I can't swing a dead cat without hitting a handful of experiential-marketing evangelists.
Experiential marketing is all the rage. If you follow industry blogs, attend educational conferences, or pay attention to social media, you already know that it's upending the industry as we know it. If you're not going all in on experiential, you might as well not go at all. It's the alpha and the omega of modern marketing; the end all, be all of effective branding; and the only surefire way to get rock-hard abs in just one week.
That last bit might be bologna. And if I'm being brutally honest, I suspect the rest is a bit overblown, too. I can't swing a dead cat in a room full of exhibitors without hitting a handful of experiential-marketing evangelists. And while I appreciate their enthusiasm for the industry's newest marketing craze, I can't help but burst their bubbles, because the simple truth is experiential marketing isn't new at all.
For example, exhibitors at world's fairs have employed a menagerie of experiential tactics for more than 100 years, most notably in the form of live demonstrations. And even before the oft-cited Chicago World's Fair of 1893, Coca-Cola was implementing large-scale couponing and sampling campaigns with experiential ideals. These bygone marketers already understood that the best way to sell a product is not to tell people about it, but rather to give them an experience.
If those examples don't convince you, consider this: Two of the most iconic books on experiential marketing were published in 1984 ("Guerrilla Marketing" by Jay Conrad Levinson) and 1998 ("The Experience Economy" by Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore). And given the shiny-object status of this new movement in marketing, it might surprise you to know that EXHIBITOR's
annual Exhibit Design Awards competition has included an experiential exhibit category since 2011, and EXHIBITORLIVE, the professional development conference for trade show and corporate event marketing, has featured sessions on experiential tactics – led by Gilmore himself – for more than a decade.
Furthermore, experiential events such as Comic-Con International, which began as the San Diego Comic Book Convention in 1970, and Star Trek Conventions, which date back
to 1972, existed long before many of today's most vocal experiential-marketing fanatics were born. Maybe I'm beating a dead cat, but just because it's new to them doesn't make it new. Experiential marketing is little more than an updated buzzword. We may use different tools and fancier technology, assign it different terms, and wield it with greater frequency, but this newfangled strategy is as old as the hills.
Much like experiential marketing, the practice of reintroducing basic marketing tenets using different terminology isn't new either. Not that long ago, metrics burst onto the face-to-face marketing scene as a brand-new, better-learn-it concept. But metrics were just measurement in disguise. More recently, "activation" has become a popular buzzword. But back in the day, we didn't activate anything. We just did it – and we'd been doing it long before Nike. Don't get me wrong. I do believe experiential tactics are increasingly important, especially as consumers become more averse to traditional marketing vehicles. But don't fool yourself into thinking that the world has changed and everything you knew about trade show exhibiting no longer applies.
If you still believe that experiential marketing is an innovative, new concept, think back to trade shows you attended before hearing about experiential anything. For something to be new, there must be a definable moment of transition between the before and the after. But there is no such moment for experiential marketing. It has always been part of face-to-face marketing's DNA. And the more mindful you are of that fact, the more likely you are to avoid getting thwacked in the head by a cat-swinging editor – which I hear is highly experiential.