Experiential marketing: Breaking the habits of a lifetime

We’re all creatures of habit.

We frequent fewer than 25 places in our day to day lives, and form close relationships with five people. We walk around the supermarket and put exactly the same things in our trolleys, week in week out. We stick with the same brands, because – well, better the devil you know.

The challenge for brands is in breaking those habits.

They’re up against a fundamental principle of human psychology: risk aversion. Change means a loss of control over our circumstances, a loss of face as the things we’re used to become less than desirable, and a concern that the new way of doing things won’t work. Understand that and you understand why most of us prefer a sure outcome, avoiding the grey area where things might or might not be OK.

There’s another factor coming in the opposite direction. Habits are efficient: we form them because they’re more efficient than processing situations and making decisions as though it’s our first time every time. The cognitive loop between cue, routine and reward becomes encoded in our procedural memory, and we keep doing the thing that worked the first few times we did it.

For many brands – particularly new ones, but also incumbents with similarly-sized rivals – these are the deep seated psychological routines that you’re fighting against when you’re trying to get consumers to try a new product.

Why would they change? Why would they want your product over the one they always get?

How brands break the habit

A change in habitual buying patterns can be extraordinarily powerful. The same study which identified the 25 place limit also revealed that people can change. It’s the number of places that stays constant – if people start to frequent a new place, they usually stop going to another, and the overall number of regular haunts stays the same. In other words, if you can persuade people to buy a new product a few times, it can become part of their routine.

The Sainsbury’s “Try something new today” campaign was aiming for £2.5 billion in revenue growth – and achieved it when they worked out that this target boiled down to a trifling £1.14 per customer. Encouraging every customer to pick up one thing they wouldn’t normally consider made the difference, permeating Sainsbury’s marketing messaging and increasing profits by 43%.

It worked because Sainsbury’s understood how people shop: they do it on autopilot, paying so little attention to their surroundings that a literal man in a gorilla suit can pass them by. The supermarket looked into why routine ruled the day in food shopping, and found that 74% of their customers cooked the same things every week, lacking practical inspiration for midweek meals.

Sainsbury’s offered simple ideas for upgraded recipes – adding an ingredient to the sort of meals people throw together on a rainy Tuesday night – in a convenient form, with idea cards at the store entrance and point of sale displays reinforcing the suggestions. They made the change small and simple and easy to execute, showing that there was another way to do things – even if it’s just adding apples to sausages.

It’s these small touches that disrupt habitual thinking, presenting a small change that makes people re-appraise their automatic decisions and think, “is this really the most efficient thing to do?” Pack design – something that’s visually distinctive and makes a disruptive claim – can do the trick, as can apparent innovation, but there’s still an awful lot of noise on the shelves, and the boldest of signals will often struggle to cut through.

The experiential answer

A great experiential campaign can cut through all of this. Real change can come through the personal experience of the consumer, disrupting their routine more directly and offering more incentives to try something different.

Yes, the potential purchaser has to like the product, but a great experiential campaign can create the right environment for enjoyment. Activating all five senses goes further than reaching out to one. Smell and taste in particular are powerful disruptors of the day to day shopping experience, and become the basis for significant memories, experiences around which a future habit can be formed. If the experience can posit a single, repeatable action that ties to a predictable, repeatable cue, the habit formation process can begin within days.

The key to changing habits, according to behavioural analysts at the Interaction Design Foundation, is to identify the cue and reward that reinforce the behaviour, and substitute them with something else. An enjoyable, active, easily repeatable experience can become a new reward – the challenge for experiential marketers, really, is to put their product into the context of the customer’s life, attaching that reward to a new cue.

There are few marketing options that can break and remake customer habits in one go, but experiential marketing comes close. At the very least, it can disrupt the routine into which shoppers fall and take them off purchase autopilot, putting them in a position where they have to make and evaluate a choice – and that’s the stuff of which a future buying habit is made.

Image credit: (CC) Tnarik Innael, via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tnarik/2238942024

Iceland is cool: Is your in-store marketing?

By Joanne Walker. 23rd August 2018
Iceland is cool: Is your in-store marketing?

Iceland is cool. Really, really cool.

As trends among British 18-30s shift away from hard partying and toward mini-breaks, new experiences and Instagram opportunities, Iceland’s become a more popular tourist destination than the Bahamas, Brazil and China. US travellers have been drawn in droves, too – Iceland is more affordable than ever, and has unprecedented media exposure after everything from Game of Thrones and Rogue One to Black Mirror and Noah filmed scenes there. Millennial travellers are drawn to Rejkjavík’s live music scene – dozens of bands following in the wake of Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men – and to its unique, no-chains café culture.

Basically, it’s hipster heaven – and it’s drawing over two million visitors a year, transforming the Icelandic economy. Challenger brands from outside the country have recognised the boom, and are bringing a honed, powerful in-store marketing experience that’s aligned with the emerging consumer demands. It’s not just that they understand what the tourists want – they’re offering an experience that’s new to Icelandic consumers, and shaking up the retail scene as a whole.

The new retail experience – and why Millennials want it

Iceland’s retail environment has been shaped by high prices and limited choice, so big-name brands from Europe and the US already have economy and novelty on their side. Beyond this, however, they’re offering something else – a different kind of shopping. They understand that lower incomes and e-commerce options have turned the high street from a ‘buying things’ place into a ‘finding things to buy’ place, centred on discovering and experiencing products.

Despite the hue and cry about how they’re killing this industry or that, Millennials do actually love shopping. 41% of them ‘showroom’ – they check out a product on the high street, but shop for it online to find the lowest price. They touch, smell and handle merchandise because they don’t like buying sight unseen, and cross-reference that experience with online offers and reviews. If they feel courted by a brand, particularly a brand that treats them like a valued customer and leans in to this “try in-store, buy online” shopping system by offering a personalised discount, 95% of them will become loyal customers.


Millennials also go for different kinds of shops. Pop-ups, which provide distinctive products for a short period, often outperform traditional department stores. They’re more curated and personal, better equipped to provide the courtship experience. Learning zones – environments where the consumer can try out the product, like taking sporting goods for a spin in a fitness studio – also do well. The Boxpark concept – shipping containers that convert into revolving or semi-permanent retail spaces, coworking studios and entertainment venues – offers a blended experience, equal parts work, entertainment and shopping.

Millennial consumers live in a bigger world than before – they’re more connected, they’re always online, but they ‘ache for a sense of unique contribution’. They’re self-advocating, strong-minded, and they don’t believe what they hear from the top. They have to be shown why a product is special, not just told – and that’s why in-store marketing works so well for them.

What Icelandic brands bring to the storefront

The challenger brands who have entered Icelandic retail are used to this experience-driven approach to retail. As a result, they’re beginning to edge out local brands, who aren’t used to foreign competition and, according to McKinsey’s study of the Icelandic economy, have developed in an insular, localised, demand-driven market.

It’s also a small market, and the McKinsey study explicitly references “substantial constraints on how much companies can grow without gaining a dominant market position”. In other words: never mind room at the top, there’s not masses of space for brands underneath it.

What these new brands don’t have, however, is as deep a knowledge of Icelandic culture and retail as the incumbents. Icelanders call each other by their first names, put a specific sauce on almost everything, and are compulsive spenders, working harder and shelling out more than most Europeans.

Culture can easily get lost in translation, particularly with a language that prefers to coin its own words over adopting them from outside and a ruling body concerned about ‘digital extinction’ of its vocabulary traditions.

For instance, signs for Icelanders have to be written in Icelandic – when H&M announced its grand opening in English, it was actually breaking the law. Tech support for Icelandic is poor – Google eventually adopted Icelandic speech recognition, but Apple and Alexa don’t support the language at all, and social media platforms generally implement it poorly. Brands in Iceland are walking a tightrope – they have to be understood by an Icelandic Millennial audience that sees American English as cool, practical, international and reliable, without eroding the sense of attractiveness, relaxation and authenticity that’s attached to the Icelandic language.

In the face to face world of in-store marketing, those values matter. Native brands who can align their Icelandic virtues with the hands-on, “try here buy online” retail experience preferred by Millennial audiences can create something above and beyond what the challengers can offer.

To see how we’ve helped brands build face-to-face in-store experiences in the UK, check out our case studies.

The experiential marketing ecosystem: Before, during and after the event

Experiential marketing and instore campaigns have one big problem.

It’s easy to mistake the visible part of the campaign – the demo, the stand, the samples – for the entirety of the campaign. The savvy brand manager’s goal isn’t just to bump up sales in-store and get some social media responses going on one day.

Experiential marketing extends far further than the event itself, and getting the most out of experiences means putting in the work before, during and after the day.

Experiential marketing: Before

Lead times are absolutely crucial. The more time you give your agency, the better the experience will be. Three months is ideal. Longer lead times mean you can build up previews on social, get traditional advertising out in good time, secure the best people for the job and get them briefed. Briefed on what? Well:

  • What else the brand is doing – The more we know, the more we can build in compatibility and coherence with the rest of your marketing.
  • Broader brand values – This knowledge helps us match people with the right skills to your campaign, delivering the brand training, ensuring they’re walking, talking ambassadors for your brand’s values.
  • Competitor insight – The more we know about what your competitors are up to, the more attention we can secure for you: the goal is to get your event’s signal out there, competing with as little noise as possible.
  • What else is going on in the stores – We need to be aware of the bigger picture, so we can build what we’re doing to complement what else is going on. Why do a product demo in store the week after the product is on offer? (Yes, this has happened to us, and funnily enough, the demo didn’t do well – everyone who would have bought had done so days ago.)

Upfront work is necessary for a quality campaign. The longer you have to create a buzz, the busier you’ll be on the day, and the more notice you can give third parties, the better the execution and creative thought will be. Tight deadlines aren’t the end of the world, but it pays to have thinking and breathing space. Both are essential to great brand experiences.

Experiential marketing: During

This is the visible part – the bit people are good at thinking about. What things look like and whether they’re on brand is the bread and butter of experiential marketing. Most businesses have the basics down pat. But it’s worth mentioning that during the live campaign, brands should:

  • Share on social – Social media posts have a massive impact: they can increase the reach of an in-store experience a thousand times over, and since the day is already about your brand engaging with customers, there’s no reason not to double down.
  • Take photos – Something about a thousand words springs to mind? And to be honest, the unscripted surprises when someone really enjoys your product are light years beyond any posed, carefully curated image.
  • Run competitions – A demo or sample is one thing, but gamifying it brings out the instinct to… well… compete. And win. And be chuffed that you had the opportunity. Competitions and games build loyalty in the simplest way around – they give participants something to be proud of.
  • Gather data for marketing (Within the limitations of GDPR, obviously) – Experiential marketing events are a touchpoint between you and your customers, a chance to learn what they like and why, and because you’re interacting directly, you can ask the follow-up questions that give you qualitative data. It’s one thing to run the numbers on a customer persona – quite another to find out exactly why those numbers look the way they do.

While we’re talking about the events themselves, there’s one thing we have to point out. In-store marketing is out of the routine for some retailers. Look at the difference between Costco, where demos are routine and shoppers make a beeline for them, and the likes of Tesco or Asda, where the demo is often a disturbance to routine, and shoppers often consciously, deliberately avoid them.

That means, on the day, you and your retailers need to advocate for the experience you’re putting on – you need to overcome that sense of disruption, awkwardness, reticence and reluctance, and convince people it’s worth going out of their way for your event.

Experiential marketing: After

There’s a reason we made one of our ten principles for experiential marketing the right way  “aftercare is not an afterthought”. It’s the bit everyone is prone to forgetting. Data is a big opportunity and so many brands miss it entirely. Experiential marketing goes so much further than that. We’re working to influence and change long-held customer behaviours: it won’t be done and dusted in a day!

When it comes to post analysis, take the long view. Where were sales before the event? Where were they during it, and immediately after it, but above all, where do sales settle? That 400% uplift on the day is only the start of the story – where’s the long term change?

Other things to think about after the event include:

  • Follow up campaigns – Make the most of those photos, those experiences, that data – get an idea of who’s into your brand and market to them. Put everything together.
  • Newsletters – Every marketing experience will give you something to share with your customers, some success story – and it’s a bond-building “I was there!” moment for anyone who signed up on the day.
  • Prize draws – Remember what we said about competitions and gamification? Same thing. People love to win, even more so if they didn’t have to risk anything, or even do very much. A prize draw is a great value offer to make in return for people’s data – the names and numbers that will inform your later campaigns.
  • More social – Collect those shareable moments, make those responses, talk to people. Extend the touchpoint out after the event, and keep your eyes out for reviews and responses. They’ll tell you what you did right and wrong, and they’ll give you an opportunity to build relationships down the line.

Lanson Lanyards

To show how it all comes together, look at how Lanson Champagne have worked with us on a recent campaign. Beforehand, they used their retailer’s customer magazine to build awareness for in-store activity, and carry out data capture for future marketing. They distributed a physical invitation to their in-store activity to drive footfall: an invitation which detailed a competition to win a magnum of champagne, and included the Wimbledon schedule, building on the brand’s link with the tennis championship. The invitation also included a branded lanyard, designed to act as a brand ‘reminder’ long after the event. It’s hard to quantify how long this lasted – but we certainly saw evidence weeks later of Costco members shopping with their car keys on the Lanson lanyard.

As you can see, there’s a lot more to field and experiential marketing than just turning up on the day with some goods to share. Give your agency the time to find the right people, brief them on your brand, and join up with your other marketing efforts. Advocate for your experience on the day, bring people out of their routine and into your world. And afterwards,  gather data, sign people up, and share the stories.

You’re creating experiences for people: make the most of them.

To see how we’ve helped brands take the long view – planning before, during and after the experiential event itself – take a look at our work to date.

Experiential and Field Marketing: A strategy checklist

Whether they’re trying cheese as they walk round a supermarket or having a full-on brand experience in a shopping centre, the customer sees and experiences the end result of serious planning and consultation. Field marketing can often be an afterthought for brands, considered not sexy at all. But we beg to differ.

Field marketing exists at the moment of truth, the exact time where the consumer is at the purchasing stage. You have that opportunity to change their buying habits in the place it matters most. You’re going to put your product into the customers’ hands (and mouths) face to face. Every element needs to be right. Experiential may take more creativity, but it still needs the same strategic basis.

Don’t leave a marketing experience out to dry. Build a campaign that works around these ten essential points – and avoid the all-too-common pitfalls we see brands fall into.

Ten things your strategy needs

1. Goals. What are you trying to achieve? In specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timed terms, what good is this marketing experience meant to do for your brand? Most brands want to generate sales, brand awareness, leads or feedback on new products, and need to track them by appropriate metrics: location, schedule, cost, and effect on the bottom line.

2. Clear vision. Why are you running an experiential marketing event? How do you want customers to feel? What do you want them to do? Vision is how you avoid becoming lost in the possibilities, and deliver a coherent experience for your customers-to-be.

3. Seasonal context. Line up your field marketing plans with the calendar. Align with the holidays, the sporting events and the predictable trends that will help your promotional game. Likewise, stay away from off-season oddities: nobody tries to sell barbecues in winter.

4. Audience. Who are you targeting? How do they like you to speak to them? What’s going to make them take time out of their day? This stage is informed by customer profiles and market segmentation. While you shouldn’t (obviously) be turning anyone away from your experience, it should be pitched to attract the right demographic, and staff should be briefed on who to single out from the crowds.

5. Brand Cohesion. This works on two levels. First, the basics of branding: visuals, vocabulary and values. Second, the brand strategy as a whole. What other marketing efforts are you making, and how can your experiential campaign support and enrich them?

6. Creative. How are you making your stand… stand out? And who are you bringing in to avoid sentences like that one? Creative talent elevates a basic marketing experience, and it delivers on the potential of a complex one. If you’re hell-bent on using VR, someone needs to make that experience look, sound and feel good.

7. Execution. Staffing, times, logistics. How will you ensure the experience, whatever it may be, runs smoothly on the day? People need briefing, training and a chance to become familiar with the experience before they start delivering it – not jumping into it on the day.

8. Comms. How are you promoting the experience? What channels will you be using: what’s your budget for newsprint or pay-per-click? Who will be monitoring the social media presence, and how will they be managing bad press from negative feedback?

9. Data collection. What will you be recording? Do you need consumer consent? What are you offering to encourage that consent – is this a good day for newsletter signups? This talks back to your goals – you need some way of measuring how well you’ve done, and making the most of the data you’ve collected so it can inform your later plans.

10. Before/During/After. What’s the overall plan for the experience – how early do you need to start preparing, and how will you get the most out of your work in the long term? Field and experiential marketing don’t stand alone – they’re part of a brand-wide push toward strategic goals, and they have ripple effects beyond the immediate uptick in sales.

All of this needs to be documented. This isn’t paperwork for paperwork’s sake: the strategy document provides a structure that allows you to explain the strategy to retailers and hosts, and it makes everyone involved aware of the higher level goals, the plan that goes beyond “introduce product to customer.” If it’s done properly, it’ll guide everyone from head office down to store staff level, explaining how the campaign’s going to work and what it needs from them.

Common mistakes

Making the experience too complex. It can be tempting to throw the kitchen sink at experiential marketing – VR headsets, huge multimedia touchscreens, banners, a mascot. Throw some indoor fireworks in there too – why not? But nothing beats a simple idea executed to perfection. Two weeks of product samples just before Christmas boosted Ferrero Rocher’s sales by an average of 186% – that’s well-timed, no-frills field marketing in action.

Failing to align your experiential marketing with the rest of your brand, or with the retailer, or with the calendar. If it’s Valentine’s Day, and the store’s running a two-for-one meal deal and a half price prosecco deal for couples while we run a dessert tasting session, we need to know about that. Our session can feed directly into those other activities, guiding customers to spend more – a direct benefit to the store.

Not securing wider buy in from retailers. The people you really need on your side are store management. They’re hard-working people who already have plenty of responsibilities to balance, before brand folks come in, on head office’s say so, and disrupt their daily operations. Get store management on your side and you’ll have the space and support you need, store staff sharing in your experience, and a far more successful day.

There are dozens of clichés about planning that we could use to round this off, but you’ve probably heard them all before. The truth is, experiential and field marketing are bigger than the experience itself. If your activities aren’t aligned with strategic goals, other activities, and retailer operations, you’ll struggle to make them pay off. The more forward planning and alignment you can manage, the more effective your marketing will be.

To see how we’ve helped other brands clarify their campaigns and set their strategy, explore the work we’ve done.

Why do Icelandic retailers need to create brand loyalty NOW?

As far as international retailers are concerned, Iceland is (or has been) a challenge.

Iceland’s banks collapsed at the height of the 2008 credit crisis: a $10bn international aid package kept the country afloat, and the newly created special prosecutor jailed twenty banking executives. Retail giants pulled out of the country – McDonalds ceased Icelandic trading as early as 2009 – and for the best part of a decade, prices have spiralled and economic activity has been restricted.

Since 2017, however, the Icelandic market has boomed. Capital controls have been removed, the krona has become stronger, and the economy is growing at a steady, sustainable rate: so the retail big boys are back in town.

Costco, H&M and Nespresso have all arrived in a marketplace that’s keen to see prices drop and competition extend – but with only 300,000 consumers in the country, incumbent and incoming brands alike will have to work hard if they want to compete for attention and wallet share in the long term.

Building brand loyalty fast

The Icelandic market is currently in a ‘gold rush’ stage of development – everything’s up for grabs. This means incumbent brands have to build a strong market presence before every brand and their dog arrives.

The incoming brands are bringing a new approach. As high street retail has declined, pressed by squeezed incomes, changing tastes and a shift toward e-commerce, shops in the west have become a showcase for the product. Customers visit the shop to discover, test and experience something they’re more likely to buy online. Experiential marketing is an especially powerful strategy in Iceland – an import-dependent country where consumers are used to high prices and limited choice. In such a retail environment, novelty and a free gift go a long way.

High Street

The outsider brands who’ve done best in Iceland have gone above and beyond the call of retail duty. Product demos and experiences are in their DNA – Costco in particular offer enough free samples to have an acceptable (if piecemeal) lunch, and have already sold 80,000 membership cards, meaning one in every four Icelanders is a loyal customer.

This is only the beginning. If a retail innovator like Apple  – which turns its stores into educational centres for its ‘Today at Apple’ events – starts to transform the Icelandic retail experience into something that doesn’t feel like shopping at all, Icelandic businesses are going to be left behind.

Icelandic brands need to up their game in order to meet this challenge, and stay viable in a marketplace that’s dramatically different. To beat the newcomers, it’s necessary to think like them. Assume every customer coming into your store is new: what are you doing that’ll make them want to come back?

How to pitch a ‘new customer experience’

Costco succeeded in Iceland partly because it adopted (and adapted) a strategy that’s succeeded elsewhere in their operations. Its  product sampling and demonstration programme has worked well in the US and the UK – in the latter, it’s provided an average conversion rate of 1 in 7, and a 335% sales uplift to vendors.

Native brands are best off looking at what the newcomers have done – adopting and adapting the methods of the competition.

Dunkin’ Donuts brought a global level of variety to the limited Icelandic market. Icelandic bakeries only carry a handful of doughnut brands. Dunkin’ Donuts changed the Icelandic doughnut experience into something out of the ordinary; by opening in a select five locations, they created rarity, making an exclusive event out of their launch and ensuring they had people queuing around the block. Meanwhile, the old familiar brands were simply sitting on the shelves, waiting to be bought.

Likewise, Nespresso have positioned themselves as offering variety and quality outside the routine Icelandic experience, and that’s why they’ve succeeded. The aroma of their capsules creates an opportunity for powerful and unusual smell-and-taste experiences, and the store experience in Kringlan builds on this. They don’t just sell coffee: they help novice coffee drinkers find their preferred blend at a permanent tasting station, creating an experience that welcomes them into a new habit – and a new brand.

The question for native Icelandic brands is: how can you be more like this? To meet these newcomers head on, there are two real options. Introduce new products and meet them novelty for novelty, or introduce new experiences that bring them back to you? Product innovation isn’t easy in the Icelandic marketplace – so the solution is a change of pace in your experiential marketing.

Take a look at what we do and who we do it for, right here.


Image credit: (CC) Jonas Forth, via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jforth/4840420102