When merchants talk about experiential marketing, they’re usually referring to stores and how to get customers engaged in the products and the brand once they walk in the door. Can you provide the same “experience” in a print catalog or on a Website? Many creative experts believe that you can or, at the very least, you should try. We talked to four noted catalog consultants to get their take on experiential creative.

BRENT NIEMUTH is creative director and brand evangelist of J. Schmid & Associates, a Mission, KS-based catalog consulting firm.

Experiential creative is all about providing a shopping atmosphere that is relevant to the customer, one that includes them in the process. There was a time when you could distinguish your product from the competitor’s based on a unique feature or a special benefit. It was faster. It was smaller. It saved time — whatever. This was enough to make the sale.

But companies are quickly learning that selling products based simply on features and benefits alone is no longer enough. Competition has increased dramatically and it is becoming harder and harder to stand out from the crowd and truly be different.

You can’t just rely on selling “stuff” anymore. Consumers today want more from their favorite brands. They want a complete experience. They want to be engaged.

So you must find a way to include them in the process. You need to surround them with a unique creative experience, wrapping them in your brand. You must communicate what makes your brand different and tell that story through the creative execution.

But it’s important that you do this from their perspective. You must consider their point-of-view. Their lifestyle. What’s important to them? What language do they use? What will they respond to?

Once you have a firm understanding of the customer, you can begin to build this unique creative experience into your catalog, your Website and your retail environments. All of this will help define the color palette, photography style and copy tone you use. You need to go beyond merely describing product features and make the customer feel as if they’ve entered your special world.

Patagonia is one brand that uses experiential creative masterfully. Not only does it show you “what” you can buy, it also explains “why” you should buy it.

Everything it sells and everything it stands for revolves around the environment. In catalogs and on the Website, Patagonia shows its products in use by adventurous people in extreme settings, accompanied by a real-life story, making you feel as if that could be you.

You can almost feel the rain on your face and smell the campfire burning when you flip through the pages of a Patagonia catalog. You want to be there. You want to buy that jacket! This is experiential creative at its best.

Delivering a meaningful and memorable experience not only cuts through the clutter, it also promotes customer loyalty. Building a relevant experience is critical if your company wants long-term growth. How do you create these experiences?

Again, the answer lies in understanding what is important to your customers. By embracing what makes your brand different and promoting your higher-order benefit — the emotional take-away for the customer — you can create “experiences” rather than merely selling products.

GLENDA SHASHO is president of Shasho Jones Direct, a New York-based consulting practice.

What is experiential marketing? It’s really a brand strengthening strategy. How it is presented creatively is critical, since it needs to be immediately understood and relevant to the customer to have impact. When used effectively and across channels, it can be awfully powerful, since experiential marketing can create memorable, relevant and often valuable experiences.

We normally rely heavily on the strength of design on Internet sites, catalog pages, and store decor to build brand and sell products. Engaging a customer through an experience is a way of giving dimension, feel and smell to a brand. It can generate strong feelings that the customer takes away and internalizes for years to come.

Experiential marketing is really a fancy way of saying your catalog, store, Website, and e-mail have developed a method of engaging customers on a higher level — with an “experience” that resonates with them and creates brand perception and action. Doing this also requires an investment of both time and money.

One personal experience I had is with Williams-Sonoma, which for years has been filling its catalogs with recipes that are used by millions. One pre-Thanksgiving week, I downloaded some of the kitchen products cataloger/retailer’s recipes for my annual meal. When I did so, the site showed me — giving me the opportunity to buy — all the utensils associated with preparing those dishes.

Getting those recipes got me some great compliments at dinner. And now Williams-Sonoma stores have cooking classes. I’m on the company’s e-mail list for class listings and store locations — I know one day I’ll get to one! I also know I can usually count on getting a bite to eat or a chance to sample a new oil or vinegar at any one of the stores I visit, no matter which state I’m in.

While you might have a rock-climbing wall at a sporting goods store, creating that experience in a catalog is challenging. Cataloger/retailer Orvis offers fishing school to complement their product offering.

Penzey’s has recipes and end-use photos of dishes using its spices. Gardener’s Supply Co. pulls you in with testimonials and photos of customers who have used their products. Capturing an experience on a catalog page is a challenging and worthwhile endeavor.

Experience happens in many forms. Some 15 years ago I was shopping for a parka from L.L. Bean. I couldn’t decide between size 4 or 6, and the woman on the phone said, “Well honey, why don’t you let me send you two, one in each size. You can send back the one that doesn’t fit, I’ll send you a postage paid slip.”

That experience did it for me. Some would say it was good customer service. I think it was the culture of the company to provide its customers with good experiences at every opportunity.

I never stopped thinking that that was the best service I had ever received. L.L. Bean (who sends me a regular newsletter) now has multiple experiences available through its Outdoor Discover Schools. I know I can trust the company to teach me kayaking, fishing, biking, shooting, and more.

KEVIN KOTOWSKI is president of Olson/Kotowski, a Torrance, CA-based direct marketing agency.

It’s important to note that experiential marketing isn’t for everyone. For starters, your merchandise has to lend itself to it. Second, you have to commit selling space to make it happen. It’s one thing to have rock-climbing walls in your stores (like outdoor gear merchant REI does) for customers to experience what it would be like to scale a mountain; it’s another to give up valuable square inches in your catalog to devote to the experience of using your merchandise.

That said, two companies that use experiential marketing extremely well and in two very different ways are Patagonia and J. Peterman.

Patagonia uses dramatic photos of customers wearing and using its products outdoors, often in remote locations — the viewer can picture himself or herself experiencing the adventures that fellow Patagonia customers are having.

J. Peterman’s copy that romances its merchandise places the reader in a faraway setting such as Hemingway’s house in Key West or Picasso’s studio. The reader can, through their mind’s eye, experience what it would be like to be the guest of honor at a Maharajah’s banquet or imagine himself piloting a plane over 1920’s East Africa on his way to visit lsak Dinesen.

What do Patagonia and J. Peterman, and all experiential marketing efforts, have in common? They all attempt, by placing the viewer or reader in a place, setting or situation, to have them aspire to be like the people they’re seeing or reading about. And, of course, they aim to persuade customers that by wearing or using the marketers’ products, they will be like those people.

So is experiential marketing right for you? It might be. While it’s likely you can’t — and shouldn’t — devote every photograph or copy block to experiential marketing, it’s fine to use a few sidebars in your catalog to help your customer or prospect experience what it will be like to use your products.

If you sell tools, then place the reader in a workshop or garage as a team prepares a car for an upcoming race. If you sell cooking utensils, then put them, through photos and copy, in a famous chef’s kitchen while he prepares a gourmet dinner.

But be cautious. You likely won’t see a lift in sales right away. In most cases, experiential marketing is a branding tactic, not a direct sales tactic. It takes time and repetition for it to have an effect.

CAROL WORTHINGTON-LEVY is partner, creative services for San Jose, CA-based consultancy Lenser.

Interactivity and experiential tactics can really serve a marketing need in a very “direct” way. For example, television network USA has been developing games on its Website to keep TV viewers engaged and watching. I notice that this kind of activity picked up exponentially during the writer’s strike — I’m sure to keep the viewer’s loyalty while shows were rerunning for the fifth time.

Google makes its site as viral and sticky as possible by including a direct link to YouTube videos, news, weather — whatever you want on your dashboard. For instance, mine has a currency converter.

Catalogers can get in on the experiential action by inviting catalog customers to write stories about their successes using the merchant’s products. We can post them, use them for promotion in the catalog, make them part of a blog, and so on.

But again, this plays powerfully with our own human interest in telling our story. People want to be heard and they love to tell a story where they prevail successfully at the end. It makes them feel good, and it helps us to tell others why our products are so good.

Even more traditional direct marketing media — such as direct mail — can be experiential. One of my favorite old-fashioned ploys is the liftnote that offers the reader a chance to write the pros and cons of whether to join our club or make some other purchase decision. Sometimes they refer to old Ben Franklin, who used to make decisions that way, so that the reader will feel they’re in good company as they use this technique to make up their minds.

Direct mail can be experiential in its approach, but the designer and writer need to be ready to do the kinds of things that we know people like, even if everyone looks at us like we’re dinosaurs. For example, the “Yes” sticker gets many frowns around the table, but it’s experiential and it still works — we just beat a 10-year control and that was one of our elements in the package. Experiential strategies simply need to appeal to the prospect’s interest in responding. Mother Nature made us curious and tactile — and who are we to ignore that?

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