What marketers can learn from abstract art

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Good experiential marketing should move consumers from awe to understanding, like the best contemporary art, says Stimulant's design director

The best experiential marketing, from site-specific executions to digital installations, is like abstract art: It meets the consumer halfway, balancing accessibility with a degree of uncertainty.

When you visit a museum, abstract art divides opinion among even the most ardent of art enthusiasts, much less amongst the casual museum-goer. At first glance, there may not be much to interpret. There isn’t a theme or message on a silver platter, wrapped up in a bow. If a single question can be formed in the viewer’s mind, even if it’s as broad and vague as "why," that’s where the ballyhooed "dialog between artist and audience" starts, and alienation and disengagement will follow. 

In this way, the creation of experiential marketing shares a lot with these finer notions of abstract art, especially in the realm of immersive and interactive installations. For instance, it requires a visitor to engage in order to complete it. Otherwise, it’s just a walk-by experience, or a piece of digital signage.

Visitor engagement must create meaningful dialog between the brand and visitor — the visitor must understand why it’s there and how it can interact with it. If the engagement becomes too repetitive or obvious, engagement with the audience is lost, as is their curiosity. Also, a bit of enigma and mystery goes a long way toward creating user engagement, but if it’s too obtuse, frustration and loss of interest will follow.

Data artist Jer Thorpe coined what he calls the "Ooh-Aah Principle." Make people say, "Ooh!" after engaging with the work and when the ramifications and meaning of the data starts to sink in, and people should say, "Aah!" First awe, then understanding: it’s a narrative arc from engagement to epiphany. This is how the very best abstract art operates — and the best experiential marketing.

So how can a marketer find their "ooh-aah" moment in experiential activations? For starters, they must be confident and let the brand and content breathe in new and unexpected ways so users will engage with more neutral expectations.

Success sounds like: "None of this is on their website, and is nothing like the print ads I’ve seen, but it makes sense. Interesting!" Intel’s CES booth has had some notable successes at playfully confounding visitor experiences, especially in 2012 and 2013.

Building a series of small epiphanies to be explored in sequence leads to deeper insights over time, which will also help marketers improve their experiential activations. For example, The Marvel Experience, the traveling interactive theme park, took a simple story premise and allowed the visitor to explore in the order that took their fancy. Memory retention is much higher if consumers discover things on their own, as opposed to being shown, so brands should also respect and reward consumers’ curiosity.

Brands also need to be flexible because consumer intent will be different from the experiential designer’s. Let visitors take their own paths and let behaviors evolve — and track those behaviors to learn lessons for the future. This is something that the field of game design really understands. Success sounds like: "I don’t think anyone’s seen this before — I’d better share this!"

Be exclusive and don’t replicate what someone can do somewhere else. Be true to the location, medium, or experience. TNT’s vaunted Just Add Drama stunt is a great example of an activation unique to both a time and place.

So, take a visit to your local museum. Analyze some abstract art with a designer’s eye. Which pieces work for you, which don’t, and why? Compare notes with colleagues, family and friends. Explore those works that alienate and those that entice.

You may not find many correlations, but that’s part of the magic of abstract art: Its enjoyment is deeply personal and subjective. But you might come away with some juicy ideas for how your audience could be engaged, enticed and even pushed to discover something useful, meaningful or wonderful from your experiential execution.

Nathan Moody is design director at Stimulant.


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