Almost a quarter of a century ago, a groundbreaking article in Harvard Business Review heralded the dawn of the “fourth stage economy” — one in which the spotlight would be shone directly on consumers’ expectations of immersive brand experiences.
This was the birth of the experience economy, a new era of business projecting beyond the simple exchange of money for goods and services. Since these were no longer deemed enough to capture consumers’ hearts, minds and wallets, the focus shifted to brands and the enriching experiences that they could offer.
Disney was cited as a shining early example of the experience economy in action. From its theme parks and cruises to entertaining in-store environments, it set the scene for people to live and breathe its characters, costumes and culture in engaging ways. Habits were changing; consumers wanted to do more than buy things — especially as big-ticket items like owning a car or house were becoming less affordable. Instead, people desired meaningful experiences to create lasting memories.
Other big brands were early adopters too, representative of a paradigm shift from retail solely as a place of purchase to a space where great experiences could happen. Niketown was created as a destination, not just a store: see, even meet, your favorite athletes; touch and feel the garments they wear when they win. Apple stripped back the in-store experience to a core of product inspiration: try out free classes; get to grips with gadgets; share the fun later with friends even if you don’t immediately buy something.
Fast forward to today and tech giants are leading the way. Microsoft, Google, Facebook and others invest many millions of dollars in driving consumer experience. Each uses bespoke interactive technology to engage key customers, tell unique stories and cement their position as the home of visionary tech. It works for customers and employees alike, whether the objective is to build loyalty or retain and attract talent.
The emotion these experiences can create in the moment, and the excitement that lingers, is invaluable for brands. Now cutting-edge technology is allowing brands to involve their target audiences in even more meaningful ways.
How Tech is Elevating Experiences
A powerful blend of overlaying digital experiences onto the real world is becoming possible thanks to emerging technologies that are changing the ways we interact with the world around us. Of course, augmented, virtual and mixed reality (AR, MR and VR) have already been around for a while. Far from being flash-in-the-pan marketing fads, as many observers predicted, they’re now mainstream and point to a powerful future for creating unique experiences. In fact, they are a key touch point to consider across business strategies.
This will only increase as 5G networks and open platforms make them even more viable and accessible to a wider audience. The truth is tech experts, brands and consumers alike are only just beginning to understand how they can contribute to brilliant experiences.
Take geolocation AR. Pokémon Go introduced the masses to the power of AR experiences several years ago. Since then, tech giants have harnessed geolocation AR to provide an interactive layer over the real world; one that uses the physical space as its canvas to create memorable interactive experiences as well as user communities that immerse themselves in that experience, creating, sharing and participating.
Applications range from virtual art gallery tours that add a unique depth to exhibits to the chance to meet your sporting hero by interacting with their virtual avatar.
These creations are becoming game changers, and that’s thanks to the nascent technology brands will harness for maximum effect in the form of thrilling consumer experiences.
The ABCs of Experience Technology
The beauty of this new era of experience is its potential applications for both B2C and B2B audiences.
For consumers, the use of cutting-edge technology creates real value through storytelling, product and process visualization as well as user engagement. It gives brands and creators different ways to tell stories and cut through the noise in highly competitive markets. It can be applied across the customer journey, before, during and after they buy. IKEA is a great instance of the growing number of furniture retailers giving people the chance to see how products would look in their home with AR visualization.
For business audiences, these technologies offer new and creative ways for brands to communicate with their enterprise customers. As part of an Epic Megagrant, we recently developed and deployed a mixed-reality product visualization tool. This used Unreal Engine 5 and Hololens 2, which enabled our client to showcase next season’s product line to their retail partners in a collaborative, virtual environment. High-fidelity assets can be explored in a virtual showroom, replacing the need for physical samples and the associated cross-country supply chains’ logistics and travel.
Of course, every experience will only be a success if it has a true reason for being. To ensure objectives are set, and met, an ABC strategy is essential:
- Audience: Who will this experience be built for, and why should they care? For example, is it a VR execution for a more personal immersion or an AR initiative to overlay the real world and interact with people? Mapping your goals from the outset — what you want the audience to feel and how they ultimately respond — is essential.
- Brand: Tying the experience directly back to your brand message and values is equally vital. What image are you selling? What aspirations do they encapsulate? The whole endeavor must be true to your brand for an authentic audience experience or it could turn into a white elephant. And don’t do this for the sake of doing it: if your target market doesn’t use the tech, why would such an experience matter to them?
- Content: The other thing to consider before creating your experience is how else it could be used. It’s far more efficient to devise an asset, a digital product twin that will live across channels and touch points — at an event, say, but also on social media and your website. That makes it more than a one-time investment; an elevated experience, but with frugality and ROI in mind.
The Experience Economy in Action
Smart brands have realized that consumers face overexposure to pushed ads. It’s becoming an outmoded way to communicate brand values and messaging. The modern experience economy calls for something more; users that can be fully immersed in story-driven and tech-enhanced moments of wonder that build excitement, spread joy across touch points and ultimately foster long-term loyalty and engagement.
All these developments ladder up to the wider creator economy and Web3. The rise of community and decentralization is remixing the experience economy before our eyes, with experiences giving rise to active participation and swarm intelligence designed at the point of consumption rather than prescribed from the top down by so-called marketing experts.
It’s a thrilling time. In another 25 years we’ll look back at this era of the experience economy as the age of immersive storytelling and visionary interactive creations that drive long-lasting emotional connections between brands and their communities. What a tale we’ll have to tell.
Working at the intersection of creative content production and immersive storytelling, Will Hendrickson has a particular focus on client services and new business growth with enterprise and consumer brands as well as creative partners. Formerly at international experience design firm Downstream working with clients such as Google, Align Technology, VF Corporation and Stoller Winery, his expertise lies in building client relationships and managing project deliverables. As Director of Strategic Partnerships (U.S.) at Happy Finish, Hendrickson uses his expertise to build client relationships and manage project deliverables, utilizing his innovative approach to business development to deliver more exposure and new project wins.