Brand theatre and the experiential brand

CoastlineThanks to Katherine Stone at Decent Marketing, we know that Mercury has taken to the streets. Marketers for the Mercury Milan,

"showed up unannounced at Mums & Pops Cafe in Philadelphia on Friday and bought everyone free cups of coffee."

This reminds me of my recommendation to a liquor company looking to secure a position in the Canadian Maritimes. I argued that the most potent marketing tool at their disposal was a spell binding story teller, or as we might call it the theatre of the brand.

Here’s what you need to know about the Maritimes. It is a place where people lived in outports for hundreds of years, where the chief entertainment in these tiny settlements was other people. They descend from Irish, English and Scottish traditions that favor the story teller. (I know of only two other cultural traditions that favor talkers as much as these: one is aboriginal, the other Jamaican. Most of us can hold forth about as long as takes a newscaster to report a story.)

This world built up an extraordinary oral tradition, complete with all the standards items of maritime lore: acts of skill and bravey, inexplicable sightings (ghost ships, etc.), the time the beach filled with deck chairs from the Titanic, and so on. Maritimers love telling stories and they love hearing them. This made them fabulously good respondents in the ethnographic interview. But it was also the chief finding of the research:

these people can talk, and talk must be the medium of the marketer’s message.

Here’s what you need to know about liguor marketing in the Maritimes. It is dominated by the usual strategies of the bar world: free tastings! free coasters! neon logos at point of sale! brand spokeswomen built like bar maids! and that least talkative of marketing strategies, brand slogans kept short and snappy.

So the idea was to participate in the story teller tradition. I recommended that the brand team find a group of out-of-work actors, prep them with some narrative resources, and then send them into the bars of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Have them tell stories. Have them buy drinks. Have them hold forth. Make them leave. Timing was, by my reckoning, crucial. Spell benders should stay no longer than 90 minutes. They sould show up one evening, at all bars at once, then two weeks later, and then perhaps once a quarter for the duration of the campaign.

This was key: Not a single explicit mention of the brand in question. No stories that have to do with alcohol. When the spell benders buys drinks, they should buy the brand in question. But that’s absolutely it.

My strategy was to allow the oral tradition to "find out and fill in." And you know it will. Maritmers will repeat the stories they hear from the spell binder. Sure as shooting, they will tell the story about "the guy who came in here one night and told these great stories about the days when the Maritimes were…"

There are two reasons for this brand diffidence. First, the more the marketer burdens these stories with brand names, the less likely people are to repeat them. Second, the more obviously a brand makes itself the source of the spell bender, a) the less time and energy people will give to figuring out who did stage the spell bender, and b) the less credit the will give to the brand for the gesture.

Call it brand murmur. When this brand murmurs, everyone is inclined to figure out "who these guys were" and "where they came from." The less we give the consumer, the harder they work. Guesses are hazarded. Choices are made. The brand that approaches so delicately is a brand that may be admired for acting more like "one of us" than "one of them." Now the brand is acting with the delicacy of an invited guest. People like this. They are a little tired of brands that act a great, crashing brand bore, boar, or boor.

There are a couple of take aways for the experiential marketing handbook (at least as I see them, Katherine would have a clearer idea, I’m sure.)

First, discover obey the local culture. Use its favorite media. (Coasters not always the best idea.)

Second, proceed as if less is more. Engage their detective work.

Third, invite completion. In this case, invite them to tell more stories.

Fourth, keep a small footprint (fewer reps better than more).

Fifth, practice brand murmur (aka brand diffidence). Don’t go crashing in there.

Sixth, engage theatrical resources. In a world saturated with mediated communications, there’s nothing quite like the real thing.) (Besides, we’re Elizabethans, too).

What did they do. I didn’t want to ask, and I didn’t have courage enough to check. But I have a terrible feeling they decided to stick with the free coaster and bar maids.


Stone, Katherine S. 2005. Meet Them Where They Live. October 17, 2005. here.

4 thoughts on “Brand theatre and the experiential brand

  1. Peter

    Grant, are you familiar with the touring marketing roadshows used by FMCG companies, such as Unilever, Coca Cola, and Colgate in the third world? My experience in Southern Africa was that these often presented theatrical performances or story-telling, in a way aimed to capture the attention of entertainment-starved villagers, but also in keeping with local cultural traditions (using traditional stories, popular singers, etc). At least in Southern Africa, these roadshows have been very successful at building product (and, indeed, category) awareness.

  2. Grant

    Peter, I am not familiar with these roadshows. Have you seen them written up anywhere? Thanks, Grant

  3. steve

    My favorite brand murmur campaign was for the old science-fiction miniseries “V” back in the ’80s. One day in the Kendall Square (Cambridge, MA) T stop appeared a poster showing a man in a red jump-suit with black sunglass/goggles holding a smiling young boy in his arms. There was some kind of vaguely half-swastika-like arrangement of dots on his belt buckle. The poster was executed in a kind of smarmy modern style rather than the old dramatic propaganda poster look.

    The caption on the poster was “The Alien Visitors–Our Friends.” It was funny and creepy. I wondered about that damn poster for weeks before I found out about the upcoming TV show (pre-Internet, remember).

  4. Peter

    Grant — I don’t know of any write-up. Is having seen them with my eyes in Zimbabwe not good enough for you??!!

    Just had a quick web search, but did not turn up anything. Will look more carefully, and come back to you.

    — Peter

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