Experiential campaigns are exhilarating when they work; cringe-worthy and costly when they flop. Every mistake may be a learning experience, but it’s better to learn from the errors of others rather than making the same ones on your own.
Before you get too swept up in the excitement of an idea—or invest in it too deeply—ask yourself these three questions to ensure that the experience will be received with applause and not a costly mistake.
1. Could the experience offend your target audience?
Knowing the needs and desires, likes, and dislikes of your target audience is essential to every marketing campaign, but especially experiential activations. The main point of experiential marketing is to build a relationship with customers. If you immerse them in something that runs counter to their interests, turns them off, or offends them, then you’ll drive them away from your brand, and go viral for the wrong reasons.
You might be thinking, “Well, duh.” While it may seem like common sense to tailor an experience to the consumers’ interests, there have been too many marketing flops where a brand failed to consider the various perspectives of their target audience to brush this question aside.
For example, Pepsi produced an ad that tried to appeal to socially “woke” millennials and GenZ by having Kendall Jenner create harmony between protestors and the police with a soda. Many people were furious at its tone-deafness and accused it of co-opting serious societal issues for its own gain.
The brand pulled the expensive ad within 24-hours of its distribution. Although the ad wasn’t an experience, it is an example of being out of touch with and oversimplifying the consumer group it was trying to target. The same thing can happen with experiential marketing, and here is an example.
Fail: Amazon’s Nazi-themed Subway Car
To promote their show, “Man in the High Castle,” Amazon had the idea to immerse New York subway riders in the show’s premise: a world where Nazis won World War II.
Amazon covered all the seats of a train on a bustling line in central Manhattan with American flags featuring the Nazi eagle insignia and stylized version of the Rising Sun flag of Imperial Japan. Many people were offended by the display (the eagle is a hate symbol), and the brand removed it at the New York City mayor’s request.
Lesson Learned: It’s easy to get carried away by a concept your team believes to be exciting, provocative, and relevant, but the consumer’s point of view should be the primary consideration.
2. What’s the worst that can happen?
Fergus Rooney, co-founder of AgencyEA, says marketers should always ask this question before launching any experiential activation. As experiences are live, the potential for disaster is particularly high.
What will you do if the product being tested breaks down? Do you have a back-up Brand Ambassador if the celebrity expected to facilitate the experience is a no-show? Might your product sample be reasonably expected to cause an allergic reaction in some people?
Make sure you identify the worst case scenario and come up with a solid Plan B well in advance of the activation.
Fail: Jägermeister’s Toxic Pool Party
What’s the worst that could happen? Nearly killing your customers ranks pretty high. Jägermeister, the German drink brand, discovered when it hosted a pool party in Leon, Mexico that landed nine guests in the hospital.
Party organizers sought to create a tantalizing fog effect by pouring liquid nitrogen into the swimming pool. Unfortunately, the organizers didn’t realize that when liquid nitrogen combines with chlorine, it sucks up oxygen. The lack of breathable air caused several party-goers to faint in the water and put one person in a coma! Fortunately, everyone recovered, but Jägermeister had some explaining to do.
Lesson Learned: Scrutinize every experience from a health and safety perspective when considering elements that could go wrong.
3. Does it violate any laws or social codes?
Numerous brands have tried to run experiential stunts that resulted in hefty fines, cancellation, or bad press because they inadvertently broke the law. Early in the planning process, check that you have all the required authorizations needed to execute the experience. It’s not enough to know that you have a right to be at a particular location—you must be sure you’re allowed to carry out the particular activity planned at that site.
It’s also important to consider whether the experience might reasonably lead people to break laws or engage in unprincipled behavior. Cadbury Schweppes emerged shame-faced after it had to shut down a promotional scavenger hunt in Boston. The brand had hinted that a gold coin worth $10,000 was hidden in Boston’s Old Granary Burial Ground, where Paul Revere and other famous American patriots are buried.
When people flocked to the cemetery to begin the hunt, the cemetery locked its gates, fearing that people would desecrate the graves in searching for the coin. Cadbury donated the $10,000 prize to the cemetery for its “tasteless” stunt.
Fail: Paramount’s Bomb Scare
Paramount got slapped with a $75,000 negligence fine after it placed small plastic devices with red wires hanging from it inside 4,5000 LA Times newspaper racks to promote Mission Impossible III. Upon spotting the devices, newspaper buyers began calling the police to report bombs. The LA County sheriff’s office even blew up one news rack, thinking it contained a bomb.
Lesson Learned: Think through stunts from every perspective, people!
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