Worm-Topped Ice Cream & As-Seen-On-TV Coffee (aka Experiential Marketing)

Over the course of my retail career, I've been able to build brands and invest in customer experience. At other times, I've run businesses where I had to pull out the discounts to make a sale and put cash in the bank "today" at the expense of long-term strategy. It continues to be physical experiences that raise and re-frame brand profiles that excite me. I've seen two recently.

1. The Economist

Times are tough in publishing. And for natural resources. To address both, The Economist was giving away free ice cream in New York's Meatpacking District over the summer. When I saw the ice cream truck screaming "free", I suspected a catch...

The promotion wasn't just sponsored by The Economist to publicize their subscription discount. The tactic aimed to raise awareness for what a staffer explained is a new Economist division, Future Forces. Future Forces is examining, among other topics, the challenges of feeding a growing global population with livestock alone. A partial protein solution? Worms. As long as you agreed to have your Van Leeuwen ice cream topped with worms, the treat was free.

Vegetarian? Out of luck on dessert. But overall, the ice cream truck effectively promoted the publication and its sustainability interests. It may even have won some fans for worms, a more environmentally friendly protein than meat.

Lesson: While some passersby walked away when they realized the strings attached, others lined up and dug in. Either way, everyone who spent a minute inquiring learned about The Economist's new division and a marquis cause -- in a way that's hard to forget. This is brand association that should be desirable to many marketers.

2. Netflix

Fans of the WB's old Gilmore Girls TV series, of which there are many, know the importance of Luke's Diner and the steady pour of coffee served by its flannel-clad namesake. To generate hype for the show's comeback as a digital miniseries next month, Netflix injected some Luke's Diner spirit into 200 coffee shops around the country for one day this month.

In reading about the planned marketing, I expected more overt messaging when I arrived at Ground Central in New York's Financial District. There was no "Luke's" sign outside as perhaps there was supposed to be. The baristas donned Luke-inspired flannel shirts and backwards baseball caps, as well as logoed aprons. But the line stretched to the back of the cafe so it was hard to see the baristas or similarly-branded cup sleeves unless one had the fortitude to make it to the counter.

Bringing Luke's Diner to life in so many places was an accessible, creative way to connect with Gilmore Girls devotees and ensure they'll tune in on November 25. It may have created some new interest in advance of the miniseries release when regulars of one of these coffee shops asked what was going on. But the biggest win was that this was a made-for-social-media experience that resulted in #LukesDiner trending.

Lesson: Whether it's at coffee shops or other businesses consumer frequent, there's infinite potential for other brands to think about the right experiential partnerships for them. I hope to see more of this, done well.