There’s no business like show business, and retailers are vying to get in on the act. More merchants are turning to Broadway in their ongoing play for experiential marketing. But what can retailers do for an encore?
Apologies to Shakespeare, but if all the world’s a stage, then retail is becoming a key player, and its best line may be this: “Buy our Curtains!”
Or, depending on the brand, “Our sofas!” “Our sweaters!” Or, “Our suits!”
I’m talking about the latest act in the ongoing play for experiential marketing, which is retailers taking the stage, or areas near it. In a bid to show their wares, retailers from Bloomingdale’s to Ann Taylor are finding beneficial partnerships on Broadway, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“During this fall’s theater season, retail marketers have found new ways to weave a show’s cast or creative team into brand-related content,” the WSJ reports. “And when the stars of the cast or creative team share with their own followers, they reach beyond the 600 to 1,500 or so people in an audience.”
Indeed, Americans are likely to mention a good brand experience to an average of nine people, according to a story in Forbes. This means setting the experiential stage in a way that is relevant to a retailer’s best shoppers is critical for long-term loyalty.
However, experiential marketing is fluid, requiring constant evolution to remain relevant. Which leads to the question: If retailers take the stage today, what can they do for an encore?
Experiential Marketing In Three Acts
We can trace the earliest examples of experiential marketing to European street bazaars, where travelers gathered to sell exotic goods from around the globe. Formally, its invention is credited to adman Gary Reynolds, who in 1979 launched the concept of engagement marketing through the creation of the Miller Band Network. And so the curtain rises on experiential marketing, in three acts.
Act 1 — Music: Miller Band Network was a grassroots musical marketing program designed for Reynolds’ key client, Miller Brewing Co. His strategy centered on promoting emerging bands in local bars and clubs that served Miller beer. Over its 18 years Miller promoted 300 artists, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, at 125,000 events.
Act 2 — Spotlights: By the early 2000s, small and large retailers, as well as major consumer brands, picked up on the idea of popping into popular gathering places as a method of engagement marketing. Pop-up retail took the form of traveling boutiques that rolled on the wheels of retrofitted vans, as tents at music festivals and as temporary tenants in abandoned storefronts. Recently, Warby Parker transformed a school bus into a touring eyewear shop, outfitted with leather couches and vintage books.
Act 3 — Cast: In time, for some brands, pop-up shops transformed into alternate entities. Retailers began exploring ways to meld their brand experience in complementary settings, inviting consumers to engage with their products in different, welcoming environments. Home furnishings chain West Elm is doing this by entering the hospitality business, with five West Elm hotels. The concept, scheduled for late 2018, is experiential marketing in the form of a lifestyle brand comforting us during a vacation (or business-trip).
And now, retailers are finding new experiential opportunities at the footlights of Broadway. In addition to Bloomingdale’s, which has furnished a lounge for the cast of “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Music Box Theater, Brooks Brothers has outfitted the leading men of the play “Falsettos” on opening night. Ann Taylor featured photos and video interviews with the director and star of the play “Waitress,” building on the message of women’s empowerment.
These innovative efforts stoke the consumer’s appetite for richer, more personally relevant experiences. But there’s a rub: If the on-stage marketing effort succeeds, or even if it does not, retailers will be tasked with finding what experiential retail marketing can to do for an encore. Following are three considerations.
Wave to the audience: Before choosing an experiential model, retailers should consult a sufficient amount data, such as that gathered through a loyalty program. These insights will help a merchant anticipate the kinds of events its customers want to experience — lately. It should be noted these preferences change regularly. A few years ago shoppers weren’t looking for virtual reality in the store. Now it is becoming common — Lowe’s in late 2015 rolled out its Holoroom, a virtual design and visualization tool, and continues to refine the experience.
Nod to the orchestra: If customer data is music, then the insights derived form an orchestra. The trick for retailers is identifying experiences and settings that are relevant to shoppers while also complementary to the brand. This could mean being where its best shoppers like to go when outside the store. When Brooks Brothers outfitted the lead actors of “Falsettos,” they got in front of a key market segment while its members were engaged in something they love. Not only was the Brooks Brother line worn by admired actors, it is being relived in photos posted by theatergoers on social media.
Take a (small) bow: Not all experiential marketing efforts have to be grand gestures. Occasional short-term events, much like pop-up stores, can be tailored to a lucrative segment of a retailer’s customer base. At the mixed-use retail center Avalon, in metro Atlanta, the athletic-wear brand Athleta supports free community yoga classes, often providing signage, yoga mats and water bottles, said Liz Gillespie, vice president of marketing at North American Properties, a mixed-use retail developer. In doing this, Athleta has found an easy way to connect with consumers outside its store, while supporting activities its best shoppers love.
If retailers apply these considerations to their experiential plans, they may continue to be key players during the many stages of their target customers’ lives. If they screw up the script, however, they risk getting the hook.