The Evolution of Experiential Marketing

Steven Cardwell

Vice President of Program Marketing at HBO

Learning Objectives

Please join the Vice President of Program Marketing for HBO as he discusses how HBO is engaging consumers and the way experiential marketing will evolve over the coming months.

"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 and already in your habits that you don't even realize what you're doing is participating in an experience that we create."

Steven Cardwell

Vice President of Program Marketing at HBO


Hello, everyone and welcome to the Connect virtual cmo Leadership Summit hosted on quartz network. My name is Britt Erler Quartz Executive correspondent, thank you so much for joining us. I would like to welcome our guest speaker here with us today Steven Cardwell, VP of program marketing at HBO. Welcome, Steven. I am so glad to be here virtually pleasure to have you here. And I’m really excited to learn what HBO has been working on and what strategies do you have in place. But before we really dive in, I would love if you could give us a quick background about yourself, your current role with HBO and also what you and your team are working on.

So 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, but I like to think of our team really resembling if you think about a wheel, we’re kind of like the hub of that wheel, as marketing. And we really influence all every every aspect of a consumer facing campaign to licensing and merchandise to the creative, you see when you’re, you know, out in the world, on billboards and trailers, but 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.

And with that comes engaging your fans striving that viewership to h goes programming, which is key, even with your creative, it’s what you’re working on every single day. How are you doing that right now, with all the changes we’re seeing in the industry?

Um, you know, I think fortunately, we’re in the business of entertaining people. And luckily, where we do that is in the comfort of their homes. So I think, where we’ve really seen changes not only in how people are consuming content, but the rate at which they are, you know, not only have we successfully launched several big temple shows this year, like Lovecraft country, the undoing right now with Nicole Kidman, and Hugh Grant, they’re, you know, we’re seeing people discovering classics, or maybe watching series for the first time. You know, it’s things like the sopranos, Sex in the City, and even Game of Thrones. So, you know, I think, luckily, working in a content brand in a premium content brand has been a really great place to be, I think, where the challenge has been is, you know, understanding how our marketing mix works, when experiential, nice things like activations premieres, red carpets, screenings, etc, a lot of ways that we would bring people together to enjoy content together is changed. So, you know, we’ve really been forced to be creative, to community lean into things that, you know, might have been bigger risks, if it’s, you know, utilizing emerging technology, or even kind of going back to some tried and true, you know, things around bringing just families together. And I think, you know, when we think about experiential, and where that’s heading, this has really forced us to, to kind of think about, you know, at the very core of it, like what is it that consumers want? You know, I’ve always said that working in TV is a dream, because the worlds that we, you know, experience in these shows that we love, are built by such talented producers and writers and, you know, the worlds are there and we’re there really to build on those worlds and to find ways to introduce fans to them. So, you know, I love the job and this is certainly been a challenging time, but exciting nonetheless.

Of course, then you talk about these worlds that people live in shows COVID-19 has shrunk our actual world, or confined now our Parliament’s to our houses, you know, small office spaces. And because of that, we’re living vicariously through our favorite shows our favorite movies, I’m actually currently watching the undoing and I feel like I’m living in New York. I feel like I’m living in that drama. What innovative ways are you and your team coming up with to help your fans really get into the worlds of these HBO shows?

You know, I think there’s, there’s a lot to be said. We have a fantastic emerging tech team. That job is primarily just a really big Monitor kind of growing trends and, you know, positioning us to execute on ideas that, you know, a lot of times or maybe first to market or allow us to kind of be there when the technology becomes more widely adapted. And, you know, traditionally that had been more like virtual reality, but were experimented a lot with augmented reality. But I think, you know, just, we’ve seen, you know, technology, I think it’s always been moving at a clip, but what COVID has done a is, I think, of accelerate, how we use technology to do many of the things that we are used to or accustomed to doing in person. You know, the thing with technology is, it’s not really that useful, unless people are comfortable using it. You know, that’s why I think, you know, you’re seeing slower adoption to things that require people to invest in special equipment, or have high cost barriers to entry. You know, I think the, if you just think about your own life, you know, how much, you know, do you do now, virtually, that you realize, Hmm, I wonder why 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? Yeah. And I think it’s really about finding ways that we can meet consumers where they’re already engaging. So 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 that? That just is a really telling time that we’ve become so accustomed to treating, you know, voice assistants, like members of our family, you know, they tell us jokes, they, you know, tell us what the weather’s gonna be like, outside, they, they’re just becoming more and more useful as we like, learn how to talk to them. And I think, you know, 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. So, you know, I think, yeah, like, technology plays a huge role. And I think innovation and how we, how we think about shows, and really COVID has accelerated our need to do that even faster.

Of course, and with this technology, you know, like you said, we’re talking to our series, we’re talking to our echoes that I currently have three in my apartment alone, you know, we’re using them to create these connected these meaningful experiences in any way that we can, you know, it’s one of the most important things right now, these new innovations, these new technologies you’re implementing and putting into your programming, do you see them sticking? You know, for a couple years down the road? Do you think it’s something that’ll eventually go back to the way that it used to be? Or do you think you’ll constantly continue to innovate?

Yeah, I mean, I think where, where we’ve always tried is, you know, not just inserting technology for the sake of inserting technology, I think, really, it comes down to the core tenant of what we do and what we produce, which is like authenticity. And you know, when we’re talking about experiences, to create an authentic experience, we want to make sure that the if there is some type of emerging technology we’re using, it further drives the narrative, we’re trying to communicate about a show. So take a show like Westworld Great example set in the in the not so distant future. Where we, 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 at the, at the series, where guests literally go to a park to live without limits. And so we wanted to recreate that experience, but because the show is set in the future, you know, doing something like virtual reality would have felt dated in the world that we were building, right? Like we’re past, we’re one step past virtual reality. These are like artificially intelligent, you know, robots that we’re interacting with. So, you know, while it would have been tempting to create, you know, something like that, using virtual reality, we took it one step further, which, you know, when you think about it really like exactly one setback. Yeah, that’s a mind. A mind conundrum. You know, 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 that really meets the quality bar quality that sits so high by by being shows. But you know, I think when we think about experiential marketing, because my team has really had some major success in that arena, I think there’s been such an explosion of it. And, you know, while I, while we’re taking a pause from it at the moment, I do believe that, you know, 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. And in these more personalized one to one experiences, we can actually drive deeper connection with fans of our shows. So I think we’ve been really exploring that arena in, you know, how we bring things to your house where you’re enjoying them. So if it’s creating kind of like influencer type kids with, you know, 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. And not only were we giving back to restaurants that were struggling during COVID, but we were also providing, I think, 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. So I think, you know, innovation, and experiences, there’s no kind of one way to think about them, I think sometimes just kind of rolling back to what’s tried and true. And really listening to what consumers want is what’s important right now,

of course, and these new ideas, these micro experiences you talk about, I see them really continuing for the next six to 12 months, and even past that just based on what users are really wanting right now, with all these brand new ideas that you have, where are you taking your at your inspiration from other other companies, you know, other shows that you’re watching, you know, what’s kind of your main base of inspiration?

Yeah, I mean, I think first and foremost, our inspiration comes from our shows, we don’t, you know, there’s really not much for us to do if we’re not working with such incredible properties. And, you know, having the privilege to work on series, like Game of Thrones has provided just so many opportunities for us to really impact not only, you know, fans, but just kind of pop culture and created these moments. So you know, and I think secondly, that’s a nice segue into like, just the inspiration we see from fans, they get so excited about these worlds and these shows, and we have a huge responsibility to make sure that we’re delivering on that. And again, being authentic and true to the series. So, you know, with the Westworld example I was talking about, we had people waiting in line, you know, for eight hours to try to get into this activation. And we always joke like we can’t even get people to watch three seconds of a video on YouTube, get a line somewhere for eight hours. But with Game of Thrones, we had a really great partnership with the American Red Cross. We called it bleed for the throne, which again, was an initiative we started at South by Southwest in Austin and extended to every state and several countries around the world. That was called bleed for the throne, that you literally had to bleed to gain entry by donating blood. And so just seeing fans come together to to save lives and do something good. Because they are so you know, entrenched in these worlds. And you know that the stats we saw from that program are incredible. We had 350,000 donations made, which when you translate to how many lives affected, it’s pretty crazy. And you know, a lot of these were first time donors. So by creating kind of this lifetime value proposition to the Red Cross, but also to I think the idea of kind of collecting together as a group really provided this sense of security for those who might have been trained to do this in the past. I know it was you know, I saw a lot of first time donors I’m definitely nervous going into it. But I think the look on their faces after was pretty incredible. And again, like, I think the fans are just so incredible and so passionate. And so we were constantly inspired by kind of the lengths that they’ll go. You know, we always ask like, do you think like, they’ll they’ll go this far do you think they’ll do this and we we actually had another program with Game of Thrones Called Quest for the throne where we dropped iron thrones all over the world, and kind of created a global scavenger on just very dated clues on social media. And, you know, people were looking at the stars to see like, what angle the earth was at listening to, to be honest, I did that my brother huge Game of Thrones fans, and we thought, like, Oh, we hope it’s in LA. So yeah, I mean, fans traveled, you know, days to try to find these, just to get that shot on the throne. And I think collectively, it was like, something like 30,000 miles. That’s what we calculated people, though. So it, I’m always shocked, I’m not, I’m never shocked, but always, like pleasantly surprised by the incredible fandom that we have. And, you know, I think just lastly, where we get inspiration is just with the team, I had the privilege to work with, like, so many, I think great minds, with diverse voices that really, you know, never want to just do the same thing over and over again, we’re constantly pushing ourselves to innovate, to fight, you know, do things differently, to challenge status quo. And really kind of test some, some crazy ideas, and, you know, just good, it’s really great to work at a company that values that kind of risk taking and, you know, pushing, pushing our fans, to uncomfortable places, sometimes.

Of course, that’s that’s where you guys are so successful, you know, a lot of companies that haven’t necessarily thrived in 2020, a lot of the reason is because they don’t have the ability to be innovative, try crazy ideas, like you said, to see what works and what doesn’t. And you guys are constantly doing that with your shows. And as you mentioned, your fan base, I mean, that’s so incredible, that you can be that connected with them, not only through the TV screen, but also, you know, back into the real world life. And a lot of companies, you know, don’t do that, you know, they don’t feel that need, but you guys do so amazing work on that. And I do have a little bit more of a technical question for you, for those that are in the same position, you’re in as far as KPIs, you know, that’s obviously had to change this year. And as great as coming up with new ideas. Are you still have to hit those marks? How are you viewing them differently this year?

Yeah, I think kpr is a really great question. And one we often talk about, you know, I think some of the most successful marketing initiatives we’ve we’ve done, aren’t really measured by success in traditional KPIs. I mean, of course, the end, the end goal of anything we’re doing is viewership. But I think when when you look beyond just kind of the narrow KPIs of, you know, kind of funnel metrics, and think about things that you can do that might be tangential to an ultimate drive of viewership. But that might be a little bit more difficult to quantify. But I think like a great example, you know, when we talk about bleed for the throne, a great example, like our KPIs weren’t, you know, social impressions, it was like, how many lives did we save? With quest for the throne? It wasn’t about, you know, how much press ID this guy that was, well, how many miles did fans actually travel? For Westworld? It was, you know, much about kind of capturing the imaginations of a conference, but really, like, how long? How long would people wait to get in? So, you know, I, it’s somewhat of a, you know, being kind of silly here. But I think, when an idea is good, there’s an interesting KPI you can look at that, you know, I think provides a hook and a way to get people excited, and ultimately sell through ideas. I think the stranger kind of something you can measure, the more interesting it can be. And, you know, I think we all we all want to do things that are, you know, a little more creative, and sometimes just kind of funnel metrics can be can be handled with with an algorithm, it takes kind of real, real creativity to come up with some wild ideas.

It definitely does and I think that’s a fantastic point, you know, obviously people think of KPIs as hitting your money marks, you know, viewership marks, but it’s sometimes not always about that. Sometimes it’s the the little more innovative ideas that actually can lead to greater profit at the end of the day. So great point on that. And for other leaders that are currently in your role of, you know, not just necessarily program marketing, but someone that’s leading a team, any final pieces of advice that you have to give them during this time?

I would say, you know, for anyone that’s working, or has been affected by, by COVID, in the inability for event based marketing or experiential marketing, you know, I think, I think it’s all it’s gonna come back the demand for it is there I, I think really collective experiences are how, how we define our identities. You know, when you’re at Coachella, if you go to a Knicks game, if you’re at Burning Man, you know, whatever it is something about being there is a statement of who you are. And I think that will always be there. But I think for right now, you know, we need to, we need to really listen to each other, and I think support each other. You know, everyone’s kind of on a different, we’re all on the same journey, but probably different paths right now. And just having empathy and listening to your teams. Sometimes, you know, this is this is really the moment to experiment, and try new things. And, you know, I think it’s really it’s really just about kind of being being No, it kind of sounds Kumbaya, you but, you know, when we’re all kind of separated, there’s, you know, empathy, and being together is really, really important. And I’ve just been so amazed by, you know, the stellar work that my team has still been able to do, even if we’re not in the room kind of bouncing ideas around together, but we will be serving

sooner rather than later. We hope. Well, fantastic advice. I think that’s so important. Just communication and, and, as you said, supporting each other. And I have been amazed at how just the world has come together to do so because it obviously has not been the easiest time. So thank you so much for joining us here today. I am very tempted to ask you how the undoing ends, but I will, I will hold off. It’s my new favorite show. But you know, hopefully any insights would be much appreciated. But thank you for being here. I really appreciate it. And you know, I wish the best of luck to you and your team moving forward. And thank you again to everyone who has watched as well if you have any questions for Steven, we do have a discussion forum below where you can comment, and he will be checking in throughout the week. Thank you again for joining us. Please stay safe, be healthy and enjoy the rest of the summit. Thanks, everyone.

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