To deal with COVID-19 experiential marketing should go back to its roots

More than ever consumers are yearning for real-life experiences, says John Marchini of Havas Street.

In a Whole Foods Market, a woman distributes free food samples. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg via Getty Images)
In a Whole Foods Market, a woman distributes free food samples. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg via Getty Images)

It is no secret that COVID-19 has completely decimated the events industry. Seemingly overnight, everything ground to a halt. Major concerts, sporting events and festivals disappeared along with the millions of dollars and jobs associated with them.

The pandemic left industries reeling and brands and agencies alike searching for ways to activate safe experiences, engage consumers and create memorable moments that would last. In conversations I've been having with brand and agency partners, it struck me that the way forward may lie in the origins of the industry itself.

In its early days, experiential marketing was centered on grabbing consumers' attention in ways traditional advertising simply couldn't through foundational techniques like in-store sampling, street teams, and mobile tours.

With the advent of smartphones and social media, experiential began to focus more on creating Instagrammable moments and less about creating lasting brand connections with consumers. It was a simpler message as opposed to the more nuanced benefits delivered from direct conversations held with consumers to possibly get them to include your brand in their consideration set.

Then COVID-19 hit and we now find ourselves looking for solutions that don't rely on engaging consumers en masse but instead intercepting them during their daily lives to bring the experiences to them.

In addition to the myriad safety restrictions we must now adhere to, we are also up against a new foe: digital exhaustion. The novelty of working from home has worn off, virtual happy hours have lost their luster, and consumers now more than ever are yearning for a real-life experience. Even if it means simply sitting in your driveway and watching a movie, consumers want to be in the real world.

To chart a way forward for our industry, we should consider the early strategies that got us where we are. We must create programs that go directly to where people are and bring the brands to their doorstep, literally in some cases.

The Hulu or Walmart drive-ins are good examples of ways to safely engage people in open-air spaces where we can remain socially distant. Installations and mural stunts, like this one from Stella Artois, are contactless ways of grabbing people's attention and, when partnered with a nearby brand ambassador, can relay crucial brand messaging to passersby. Another example? The thank-you tour my agency created for Farmer John to recognize frontline workers and first responders.

This new world does not have to be completely analog and digital technologies can play a huge part in amplifying consumers' experiences whether through contactless vending machines, live feeds like Window Swap or interactive billboards that allow participants to interact with the world around them safely through their devices.

The recent months have been nothing short of catastrophic, but we are beginning to see signs of hope on the horizon. Our industry was founded by creative thinkers who found ways to do more with less and that sort of tenacity is exactly what will help us to rebuild it.

John Marchini is an associate vice president at Havas Street and has created experiential campaigns for several Fortune 500 brands.

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