Immersive Experiences: The Future of Compelling Storytelling for Experiential Marketing

Since about 2012, the word “immersive” has taken a stranglehold in the vocabulary of experiential marketing. Now, if it is not immersive, or at least say it is immersive in your campaign pitch, it is not going to cut the mustard—as the saying goes here in merry old England. Nowadays, you get immersive “everything”—from immersive theatre and cinema, to immersive dinning experiences and brand activations—but what lies behind the word, and is it more than a fad solely being used for the jargon-lovers out there in the industry?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines immersive as “seeming to surround the audience, player, etc. so that they feel completely involved in something.” Adapted in to the context of brand experience and experiential marketing, it can be defined as (my definition, by the way) “creating an environment which surrounds a user with a memorable and shareable experience that engages the mind and stimulates the senses.”

I guess, one may say that all events can be seen as immersive—whether the event is a music festival, sports event or a conference—all could fit into my previous definition. However, I would argue that to be a truly successful immersive experience in our industry, it has to tell a brand’s story with compelling narrative allowing individuals to have emotional engagements across both digital and face-to-face interactions. These stories have to be memorable and shareable in order to justify the investment in the experience.

Are live music events immersive?

Are live music events immersive?

The sharing of stories has a long association with human evolution. In fact, Anthropologists have long argued its importance to our very existence and psychology research has shown that it exerts a big influence on human behaviour. This is due to the fact that we are such highly social animals and, consequently, a story has many powers within complex human social structures. For example, they can help build new relationships and alliances or reinforce them, establish social status, pass on knowledge, express self-identity, or be a catalyst for disruptive change. This is why great storytelling has to be central to immersive experiences, and why brands need to tap into this pivotal part of human life by telling a compelling story and having a strong brand purpose.

You see, we are now living in a world where, for consumers, it is no longer simply about which product or service to buy anymore, but about the overall experience they have with a brand at every point of contact. This is where offering immersive experiences can be a key differentiating factor, which help to win over the hearts and minds of consumers.

Immersive experiences across a “Mixed Reality” universe

The term “Mixed Reality” encompasses five spaces:

  1. Real-Life Environment;
  2. Augmented Reality;
  3. Virtual Reality;
  4. Alternate Reality;
  5. Digital Environment.

This is the universe we need to populate with our stories to create a truly immersive experience that fully engage people and get them sharing and remembering your campaigns.

Real-Life Environment

This is where the live event is staged. Here, we need to design and deliver events that offer a fully immersive experience to the people who visit, which communicates a brand’s message clearly, memorably and is on-brand.

To do this, I think it helps to firstly think of these people as participants rather than attendees. If we do this, we immediately change the role of the consumer; moving from passive observer to engaged participant. This really helps in the design phase to create experiential marketing events that are both more interactive and focused on the user experience.

One thing to take note of: Technology is hugely important to live experiences. However, in my opinion, it needs to be used wisely and strategically, where it is fully integrated with and supports the brand’s campaign story and message.

Augmented Reality

AR’s potential for mass engagement is huge, due to the sheer amount of people who own smartphones—currently around two billion worldwide. It’s magical because it can create a world simply by pointing a smartphone at an object. How does it do this? “…The technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality. Augmentation is conventionally in real-time and in semantic context with environmental elements, such as sports scores on TV during a match. With the help of advanced AR technology (e.g. adding computer vision and object recognition) the information about the surrounding real world of the user becomes interactive and digitally manipulable. Artificial information about the environment and its objects can be overlaid on the real world” (Wikipedia, 2015).

See the video below for a glimpse of its potential for experiential marketing campaigns.

Virtual Reality

VR replicates an environment that simulates a physical presence in places in the real world or imagined worlds and lets the user interact in that world. It can create sensory experiences, which can include sight, hearing, touch, and smell.

2016 is going to be a big year for VR. Big names within the tech world are rolling out their products, which offer great opportunities for the experiential industry. Facebook’s Oculas Rift, Samsung and Google, all have products ranging from £200 to just £4 for google cardboard.

Already there have been some great examples of VR being used in experiential campaigns. In particular, one to look at came from the live brand experience agency, BEcause, who recently had campaign using Oculas Rift headsets called the Sensorium.

Have a look at the video below of Mark Zuckerberg discussing back in October 2015 why virtual reality is the next big thing.

Alternate Reality

Alternate Reality is a really interesting way of immersing people into your story. Essentially, alternate reality allows for a single story to be told via several different media at once. It was first identified in Japanese culture where young people became immersed in worlds and fantasies through stories being told in such things as Manga and Anime. It was eventually adopted into the American film industry, where, for example, the Star Wars’ franchise created its own universe telling its story across books, comics, cartons, video games as well as the iconic films, before it eventually evolved further into a marketing strategy known as Alternate Reality Games.

An alternate reality game is an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and uses transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players’ ideas or actions. One great example of this was for the Hollywood blockbuster, Batman: The Dark Night. The agency 42 Entertainment  were behind the campaign. This is what they had to say about the immersive experience:

“”Why So Serious?” was designed as a 360° alternate reality experience that played out over 15 months leading up to the release of The Dark Knight. Spilling out over a multitude of different platforms, this deep immersive campaign recruited the audience to become real citizens of Gotham City. Over 11 million unique participants in over 75 countries fueled the rise of the Joker as henchmen, campaigned for Harvey Dent to get elected as District Attorney, and even took the law into their own hands by becoming copycat Batman vigilantes. From calling phone numbers written in the sky, to hunting down GPS coordinates to find mobile phones baked inside of birthday cakes, “Why So Serious?” was an experience like no other. As these fans collectively scoured the globe in search of clues, their incredible passion generated billions of impressions in the press and blogosphere setting a new benchmark for immersive entertainment.”

Digital Environment

Having a strong social media presence is paramount to immersive experiences, as they allow people to have their own personal input to the story. Opening up conversations via the plethora of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Instagram, Snapchat, lets people get immersed by providing communication channels for them to comment, review, share, etc., which maximizes engagement and amplifies the digital reach of experiential marketing campaigns. You need to treat Social media as the glue connecting all the other areas in the “mixed reality” universe.

Creating the universe

Now lets put it all together with an imaginary case study…

Tesla Motors Campaign: “The Future City Is Now”

“Tesla Motors hired us to launch a new electric car for them, which was to enter the small, city-car market. The campaign was built around the title, “The Future City Is Now”. Here, we presented “Future City”; a place that is clean, sustainable, powered by renewable energy and everyone is using electric cars. All the technology showcased currently exists and could transform cities in the short-term if consumers’ and governments’ behaviour changed.  

A year before the event, via our partner agency, we created and activated an Alternate Reality Game, where gamification and great storytelling immersed people into this new world, allowing them to experience life in “Future City”. The storyline supported the wider advertising campaign taking place across other media platforms. This helped drive interest and online participation in the build up to the launch, resulting in over 55 million You Tube views and over 15 million people becoming “Future City” residents. 

The launch event took place at the International Motor Show in Germany—the largest of its kind in the world. This was a state-of-the-art set-build around the theme “The Future City Is Now”. A partnership was made with an agency to develop and deliver an AR and VR immersive experience at the launch event. This transported key influencers at the motor show into the “The Future City Is Now” world, which generated huge reach through press channels and the blogosphere.

A Social Media strategy was also developed to support all the areas above that reached out to communities and amplified the campaign’s story, resulting billions of impressions. Social Media was particularly key to the success of the alternate reality game.”

To sum up…

In order to offer genuine immersive experiences to an ever increasingly savvy consumer, firstly we need have compelling storytelling that truly immerses people into the brand’s world and message; without it, people are simply not going to be engaged with the content. We then need to tell these stories across the spaces in the “mixed reality” universe. Every campaign is different and budgets vary, so all of these spaces may not be suitable. Nonetheless, trying to incorporate as many as you’re capable of, or think fits best to achieve the campaign’s objectives, will ensure you are providing the most immersive experience possible to evoke human emotions and build brand love. This, ultimately, adds real value to brands and increases ROIs on their experiential marketing campaigns.

Remember: Immersive experiences can be more than just an experience at the event or putting on a virtual reality headset. They can transport people into new worlds and realities with the power of storytelling across the different touch points on the customer journey.

Sensory Psychology: Campo Viejo’s “Streets of Spain” Experiential Event at Southbank, London

IMG_0431Billed as a multi-sensory Spanish fiesta experience, I decided to head out into the field with my psychology hat firmly on to judge for myself at the Campo Viejo’s “Streets of Spain” experiential event. In its third year now, and boasting impressive stats from 2014, the festival kicked off with a bang on a cold May-Day Friday at the Southbank in South-East London. Miss Jones & Co were the agency behind the event, again trusted by Campo Viejo’s parent company, Pernod Ricard UK to deliver the goods. For the theme, food and wine took centre stage (unsurprisingly) with a sprinkling of art and music for extra spice.

The Sensory Experience

Sight

The first thing to hit your sensory pallet was the visual spectacle. Spread out along the banks of the River Thames was an expanse of street food tents serving all kinds of tasty Spanish food — A sight for sore eyes, indeed. And each tent was branded excellently too, offering a uniform look that made for a striking scene. Added to this, the London Eye in view, as well as House of Commons and The National Theatre close by, the Southbank is truly a great setting for an event of this kind.

Street vendors alongside the River Thames.

Street vendors alongside the River Thames.

A large part of our unconscious mind is used to process the data that our eyes gathers everyday resulting in about a third of our brain handling vision. Evolution has seen to this as a key survival tool to avoid danger and forage for food. This is why we form split-second first impressions via our eyes. Consequently, it’s paramount to provide aesthetically pleasing venues, spaces, as well digital platforms for events and experiential marketing. Thankfully most of us in the business are well aware of this — I hope!

Smell

The next sense to be tickled was smell; the aroma swirling around the fresh spring evening air was simply amazing. Sizzling beef, spicy pádron peppers, paella, churros, patatas bravas, all providing a smell sensation, which recalled fond memories of a time when I lived in Spain for a year as an inquisitive seven-year old boy.

A powerful connection exists between the olfactory system (smell) and memory. For example, research into the subject has provided strong evidence that scent-encoded information achieves far greater longevity with individuals’ memory when compared to other sensory cues. In addition, another study in the area found memories triggered by scent were rated to be more emotional for individuals in an experiment compared with the other senses. The close neural proximity of the system dealing with smell and memory in the brain plays a large part in this strong relationship. For instance, the limbic system is home to the olfactory bulb (which is the area of the brain that processes smell), the amygdala (primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions), and the hippocampus (short-term and long-term memory); all of which heavily influence our emotional life and has a great deal to do with the formation of memories.

Street food

Street food

Taste

At an event like this, taste is obviously going to be an important sense to invigorate. I was drawn in by the smell and sound of fiery pádron peppers being cooked at a tent selling a dish described as the “Barcelona Bomb”. The ingredients were Wagyu beef served on a baked potato bed, with a sauce similar to alioli, which certainly did blow my taste buds away — delicious. Later I tried some seafood paella, which looked fantastic cooking in a massive dish.

Taste, more so than any of the other senses, we experience through those other senses. How something smells, how something looks, how it feels, even how it sounds, all influence our brain’s ability to process what something taste’s like. In particular, up to 80-90% of what we think things taste like are down to smell. This is because our taste receptors are limited by just five primary taste qualities: sour, sweet, salty, bitter and umami. Thus, alone, we can find it very hard to distinguish subtle flavours. This is why clever food-sellers prime our anticipation with lots of descriptive adjectives on menus and pay close attention to a dish’s presentation.

Sound

My ears were constantly immersed in the event; it appeared that most of the food tents were run by Spanish vendors, and many Spanish people were in attendance, resulting in the language being heard all over the place, as well as other Spanish dialects. If you closed your eyes, hearing the food sizzling, and the loud noises of people having fun on the street, you could indeed be in Barcelona, Madrid or San Sebastian. A music stage with bands during the day and DJs as night, as well as the Soundscape experiment (discussed below), provided further stimulation for the ears.

The significance of audition has been long recognised dating back to the 1950s when marketing and advertising began to sell us desires and wants as opposed to needs. Music jingles, music in T.V. and radio ads, connecting music with spaces such as hotels, retail outlets, restaurants, and airplanes, to create an atmosphere, as well how a product sound, all have been put to use to target our hearing sense in order to have emotional impact and influence behavior. Sound is also a key feature in most events and experiential activity; whether through music or microphone, this is a must to get right, but this is certainly not always the case, sadly.

The hustle and bustle of market street.

The hustle and bustle of market street.

Touch

How did the touch fare? Probably the hardest of the senses to plan for in order to stimulate event-attendees compared with the others already mentioned. The main object consistently in my hand was a wine-cup (Well, it is being organised by a wine brand, so no judging please). The cups chosen for the event did give me nightmares. Perhaps it is due to my University days where many a bottle of wine were smuggled into the theatre, cinema or ballet (What, you’ve never smuggled wine in to the ballet?) and all one could use to drink from was a take-away coffee cup that invariably got soggy.

Haptics, the scientific term for touch, was believed by Aristotle to be the most highly regarded of the senses. He put it sitting above the other four in a hierarchical fashion set out in his theory, “aistheis”, meaning sensations, due to touch providing a true picture of the intrinsic nature of any given object. Interestingly, touch is also the first sense we experience inside the womb, and the last sense to fleet us upon dying. In infant monkeys, research was carried out to see if a mother’s touch or basic nutrition was more desired. It found that infant monkeys always chose a warm, comforting surrogate mother (warm blanket wrapped around a wire mannequin) over a cold, nurturing surrogate mother (wire mannequin with milk bottle). Moreover, strong infant-parent touching in humans has been shown to increase attachment levels and enhance the baby’s emotional and physiological health.

For products, it has long been established that touch is hugely important in how people perceive an item they wish to purchase, with there being both a functional and emotional aspect to touching. They can have fun by touching a product or judging its quality and value. In particular, there exists strong evidence that the mere shape of a wine glass has a direct influence on the taste experience. Hence, my surprise that Streets of Spain had used take-away coffee cups to serve their wine in. I know to serve so many people in a cost-effective way may be the reason, still, I think that plastic cups with which a deposit is given and returned would be a much better system to showcase the wine and create less waste.

The Soundscape Experience

Inside the Soundscape Experiment room.

Inside the Soundscape Experiment room.

I was very intrigued by this aspect of the event. It was an opportunity for people to go deeper with the brand and experience something different and new. Soundscape was an experiment into the relationship between sound and taste; the first of its kind in the world. Nick Ryan, a world-renowned pioneering composer, was tasked with interpreting the taste of the wine and creating a musical journey for people to take when sampling a Cava, a Reserva, and a Gran Reserva; which would mimic the condition known as synaesthesia; where the stimulation of one sense evokes the sensation of another.

The room provided a feeling of immersion, and four Funktion One speakers aiming at us added to the experience (I love Funktion One sound-systems). Nick created three different compositions to accompany each of the wines. For each of the pieces there were three cues to indicate the stages of tasting: smell, initial taste, and finish.

For me, although an intriguing experience, I found the sounds distracting, which made it hard to find my own subjective opinion about the taste of the wine. That being said, I did feel like Nick’s vision of the wine came through the music, which nonetheless, resulted in a very interesting experiment.

IMG_0429

Quiero todo el vino por favor

Final Thoughts…

We experience and interpret life through our senses by physiological methods of perception, so a sense is a faculty by which outside stimuli are perceived. They are a complex mechanism designed to aid our survival — well, back in our more primitive days at least. No longer just for survival, our senses allow us modern humans to seek pleasure in the world. This is why our senses are so important. Now I know what you may be thinking, that these things just happen naturally, and that the senses are as well serviced in an iconic street market such as Borough Market, for instance. However, that is not the point. Experiences like Borough Market have been around for many years, and as a result, have grown a sensory atmosphere organically. For producers of experiences, we need to replicate these types of immersive and authentic atmospheres with limited time and resources. Subsequently, plan for multi-sensory experiences in the design phase, harness their influence, and watch your live events gain deeper emotive and immersive qualities, enhanced memory retention, and ultimately, improve the chances of creating a positive impact on your target audience.

Overall, I found “Streets of Spain” to be an excellent example of a well designed and executed multi-sensory experiential campaign. The event felt genuine, paid attention to how our brains works, and created a great platform for brand engagement. Well done to all involved.

Look out for my future blog post on the topic of sensory psychology. Get involved by leaving a comment below, or by following me on Twitter where you can find me @eventpsychology.