The end of the ‘experiential activation’? Innovation in physical experience-based marketing faces an existential challenge in the age of pandemic

GlobalData Retail 9 October 2020 (Last Updated October 9th, 2020 17:03)

For years, brands across FMCG have been marrying their products, ethos, and brand stories with increasingly innovative uses of physical space and technology to offer immersive experiences and touch points for consumers.

The end of the ‘experiential activation’? Innovation in physical experience-based marketing faces an existential challenge in the age of pandemic

For years, brands across FMCG have been marrying their products, ethos, and brand stories with increasingly innovative uses of physical space and technology to offer immersive experiences and touch points for consumers.

These activations (so-called “experience rooms” being an example) have often been highly conceptual, quite unusual, and thoroughly modern. They have been integrated with technology to allow consumers to instantly share, and thus promote their experiences and the brand across social media, as well as control or interact with aspects of the installations via mobile device as they experience them.

That was until COVID-19 struck.

Such experiential marketing activations using branded spaces were essentially wiped out in terms of usefulness by the advent of the 2020 pandemic. Touch, feel, proximity to brands physically, often in shared social spaces are all elements that have become anathema in light of COVID-19 and the accompanying buzz-terms – social distancing, shielding, lockdown, etc.

People are not frequenting the locations that experiential activations commonly inhabit – malls, railway stations, prominent shopping streets. This puts brands in a difficult position if they are invested in and running expensive experiences that are now shuttered. Even with restrictions having lifted through the summer, and although footfall has increased in retail environments, the possibility of imminent second wave lockdowns and resumed consumer cautiousness, along with the practicalities of making such experiential spaces as COVID-safe as possible, likely mean that the case for such endeavours is simply not there anymore.

If consumers are not going to visit such spaces in worthwhile numbers to justify significant investment, the onus on retail brands is to expand opportunities for consumers to have “experiences” at home. The social media and app-enabled aspects of experiential marketing activations are an element that is well capable of delivering clever, innovative, and engaging branded experiences in the home. The trick will be to come up with ways of doing something different – going beyond the basic “scan a label/QR code, etc.” approach that can showcase a brand/product and encourage peer group sharing and discourse.

The key audience groups for experiential marketing approaches are clearly showing attitudinal and behavioral changes that will both hurt “experience rooms” and similar branded spaces, while also favouring greater creativity online. GlobalData’s 2020 COVID-19 Recovery Tracker survey found that over the observed eight week period in Q3, significant shares of Generations X, Y (Millennials), and Z (iGen) in the USA, one of the worst hit nations, reported that the experience of the pandemic would encourage them to spend significantly more time browsing social media in the future (17%, 20%, and 18% respectively). This long-term expected change in behavior is indicative of the likelihood of a more home-based, virtual approach to socializing.

Experiences in the home will become more dependent on replicating facets of the out-of-home activation. Food and beverage tastings – via tasting boxes for example – in the home could be combined with a live community aspect and app-based interactivity. Also, the experience of life during the pandemic should inform the messaging and focus of activations. How a brand relates to a consumer’s pandemic era life is important in making it relevant. Brand voices and activities should be supportive and acknowledging of the challenges, even if they also offer escapism.

Overall, how this area of experiential marketing will develop or rebuild after the pandemic is a question to be answered in coming months and years. What is clear is brands that have increasingly experimented with such approaches and maybe planned them for the future may need to reassess their usefulness and/or reorient their efforts to a consumer base that is spending more time at home and finding social connection online than wanting to visit arty, tech-friendly spaces where social distancing may be a challenge.