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Experiential Marketing – The future looks bright!

 

Last week marked a year since the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the country and it’s still difficult to truly comprehend all that has changed in our lives. Aside from the enormous human loss, many businesses have been irreversibly impacted. The experiential marketing industry, for one, came to a grinding halt with programs cancelled or put on hold indefinitely. I never thought the Olympics would be cancelled. For me, that was a watershed moment – when I started to question how our industry would survive. And then, as often happens in a crisis, people got busy. They demonstrated resiliency by first getting resourceful, and then creativeA recent Harvard Business Review article refers to it as a liminal experience – disturbing and disruptive but with potential for opportunity, reflection, discovery and re-invention (HBR March 10, 2021)The experiential industry rolled up their sleeves and pushed back. As we mark this anniversary, let’s reflect on how this disruptive year has created opportunities for us all. 

A few of the defining moments: 

1. The bad news – Experiential marketing was cancelled overnight with a predicted loss in the US alone of 49%+ in revenue since March of 2020. (Winterbury Group Spend Estimates 2021). Along with live events, conferences and tradeshows shuttered their windows almost immediately. 

  • The good news  Many resourceful agencies, including Proof Experiences, quickly shifted their business model to virtual events. Some clients were hesitant and rightfully so, but early results were good. And today, the research confirms that there will be a valuable role for both virtual AND live experiences in the future. In a recent study by IMI International, over 58% of respondents said they had attended a virtual event in the past year and the same number said they planned to continue to attend virtual events once live events return. That is significant! (IMI NextWave study Feb 25, 2021). We learned that some events are now preferred as virtual (vs live) such as speaker series, fundraising events, and some business conferences. 
  • The other good news – Back in January of this year2 out of 3 Canadians said they plan to return to live events, even without a vaccine. Yes, they skew young but regardless, as the national vaccine program quickly rolls out and other safety measures are put into place, look for Live Events to come back with a vengeance. (IMI Recovery- Wave 1, Canada Snapshot) 

2. The bad news – Along with the cancellation of live events went the ability for companies to easily communicate with customers. Businesses lost their ability to ‘sell’ and connect with important clients through traditional channels and events. 

  • The good news – Virtual events opened new doors for B2B and B2C businesses alike. The emergence of multiple tech platforms, measurement tools and engagement strategies meant that companies could suddenly connect with consumers and markets that previously were out of reach. The virtual world introduced VIP customer events, product launches and networking opportunities that rivalled and, in many cases, surpassed traditional live experiences. Technology allowed regional businesses to scale and thought leadership to be shared across broader markets, regions, and time zones. The future will be hybrid but digital will no longer be the ‘cheap seats’ at an event or conference. Smart, strategic planning will leverage the best of both worlds and create an exceptional experience for both attendees, marrying the excitement of live events with the reach, convenience, and accessibility of virtual. 

3. The bad news – As the country shut down, businesses closed, workers went home and, employee satisfaction dropped off significantly, companies saw record low engagement coupled with record high stress and burnout. The ability for leadership to walk the halls and build culture disappeared overnight.  

  • The good news – Again, companies shifted and adopted new tools and techniques for creatively staying connected to their employees. AGMs, townhalls, holiday parties, sales meetings and team building activities were radically re-imagined as engaging two-way, interactive experiences keeping organizations connected. We started with Zoom and ended the year with sophisticated corporate events that saw live artist performances, exclusive behind the scenes access, celebrity appearances and motivational speeches, creative and fun training workshops and more – and the results are exceptional. In a recent Proof Experiences company retreat, many employees rated the event as ‘good as or better than past live events.. 

4. The bad news  As students left the live classroom in 2020, it appeared that ‘learning’ of any kind was also on hold. Schools, business training centerseducational and traditional public awareness programs were all suspended as organizations caught their breath and wondered how to continue this important function. 

  • The good news – One of the many behaviours and trends that we predict will continue after the pandemic recedes is virtual learning. While parents may not have enjoyed home-schooling young children, many other consumer groups thrived with the newfound flexibility to learn on their own scheduleAnd suddenly, organizations had the ability to customize learning and messaging to their individual target group. Overnight, businesses and industries pivoted their education and training programs to creative and engaging online workshops. These virtual experiential campaigns expanded reach and allowed for important messages about health, safety, and other non-traditional brand information to be delivered into any community across the country. Organizational training and education have embraced technology and as these virtual platforms evolve and improve the user experience, there will be no turning back. On demand, virtual learning will open doors for brands and companies who need to find new ways to connect their messages with highly targeted consumers.  

5. The bad news  As our world shut down last March, I clearly recall wondering how we’d be able to stay ‘creative’. How can you possibly collaborate and create breakthrough ideas and experiences from the isolation of home and through the stress of a global pandemic. 

  • The good news  Necessity truly is the mother of invention.  In fact, many brands in 2020 thrived and stood out. The central tenet of great, creative work this past year was resiliency, and it took many different forms. Covid-19 completely redefined our business and accelerated smart, strategic solutions and radical new thinking. It created a whole new vocabulary for us. Here are just a few examples of brands that got it right – from the brilliant Karen Howe (The Township Group, Feb 2021) 
    • • Unilever’s Dove brand led the way by redefining beauty as courage and featuring front-line workers in their campaign 
    • • Virgin Mobile tapped into our nervous, quarantined mindset by reminding us that we may be isolated, but we were not alone through their, Stay home, Stay Safe, Stay Connected Campaign 
    • • When the Olympics were cancelled, VISA jumped in to support the WHO decree with their ‘wash your hands like an Olympian’ campaign 

These were just a few examples of brands that demonstrated the importance of being useful, adding value and supporting communities and businesses during the crisis. They realized it wasn’t a time to sell, but rather an opportunity to find ways to help and re-enforce good behaviour & hopeAs a result, many of these brands have thrived this past year. In the experiential marketing space, we’ve seen creativity everywhere. Over 12 million viewers hopped onto Fortnite to see and hear the debut of Travis Scott’s new single ‘Astronomical’, setting new records for his launch. Two of my kids happily paid $40 each to watch ‘Tomorrowland’ online as a virtual New Year’s Eve concert. Drive ins, QR codes and other innovative engagement tactics were in full view as brands re-invented themselves and found new and innovative ways to safely connect with audiences. The Flaming Lips appeared on The Late Show in protective bubbles (both themselves and the audience) in what was called a Socially Distanced concert. 

So, while we acknowledge the year of Covid, anits devastating impact on experiential marketing, let’s also celebrate the re-invention of one of the greatest engagement tools in a marketer’s toolkit. The future looks very bright. 

Executive Vice President|March 19, 2021

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