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How HBO Engages with Experiential Marketing

Steven Cardwell

Steven Cardwell

VP of Program Marketing at HBO

Steven Cardwell HBO

Creating meaningful connections with your customers is at the heart of any successful marketing experience. HBO does it right with their array of experiential marketing campaigns that deliver authentic and relatable messaging.

Quartz Network Executive Correspondent Britt Erler sat down with Steven Cardwell, Vice President of Program Marketing for HBO to learn the ways HBO is engaging consumers and what to expect as experiential marketing evolves.

Steven shares insight into:

  • What experiential marketing means for HBO activations
  • How to bring customers closer with authentic experiences
  • Innovations and technological advancements with staying power

Quartz Network: Could you give a quick background about yourself, your current role with HBO, and also what you and your team are working on?

Steven Cardwell: My team is part of the Consumer Marketing team at HBO. We specifically handle strategy work positioning for our original series. We work on audience development, media, creative, and what used to be experiential and events, which has recently changed somewhat. I like to think of our team really resembling a wheel. We’re the hub of that wheel, as marketing. We really influence every aspect of a consumer-facing campaign to licensing and merchandise to the creative you see when you’re out in the world on billboards and trailers. We’re also doing a lot of work on finding ways to really bring our audiences to our programming and really introduce them into the worlds.

Quartz Network: What innovative ways are you and your team coming up with to help fans really get into the worlds of these HBO shows?

Steven Cardwell: We have a fantastic emerging tech team whose job is primarily to monitor growing trends, and position us to execute on ideas that are first to market or allow us to be there when the technology becomes more widely adapted. Traditionally, that has been more like virtual reality, but we’re experimented a lot with augmented reality. What COVID has done is accelerate how we use technology to do many of the things that we are accustomed to doing in person.

The thing with technology is, it’s not really that useful, unless people are comfortable using it. That’s why I think you’re seeing slower adoption to things that require people to invest in special equipment or have high-cost barriers to entry. If you just think about your own life, how much do you do now virtually, that you realize, “Huh. I wonder why I wasted half of my day doing some of these things.” That’s everything from shopping online to seeing your doctor online, to not having to travel to a conference to speak. You can just do from home. It’s really about finding ways that we can meet consumers where they’re already engaging.

For example, I was reading a funny article the other day that one of the most asked questions to home assistants right now is like, “What day is it?” That just is a really telling time that we’ve become so accustomed to treating voice assistants like members of our family. They tell us jokes, they tell us what the weather’s going to be like outside. They’re just becoming more and more useful as we learn how to talk to them.

I think technology and innovation doesn’t have to be cutting edge, it can sometimes just be incorporating a campaign or marketing into something that’s so habitual, already in your habits, that you don’t even realize what you’re doing is participating in, say, an experience that we create. I think technology plays a huge role in innovation and how we think about shows, and really COVID has accelerated our need to do that even faster.

Quartz Network: Do you see these new technologies you’re implementing as long-term innovations?

Steven Cardwell: I think where we’ve always tried is not just inserting technology for the sake of inserting technology, I think it comes down to the core tenant of what we do and what we produce, which is authenticity. When we’re talking about experiences, to create an authentic experience, we want to make sure that if there is some type of emerging technology we’re using, it further drives the narrative we’re trying to communicate about a show.

Take a show like Westworld, a great example set in the not-so-distant future. For those that don’t know, we created a very large activation at South by Southwest several years ago, where we literally rebuilt the town of Sweetwater, which is centered around the series, where guests literally go to a park to live without limits.

We wanted to recreate that experience, but because the show is set in the future, doing something like virtual reality would have felt dated in the world that we were building. We’re one step past virtual reality. These are like artificially intelligence robots that we’re interacting with.

While it would have been tempting to create something like that using virtual reality, we took it one step further, which when you think about is really like exactly one step back. That’s a mind conundrum. I think the point goes that we’re not just looking to add bells and whistles for the sake of it. I think we want to make sure that we’re adding value, that we’re providing a rich experience that really meets the bar of quality that sits so high with these shows.

When we think about experiential marketing – because my team has really had some major success in that arena – there’s been such an explosion of it. While we’re taking a pause from it at the moment, I do believe that it’s worth thinking about experiences a little differently, at least how we define them.

They don’t need to be massive events, like concerts or activations. They can be micro experiences. In these more personalized one-to-one experiences, we can actually drive deeper connection with fans of our shows. I think we’ve been really exploring that arena in how we bring things to your house where you’re enjoying them.

If it’s creating influencer-type kids with Perry Mason, which is a show that many might know from eons ago, we rebooted with Matthew Reese, and we partnered with some iconic establishments in Los Angeles, like Moonstone Franks to create kind of custom dinner and movie experiences. Not only were we giving back to restaurants that were struggling during COVID, but we were also providing what consumers wanted. They wanted to not have to cook everything, they wanted a really nice meal, they wanted to be entertained, and that was a really rich experience that we saw great success from.

With innovation and experiences, there’s not one way to think about them. Sometimes rolling back to what’s tried and true and really listening to what consumers want is what’s important right now.

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