Activation versus Experiential: What's the Difference?

Amid the tons of jargon association marketers and trade show people use are two terms meant to describe the process of customer engagement and brand recognition: activation and experiential marketing. These two activities are closely related, but differ when it comes to purposes and methods.

What is an Activation?

An activation is the realization or fulfillment of a sponsorship.


No matter its form, an activation is a sponsorship's "on switch."

Brands must be presented to customers in ways that build trust. Any company can say, "Our product is the answer to your problem," but not every company can persuade customers that statement's true.

An activation puts muscle behind the statement.


An activation often takes the form of a free trial, a free sample, a gift or a prize that demonstrates the quality of the product or service directly. (Getting a free sample of a chocolate bar at fancy food show proves the claim "our chocolate tastes great.") After an activation, customers know they can trust the company's marketing messages, and are more likely to share the information with friends and colleagues.

What is Experiential Marketing?

Also called "engagement," experiential marketing often involves an activation, but the purpose differs. Instead of convincing customers they can trust the brand and its marketing messages, experiential marketing seeks to form a mental association between the brand and some positive experience. The association is often formed through an event, game, or special offer.

To use the prior example, handing out samples of chocolate is an activation. It introduces the candy convinces people who eat it that they can believe the things the company says about its product. Experiential marketing might extend that effort by offering the same people the chance to send personalized samples to their significant others or best friends with a "Thinking of You" note. This creates a positive, emotional experience for the original recipient of the sample and for the person who gets the personalized sample. The mental association between that particular brand of chocolate and "showing you care" boosts brand likability and loyalty measurably.

The Difference in Practice

Regardless of the product or service you offer, marketing it is an ongoing process that must encompass everything, from rollout to trial use, repeat purchases to a lifetime of loyalty. People are bombarded by ads and marketing messages continuously. Being heard over competitors' voices today requires a multichannel approach.

That's why marketers, along with advertising, direct marketing, selling and social media, put samples and gifts in customers' hands, and tap influencers, celebrities, and professional entertainers to cerate memorable customer experiences.

The sponsor or exhibitor who invites attendees to its exhibit with the promise of a free gift is activating its sponsorship. When the same company also offers demonstrations that combine learning with fun (and maybe the chance to meet a celebrity or two), it's practicing experiential marketing.

Combining an effective activation with experiential marketing does so much more than simply making an introduction and saying, "Hey, you should try this." It prompts customers to associate the brand with good feelings and motivates them to share the experience they enjoyed with others.

Want to know more? Read Kerry Smith and Dan Hanover's Experiential Marketing.

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