Can AR solve the experiential marketing dilemma?

Launching experiential marketing campaigns help brands to get noticed in today’s saturated media landscape. In recent years, marketers designed ever more extreme experiences in hopes to “go viral” on social media. And while staging outrageous events can be a good way to capture awareness and maximize reach, this tactic also has one fundamental flaw:

Campaigns that rely on ever more outrageous experiences often minimize customers to being mere spectators. In our current age of customer participation, this is a problem.

Take Red Bull as an example. It is well known for creating and sponsoring outrageous experiences. Recent examples include performing bike tricks on desert mountaintops, flying through canyons, and surfing in extreme waves. All of these events have two things in common: They are described as “the most extreme event ever”, and they are performed by top athletes. All that we – the everyday consumers – can do is watch these outrageous events.

Ordinary customers felt left behind in the stratosphere

The “Red Bull Stratos Jump Campaign” might be the clearest example of the power of experiential marketing. And its inherent dilemma.

Millions of people watched live on youtube how Felix Baumgartner broke a 52­-year-­old record for the highest recorded parachute jump. And the sound barrier in the process, as he fell to Earth in super-sonic speed.

Red Bull had a man jump out of space, but customers weren't as engaged as they could have been in this experiential marketing campaign.

It is one of the most powerful experiential marketing campaign of recent years. It excels at reinforcing Red Bull’s positioning as a drink for daredevils who push the boundaries to the limit.

How could ordinary customers really participate in the space jump?

But the campaign had one major flaw: How could ordinary customers be part of the space jump? How could they be active participants, instead of just passive observers?

The experiential marketing dilemma

These examples point to the fundamental dilemma in experiential marketing:

More outrageous experiential marketing campaigns make viral effects more likely, but limit customer participation
The experiential marketing dilemma

Brands have to come up with ever more outrageous experiences to maximize viral effects on social media. This maximizes reach, shown by the two blue arrows in the graphic above. Note that their “less” and “more” labels are located on the same sides.

This is good, but the dilemma starts when taking a look at the yellow arrow. It shows that consumers are typically less able to participate in an experiential marketing campaign the more outrageous it becomes.

The experiential marketing dilemma is that marketers have to trade off media reach with customer participation

Creating more outrageous events thus undermines the premise of experiential marketing. When most consumers can’t actively participate in these events, the campaigns lack much of the emotional appeal that made experiential marketing such an intriguing tactic in the first place.

In short: The experiential marketing dilemma is that you, the marketer who creates the experience, have to trade off media reach with customer participation. How do you solve this dilemma?

One solution would be to create more attainable experiences. Something for the “everyday maverick.” And while such campaigns certainly have their benefits, they don’t have the same reach as more extreme events.

Another way to solve the experiential marketing dilemma is to utilize augmented reality to create companion experiences. This would enable everyday consumers to participate in a “safer version” of an extremely dangerous (and extremely publicity generating) activity.

Poliakov, a French vodka brand, provides a useful example of how augmented reality can combine a word-of-mouth inspiring publicity stunt with an achievable, yet related, experience for everyday consumers.

Outrageous events make customers look, but not feel

If Red Bull is the most daredevil energy drink, Poliakov is the world’s most extreme vodka. In 2014, it’s “K Degree Mission” experiential marketing campaign took Poliakov to new heights­ — quite literally­ — by launching a bottle of vodka 20 miles above the stratosphere.

Poliakov vodka sent a bottle of vodka to space, but it wasn't an engaging experiential marketing campaign.

It is an awe inspiring publicity stunt in line with Poliakov’s brand identity. Viewers were delighted by the campaign’s unique angle on “space adventure.” However, they were not directly involved in the campaign’s physical action. They followed with their eyes, but their bodies didn’t move. And the lack of involvement and activity means that the campaign fell short on emotionally connecting with customers.

Both Poliakov’s and Red Bull’s marketing operates at the edge of space. So how could the two brands possibly improve their efforts? Should Poliakov have taken all 180,000 of their Facebook followers into space? They aren’t expected to. But with emerging marketing technologies like augmented reality (AR), they can bring space to consumers. And that’s much more achievable.

Provide achievable companion experiences

You can solve the experiential marketing dilemma through creating a compelling companion experience.

A good companion experience enables customers to “play along” in your outrageous event. They are thus active participants, not mere  spectators. But how can you convincingly mirror the extreme event in a safe environment? This is where augmented reality comes in.

Augmented reality, which blends digital information with a live view of the physical world, is key to creating a compelling companion experience.

Poliakov may not have found the perfect companion experience, but it is close enough to make my point. It created a fully interactive AR game that gave everyday customers a chance to participate in the space adventure without ever lifting off the ground. Here’s a video to see for yourself:


Poliakov’s campaign utilized an augmented reality paradigm called magic mirror. Users were featured within the illusion itself, playing the game by focusing on a larger-than-life display that placed an AR layer over their own moving “reflection.”

Poliakov allowed users to team up its experiential marketing AR campaign.

The game itself might seem rudimentary, and it is.

However, hidden in this silly game is the key to solving the experiential marketing dilemma.

Augmented reality can solve the experiential marketing dilemma

Augmented reality enables everyday customers to safely participate in outrageous experiences, rather than just watch hardcore athletes doing it.

Fighting ice monsters on an outer planet might be a stretch. A better companion experience might ask customers to dodge asteroids while steering the space capsule. Perfect or not, the key point is: Poliakov’s campaign enabled users to personally connect with the experiential marketing campaign. In addition to watching the publicity stunt on their devices, they were able to fully immerse themselves in the companion experience.

They weren’t just watching a bottle of vodka soar into space. They were the ones controlling the content.

Red Bull could do the same and offer companion experiences that enable customers to play-participate in their outrageous competitions. Look up to the sky through your smart phone and see Felix Baumgartner’s parachute coming towards you. Race an airplane through a digital parkour while lying in the grass on a sunny afternoon. It’s like you are part of the action!

How you can create good companion experiences

Augmented reality is a great technology for creating achievable yet exciting companion experiences because it allows you to add fantastic digital content to mundane physical spaces. Here are a few things to keep in mind for making sure your companion experience lives up to the real deal.

The first thing is to find ways for consumer engagement. In the “K Degree Mission,” consumers were invited to watch the vodka float into space. However, the Ice Breaker Challenge let users take full control of the experience. The interactions that unfolded in the Ice Breaker Challenge are a higher form of consumer-brand engagement.

In an academic article I recently published with my co-author, Andrew Smith, in Business Horizons, we present a more detailed analysis of different levels of consumer engagement via augmented reality. We explain in depth what makes an AR campaign successful: The Ice Breaker Challenge achieves the highest levels of consumer-brand engagement, because the game “affords users the ability to interact with AR content.” As a marketer, you should think of ways to let users interact with and manipulate the AR experience to their liking.

Empower your customers to interact with the AR experience to their liking

Knowing this, Poliakov could have improved customer engagement even more. For example, it could have allowed players to customize their body’s representation in AR. Maybe they could have “worn” a space suite, or could have been played a friendly alien? Giving users the opportunity to select a costume piece or weapon for their AR image would make them feel more connected to the experience.

Poliakov vodka utilized brand ambassadors in its experiential marketing AR campaign.

Engagement can also increase reach

Another way to increase engagement is to boost what we call user-bystander engagement. Bystanders are those consumers who aren’t directly involved in the campaign. Nevertheless, these are an important source for creating great augmented reality experiences. A great way to increase user-bystander engagement is letting users share evidence of their participation in your AR campaign on social media.

Sometimes it is as easy as providing a video clip of the experience (or game) that users (or players) can share on social media. This relatively simple form of user-bystander engagement not only deepens the experience for those who participated, but also extends the reach of the campaign.

Conclusion: Leverage the full potential of experiential marketing

Marketers who want to break through the media clutter via experiential marketing campaigns are stuck in a dilemma. Increasing the reach of the campaign often means making the experience unattainable for everyone but highly trained athletes. Customers are reduced to mere spectators. And limiting the ability to participate undermines a core feature of experiential marketing campaigns: creating emotional responses.

In this post, I suggested that you can solve the experiential marketing dilemma by developing companion experiences that empower customers to participate in a “water-downed”, safe version of the outrageous event. Augmented reality is a great technology to do this, because it seamlessly blends digital information with the physical world of your customers.

That means that the experience can be outrageous, and customers can participate safely in their known environment.

Poliakov vodka might not have found the perfect companion experience for its K Degree Mission, but it has shown the potential of combining outrageous PR stunt with achievable AR experience.

Your brand could be among the first to leverage the full potential of experiential marketing by flanking the main event with a companion AR campaign. If you want to be a pioneer in this “spatial” (rather than space) adventure, make sure to follow MKTGsquad and get in touch to learn more or share your cool AR campaigns.

The author thanks Aislinn Bryan, Taryn Harris and Tori Watkins for their contributions to an earlier version of this article.
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