Brand experience is the sum total of every touchpoint at your disposal. It’s the entire ecosystem through which your brand values are expressed. Provided you have a compelling brand purpose and a strong, coherent concept to tie it all together, that brand experience should translate seamlessly across any platform.
With those strong foundations in place, there’s huge potential for tangible, immersive activations that can build emotional, memorable associations with your brand. Best of all, as the creator of that experience, you can engage a captive audience within parameters you define – without interference from competitors.
They can be incredibly cost-effective, too: get it right, and the earned media opportunities can be huge.
But it takes skill to master brand experiences. Here are some tips for doing it right.
Build a world around your product
Holistic experiences are particularly powerful — a whole brand world built around the benefits of your product, and how it fits into your lifestyle. For instance, when Nike’s research showed the consumer’s wanted the option to purchase their products through vending machines, the company a simple yet compelling experience around that insight: run a certain number of miles, and your smart watch will unlock access to Nike merch.
Pitched right, brand experiences can also engage communities at a grass-roots level and become part of the conversation. When Levi’s expanded its brand into cycling attire with its Commuter range, the brand opened a pop-up bike shop in partnership with Urban Outfitters, and toured the US offering free tune-ups, workshops and customised tailoring.
Engage with popular culture – when the fit is right
Brands can also use experiences to shift perceptions and build emotional connections within popular culture. Sponsorship alone isn’t enough to build meaningful associations within the music, art, fashion or food scenes: you need to be part of that culture.
Before joining Vault49, I was the Global Design Director of Brand Experience at PepsiCo. For Super Bowl 50 We launched a bar in San Francisco called Kola House. Far from just the sponsor, Pepsi was the catalyst. We had mixologists creating cocktails with Pepsi, chefs creating food using kola nuts, and Pepsi also endorsed up-and-coming talent in fashion, music and art – all hosted in an experimental cultural hub.
Pepsi may not seem that relevant in the culinary space. It’s not a big player in mixology. It’s not grounded in fashion or art either. But Kola House helped change consumer perceptions of what the brand stands for, by making the brand an authentic part of the experience.
It’s very hard to link genuine emotional memories to a brand. But that’s the power of brand experience: whether you’re hosting a festival, a music gig or a sporting event, you’re subconsciously linking the brand to that memory.
As ever, authenticity is everything. If there’s no substance to support it, brands can’t just piggyback on the latest trends in totally unrelated sub-cultures and expect to get away with it. Consumers will quickly weed out opportunistic pretenders.
There must be some guardrails. Vans has a lot of right to play in the skater culture space, for example, but a brand like Puma wouldn’t be seen as authentic if they opened up a skatepark. And they’d alienate their core audience, too.
Lots of brands jump on the bandwagon for things like Pride. Adidas, for instance, generated a whole range of rainbow merch, really glitzy glamorous sporting wear. It fell flat, because it wasn’t an authentic way to engage with the movement. In the same year, Adidas was one of the major sponsors for the 2018 World Cup, which took place in Russia, a country with anti-LGBTQ laws that make it unsafe for fans and athletes. That contradiction throws into sharp relief the emptiness that can lie at the center of corporate gestures.
Make your product launches more memorable
Brand experiences can play an important brand-building exercise to fuel longer-term consumer loyalty, but they can also be very effective as part of a product launch strategy.
Another brand I worked on while at PepsiCo was Life Water. The premium bottled water brand “helps artists rise” by showcasing emerging artists’ works on their bottles The association with the artistic community was a key part of the offer. A different artist took over the label every few months, and the wider brand experience became as important as the product itself. We launched the product at a festival, where live artists recreated their art. Success in brand experience is about speaking beyond the packaging and tapping into something much bigger to get people excited.
Experiential marketing can also be a smart way for global brands to test out riskier or more experimental ideas without investing in a major branding exercise and paid media activities. You can launch and learn, listening to consumers in a controlled environment.
Even for a global brand, investing in a brand experience within a single city can have a ripple effect around the world. Heineken’s pop-up bars are a great example of that, giving the brand a captivating presence at the heart of cultural events in the world’s most stylish cities.
The trick is to capture global values and activate them on local scale. To launch another PepsiCo brand, Lemon Lemon, we created the biggest picnic you can imagine. Lounge chairs, an outdoor cinema, bar, lawn games, branded picnic bikes. Marketing and key visuals came later. That one experience launched Lemon Lemon’s whole brand world.
Create a tangible, emotional connection
During the pandemic, many brand experiences that would have taken place in a physical space have been forced to shift online. Forward-thinking brands have embraced this as an opportunity to broaden access and enhance interactivity, raising the bar for what we can expect from digital events in the post-COVID world, too.
There are many opportunities for personalisation and exclusive content in the digital realm, and it’s easier to build experiences around influencers or brand ambassadors. For instance, Vault49 created an online brand experience to win tickets to Lady Gaga’s Pepsi Super Bowl half-time show, inviting people to submit videos explaining why they’re her biggest fan.
Digital opportunities can be seductive, but a brand experience is not defined by the technology used to create it – this is just one of many tools at your disposal. At its heart, a great brand experience enables consumers to connect with that brand, and other likeminded people, in the most effective, immersive and appropriate way possible.
VR offers exciting possibilities, but it’s harder to create an emotional connection when you’re effectively experiencing it in solitude through a headset. More tangible brand experiences can be great way to stand out from prevalent digital trends and make the connection more meaningful and memorable.
You should never rely entirely on one execution. The trick is to package up the experience in a way that’s easy for your brand to articulate, and for consumers to understand. It’s not just digital, it’s not just packaging – it’s a whole ecosystem.
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Paul Woodvine, Partner & Managing Creative Director