A brief history of experiential and field marketing

Experiential and field marketing mean different things to different people. Real world activations, brand experiences, in-store and on-site installations, not to mention omni-channel, hybrid spaces and more. For us, it’s simply the place where customers meet the brands in person. But where did all this start, and how did we end up here?

Frank Wainwright – editor of Field Marketing and Brand Experience – told us, in humourous fashion: “Experience is all about the real: prostitution, the market stall, and estate agency are probably the beginning and end of invention in our sector!”

Maybe that’s true – but we wanted to know where the discipline started. Who sat down and consciously thought, “I bet demonstrations will help me sell more”? Who proved how and why it works?

Origins of field marketing

The history of field marketing starts in the USA with two products: soap and cars.

In the early twentieth century, Procter and Gamble had already pioneered market research and direct-to-retailer sales. Bringing the results of one and the techniques of the other together was the logical next step – so that’s precisely what P&G did.

The rise of mass media gave P&G a platform to promote their sampling events, and the events gave attendees the chance to try P&G’s latest products first hand, with a discount if they purchased on the day. P&G’s profits went from strength to strength, spurred by innovations like these across the board – and along the way, they became the world’s biggest spender on marketing.

Meanwhile, former sailmaker George P. Johnson could see which way the wind was blowing. Reaching out to the automotive industry, Johnson founded a new company to create promotional events – branded environments at festivals, fairs and other public spaces where the car-curious could have a go behind the wheel.

Between them, these two companies brought field marketing as we know it into business.

Marketing evolution

Experiential marketing has been around for a while, although it was never named as such. In 1924, the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was a spectacular experience, featuring live animals from the Central Park Zoo on the streets of New York. Over 250,000 people attended the parade and Macy’s declared it would become an annual event. It’s now the world’s largest parade.

The actual term ‘experiential marketing’ first appears at the turn of the millennium, however, with Bernd Schmitt’s article and book. Schmitt was crystal clear that he hadn’t invented this ‘new form of marketing’. He was merely describing what he saw: a move away from traditional, product-led ‘features and benefits’ marketing, toward experiences like the Macy’s parade.

Miller Beer were ahead of the pack here, turning field marketing into a special occasion: their Blind Date and Taste Challenge events began in the 1970s, bringing field marketing into exclusive concerts and calling rival brands to competitive field tasting events.

The best of experiential

Here and now, experiential marketing is more creative than ever. Think about Uber Ice Cream – the one day a year when Uber drivers deliver ice cream on demand, in 400 cities across the world. It’s a global-scale event, it’s short-term enough that it feels special, and it’s innately shareable – the “oh hey my #UberIceCream just arrived” social media posts write themselves. More than that – it’s 100% on brand, with every visual asset and merchandise item speaking the same language.

The novelty value involved is powerful too. There’s no intrinsic link between ice cream and Uber’s offering, but it works because it’s unusual. Volkswagen’s musical staircase has almost nothing to do with cars, but it’s fun. It’s a purely emotional piece of brand building – something strange and unusual and enjoyable, brought to you by Volkswagen, aligning those feelings and values with the brand name.

Experiential can riff off anything. Refinery29’s tenth-anniversary party became an exhibition – 29 rooms, each sponsored by one of their business partners and each housing an interactive pop culture exhibition that brings Refinery29’s digital personal into real, tactile life. 29Rooms performed so well that it’s become an annual fixture, a media event in its own right.

Why has experiential marketing taken off?

Over the last twenty years, consumer trust in businesses has declined, with good faith transferring to reviews left by other buyers. Technological and cultural shifts around social media and reality TV have changed audience expectations: anything that’s overplanned and company-led feels fake, user-generated content feels real. You only have to look at the rise of the YouTuber and the ‘influencer’ to see this in action.

According to business professor Philip Kotler, the cultural changes have been mirrored by a natural decline in marketing practice. As a company grows, its approach to marketing becomes formulaic, over-researched and over-tuned, lacking the creativity and passion of the early days when grassroots marketing was all it had to work with. Kotler’s solution? Get back to your roots and interact directly with your customers. That’s where experiential marketing comes in.

Deciding to buy something is a complex process, with dozens of factors to weigh in the balance. A free sample – or a demonstration that feels like one – cuts through that mental static, offering direct first-hand data on what this product is like.

People love freebies. Samples boost sales by as much as twenty times – they’re especially powerful because they draw in new customers who want to try before they buy. Most importantly, these direct interactions create a sense of reciprocity: a desire to give something back.

On the more experiential side of the equation, the customer thinks “show me something fun and I’ll tweet about it; retweet me and I’ll buy something.” It feels authentic because the customer’s the one who’s expressing their opinion and getting noticed – they’re not something brewed up by a marketing team. What the marketing team’s done is plan for them, creating an experience and trusting the customer to respond. The basic principle is simple: if you build it, they will come.