Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

July 2012

CMP Series: Exhibit Hall to Exhibit Mall

By Barbara Palmer

National Retail Federation in ConveneIn a selling environment saturated with messages, trade-show exhibitors can stand out by acting more like successful retailers - who recognize that consumers are looking for more than something to buy. 

They want to be drawn into an experience.

As managing director of the North American office of Poximity ShopWork, the shopping division for global ad agency BBDO, Laura Davis-Taylor is one of the retail industry’s most influential marketing strategists.

And what she does for her retail clients is highly applicable to trade-show floors - which, as she sees it, face the same selling challenges as stores. 

“I classify them both as ‘distracted environments,’” Davis-Taylor said.  “Super busy, super cluttered.  Lots going on.  They can be very, very, very loud.” And they both face the same uphill battle: getting and keeping the attention of buyers in environments saturated with competing messages.  Amid all the noise, Davis-Taylor said, “everybody wants uniqueness - something that makes you stand apart and helps you get beyond the sea of sameness.”

Her advice for companies and organizations when it comes to designing a trade-show booth? “I wouldn’t think of it as designing a trade-show booth at all,” she said.  “I would think of it as designing an experience.  Brands have to break through competition.  And that’s not just visually.  You can break through visually and get nowhere.  You’ve got to break through visually and emotionally.”

Creating an experience for attendees - one that resonates emotionally - is key to being memorable.  “Getting inside,” Davis-Taylor said, “that’s what’s going to matter.  When you create the right experience, you create the right emotions.  And you get people to buy in and open their minds and be part of something.”

Sensing the Sale

The idea that emotion is key to selling isn’t new, of course.  Advertising that relies on subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions that buying certain products will make us happier, sexier, and more successful has surrounded us for decades, in increasing numbers.  (The average resident of a city will encounter 3,000 to 4,000 advertising messages in a single day, according to Davis-Taylor.)

What is relatively new, however, are brain-imaging techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures patterns of electrical activity in the brain and maps their locations.  The technology can pinpoint the regions of the brain that are activated by advertising messages, yielding information about whether specific marketing messages are triggering rational or emotional reactions, or combinations of both, and how effective they are at doing so. 

These tools offer what amounts to the ability to interview our brains, brand expert Martin Lindstrom writes in his bestselling book Buyology: Truth and Lies About What We Buy.  By accessing our brains in the “nanosecond lapse before thinking is translated into words,” brain-imaging techniques can tell us “the naked truth... unplugged and uncensored, about what causes us to buy,” writes Lindstrom, whose work has given him a seminal voice in neuromarketing, as the field of neuroscience-backed marketing is called. 

In Buyology, Lindstrom relates the breakthrough results of a 2003 experiment that used brain imaging to analyze the reactions of research subjects participating in a version of the famous Pepsi Challenge, where Pepsi and Coca-Cola went head-to-head in blind taste tests.  When test subjects tasted the soft drinks without knowing which was Coke and which was Pepsi, more than half said they preferred Pepsi, a response that was backed up by the measurement of activity in the part of the brain that is active when we find tastes appealing.  But when test subjects knew which soft drinks they tasted beforehand, more than 75 percent said they preferred Coke.  Brain activity also shifted, according to Lindstrom, showing that the test subjects’ brains were engaged in a “mute tug-of-war between rational and emotional thinking.”

Despite the rational preference for Pepsi, Coke won out because of all the positive associations the tasters had developed with Coca-Cola over the years - the “sheer, inarguable, inexorable, ineluctable, emotional Coke-ness of the brand,” Lindstrom writes.  Because emotions are the way in which our brain encodes things of value, “a brand that engages us emotionally - think Apple, Harley-Davidson, and L’Oreal just for starters - will win every single time.”

Since 2004, Lindstrom has worked with researchers to conduct his own neuromarketing experiments, many of which have zeroed in on the role that our senses - vision, taste, touch, sound, and smell - play in creating human emotions.  Because, if triggering emotions in consumers opens doors into buying behavior, activating the five senses is like getting a set of keys.  “As human beings, we’re by far at our most receptive when we’re operating on all five tracks,” Lindstrom writes.  “By appealing to our five senses, brands create strong memories in consumers.  And this leads to stronger bonds between consumers and brands.”

Pioneering shopping-behavior researcher Paco Underhill, who has used scientific methods to analyze consumer behavior for more than 25 years, also identifies appealing to the senses as a growing trend.  “I think one of the things that we are seeing in retail is the appreciation of use of all five senses,” he said.  But it’s not without its challenges in a trade-show environment, where light and noise can be tough to control.  “You can hand out Hershey’s Kisses,” Underhill said, “which is probably fun, but there probably should be a more creative way of dealing with all of those issues.”

That Certain Feeling

When it comes to assessing how widely trade shows are adopting strategies that strengthen the engagement of attendees, Melinda Kendall, vice president for business solutions at Freeman, recalls a favorite phrase: The future has already happened - but it’s not evenly distributed.  “I wouldn't say, as a whole, the event industry is behind,” Kendall said.  “But we are not all in the same place.”

"A lot of things that consumer brands do don’t make sense for business-to-business,” said Kendall, who has worked as an executive in both commercial publishing and event management.  “But an awful lot of them, if you think it through, can be adapted to a business-to-business environment.  I don’t know if trade shows are learning from retailers, or retailers are learning from events, but they are all trying to be experiential marketers."

One show floor where the strategies of sensory selling can be readily found - and sniffed and tasted - is at IMEX, the global exhibition for incentive travel, meetings, and events that has been held annually in Frankfurt for a decade.  More than 150 countries are represented at the exhibition, where individual trade-show booths can cover nearly the area of a city block and rise two stories high.  At this year’s show, held from May 22–24 at Messe Frankfurt, nearly every booth featured digital images, with photomontages and videos looping and flickering on plasma screens of every size. 

Many hoteliers exhibiting at IMEX 2012 sought to recreate a version of the physical experience of being in a hotel lobby, with multilevel booths furnished with banks of plants, pillow-strewn sofas, low coffee tables, and chandeliers.  DMOs and CVBs brought the flavors of their destinations

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