An Extrapolation of Experiential Marketing

    Event overview by Notre Dame assistant professor, and AMA Michiana chapter member, James Wilkie.

    This last week, I was able to attend a luncheon event held by AMA Michiana that included a guest discussion on the topic of Experiential Marketing held by Josh Ginsburg (VP of Business Development – Midwest Region), Ryan Ginty (General Manager of University Park Mall), and Dewayne Hebert (VP of Marketing – Midwest and West Regions) of the SIMON Property Group.

    Having studied marketing and consumer psychology for the past 10 years, I am sometimes surprised at how often that some appear to lose sight of the fact that their customers are, in fact, human. While adopting this perspective is not at all revolutionary, I think that letting that realization sink in from time to time can aid in the development of effective marketing strategies like those employed by SIMON.

    The core tenet of the marketing concept is that firm goals can be achieved by the understanding and satisfaction of consumer needs. This is certainly easier said than done, however, as consumers themselves often do not have a great understanding of what they need and usually have even a harder time describing them in such a way that marketers can effectively understand how they can provide solutions. This is where I believe that the “customers are human” approach can be helpful.

    Humans are, without a doubt, a very complex species to study. Numerous scientific fields have been developed to get a better grasp of why we think, feel, and do the things that we do. Research, for example, has suggested that our brain consists of three systems that evolved over the course of millions of years. The “Old Brain” (shares similar structures to reptile brains) rapidly scans the environment and processes information that allows for survival. The “Midbrain” (which emerged with the first mammals), records memories of behaviors that lead to positive and negative experiences and subsequent emotional responses. The “New Brain” (which emerged in primates) allows for consciousness, language, imagination and abstract thought. Our five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch) take information in from the environment which these three systems then process in order to determine how to behave., This process of decision making is certainly not perfect. The three systems can “suggest” conflicting behaviors and, at times, our “Old Brain” and “Midbrain” persuade us to perform irrational behaviors. Further, to complicate matters for both the consumer and marketer, much of the influence provided to us from the “Old Brain” and “Midbrain” occurs automatically and outside our consciousness. Nevertheless, while our “New Brain” might not always be aware of what the other two systems are up to, all three systems are well-meaning in that they are just trying to help you survive by providing you with information to fulfill essential needs. 

    I believe that when trying to get some level of understanding regarding consumers, that it is helpful to consider the fundamental needs that humans share with one another, which happen to be no different than the needs that our ancestors had. Though there have been numerous researchers who have attempted to provide a listing of fundamental human needs; the one that I will highlight was developed by Max-Neef, Elizalde, and Hopenhayn (1989). Within it, they list subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom as basic needs all humans share. These nine needs are further defined by illustrating (in a 36 cell matrix) how they are associated with certain qualities, types of possessions, actions, and environmental settings. (Related to below: These associations can be automatically triggered upon exposure to different environmental cues). Finally, Max-Neef and colleagues discuss how items can impact the satisfaction of needs. According to them, items can range from one that makes it more difficult to satisfy a need (“violator”) to an item that satisfies a given need while also simultaneously contributing to the satisfaction of other needs (“synergistic satisfier”). The means for satisfying these needs may vary across time, culture, age, gender, etc., but the drive for humans to have these needs fulfilled are universal. Thus, our various brain systems are on the lookout for signals in the environment that provide information relevant to fulfilling these needs whether we are consciously aware of it or not.

    This brings me back to the topic of Experiential Marketing. Technological advances and competitive forces are coming to the point where companies are now able to develop customized offerings in order to better maximize the degree to which a product or service fulfills an individual consumer’s needs. As such, marketers are progressively moving away from targeting a segment of similar consumers to targeting individual consumers. The way I see it, the Experiential Marketing movement is a progression in that through it, fundamental human needs can be satisfied more effectively than ever before.  Experience can be a “synergistic satisfier”, thus the incorporation of experience into a company’s offering provides a higher value proposition for consumers.  For instance, whereas owning a unique t-shirt that they purchase off a clothes rack might fulfill a consumer’s need for identity, having the consumer actually assist in making the t-shirt (perhaps by having them pick the colors and design before screen-printing) can create added value by also tapping into their needs for participation and creation (and perhaps also understanding if they are unaware of how such an item was made).

    I felt that the marketing tactics that the speakers from SIMON Property Group discussed paralleled this “synergistic satisfier” mindset. Much money has been invested by the company to renovate the physical space of their malls. It appears that the main objective of this investment is to provide shoppers with a physical environment that both signals and fulfills different fundamental needs. Whether they are aware of it or not, consumers’ process physical elements such as spacious walkways and cool color palettes and interpret that this physical space provides freedom and leisure. Meanwhile, interactive displays, various media platforms, special events, and brand promotions can allow for needs such as understanding, affection, and participation.

    SIMON has been very successful, in part, because they have a good pulse on the needs of their shoppers. It was not lost on me that goals for SIMON were to: “Give Sparkle”, “Give Fun”, “Give Warmth”, “Give Joy” and “Give Love”.  After all, those are all things that humans need and crave!


    (Click here for a recent article from the South Bend Tribune featuring Ryan Ginty explaining what works in retail experience.) 


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