If it’s not remarkable, it’s invisible."
The rise of experiential marketing over the last decade has sent ripples across the marketing landscape. We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what experiential marketing is and what it can achieve.
Often, a well-designed brand experience is a more effective spend than traditional media, because today’s audiences don’t want to be talked at — they want to be engaged with. If traditional advertising is a megaphone, think of experiential marketing as an open forum.
At its core, experiential marketing is a simple idea: a moment where a brand can connect with its audience in a personal and meaningful way. The principles behind making that moment as impactful and memorable as possible are fairly simple, though not easy to achieve: Make it unique, make it engaging and make it shareable.
As Jason White, executive creative director at Leviathan, puts it: “Experiential design is the most effective way to intrigue audiences, because people flock to new experiences in unexpected places.”
Big and loud doesn’t cut it anymore. If it’s not remarkable, it’s invisible.
That’s why brands are trying to engage customers in unique ways and give them experiences worth talking about. But if designing a memorable experience was difficult in the past, creating them during a time of self-isolation and social distancing requires even more innovative thinking.
Lately, we’ve seen brands, celebrities and social media users inundate our feeds with clever and click-worthy content. While most of these are awesome, they don’t always fulfill the sense of community or engagement that come with physical experiences.
Some of the best examples of experiential design are coming from people who are creating connections within their neighborhoods. Take, for example, the idea of Takeout Brigades. Groups of friends choose a locally owned restaurant to support through takeout, place their orders and then all meet in the restaurant’s parking lot. This seemingly simple idea has all the makings of a great experience: It’s unique, very engaging and highly shareable.
Brands should take note of these kinds of ideas and facilitate much-needed human connections. For instance, a big box retailer could use its empty parking lots and create drive-in movie experiences. People could gather while in the safety of their cars as brand ambassadors deliver food from food trucks. This would give the brand a captive audience to entertain and engage with for hours, as well as create legitimate goodwill and connection within that community.
On the other side of the low-to-high tech scale, virtual reality (VR) is ripe for brand experiences. Millions of people around the world are already connecting through VR headsets and using them for full-immersion experiences. From going to movie theaters together to flying star ships with their friends Star-Trek-style to attending live show recordings, they’re using avatars that can go anywhere and interact with anyone — all without the risk of getting infected.
So far, few brands have taken the leap to this platform, but this may change in the next six months. Imagine a brand sending out a mail invitation to a VR event, where the invitation itself is a pop-out Google Cardboard headset. Consumers would simply insert their phone, tune in and engage in an immersive live brand experience with their friends.
Great Experiential Design
So how do brands adjust their experiential design principles to fit a post-COVID-19 world? Proceed with empathy and tweak priorities to meet what people need.
What we value as people is changing and brand marketers should change, too. Where people once valued adventures, we now reminisce on common experiences we took for granted.
Here are three ways strategies for designing great experiences to fit a post-COVID-19 world:
- Make the experience unique and valuable.
Think about what people are missing most and find a way to bring it to them. Hint: It’s not always going to be another funny internet video or another livestream. These can be great, but we’re seeing them in spades. People are craving a sense of community and being with one another. That’s why we honk and cheer every night for our front-line workers and why drive-by birthday celebrations and teddy bear hunts are sweeping the nation.
Thought starter: Could a brand like Netflix or Disney partner with a VR company and create legitimate movie theater experiences? Imagine giant virtual theaters filled with people from all over the world, watching and reacting to the same movie together.
- Make the experience as interactive as possible.
It’s hard to create personal engagement nowadays, but adding interaction makes the sense of community and belonging that much stronger. It’s the reason before communities began to reopen, people waited an hour in line at Starbucks drive-throughs to have a meaningful positive interaction with their baristas. Interactive Zoom classes and livestream concerts are great but imagine an activation that makes you leave your home and drive somewhere to take part in something bigger.
Thought starter: If sports teams play in empty stadiums this summer, why not create a tailgate brand activation outside, where people can cheer, make noise be on kiss-cam, play mobile phone trivia, etc. — all from inside their cars?
- Make the experience about your audience, not the brand.
The consumer trend toward caring more about what a brand stands for than what the brand sells has accelerated since the pandemic entered our lives. Activations that spread goodwill will rise to the top and become memorable engagements for years to come. The likes and shares will follow.
Thought starter: Imagine a hospitality brand sending out beautiful, high-quality self-care kits complete with sanitation essentials, self-care products and other takeaways that surprise and delight customers and people in need.
It’s safe to say experiential design will look very different in a post-COVID-19 world. Time will tell if people will be itching to go back to long lines and concert crowds or if they’ll think twice before hitting a local farmers’ market.
The pandemic has highlighted that the sense of community and sharing of experiences is paramount to our well-being. People will always have the need to gather and engage. The field is open for brands to respond by creating experiences that are unique, safe authentic and meaningful.