As we ease our way out of lockdown, it is increasingly clear that things will not return to the way they were. After months of consumers staying at home, brands are facing long-term behavioural shifts that are forcing them to rethink their strategy for live engagement and interaction.
The desire for visceral, real-life experience is undoubtedly there, but we are yet to see the emergence of the 'Roaring Twenties 2.0' that many had predicted during the pandemic.
Here in the UK, Covid-anxieties continue despite the easing of restrictions. Nearly half of people say that they are still hesitant about attending live events, and half of those who would ordinarily go to nightclubs say they would feel very uncomfortable doing so (according to YouGov).
At the same time, we have seen stadiums and pubs fill up during major sports events over the summer, signalling a healthy appetite for collective live entertainment where passion is a core driver.
Navigating this new, conflicting landscape can be a challenge for brands, as we are facing an increasingly fragmented experience space. At Imagination we have made four observations that are likely to affect experiential marketing as we enter a new post-pandemic era.
Hybrid is not always the answer
Heralded as the future of events at the beginning of lockdown, we have learned that, while hybrid experiences can achieve impressive audience reach and depth, they are not necessarily a silver bullet for brand experience.
Hybrid events can involve a higher investment as they tend to be technically complex, and typically combine two events in one. On the plus side, they speak to new audience expectations of direct online access and address various attendance barriers such as travel restrictions, carbon footprint concerns and altered priorities. We also know that those brave enough to attend live events these days are likely to be passionate about your brand already, so opening your event up to an online audience will allow you to go wider and deeper.
When deciding on whether hybrid is right for your brand, you should also consider what type of brand you are. Some brands have a natural digital affinity, such as gaming and tech, whereas others require more tangibility such as wine and spirits. The engagement model needs to be designed around the brand and around specific audience behaviours.
All markets are not created equal
Some brands seem impervious to people's fears regardless of geographical location, but levels of hesitancy also tend to differ between markets. In China for instance – where a national governmental system using a digital Covid pass granted people access to public venues from very early in the pandemic – we have seen much higher levels of real-life engagement compared with other regions.
Amid the pandemic earlier this year, we worked with Lego China on "Inspiration Wonderland", a digitally enhanced live Children's Day event, where cross-generational visitors were invited to challenge their creativity with Lego bricks. The event resulted in unprecedented attendance numbers exceeding 200k across 100 days. Lego has always been a hands-on brand and this engagement underlined people's passion to get back to physical activity.
Find your niche
Brands are being more intelligent about the experiences they're designing. While the world of events used to be simple, it is now more fragmented as brands are exploring new forms and combinations of experience. The trick will be to identify your brand's sweet spot of re-engagement.
Certain types of traditional events, such as global auto shows, are reinventing themselves at an accelerated pace. In Germany, the long-standing Frankfurt auto show had already evolved to become a more of a tech show and has now permanently moved to Munich and is being adapted to become a de-centralised, outdoor lifestyle and tech-focused event.
When the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) auto show, usually held in Las Vegas, went virtual in 2020, we worked with Ford to create a special connection with its passionate, tech-savvy audience online. "Auto Nights SEMA show special" was a two-day hyper-targeted live broadcast experience that combined live-action and pre-recorded video to engage an online audience with custom vehicle reveals, interactive immersions and live Q&As.
Be more agile
A more complicated landscape is also causing brands to be more agile and experimental in their approach. By not going in feet first, they can test and iterate new ideas on a smaller scale before making more significant investments.
At live sports events, brands are doing one-off experiments to understand more about the potential of omni-channel interaction. After having followed their teams on screen and across different platforms during the crisis, we are seeing that in-person audiences are expecting increased levels of personalisation and interaction – and we are going to see more integration of digital and personal devices at these types of events. For example, the German Football league partnered with Vodafone to deliver live player stats to in-stadium spectators on their smartphones via AR.
Within this richer yet more complex experience landscape, making the right business case for investment is critical. In the same way that media agencies have moulded years of data to understand what channels offer the best performance for marketing spend, experiences now require a tailored approach to measurement and ROI.
Over the past decade, we have been gathering the data and insights to support our clients' decision making. Within this new landscape, designing experiences that are 'made to measure' requires interpreting these insights to help our clients determine the best experience format for their needs and that will deliver the right outcomes.
Kristine Jåtog Axsäter is strategy director at Imagination.