Developing experiential activations post-lockdown 

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7 May 2020

2019 saw the demand for experiential campaigns continuing to rise, with more than a third of CMOs planning to spend  21-50% of their budget on experiential over the coming years* .  Like so many other aspects of life, COVID-19 brought that crashing down almost overnight. Experiential marketing’s unique strength – providing genuine social interaction with consumers – suddenly made it uniquely exposed.  

With maintaining social distance currently vital to the nation’s health, brands are unable to activate experiential campaigns, whilst what the future holds is unclear. Adweek suggests several agencies are working towards activations across Q3 and Q4, but whether they come to fruition remains to be seen. Whilst many of the factors that will affect reintroduction are out of our hands, those that are well-prepared for the likely outcomes will be in the best position to hit the ground running. Sooner or later, the lockdown will end, and face-to-face interaction will be more desired than ever. However, the way that brands resume in experiential spaces will be crucial to their success. Here is our checklist of things to consider. 

First, do no harm

Brands will have to walk a careful tightrope when it comes to using experiential in the near future. First things first, all activities must be safe. For the experience to have the desired positive, brands need to guarantee that they are doing no harm to the consumer, to their staff or the population at large. Being mindful of the situation will be key; all events need to be unambiguous in proving that they are rigorously following best practice and scientific advice to be able to deliver without compromising safety. Importantly, this includes considering not only what the official guidelines are, but also public sentiment.

Whilst perceptions to reducing social distance may converge with time, currently it is clear that opinion is split. Polling data suggests that people are having markedly different responses to the crisis and how they think the government and businesses should respond. Some are anxious to get back to normality, whilst many think lockdown should continue, even if all the government’s criteria for relaxing restrictions are met. This presents a challenge for brands aiming to resume experiential activity. Ultimately, every consumer is different and while certain measures to reduce contact will be enough for many, sections of the population may still not feel comfortable participating. As such, optimal engagement will be reliant on segmenting effectively to reach these different groups. Brands could choose to focus on the members of the public who will be more comfortable, but the most successful activations will create an environment that can adapt to each consumer and deliver experiences that are memorable, regardless of the closeness of the contact.

A unique opportunity

Whilst this is clearly an incredibly challenging time for experiential, there is evidence to suggest it’s not all bad news. If brands can navigate past these challenges and deliver memorable experiences without controversy, they have the potential to have a greater impact than before. After months of limited contact with the outside world, people will be yearning for the genuine physical interactions that can only be provided by experiencing something, and therefore people are likely to engage with a newfound enthusiasm. Also, whilst the crisis has caused major economic difficulties, it is important for brands to recognise that the financial impacts are, in truth, incredibly disparate.

On a positive note, research by Walnut Unlimited shows that 53% of households have been able to save more money during this period. When the economy restarts and consumers feel comfortable spending again there will undeniably be beneficiaries here, particularly with big ticket items. Experiential may not be without risk, but the rewards are clear: the brands that adapt their offering to reflect the new environment have a huge opportunity to improve brand sentiment and bring in sales.

Location, location, location

It is difficult to know when or if traditional high footfall locations such as shopping centres and train stations are likely to return to pre-lockdown footfall figures. Whilst a short-term boom after restrictions are lifted has been predicted by some, there is also a school of thought that argues our lifestyles and habits will have changed permanently, from more working from home to increased online shopping. Pair this with certain retailers going into administration and reports that the hospitality sector is likely to be one of the last functions to re-open, there is no guarantee that shopping centres will be a lifestyle destination in the foreseeable future.

Here it is key that agencies and brands keep their fingers on the pulse. Making the right call on what space will be used and at what time will be vital to making sure budget is invested wisely. This will rely heavily on transparency from space owners. Accurate and regular updates on their footfall and audiences needs to be provided – so much so that it should be pivotal to their long-term relationships with brands. If shopping centres do see significant drops in numbers, then there is no excuse for being caught off-guard. Experiential marketeers need to be using this time to consider alternative arrangements, as those who make the right calls will reap the benefits.

Stand design

A great deal of time, planning and thought goes into the most effective stand designs. Elements such as allowing the consumer to have clear sight lines and being able to move effectively around the stand whilst avoiding pinch points have always been considered, but now there will be a new range of aspects to contemplate.  Whilst social distancing remains in place – either through Government direction or consumer choice –  updating stand designs to allow increased mobility and demonstrate that measures have been taken will help to instil consumer confidence in visiting the experience. This could mean increasing the stand’s size, streamlining the display to ensure free movement or planning for a queuing system to control footfall. Whatever measures are taken, brands should be explicit about them. Consumer confidence will be fragile, and all assurances will be appreciated.

Tailoring staff interaction

Brands invest a lot in staffing their experiential activations, delivering the brand messaging in a personalised manner whilst responding to each consumer’s specific needs. Many consumers will want to resume this face-to-face format, but staff will also need to be respectful of each consumer’s level of comfort and tailor their interaction accordingly. One way this might manifest is an increased desire for self-serve functionality within the stand – providing displays that the consumer can learn from directly without human interaction. This could mean printed graphics, video reels or touchscreens (all with accompanying cleaning materials, of course). Adapting how brand and product messages are delivered will help maximise levels of engagement.

Data capture

Brands and agencies also need to make sure that they have considered ways to maintain levels of data capture, a key metric of experiential performance. Ultimately, increasing the number of methods by which people can provide their data will be the best bet to ensure that brands can build their audience and communicate with interested consumers. Providing methods of allowing consumers to input data via their own smartphone, such as creating landing pages accessible via QR code to enable tracking, will help ensure valuable data capture opportunities are not missed. It goes without saying that all methods for data collection need to be done in a way that complies with regulation – not even COVID-19 can turn the tide of GDPR.

Increasing the digital presence

The use of AR, VR and digital screen content has risen rapidly over the years as brands look to provide increased immersive experiences on the stand. Typically, these activations involved using tablets, goggles and touchscreens built into the stand, experiences that are likely to be met with scepticism at first. However, adapting these offerings to enable consumers to download on to their own device or takeaway to experience at home will increase participation rate.

Delivering virtual and live streaming of events is also an option. This process has already begun, with automotive brands such as Bentley and BMW delivering video conferences of their planned Geneva Motor Show activity. Developing this going forward to enable consumers to view speakers at exhibitions via social platforms or delivering personalised follow-ups for product interactions will enable consumers to engage at a time and location of their choice. As anyone who has spent the last month on Zoom calls can attest, virtual interactions are not quite the same as the real thing, but they do provide an easy way to communicate when no other options are available.

So, what’s next?

As we embrace the new world and adapt to measures introduced to protect us, we believe there is still the opportunity for effective and impactful experiential. Activations that can adapt quickly to consumer behaviours, in preparation and during the live event, will allow brands to connect with their customers, build relationships and deliver sales.

This article was written by Andy Walton, Senior Experiential Account Director at TMW.

* Forbes, Experiential Marketing Is The Future Of Retail, Sep 2019

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