Experiential Marketers on the Move

Retailers apply food-truck model to durable goods

The idea came to Troy De Baca in a dream.

He chased down an ice cream truck and ordered a Rocket Pop and a Fudgsicle. “Instead of them handing me ice cream, they handed me T-shirts,” De Baca remembers.

He woke up and scoured the internet for mobile screen printing. “Nothing came up,” he says. “That’s your calling to make something happen.”

That was 2011. As proprietor of Troy’s Custom Tees, De Baca already knew how to screen print. He found a beater box truck and fixed it up into the first-ever mobile screen-printing shop.

The business started slow, but it now has four vehicles in Denver and San Diego and has worked events for household names like Apple, Red Bull and Charles Schwab.

“We’re the only mobile screen-printing fleet in the world,” De Baca says. “We work with the Fortune 500s of the world.”

De Baca has three employees and a team of eight contractors who help with events all over the country. “We’re literally coast-to-coast, and everywhere in between,” he says.

Growth hit 150 percent in 2018, and De Baca forecasts a 300 percent bump in 2019.

It all started with the original truck: a 1985 Grumman step van previously used to deliver coffee. “I bought it for $5,000 and I had to put in another $3,000 to get it running,” he says. The screen-printing build-out added another $7,000, for a total of $15,000 in startup costs. Denver muralist MPek gave it an eyeball-grabbing paint job, and he was off and running.

De Baca bought subsequent vehicles new to facilitate coast-to-coast coverage. “You’re constantly picking up parts off the road,” De Baca says of used trucks. The new ones, often sheathed in a wrap, can transport pop-up presses all over the country.

T-shirt designs are always tailored to the event, and the new trucks are often co-branded with a wrap showcasing The Silkscreen Machine as well as the client.

De Baca’s business sits squarely at the intersection of two trends: the rise of food trucks and other mobile businesses, and the re-emergence of experiential marketing.

Beyond food trucks, mobile boutiques, mobile escape rooms and mobile ski-tuning shops roam the roads of Colorado. The common denominator? It’s typically easier and cheaper to get a truck or trailer on the road than an entire building up and running.

Gordon Vaughan, founder of Experiential Vehicles, specializes in sourcing and transporting vehicles for experiential marketing. His Denver-based company maintains a small fleet and works with clients to find vehicles to buy or lease for campaigns.

When he worked in experiential marketing before starting the company in 2005, “I would go around to fabricators and see these cool old vehicles that weren’t being used,” Vaughan says. Experiential Vehicles “is kind of like a sharing economy, except business to business.”

Vaughan has worked for agencies on accounts like Domino’s Pizza and Ericsson. “Agencies will call and tell me what they’re looking for,” he says. He then taps a nationwide network to find the right vehicle for the job. “We have fabrication partners and wrap partners around the U.S.”

It’s not easy to do these kinds of things on a shoestring, but a mobile shop could be just $5,000. “You have to do it DIY-style, and it can be very reasonable.”

But it’s probably not roadworthy for a cross-country trip. “That becomes another animal,” Vaughan says. His clients’ vehicular budgets are typically $50,000 to $500,000.

Power needs are “a big piece of the puzzle,” he adds, and wraps typically run $6,000 to $20,000. “That’s more than a lot of people’s total budget.”

But price is not the only consideration when it comes to making a business mobile. The other benefit is obvious: It can go to your customer or customer’s customers, rather than having them come to you. Which brings us back to experiential marketing.

“It’s see, touch and feel,” Vaughan says. “You’ve got to put products in people’s hands.”

The marketing world went all-in for digital after the early 2000s heyday of experiential marketing, Vaughan says, but the pendulum is swinging back. “Those clicks aren’t generating the same impact,” he says. “That’s why they’re back.”

Pairing experiential marketing with digital offers synergy. “It leverages the web so well,” he says. “Whether you’re at the event or not, it still plays.”

Justin Moss, founder of the Denver-based, experiential-focused Pineapple Agency, echoes Vaughan’s point. “Experiential has been around in one form or another for centuries,” Moss says. “They used to do product sampling on New Jersey’s boardwalks in the 1920s.”

But it truly came of age in the digital era, he adds. “Brands look at this as an extension of digital.”

Case in point: Moss worked on an experiential campaign for Under Armour in late 2017 where drones delivered NBA star Stephen Curry’s new sneakers. It generated 115 million impressions online.

For De Baca, it’s all about providing something unique. “We’re no longer just a screenprinting truck,” he says. “We’re now live marketers, live mobile advertising for our clients.”

The key ingredient isn’t a T-shirt or ink, it’s the authentic human-to-human interaction that Facebook doesn’t provide, he adds. “It’s really our people and the way we engage with our guests and clients,” he says. “When we show up at an event, our job is to make people’s day.” 

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