Marcin Gębarowski
Associate Professor, Faculty of Commodity Science and Product Manage-ment/Department of Process Management, Cracow University of Economics

Expos provide favourable conditions for triggering the senses and creating memorable experiences. The face-to-face contact established by exhibitors and visitors, and the high diversification of means of expression in “live” demonstrations allow the creation of a very unique offer that can lead to success in experience marketing. At a time when lives are becoming faster and people are confronted with more and more stimuli, those who design Expo pavilions need to understand what is encapsulated in visitor experiences and what are the determinants for effective activities based on experiences.

 

A distinguishing characteristic of the experience economy is that customers very often seek strong feelings and emotions. They expect their imagination to be ignited continuously, amazing feelings to be aroused and entertainment to be enjoyed. To paraphrase Descartes, the major reason behind contemporary behaviour of purchasers can be expressed as “I experience, therefore I am”. An ability of delivering planned and unique experiences must thus be currently perceived as a basic source of competitive advantage. With the current global health situation giving pause for thought over the meaning and future of face-to-face interactions and exhibitions, it is all the more important to consider how new, exciting and memorable experiences can be created to elicit positive feelings in visitors.

What is a well-designed experience?

In simple terms, it can be assumed that a well-designed experience is one which comprises proper components, is of a holistic nature and is co-created by visitors. Also, it is important to apply triggers in a moderate way in order not to dispel the sensory perception of the recipients of marketing activities.

It is important when senses are triggered in a holistic manner. We can then observe multisensory brand-experience. The synergy effect arises among various senses, because several triggers act concurrently, bringing more benefits than the sum of the effects of all factors operating individually. A multisensory approach in an application dimension entails supplementing two communication channels that are the most frequently used (sight and hearing) with stimuli triggering the sense of touch, smell and taste. The research confirms that the more positive the synergy established between senses, the stronger the connection is made between brand and customer.1 Furthermore, the holistic nature of experiences makes them difficult to be reproduced by competitors – unlike many contemporary products and promotional activities.

"It is important to apply triggers in a moderate way in order not to dispel the sensory perception of the recipients of marketing activities"

When designing an experience, a co-creation view should be adopted. This is because it is essential to enable the customer/visitor to co-create experiences. Consequently, they become customised and have greater value. Having considered this recommendation, contemporary customers, including people visiting Expos, should not be seen as the passive recipients of marketing activities, but as active individuals who desire to get involved in mutual interactions.

When planning new experiences, it is worth using a sustainable approach. If too many strong triggers appealing to people’s senses are utilised in one place and time, they can experience sensory-overload. In such a situation, experiences provided will overwhelm the receivers’ perception. This remark seems to be particularly reasonable in relation to exhibition events, which give exhibitors an opportunity for providing diversified and intensive triggers while talking about their offers during “live” presentations.

Palette of human senses

In experience marketing, it is of key importance to understand how triggers reach people, how customers interpret these triggers and how they impact the way we perceive a brand. This is because everything that appears in customers’ minds is the result of their senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – being appealed to. Each brand (including also a country’s brand) must incorporate sensory appeals specific to its features.2

The sense which plays the most influential role in the process of people’s perception of the world is sight. And as far as branding is concerned, sight should be also considered to be the most important. About 70 per cent of the body’s sense receptors are in our eyes. To a large degree, people understand their world mainly by looking at it.3 Approximately one quarter of the human brain is involved in the seeing process. This level of engagement is much bigger than in the case of all the other senses. Colours serve crucial functions in marketing – they evoke specific emotions and teach individuals by making associations with a given brand stronger. Nevertheless, preferences regarding colours depend on sex (women’s sight is more sensitive and they are able to recognise more colours) and change with age (the peak of people’s sensitivity to visual experiences is between 15 and 30 years of age). During exhibition events, it is the colours of a booth or a national pavilion that attract visitors’ attention and immediately evoke their associations with the exhibitor’s brand.

"People understand their world mainly by looking at it"

In a similar manner as the visual system makes it possible to distinguish between colours, forms and depths, the auditory system identifies different qualities of sounds within the complex signals it receives (such as tones, colour and flexions of the voice, volume, rhythm). All the complex functions of the auditory cognition are located in the cortical part of the brain. However, some processes of sound focalisation take place in the ears.4 Music makes it possible, first and foremost, to appeal (often subconsciously) to emotions experienced by customers. When sounds are used in a well-thought-out manner, they allow for creating a positive state of mind, including, for example, feelings: happiness, pleasure, amusement, romanticism, nostalgia. It is assumed that music evokes a mood that is directly transferable to a brand. Auditory stimuli, such as music, words or voices, touch an individual at a deeper emotional level than visual or tactile stimuli.5 It is worth mentioning that a characteristic musical phrase can be an element of a brand (similarly as in the case of a name, a graphic mark, an arrangement of colours, or an advertising slogan).

It is assumed that the sense that was of the greatest significance for the survival of mankind was smell. In the smelling process, the oldest (in terms of human evolution) part of the human brain is activated. Nevertheless, barely 1 per cent of the brain is involved in detecting smell. A base array includes 400 fragrance notes. However, for the purpose of marketing activities, individualised compositions are also designed. Fragrance can be a distinctive feature of a brand, which is the case for certain store chains. The pleasant scent serves as a special “memory marker” that gives brands distinctiveness.6 The problem is, however, that it is difficult to compose a scent which could be pleasant for every customer, since smelling fragrances is to a large extent subjective in its very nature. Specially selected aromatic compositions can be used to exert influence on customers’ behaviour, create an exceptional atmosphere and evoke specific associations in a given place (including also in an Expo pavilion).

Another sense is taste. The average adult has approximately 10,000 taste buds that are able to detect the chemical constituents of food and beverages. Taste buds are grouped according to themes (salt, sour, sweet and bitter) at various locations inside the mouth.7 People’s taste is closely related to the sense of smell (many taste perceptions are actually smell perceptions). Both of them are the only senses which in order to be activated need direct contact with particles of a stimulus. The five basic taste sensations are salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami (described as a savoury flavour found for instance in mushrooms or seafood). The concept of “taste” is effectively an expression for the individual’s supreme sensory experience, as what is eaten and drunk is seen as the whole experience of a product (even its smell, sound, appearance, and texture).8 This is why the sense of taste plays a pivotal role in marketing, and particularly in place marketing, which aims to present the uniqueness of various countries’ and regions’ cuisine.

And finally, there is the sense of touch. It is the first sense to develop in the womb and the last sense one loses with age.9 Touch is responsible for receiving external stimuli through various types of receptors (e.g. Pacinian corpuscles react to squeezing and vibrations, Meissner’s corpuscles react to a gentle touch and shiver, Krause end bulbs react to cold, Ruffini corpuscles react to heat, Merkel nerve endings react to continuous pressure, muscle and joint receptors react to motion and load). Customers who have already acquainted themselves with objects (including products) in their immediate proximity by means of the sense of sight, get additional information through touching them. Material, surface, temperature, weight, form and steadiness can all contribute positively to the tactile experience of the brand and differentiate it from competitors.10 Tactile stimuli are often used to deepen interactions between the company and customers. Furthermore, in marketing, using touch impressions in a well-thought-out manner might result in favourable attitudes towards a market offer, thus enhancing loyalty.

Exemplification of the holistic stimulation of Expo visitors’ senses

During every Expo, one can find exhibitions by participating countries that are used to appeal to visitors’ senses in a unique way, while trying to make them remember a message conveyed for a long time. As a matter of fact, it is often these exhibitions that are first and foremost recalled by Expo visitors. However, in the vast majority of cases, these include presentations which strongly appeal only to sight (and possibly to any of the other, single senses). Therefore, none of the exhibitors takes a comprehensive approach to a sensory dimension of their presentation, which is one of the main assumptions of experience marketing.

The exhibition arranged in the Polish pavilion during Specialised Expo 2017 Astana provided an example where all Expo visitors’ senses were activated. The ideas implemented in this pavilion were appreciated by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), which gave Poland the Gold Award for Exhibition Design among pavilions covering less than 400m2.

The country’s promotional activities were organised under the slogan “Poland: creative people, smart energy”. People who visited the Polish pavilion followed a route passing through the following zones: Entrance, Technology, Forest, Rest and Regions. References to the theme of Expo 2017, “Future Energy”, could be found in each part of the pavilion, where issues related to clean coal, revitalization and afforestation were presented (for instance, in the Technology zone, a 3D animation was used to demonstrate blue coal – a low-emission, rich fuel). The zones differed from each other in colours, interior finish, as well as temperature – in the Technology zone, which was located on the pavilion’s ground floor, it was warmer than in the Forest zone, which was one level higher.

"Poland’s pavilion at Expo 2017 Astana provided an example where all Expo visitors’ senses were activated"

The exhibitor refrained from using excessive lighting installations and forms of multimedia communication, and instead, applied means of sensory interaction other than only visual ones to appeal to visitors. This could be clearly seen in the Forest zone. Those who entered this part of the pavilion could experience how their senses – sight, touch, smell and hearing – were strongly activated. The beauty of forests, which cover 30% of the country’s area, was presented on the walls. The form of the presentation included both static graphics showing information about forest area and the carbon cycle in nature, and a film about plants and animals. The illuminated roof was almost entirely green and a graphic placed on it resembled sun rays passing through tree crowns. As to the haptic dimension, a soft floor finish (looking almost like grass) and wood veneers (black oak and gold birch) were used in the pavilion. Furthermore, visitors could use interactive touch screens, which displayed texts and graphics informing about Polish forests and phenomena occurring there. Visitors, by pushing appropriate buttons and pressing their ears to built-in loudspeakers, could listen to the sound of a wild boar and the song of a nightingale. People visiting the pavilion could also hear the songs of other birds. Buttons with special emitters were used to release the scents of plants growing in Polish forests – linden, pine, lily of the valley.

Taste was activated outside the main presentation. The top floor of the building where the pavilion was located accommodated a restaurant which served traditional Polish dishes (for example one dish whose ingredients included mushrooms picked in forests). The dining area, which was styled as a railway car, attracted particular attention. People sitting at the tables could admire diverse views through the windows in the form of moving pictures – which also included the scenery of Polish forests. Dynamic pictures were displayed on screens placed behind real train carriage windows. This gave an impression that pictures were seen out of a moving train.

In addition to the above description of the pavilion, it must be mentioned that on the initiative of Poland, the Forest Day was incorporated into the Expo programme. On 6 July, representatives of the Polish delegation and representatives of around 50 other countries planted trees in a garden adjacent to the Expo site. In the place where a botanical garden is to be created, more than 200 cuttings brought from Poland were inserted into the soil – oaks, lindens, rowans and apples.

The exhibition prepared by Poland in Astana was an example of the holistic appeal to the senses of Expo visitors. The presentation in the pavilion aroused all the senses in a cohesive and concentric manner (it was the only international pavilion at Expo 2017 which activated the sense of smell by means of scent emitters). Although the sensory information delivered was diversified and corresponded to the Expo theme, there was no strategic approach in line with a long-term country image creation strategy, i.e. an approach based on attributes used in promotional campaigns undertaken in the foreign media at that time and making use of advertising slogans and visual elements derived from such campaigns. This shows the major difficulty that is encountered by exhibition designers who intend to create a brand by means of sensory marketing. The said difficulty arises when one wants to combine actions taken in three areas which are of key significance for the management of Expo visitors’ experience: (1) the theme of the Expo, (2) actions relating to national branding, carried out for a given country contemporaneously with activity during the Expo, (3) a creative and integrated appeal to all the senses of visitors through diversified triggers.

Experience marketing – a chance for Expos in changing times

Describing opportunities for the application of the experience marketing concept during Expos, it is necessary to also give mention to the significance of the sensory approach in the era of the information society which is engaged in widespread electronic communication. Nowadays, the Internet is used by 4.5 billion people worldwide, while two-thirds of people all over the world have a smartphone. Consequently, a contemporary person receives during a day the same volume of data that people living in the 19th century could obtain throughout their entire lives. Life thus goes fast, and access to information on products has become very easy. New realities have emerged – compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic – and Expos must make their way by offering a new form of traditional face-to-face meetings.

Throughout their seventeen-decade history, Expos have changed their form, adapting to economic, social and political circumstances. Over time, apart from propaganda and educational functions served by Expos, importance has been attached to their marketing function, which is associated with creating the image of participating countries. Expos have thus become an important area where the objectives of national branding are accomplished. However, with the emergence of quick, easy, cheap and global electronic communication, some began to question the sense of participating in exhibition events (not only in Expos, but also in traditional trade fairs).

"The forthcoming World Expo in Dubai, will give us an answer as to how many exhibitors are able to meet the challenges of the experience economy"

Fortunately, electronic forms of media are only two-dimensional – they activate sight and hearing. It might be thus assumed that when the short fascination with technological advancements has gone, in view of the atavistic need of exploring the world with all five senses, nobody will cast doubt on the sense of meetings held at booths and at national pavilions. And the well-thought-out marketing activity of exhibitors, which provides customers with experiences exceeding their expectations, can only be conducive to it.

According to Prahalad and Ramaswamy “the future belongs to those that can successfully co-create unique experiences with customers”11. In Expos, those who will be able to intentionally arouse the senses of people visiting national pavilions, thus enabling them to have unique experiences and triggering strong associations with the country’s brand, should have no worries about the future. The forthcoming World Expo, which will be hosted in Dubai, will give us an answer as to how many exhibitors are able to meet the challenges of the experience economy.

 

Dr. Marcin Gebarowski (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Commodity Science and Product Management/Department of Process Management at Cracow University of Economics.

This article is a revised text based on Dr. Gębarowski’s contribution to the 2019 edition of the BIE Bulletin entitled “Nation Branding at World Expos”. The original article may be viewed here.

 

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