How experiences are becoming the new social currency- by Michael Brown for Event Magazine

Michael Brown, managing director of agency MKTG, explores the evidence that consumers increasingly want to be rich in experiences.

It was about this time last year that Steve Howard, the chief sustainability officer of Ikea, picked up a bit of heat when he proclaimed that the West had reached ‘peak candlestick’.
The term candlestick was a placeholder for ‘stuff’ – a symbol for the things Ikea sells and, given his job title, he was asking a perfectly legitimate question: how does a business like Ikea remain sustainable in the future if the world really has got too many candlesticks, and too many flat-packed coffee tables on which to put them on?
Steve is not alone in calling out the burgeoning phenomena of customer behaviour. Only last month Lord Wolfson CEO of Next used almost identical, but possibly less poetic language than Howard, to explain the slump in fashion retail on the high street. His plaintive quote ‘People don’t want to buy more stuff’ was covered very broadly in the media, and not just in the business pages.
Other indicators out there in the markets could be interpreted in much the same way. Take Apple; the champions of aspirational consumerism have not been immune of late. Wall Street experienced a few ripples in their Chai Latte’s when the corporation announced its third consecutive sales decline in October 2016.
While no one is suggesting that Apple is in trouble, it would seem people are becoming more values driven and less materialistic. We know for certain that some audience groups driven by economic circumstances beyond their control are struggling with the idea of not owning anything ever. Millennials have been priced out of the property market; it’s a ladder they may not ever be able to stand at the foot of, never mind raise a foot onto the first rung. We also know high percentages of people will switch brands if there is a disconnect between their values and the actions of the brand.
At the same time purchase behaviour has swung away from commodity. Two very obvious examples spring to mind; music fans buy much less music as a physical product – they stream it from Spotify. Likewise film fans; who wants a DVD when you can stream it under temporary license from a subscription service such as Netflix?
But if people either can’t or don’t want to be rich in the materialistic sense, it would seem they do want to be rich in another way – in experience.
Reverting back to Wolfson’s observation about the performance of retail fashion, he further qualified this in his statement to shareholders: “We believe the numbers demonstrate the continuing trend towards spending on experiences away from things”.
A whole lot of consumer data backs Wolfson up. The predictions vary depending on where and what you read but Mintel’s American Lifestyle study of 2016 showed a significant increase in spend in ‘non-essentials’. Such things as dining out, holidays, shows, gigs, festivals of every hue should perhaps now be deemed as ‘essentials’.
Barclays’ recently released consumer spending report based on the first quarter of 2017 tells much the same story. They cite ‘splashing out’ on the experience economy as a key driver of growth, with spending on entertainment maintaining double digit growth for an 11th consecutive quarter. Meanwhile, visits to pubs and restaurants both rose by +12%. Leisure time with family and friends was referred to as a priority over other types of spending in the first quarter of 2017.

Connected moments

Brands like Secret Cinema and Tough Mudder are properly evolved experience economy businesses. As brands and experiences they are poles apart, but both these, and every other business in the experience 2.0 economy are united by what they sell; connected, communal moments – the connectedness and the community providing all the power in the commercial offer of these brands, and the attraction of such to an audience.

And the brands to watch are the ones that are not visible yet but have invested into the experience economy. What is the next Secret Cinema – where is that going? What might that represent on a global scale? Airbnb is one of the experience economy brands that are constantly evolving. It is trying to evolve to own the notion of experience in a much more holistic way.

Social currency

The experience-savvy brands provide for yet another way for a non-materialistic audience to become rich. Not just in experience, but in social currency. They give their audience the bragging rights and the kudos in the celebration of those who were there, against the envy of those who weren’t.
Which explains the explosion in the variety of experience 2.0 businesses over the last few years; an evolutionary arms race vying to provide ever more multi-sensory and ever more immersive ways to spend both time and money.
Who would have thought locking yourself in a room with a bunch of mates, and spending an hour trying to get out would take off in the way it has. On record there are 6,881 Escape Rooms in 1,306 cities in 100 countries from Azerbaijan to Aberdeen. People are doing Escape Room-themed Gap Years. Likewise Zombie Experiences!
As we know, eating out has been extended to include all the senses; who wants to dine out these days if you cannot taste with your eyes and ears as well as your buds? You will all be familiar with Gingerline’s famous Chamber of Flavours, the Black Cat Supper Club, Django’ Bango’s Gold Rush and other such luminaries on the immersive dining scene – a trend that has been with us for a few years now.
It is these sorts of businesses that have been bringing the vision of futurologist Alvin Toffler to life almost 50 years after his 1970 book Future Shock predicted an ‘experiential’ economy in which people would spend high percentages of their salaries to live amazing experiences. It is now these businesses that are driving the economy by getting people out more, connected more and allowing people to be ‘in the moment’ – all of which are indicative qualities of an economy less obsessed with consumption. Unsurprisingly the old economy brands, the people who actually have physical ‘stuff’ to sell, are changing the way they do their advertising: experiential as a marketing buzzword risks becoming passé, brands are doing immersive now.

Asics: The Big Race

In January of this year, Asics launched a 5K run with a difference; what they described as an film noir adventure called The Big Race. Runners were invited to track down a mysterious lady in red through downtown Los Angeles. They crashed into gigs, through walls and were chased by gangsters. As with any immersive event happening, tickets were limited, which means that when brands do immersive, the content is also crucial. The Big Race film aired in all Asics key markets including the UK, USA, China, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Russia and all of Europe.
As with the Asics case study, increasingly the product or service is getting substituted for a destination event experience at the heart of the media plan.
The Event Track Study by the Event Marketing Institute of America and Mosaic, a large scale US-based agency, is now in its fifth year. The report documents the relationship between 220 of the Forbes 1,000 blue chip corporations and their consumers in context of experiential marketing services. There are many positive take outs for marketing decision makers. These include the findings that experiential drives not only propensity to purchase, but also significantly drives sales. It further finds the medium as effective for increasing brand perception and recall.
Even more interestingly, past iterations of the report stated that more than half of those Forbes 100 corporations use experiences to launch their campaigns, to build the campaign and the campaign assets out of the event itself.
The Event Marketing Institute’s  2016 Content Benchmarking report confirmed that 51% of brands intend to spend more marketing money on their event content generation than they did in the previous year. A further 39% reported they would spend similar amounts. This study, along with the others alluded to above, would seem to be Bellwethers of a future in which all advertising will be experienced.

Blog: Live storytelling and its growing importance by Michael Brown, psLIVE

Storytelling, in an evolutionary context, has been undeniably important to our success as a species, says psLIVE’s managing director Michael Brown in his regular blog in Event Magazine
The myriad theories of precisely why this is so can bring the world’s sharpest intellects to fisticuffs in the laboratory car park.
Some scientists believe storytelling evolved to help impart crucial survival information, such as where the ripest berries could be found, or where to avoid the most dangerous animals. Others believe it bestowed a peacock-like advantage in the quest for a mate – entertain your would-be partner, raise a chuckle even, and you’re in. Others yet would punch you on the nose if you did not agree that social cohesion was the reason; storytelling was the stimulus to gather around the campfire, a social act that helped to strengthen tribal bonds.
To straighten things out, I contacted Doctor Mark Coulson, associate professor in Psychology at Middlesex University; home to the BSc Psychology and Marketing course.
Mark said: “Perhaps the most interesting contemporary psychological explanation of storytelling is that it allows us to ‘simulate’ emotional responses to situations we may never have encountered. As readers or listeners we take on the viewpoints of other people, perhaps very different from ourselves.
“By sharing their stories, we learn about our own emotions. Just as rough and tumble play teaches us behaviours which help us to survive, so listening to stories teaches us psychological skills that will serve us well in the future.”
What we did not foresee, when we dragged ourselves out of the primeval swamp, was that the evolutionary trail would lead us from hunter-gatherers to such occupations as working in media.
Assuming you are a fully adapted media type yourself, I am sure you would acknowledge that the ancient art of storytelling has been, and is, the subject of as much debate in a marketing context as it amongst those combative evolutionary scientists. There have been many articles on the subject. Here is yet another, hopefully, suitably evolved from its predecessors.
 Aggressive storytelling
Earlier this year, Adidas appointed creative agency 72&Sunny in order to mount a campaign of what the brand called ‘aggressive storytelling’. Ed Pilkington, Diageo’s marketing and innovation director western Europe, stated in May that a brand’s longevity depends on its ability to tell a great story. The UK marketing director for Three, Tom Malleschatz, spoke widely this month about the brand’s move into storytelling. This topic is evidently so hot right now (again) that you should be loosening a collar and opening a window as you read this.
If everyone’s at it then, just who is telling the best stories and how are the best stories told? Rick Hirst, chief executive of creative agency McGarry Bowen, creators of the fabulous Endless Road ad for Honda, offered some guidance.
“Stories have always been at the heart of great brands but in today’s world, those stories have to do two things,” he said. “First, a story has to grab the attention, like NOW, of the audience in that moment, in the right place and be memorable. No easy feat.
“It also needs to be cumulative – work toward a bigger, consistent narrative so that you build an enduring and deeper relationship with an audience. Simplicity is key: people don’t have the time or inclination to piece together a brand narrative. It’s our job to take away that complexity.”
To expand on Hirst’s comments around narrative, I think a convincing case could be made for experiential as the best way to start a brand story.
Think about it. All the best stories are kick-started by an individual’s personal experience, whether that is the work of a favourite author or simply your mate down the pub regaling you about his or her hilariously bad day. To be truly engaging, a brand narrative would surely have to be similarly experience based. Adidas certainly took this approach in their recent Supercolor launch.
 50 Shades of Supercolor
A reimaging of their famous Originals trainer in 50 amazing shades by global superstar Pharrell Williams, who is (according to the story) a man with Synaesthesia, a condition that jumbles the senses in a spectacularly artistic fashion. The effect on Pharrell means he experiences sound as colour.
Here you can see the beginnings of a plot that is ripe for development. In this case, into a live experience in which people could use Twitter to control the colour palette of a dramatic light display choreographed to music. The plot also involved DJs, drones, arcs of floodlights strafing the skies over London, a live link up to Pharrell himself and a floating sound stage in Hackney Reservoir. Guests were immersed in an interactive sense in the story as it unfolded, and it gave them content assets enabling them to retell the story to their social peers.
This approach mirrors the oral traditions of storytelling in which a listener would hear a story, embellish it with their own experiences and pass it on. The listener becomes the storyteller and so on. This is marketing: plugging straight into, or simulating the ancient hardwiring of human behaviour to better chime with modern audiences. You may recall both the Canon and Captain Morgan case studies from my last blog on real time experiential.
Both campaigns mimicked the oral traditions of storytelling by giving the audience their own assets so that they too could become the storytellers.
Whether or not such case studies build a credible case for experiential as the prime mover in starting a brand story, the psychology would also appear to be with us, according to my interpretation of Dr Mark Coulson’s further words on this subject.
He said: “When we are engaged in a story, at whatever level, we come to share the experiences and feelings of the protagonist. The more engaging the story, the more we share. Books, movies, many forms of advertising are largely passive media, uninfluenced by our actions.
“Anything as a medium that is interactive, more responsive, which may include media such as computer games or forms of advertising such as experiential or social, is consequently more engaging. The opportunities for such media to further enhance the ways in which we become part of other people’s stories are an untapped and exciting frontier.”
 Good stories, well told
However we choose to tell a brand story, Hirst had both the last word and further guidance for us: “What we have at our fingertips are more tools, more opportunities and more ways in which we can tell a brand story.
“Whether a big cinema ad, an amazing interactive experience, or a surprising piece of PR, a great story can be a powerful way of communicating a brand’s message. The key in that last sentence though is the word ‘great’. There’s no such thing as a bad story well told.”
 Michael Brown is MD of psLIVE.