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Startups Canadian road show puts Dubai business on the map

Derek Rider of Rider Enterprises rallying a crowd during the Celebrate the Moment Alokozay Tea Road Show.

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Sexy models, painted cargo vans, custom megaphones, freebie electronics, ping-pong balls, billboards, Facebook and bravery.

These are the tools budding advertising mogul Derek Rider employed this year to vault a foreign product onto the tough-to-crack shelves of Canadian grocery retailers. They were also instrumental in pushing his small company, Rider Enterprises Inc., out of the long shadows cast by Toronto's biggest ad firms and into a prime position along marketing's new frontier.

A five-man shop relying on word-of-mouth referrals, Rider Enterprises was approached by Alokozay, a Dubai-based tea company looking to launch its product in Canada in an innovative way and without an expensive television campaign. During an insomnia-inspired brainstorming session, Mr. Rider engineered a wacky, 20-day, 23-city "road show" with stops at grocery stores across Ontario. Customers at each location won TVs or tablet computers and they were featured on billboards, models wandered around clad in company logos, and group cheers were led as the Rider Enterprises crew were filming.

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YouTube videos were made, Facebook updates were posted, a brand found its footing. And in the mind of Mr. Rider, a banker-turned-journalist-turned-entrepreneur, a new methodology resulted in gold-star credibility.

Rider Enterprises now specializes in new-style experiential marketing ("brand experiences" in company parlance): energetic, multifaceted advertising efforts that knit together street-level events – think block parties or flash mobs – recorded on video or smartphones and transmitted to the masses through traditional and social media. Mr. Rider's expansive creative licence has won his agency and its video production arm, MediaOne Creative, a growing list of clients. The company had one account in 2008, and it now has 50, with a huge range of diversity: software company SAP, Intact Insurance, the Canadian Football League, Orange Crush and Red Bull all rely on it. Common among them is a hunger for out-of-the-box ways to captivate consumers.

"If you don't push your company from a creative standpoint, you may not make any mistakes but you may not have as big a success," Mr. Rider explains. "Street-level brand experiences are going to be the way of the future. Years ago, why would you spend money as a brand to influence John on the street? It didn't make the most sense from an investment point of view. But now … that experience is going to be sent out to 500 people. Now everybody is a media outlet."

Some marketing experts are less confident about how far the tentacles of social media regularly reach.

Drew McLellan is the Iowa-based CEO of the McLellan Marketing Group and a blogger whose website logs 10,000 hits a day. He says social media impact created by street-level experiences is a "crap-shoot" that makes it tough for companies to gauge the value of investing in branded experiences such as the Alokozay road show.

"Is the person who wins something ... plugged into social networking at all? And will they put it on Facebook of their own accord?" he asks. "Or do you as the company or the agency need to entice them to do that, which all of a sudden sounds like a sponsored tweet. That's the sticky point in all of this."

Alan Middleton, a professor of marketing at Toronto-based York University's Schulich School of Business, says the sustainability of nouveau experiential marketing events hinges on marketers' ability to keep them relevant to overloaded consumers. "We live in a very noisy world and people are getting inundated … we don't have the time or the inclination to spend with it unless we're deeply interested," he says.

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Prof. Middleton adds the sustainability of experiential strategies will hinge on how marketers tie them into larger ad campaigns. "Where I can see it being used effectively is part of integrated campaigns along with mainline digital media and traditional media – as a support system."

Sally Durcan, managing director of British ad firm Hotcow Experiential Marketing, says the success of these types of campaigns is also tied to how clients approach them. When selling product is the central goal – as opposed to wowing consumers with an amazing experience to generate buzz – campaigns are less successful. Companies looking for role models, she says, should look no further than Walt Disney, a company at the forefront of early experiential marketing.

"They wanted to create magic for children and their families. They created theme parks," she says, adding: "Because of those amazing experiences, people wanted to buy. They didn't create a merchandise company and lop on a park at the end of it."

The Globe and Mail hosted a Small Business Summit in Toronto on Nov. 22, and an hour of the day was devoted to a pitch session, where five companies had the opportunity to speak for three minutes to try to convince a media panel they were worthy of coverage. The top presenter would be featured on the Report on Small Business website. As you've probably guessed, Rider Enterprises took the prize.

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