Experiential marketing – what is it? And what are the advantages & disadvantages of giving away free gifts?

Here at TWP Accounting, we’ve always been passionate advocates urging our customers to get themselves out there more with sales and marketing. It’s an area we’ve covered in some depth over the years on our blogs. We’ve written about selling by eBay, investing in your customer relationships, how to cope if someone is undercutting you, and the commercial justification behind raising your marketing budget and taking on sales reps.

We want to succeed in a world in which the way big and small businesses spend money promoting themselves is changing.

Money normally spent advertising in newspapers and magazines is now increasingly being diverted to Facebook and Google’s platform-based news service. To understand how seismic a shift this is, as little as 20 years ago, it was considered unthinkable for big brands not to be spending money on on-the-page advertising.

Rate cards at TV and radio stations continue their slow decline as more and more consumers spend time getting what TV and radio used to provide them with on the internet.

The time-tested ways for big businesses to reach their audiences are changing. It’s not just because of technology; it’s also because people are accessing TV, radio and print considerably less than they were 10 years ago.

In this article, we’ll look at experiential marketing, providing examples of how big companies have made a splash using it. Then, we consider using free gifts (a popular form of experiential marketing) in the events & exhibitions your company attends.

The rise of experiential marketing

Experiential marketing, although part of the advertising and marketing landscape for decades, has become one of the most popular and dynamic ways to win connections and loyalty from customers.

As the name suggests, this form of marketing provides an experience to a new or existing customer. With that experience comes a connection on an emotional level.

As so much of our purchasing (even in business to business) is emotional, so it goes that successful and engaging experiential marketing will give a company a head start over its competitors in the decision-making process because of that deeper connection.

How do companies provide that crucial experience?

Depending on the company and the audience they’re trying to reach, there are a number of different ways to do it.

A popular way is to provide an experiential stunt – an experience that is outside their normal expectations.

Vodafone, in 2002, pushed the envelope when two fully-naked streakers, both with the Vodafone logo painted on their backs, ran onto the pitch during an Australia vs New Zealand rugby international. It certainly attracted the attention of the police but gained valuable media coverage all over the world.

In 2016, when promoting his new film “Sausage Party”, Seth Rogan surprised unsuspecting shoppers by setting up a stunt where many of the groceries on display started talking to them. It’s a funny, quite amazing stunt – check out this video to see how it went.

Opening social media accounts and keeping those accounts active is a great platform for connecting. It requires a lot of work right from the start. The companies that do it are expected to interact with users, particularly when a customer has had a bad experience and wants some form of recompense for it.

Interactivity and immersion in a brand and its concept was recently brilliantly demonstrated by Disney in the UK. “Doc McStuffin” stars a 6 year old who cares for stuffed animals and toys in her playhouse clinic. When she puts on her stethoscope, the stuffed animals and toys come to life and she can communicate with them (think Dr Doolittle meets Show Me Show Me).

Disney opened “Doc McStuffin” clinics in 20 towns across the UK and inside 3 retailers – Tesco, Smyths and Toys R Us. The clinics were full of brand new Doc McStuffin merchandise, colouring-in books and puzzle sheets. Children were trained to give one of the characters, Big Ted, a full check-up. They then diagnosed Big Ted’s illnesses and treated his symptoms – read more at Hotcow’s website.

Other campaigns offer sensory experiences. Visitors to a Dorset beach found a 40ft long dragon’s skull, promoting the new series of Game Of Thrones, as seen in the Metro. Dezeen reported how department store Selfridges created a “silence room” where the focus was on the individual and not on the products on display instore. Lipton Iced Tea launched a “misting zone” on train platforms. Commuters were cooled with a Lipton-scented mist during peak travel, as reported on Mumbrella.

Free gifts and takeaways in experiential marketing

Promotional goods and merchandising are, perhaps, the original form of experiential marketing. The importance of this channel continues whether the target audiences are consumers or businesses.

One famous recent case study concerns the brand new “challenger” bank, Metrobank.

In most UK bank branches, branded pens are secured to the counter tops by a chain to prevent theft. Metrobank saw things differently. They believed that customers taking away their branded pens and using them in the home or the office kept the brand just as close to them as if they were in the branch.

What about shows and events your company attends?

Big companies spend tens of thousands on sensory experiences, huge stands and giant plasma TV screens.

Whether a company is big or small, there are a lot of different opinions on the best types of gifts to offer stand visitors and what you should get from giving the gift in return.

One thing you need to ensure is that the quantity of gifts you order will be enough – particularly if your stand and the advert you place in the exhibition program makes a promise of a freebie to the people who stop to see you.

Colgate suffered a major social media fail when they were giving away a “£170 toothbrush” at London Waterloo Station. Not only was the toothbrush on sale widely for half the advertised price but their stand was overwhelmed with freebie hunters who swamped the station concourse. Some people even took the day off to get this amazing toothbrush.

The promotion was quickly pulled forcing Colgate’s press and PR teams to deal with a huge number of newspaper and consumer questions and enquiries about station overcrowding, the real price of the item and whether there was enough of them to give away to match consumer demand reported This Is Money.

Whilst running short of a freebie at a trade show is unlikely to provoke a media scrum against your company, be careful not to raise expectations with the promise of a free gift only for you to discover a few hours into a show that you’ve massively underestimated the demand for it. For many, the worst feeling in the world is disappointment – don’t disappoint your potential customers!

What about the quality and originality of your freebie?

Food offerings are great for getting people to your stand. Sweet stands always make people stop and look, especially if there are lots of different types of sweets on offer and the sweet stand itself is big, bold and emblazoned with your company’s logo and straplines.

To make a real impact with your branded, promotional goods, you need to give something away that can be used again and again. You also need to be clear about what you want from your visitors to make the money spent on the promotional item more than pay for itself.

The two things most important to you at an exhibition need to be:

  • You find out the name, title, telephone number and email address of a potential new customer and
  • You make a note of what they were specifically interested in

The four most important things about your freebie should be:

  • Visitors are able to carry it in one hand and it’s not too heavy
  • Visitors can use it again and again (for example, a branded mug)
  • Visitors are able to remember that your company gave it to them
  • Visitors are able to find your company contact details with the minimum of fuss

Asking the right questions

When someone comes to visit your stand, make sure you and everything representing you has a hit list of questions to ask. Sit down and work out the most important information the company needs to be able to do a follow-up. Telephone numbers and email addresses are all well and good but if no-one remembers or has written down what they expressed an interest in, it’s a wasted lead.

Aim to get all your answers with three minutes but be prepared for some conversations to go on a lot longer. Remember that an exhibition is full of competing visual and audio sensations and your visitors will want to go around and see as much as they possibly can.

Food or drink may get them to your stand. Now you’ve got them and they’ve answered your questions, what should you give them to walk away with?

Quality is so important. Whether it’s a pen, a cup or a water bottle, don’t go for the cheapest item. Make sure you specify a high quality freebie that stands the test of time and looks & feels great.

Have leaflets and booklets ready to back up everything you or your colleagues have told them. Use short, pithy language on your printed items with a strong call to action. Always remember to hand over your business card.

Give them a bag to carry everything away in. Of course, one thing exhibitions are never short of are promotional bags carrying company logos. Try to make your bag bigger and better quality than anyone else’s. Make your aim that your bag is the bag that every other bag gets put into!

Your visitor has been attracted by a quality presentation of your company. That presentation contained a quality, engaging conversation, a quality freebie, quality leaflets/booklets and a stylish, eye-catching quality bag to carry everything away in.

Remember that if it gets old, its gets cold. Email everyone whose information you’ve collected the following day with a picture of your stand and a short thank-you.

Then, give your sales team the all-important names, titles and numbers together with notes on what they wanted. And get them calling!

Factor in marketing to your business budget

Your target market wants to be approached, intrigued, challenged, and appreciated. If you have any idea about how you want to market your business, please call us today on 01932 704 700 or email your accounting partner at and let’s find out just how much advertising and marketing you have the cash for.

Leave a Reply