As consumers veer toward experiences, marketers must shift gears

Buying activities supersedes acquiring material goods, and businesses—even those peddling familiar products—must do so with the fun of consumer participation in mind. Here’s how.

The current sea change in consumer behavior holds enormous repercussions for PR and marketing.

People are spending less on what economists call “durable goods” such as cars, sofas and refrigerators. Apparel purchases have also dropped, much to the dismay of retailers.

Instead of buying more shoes and jackets to stuff in their closets, consumers are spending more on experiences. People are spending more on vacations and dining out. Even when they buy merchandise, they’re often spurred by the purchase “experience.”

Researchers initially thought this was a millennial trend, but it has expanded to other age groups. Numerous studies show that consumers feel happier buying experiences than accumulating possessions.

The social media factor

Besides growing tired of materialism, social media is influencing behavior. People enjoy taking photos of themselves in exotic locations or exciting situations to post on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Consumers today want more than to bring home mementos and souvenirs; we increasingly define ourselves through our social media posts.

“There is a drive to compete with family members and friends, if they are all going on vacation,” Greg Fisher, who runs a website on Gulf Coast vacations, told Fortune. “It is the experience they are looking for.”

How companies try to adapt

Many retailers are struggling in this new environment. Stores are reorganizing retail space to enhance the buying experience, which can be as important as the product itself.

Nordstrom added counters to its women’s shoe department so shoppers can customize their footwear, The Washington Post reports. Lululemon introduced a concierge service at its New York store to help shoppers reserve space in an exercise class or find a running route in the city.

Experiential marketing, also called participation marketing, offers a path for reaching consumers by employing these tactics:

  • Invite customers to parties or other events.
  • Display and demonstrate products at concerts, malls, sporting arenas or other venues.
  • Solicit customer input for product development.

Experiential marketing might sound synonymous with event marketing or special events, but it differs in certain ways. Good experiential marketing entices customers to immerse themselves in brand-sponsored activities.

“Brands are definitely starting to invest more in experiential projects, and you’re seeing more competition from highly creative smaller agencies,” Debbie Kaplan, executive vice president of experiential marketing at WPP’s Geometry Global, told AdWeek. “Ad and PR agencies are all jumping on the bandwagon.”

Associate the brand with favorite experiences

By showcasing your brand at malls, sports and concert venues, or other locales its target audience frequents, marketers can associate the organization with experiences its customers enjoy, Joey Kercher, president and CEO of Air Fresh Marketing, says in an article for Forbes.

Some experiential marketing campaigns are creative and elaborate, but small experiences can create highly sticky content, says Brian Schultz, co‐founder and chief experience officer at Magnetic. If executed properly and documented well, the brand experience will drive your consumers and media outlets to tell your story better and more authentically.

Don’t overuse technology, though, Schultz warns. If users can’t share content from their phone on social media, it’s probably too complicated. What good is an experience if you can’t share it?

A version of this post first appeared on the blog.

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