An Interview with an Experiential Marketing Vampire
VentureFuel, the leading connector of innovative technologies to marketers, hosted a breakfast round table with leading advertisers to discuss how in an increasingly digital world, experiential marketing is the secret weapon to connect, persuade and increase ROI with your consumers. Afterwards VentureFuel founder Fred Schonenberg interviewed Patrick West, Founder of Be The Machine, a Top-100 Promo Shop that has helped brands like Jeep, AT&T, MailChimp and CBS create unique experiences to drive results.
FS: At VentureFuel we help advertisers connect with consumers in new ways, through the latest tech innovations: augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, A.I. So how does experiential marketing, or R.R. (Real Reality), fit within this new world?
PW: Experiential marketing is the proving ground for tech innovations. The experiential marketing productions we stage showcase these tech innovations as part of the experience. It’s about creating something spectacular for the consumer. People want unique experiences. We are constantly experimenting with very cool new tech platforms but they need serious test driving first before they can stand on their own. When an app or device or cool visual drops jaws then you know it is a winner. It’s all about creating memorable moments.
PW: Well, it’s not prohibitively expensive or else no one could do it. Actually, I think we undervalue experiential. The biggest players in this space like Nike, Pepsi, Sony, and tons more are 100% convinced experiential marketing works. It’s just smart business. It’s why the industry is exploding, driven by companies who, a few years ago, would never have deviated from conventional marketing plans. Insurance, greeting cards, financial planning, hardware retailers … the list is insane of industries and companies jumping into experiential marketing.
FS: How can you justify the investment versus the reach?
It is all driven by one very simple concept: one consumer who truly experiences a brand is worth far more than 1,000 who get a generic media impression. Consumers crave memorable experiences, not ads. Marketers know the valuation of conventional media and ROI calculations of generic impressions are just self-serving stats media owners formulate.
FS: What role does social amplification play in the experiences you create?
PW: That’s a hard question.
It’s hard because the social landscape is like the wild, wild west. Honestly, social can be very powerful when properly connected with experiential programs. They really go great together because the content and urgency that experiential generates lends itself to creating powerful social assets. So many social tools are ideal for experiential: live streaming, photos, videos, shares, crowdsourcing, fast updates, etc. But few clients are properly using social in an integrated way. I guess it’s just another part of the business that gets put in a silo. The best projects really take social into consideration very early on in the process. A good example is Jeep—they put a lot of muscle and strategy into how to use social to amplify experiential programs. Jeep very wisely leverages brand enthusiasts to showcase all the cool things they do.
FS: How do you get crowds to attend these experiences you create?
PW: It doesn’t work that way. We are big champions of activating where the people will be found. A smart marketer will figure out ways to integrate a brand experience into a setting where specific consumers can be found. It’s not about disrupting the consumer experience, but enhancing it. So we’ll research and target events and locations that fit for the brand. It might be SXSW for Brisk or the Taste of Atlanta for Comcast. But we are very careful not to create a stand-alone activation in the hopes people will come. We have a monster database of events and venues. Finding the right ones for the right clients is the key.
FS: Talk about the importance of ideation through execution. Most firms seem to be good at ideas and poor at pulling them off, or vice versus. How do you excel at the whole process?
PW: It all comes down to us as people. Our team is super into ideas. But we also love to tinker, build, solve. I think a lot of people, in general, are inherently either creative or inherently more technical. You see it in kids at school and you see it in adults, too. We don’t know if it’s luck or design, but Be The Machine has people who use both sides of our brain. Our main job is to creatively come up with solutions. It’s pretty much what we do. From a business process standpoint, it starts with ideas. We develop and propose ideas all day, every day.
FS: But marketers see thousands of ideas a year.
PW: Yes, but taking an idea and making it into reality sometimes can be easy but usually it’s hard. It’s not like every idea we have is totally wild and different. But where we succeed is when we turn a bold idea into something consumers can experience. Most marketers are very good at smelling bullshit. Our production chops are very strong. We are given the “never been done before” challenge all the time. Sure, most requests are crazy or even unrealistic but that’s the business we’ve chosen.
FS: Why did you name the company Be The Machine?
PW: I don’t think you have ever asked me that before! Other people ask me that a lot. I liked the idea of “machine” early on when we formed. It represents something strong, hard-working, and modern. But we elevated the name to Be The Machine because we wanted our business name to represent an action, a way of approaching things. Names don’t have to be so damn boring. In the marketing and media world, there are so many generic names. So we decided that we’d do such great work, the name would therefore be great. You know how awesome bands have, honestly, some bad names? Bad Brains, Led Zeppelin, Modest Mouse? The bands are so good that the names become great.
FS: What makes your company special?
PW: Gee, thanks for the critical question. I thought I was going to get softballs here.
FS: No softballs for you! Why should a brand call you instead of anyone else?
PW: The people here. The fake business answer would be that we’re so much better than anyone else. But it’s the people. Which sounds soft but it’s why our clients love us. They love the individuals they work with here. We kill ourselves for our clients. I don’t think what clients want is complicated. They want honesty, smart thinking, and then work that is exactly, if not more than, what they paid for. Be The Machine is structured to make it easy for clients to work with us. The jobs we put together aren’t easy but we make life for clients easy. No drama, no nickel-and-diming, no politics. At some point in business, you cannot fake authenticity and being genuine.
FS: What role will experiential marketing play in 2025?
PW: By 2025, experiential will be huge. It’ll be recognized as a major marketing discipline. What do you think CES or SXSW or Comic Con is at this point? They are experiential marketing showcases. What is Coachella? You think that’s simply a concert anymore? You have to understand “experiential” started being used as a term only around 15 years ago and event marketing really only got going as an industry in the early 90’s with the creation of modern promotion agencies. The massive boom in experiential happening right now is undeniable.
FS: How does tech work with experiential?
PW: I think we touched upon it earlier with tech innovations but, thinking about it in bigger terms, there’s two answers I can give you. In one way, a very tactical way, they are tied to one another because tech integration is a constant with experiential activations. Cool social sharing devices, interactive holograms, laser-etching machines and tons of other cool new tech platforms are showcased at experiential projects. Tactically, consumers want to engage the latest and coolest innovations. Put another way, a much more strategic way, tech and experiential are pushing each other forward at a very fast pace. I think consumers are introduced to more tech innovations at experiential marketing events than in any other way. Tech is all about consumer adoption these days.
FS: Give me 2 examples of how BTM created an experience that helped a brand break through the noise.
PW: I’ll plug two very different types of programs. That would be MailChimp and Comcast Xfinity. And they are very different programs for extremely different companies. The MailChimp campaign was a big industry hit. Be The Machine admittedly, handled just a few of the many crazy parts of the campaign. It’s impossible to give you a short answer about what we did. The best answer I can give is to tell people to look up “FailChips” and “MaleCrimp.” This is the ultimate “turn our creative idea into reality” challenge. Droga5 and the client had these awesome ideas and we had to figure out how to being them to life. Yes, FailChips are a real thing found all across the country and, yes, MaleCrimp hairstyle is all too real. Xfinity was more of an open challenge to us. We had to develop ideas and then expand quickly. It was a program that started with grassroots activations in one market and has boomed across many more. We worked to develop “surprise and delight” connections with consumers at venues like restaurants, food trucks, and festivals to emphasize the local benefits of Xfinity. The program foregoes traditional media in favor of establishing an Xfinity experiential presence at trusted and loved local hot spots, who have become program partners. The expansion of the program has been pretty amazing.
FS: ROI - How do you measure experiential?
PW: This popped up in the breakfast session and everyone seems to approach it differently. From my point of view, and this may seem backwards to you, but ROI is becoming less of a topic with clients and agencies. Undeniably, marketers are getting smarter about the purpose and realities of experiential. So, research now is used less to justify a program and more to explore ways to connect with consumers. Initially, the need for research and metrics was driven by a token kneejerk reaction to the unknown. So, we’ve done every type of market research and ROI modeling you can imagine. But there is a new trend, I think, where marketers are now willing to admit that the metrics they are provided by conventional media are, overall, bullshit. Or predictable, to put it nicely. I’ve yet to see a piece of research by a media vendor that didn’t claim their media was the best, great, amazing. Please, spare us already. We do establish ROI-measurements using market research formats like consumer intercepts, redemption rates, opt-in rates, retail sales data, local market lifts, awareness studies, etc. But measuring ROI has evolved to become much more real, thankfully, as it gets customized per program. Any marketing is not a guarantee, it is filled with risks. Why? Because real consumers and the real world behave in real ways. I just think marketers are getting fed up with data from vendors that is clearly self-serving. At least with experiential programs, we can engage with consumers to obtain feedback live, in-person and in real time. That type of access and data is valuable.
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