02 Jul Why Curated Experiences Are The New Future Of Marketing
by Krisztina ‘Z’ Holly
It is 10pm on a Thursday night, and fifty or sixty homeless people are scattered about the vaulted space of Downtown LA’s Union Station, settling in for the night.
Imagine their surprise when a random traveler suddenly breaks out into dance, and a rotund man with a backpack starts belting out opera from a nearby dinner table. Meanwhile, 200 young people in Sennheiser headphones intently move about the space, watching.
No, this isn’t an invasion of a new band of tourist. This is The Industry LA’s “Invisible Cities” opera, a live production immersed in the busiest public transit hub West of the Mississippi. It is heard entirely by wireless headsets and beckons the audience to make their own adventure based on where they wander.
The runaway success of this new, limited-run opera isn’t just a window into a new trend in art. It is a peek into a new future of entertainment, branding, and marketing that companies can’t ignore: live and immersive experiences. And companies are now starting to explore the power of experience marketing to reach into the hearts and minds of their customers.
Give ’em something to tweet about
Bonnie Raitt once sang, “Let’s give ‘em something to talk about.” But in the clutter of social media, companies are struggling to create reasons for their customers to share.
“The easiest way to create shareability is to give people an experience,” offers Franz Aliquo, Creative Director at ad agency RPM. “Something that turns their mundane day-to-day into something magical.”
Aliquo should know; not only does he worry about corporate brands in his day job, he’s the creative force behind numerous immersive experiences that have gone viral in recent years. His creations include a pervasive 30 day, 24/7 water gun assassination tournament called Street Wars; Rental Car Rally, a competition that’s part food-fight, part-Burning Man, part Cannonball Run; and Flavor Tripping Parties. (Full disclosure: I’m working with Aliquo on a new experimental project.)
“Look at how people use Facebook,” continues Aliquo. “We all want to share the amazing things that happen in our lives – the things that make our lives seem less mundane. People post about what they do, that’s what’s really shareable.”
Last weekend, were you inundated by friends who tweeted and posted about running the NYC marathon? Whether it’s new races like The Color Run and Tough Mudder, or underground dining parties, organizations are dreaming up new ways to tap into people’s desire for unique experiences and camaraderie that makes them want to share.
A sense of adventure
Traditional media doesn’t break the “fourth wall” that separates the audience from the performers, but media companies have been experimenting with transmedia and second screen approaches – with mixed results.
Participatory art and immersive theater take things a step further; although they have a long history, they’ve really been taking off in the past few years. Most notably, the theater experience “Sleep No More” is set in an abandoned building in Manhattan. Participants follow characters and explore five stories of an elaborately designed “hotel,” as numerous threads of a performance inspired by Macbeth unfold in parallel throughout the building. From the buzz in the bar afterwards, you know the audiences will be sharing stories for a long time.
With passive entertainment lulling us into a sense of complacency, this kind of interactive experience satisfies our craving for something more. “And once people feel that experience, they become addicted,” concludes Aliquo. “It triggers that piece of their brain that was active as hell when they were kids.”
Triggering that same spot in the brain, the Invisible Cities opera has seen phenomenal success. They added 5 shows to the original 13 performances, and sold out in 48 hours. They added two final performances last weekend and sold out in 10 minutes.
Christopher Cerrone, composer of Invisible Cities, puts that in context: “I have never heard of a new opera—especially one written and produced by a young band of performers—sell out 20 consecutive performances before. This really is unprecedented.”
Yuval Sharon, Creative Director of the opera company, is thrilled and thinks he understands the appeal: “It engages with the audience’s desire to take ownership, rather than being subjected to the artwork.” Each person’s experience is a different adventure, and in some ways very personal.
The resulting sense of adventure can take many forms, like the new “Room Escape” trend sweeping China and 66 Minutes in Damascus, a theater production where you, as an audience member, are kidnapped and harassed as part of the performance.
If that isn’t edgy enough for you, for thousands of dollars you can hire Extreme Kidnapping (“the #1 kidnapping adventure service provider in the country”) to kidnap and torture you for four hours.
Learning by doing
If marketing is a way to get someone to learn about your product or service, companies would benefit from looking at how learning happens. In 1983, Howard Gardner published his seminal book, “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” Through this lens, we now know that some people have high kinesthetic intelligence, and learn much better by touching and doing.
That same year, David Kolb published “Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development” It outlined the Experiential Learning Theory model still embraced by educators today, with four cycles important in the learning process: reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, concrete experimentation, and active experimentation.
Different people respond to different learning approaches. But why is it that most marketing focuses only on the first two passive modes? Companies have an untapped opportunity to engage a whole new form of learning through hands-on and immersive experiences.
Personal – at scale
The biggest appeal of mass marketing is its instant broad reach. But this is a challenge of immersive experiences – how does one scale them?
Companies are starting to experiment with hybrid approaches. Last fall, Coca-Cola turned train commuters in London into secret agents for 70 seconds to promote Coke Zero and the movie Skyfall. The experiences of a small number of people was the basis of content that could then be shared in mass media and enjoyed vicariously. (The resulting video got more than 10 million hits.)
Two years ago, General Motors hired creative firm Syyn Labs to design and build an online interactive experience for the launch of their Chevy Sonic. They set up a Sonic to bungee jump off a stack of shipping containers. The experience could be accessed via browser from anywhere around the world. and with the click of a mouse, viewers could help push the car closer and closer to the edge, until it literally “launched” over the edge into a kiddie pool. Not only did they garner 2.4 million clicks that day, they further leveraged the event for a Superbowl ad that created buzz and nearly doubled interest in the vehicle.
But the most powerful models create a framework for people to participate and empower the community to take ownership of scaling the experiences. TED conferences have developed a global network of evangelists with their TEDx movement, leading to 6,500 events around the world. Similarly, Burning Man empowers the 60,000 “residents” of Black Rock City to create a giant arts festival in the desert, and the third largest city in Nevada, for a week.
“You just had to be there.”
There is something about a moment in time that can’t be replicated, an experience that is your very own, an adventure with others that is deeply personal and memorable. It is something that can’t be achieved by a high-budget celebrity endorsement or a large ad buy.
“We’re entering a shift from mass marketing to experience marketing,” says Aliquo.
The medium is still evolving and the future is in the early stages of being written. But these days, if you’re not thinking about getting your customers to run through a train station or assassinate a stranger with a water gun, you’re probably getting lost in the crowd.
Photo: Color Run in Honolulu