remained the same: Reach more consumers, create some noise and sell more product. But in today’s market, none of this will happen if a brand’s marketing isn’t authentic and engaging, which is where social marketing and digital tactics have become especially crucial to successful in-person experiences. For years, experiential marketers looked to social media results to measure engagement and effectiveness through “likes,” shares and chatter around an event. Now, social media plays a much greater role in experience planning. Consider this: The Advantage Solutions survey found nearly six in 10 Gen Z shoppers are likely to share positive sampling experiences on Instagram, TikTok and other platforms.

Social campaigns can no longer be a bolt-on to an experiential marketing plan. They must be fully integrated with the live engagement strategy — which means brands need to relinquish some control over storytelling and get behind in-person interactions designed specifically to encourage consumers to create and share brand love and related stories. Every experiential activation must be viewed through a social, shareable filter. Are brand ambassadors trained to cultivate the brand story and inspire people to share their experience online? What’s the backdrop at the event ― how “Insta” is it? Is there an opportunity for people to receive even more free stuff when they share their experience?

At the same time, brands have an opportunity to partner more closely with retailers, who want to bring shoppers back into stores to regain impulse purchases that have been lost to e-commerce. They’re already investing in ways to elevate in-store shopper experiences that will breed return trips and banner loyalty. In this inflationary economy, shoppers especially appreciate and are influenced by a valuable offer, such as high-value coupons offered with free samples. While a brand’s sampling truck moves market to market, why shouldn’t it stop at key retail sites along the way? Why shouldn’t brands look for unique opportunities to partner with retailers for strategic experiences such as cooking classes, mixologist visits or livestream sampling?

So, yes, experiential marketing is back, but it’s been forced to evolve quickly and unexpectedly. In many ways ― the need for innovation, a rethinking of the ways people connect, a renewed focus on measuring impact and opportunities for consumer marketing and trade marketing teams to collaborate ― this new, and I would say, smarter, version of experiential is a good thing for brands, for retailers and for consumers.

Dee Hall
President, Sunflower Group
Advantage Solutions

Dee Hall leads Advantage Solutions’ Sunflower Group experiential marketing agency. She has leveraged her passion for integrated marketing, collaboration and cross-discipline success during her 30-plus-year career, which has spanned media sales, agency ownership, retail marketing, promotional marketing and sports marketing.

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