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Experiential Strategy: Defining “Experience” for Artists and Marketers in the Covid-19 Moment

All of my gigs have functioned in the realm of customer experience innovation and transformation…which means that I’ve had countless, endless, exhausting arguments with folks around the nature and definition of “experience.” Is an experience an event? Is it measured in memory (#pineandgilmore)? Is it a set of beliefs?

Given everything that is transpiring in the wake of COVID, I thought that it was as good a time as any to throw my definition of experience to the universe, and some insights around how best to leverage the definition to drive meaningful experiences, through whatever channel of production (including via Zoom or Facebook live), in the midst of the pandemic.

I’ve landed on a concept that was actually introduced to me by Gavin Kostick, who’s the literary manager at Fishamble: The New Play Company - a theatre company for new plays in Dublin, Ireland. I think mentioning this is important because I’m a super believer in interdisciplinary thought and straddling the threshold of art and commerce to find the best solutions. Also because Gavin is a superbly good dude and I’ve benefited from my experience with him.

(See what I did there?)

Experience is AGON — the wrestling match between two forces (this often functions as the basis of conflict in a literary work — protAGONist and antAGONist, thus Gavin teaching it)…that are dependent on one another in order to grow and progress.

So…customer experience is the agon between brand and consumer….and it has been made incredibly complicated over the last several years as the paradigm has shifted such that customers generally have the upper hand in the wrestling match and not brands (vs. years previous when it was the other way around) because they have an SO MUCH CHOICE.

How does this definition help us to better understand experiential and digital transformations running rampant today, accelerated by the Covid-19 moment? And how might this help artists and marketers alike as they look to figure out a way forward?

The goal in the wrestling match is for the two competing forces to get so wrapped up in it, for the battle to be so exhilarating, that they, together, conceive their own reality. As a marketer, shopper, theater practitioner and audience member alike might put it: for the journey to be so seamless and engaging that it is transporting.

Presentational content (like that which occurs in the context of a proscenium or a screen), then, has to be so meticulously rendered and compelling that it coerces the audience member into forgetting the mediating agents (the “production” that stands between source material and audience, as it were — the costumes, the actors and even the very stages and screens through which the work is being transmitted) and becoming fully immersed in the match. This explains why so much of presentational Zoom content brought to bear during the pandemic has been indisputably painful to watch (/endure) and to produce…and why we lose interest so easily with film, theater, tv shows and e-commerce sites that are not engaging enough to compete for our attention.

Immersive (and wholly interactive — it is a wrestling match, after all) content, then, theoretically, has an upper hand in enabling consumers to enter an alternative reality (why certain kinds of one-one-one conversations, intimate concerts, stand-up comedy and educational seminars all work really well through the Zoom medium)…because it is easier to ignore / to not be distracted by the intermediating agents (the screen — in the case of Zoom — being #1 among them), as there is less distance between the two wrestling forces. If we all FEEL like we’re in the same room, and that we are progressing TOGETHER…then it’s a positive experience.

All of that said, those that invite folks into immersive environments now have to deal with creating engaging content that operates in many more dimensions than their presentational counterparts. As people look to build “next generation” in person experiences for the future…this is super important to consider. We’re talking a battle of the century here!

Kate Machtiger (whose last name means “powerful” in German…so literally everything she conceives is designated “powerful” and how COOL is that?) writes in an article just published in the Harvard Business Review called What Will the Retail Experience of the Future Look Like? (and introduced to me by my very brilliant classmate Christian in the also very brilliant Elizabeth Harris’ shopper marketing course at the Medill School at Northwestern University that: “New capabilities in motion design allow us to capture sensory details and generate new realities.”

True…but that doesn’t necessarily make the experience what Baudrillard would call “hyperreal” (of COURSE I have to bring up Baudrillard…and soon the epistemological and ontological implications of bad theatrical lighting…honestly, if by this point in my article you’re still actively reading then I feel like you’ve asked for a hearty helping of Baudrillard) such that it is difficult to delineate between reality and the synthetic reality being generated through experience. This is because full 360 degree “immersion” opens up immense vulnerabilities that presentational content producers do not otherwise have to consider.

I think about magic tricks gone awry…when The Great Mysterioso picks the wrong card or accidentally shows the trap door, behind which he’s been holding the rabbit all along. Or about a wrestler that is all hype — who wears the MOST spectacular, spangly outfits — and that, in reality, bears very limited strength and endurance. These elaborate ‘immersive’ experiences, while exciting in theory and conception, have immense potential to be brand denigrating letdowns in execution…and not immersive in the slightest. One false move, the illusion is broken and the wrestling match starts to feel fake, inauthentic…and not very much like a competition at all. I know this first hand from having produced several of these kinds of experience. It’s really hard.

So — what’s the solve here, if there is one?

1. A level of meticulous detail on an addressable level that is so unfathomable so as to make anyone’s head feel like it’s about to explode. And a level of intuition around an audience’s needs and emotions (which is to write: absolute control by brands over customer journeys — the ultimate upper hand in the match) that is near impossible to conceive…plus the kind of contextual data and/or budget that enables you to experiment to the nth degree, so as to build out a VIABLE world. We’re talking art and craft here…the olympic medalists, Duane “The Rock” Johnsons and Stephen Sondheims of our generation, generating the kind of work that takes years and years to develop and that leverages the right corresponding technologies (the “production”) to support the storytelling.

2. A clearer understanding of how to quickly, efficiently (and cheaply) manufacture simulated realities, given available technologies, that are as transporting as possible, and that move an audience member / customer along the journey….even if they’re not all the next great THING. Comparatively cheap, cheerful, popular, lucrative. This might be where best to invest energy in research, trial and error. What are some of the most resourceful and imaginative tricks / tools that the ultimate craftspeople employ to transport audiences in an experience? To achieve the upper hand? And what are their analogous counterparts in experiential and digital marketing AND Zoom performances alike? If I had the answers, I’d share them with you…but I don’t.

In any event, this is an experience that will (and already has) changed the course of production as we know it. Break legs.

Alex Gruhin is a cross-functional intre-preneur and creative business executive, specializing in brand strategy, customer experience innovation and transformation. He has a decade of progressive work driving strategic customer experience innovation and transformation initiatives for top brands in hospitality, tech, retail and the performing arts. His clients and former bosses include a James Beard Award winning chef, VPs and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, C-suite marketing executives, a Broadway producer, a Head of Growth for a major investment banking firm focused on media and technology and two Tony Nominated playwrights.​ He is a proud Cornell Hotelie and Northwestern Medill IMC Wildcat and lives in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC with his wife Ariel and two cats.

Alex Gruhin is a cross-functional intrapreneur, customer experience innovator and arts guru. ExperientialStrategy.com

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