Experiential vs. Coronavirus

Coronavirus has massively impacted the experiential marketing sector… will it survive?

Whether you’re in experiential events, marketing, exhibitions – even some digital circles – most of us have experienced a sharp drop in activity and business. Can it bounce back?

There are plenty of pertinent, authoritative commentaries, posts and opinions on LinkedIn, industry news platforms like AdWeek, Campaign Live and other formats mostly agreeing that whilst experiential marketing (however you choose to interpret the terminology) has taken a proper beating from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s certainly not a knockout punch – maybe just a standing count.

Digital lockdown

There’s no doubt, even from a consumer point of view, that digital has been the knight in slightly battered but shining armour during the Covid-19 lockdown. Online quizzes, virtual pubs, Joe Wicks’ YouTube workouts and family Zoom meetings have become (or were at the start) the go-to place for some level of escapism or brand interaction. And brands have certainly capitalised on this. Whether or not you look at how they’ve taken advantage of the situation – from a cynical point of view or otherwise – our thumbs and necks have never been so sore and aching. Looking at our smartphones has become a reflex action during lockdown and for better or worse it’s provided an outlet for everyone. We probably integrate a digital element into 90% of our campaigns but we’re already starting to get the sense that the initial flurry of excitement about doing EVERYTHING online during lockdown is starting to wear a bit thin.

What (do) consumers want…

Physical human interaction. Just look at the two minutes we spend every Thursday evening clapping for carers and the NHS, and even the people who have been flouting (or stretching) the lockdown rules. We, and I count myself as a consumer of course, cannot wait to be back outside, hugging family, shaking hands, high-fiving our mates… just getting out there. And if you put the state of the economy to one side for a moment, people will want to to go shopping. They miss the physical world. Products they can touch and feel. They miss the brand experience. They miss looking up instead of down. Of course you can send clothes back to online store ASOS if they don’t fit but you can’t smell a Greggs vegan sausage roll on Instagram. And that’s why the famous bakery chain reversed their decision to open 20 stores at the start of May. Positive public sentiment on social media went crazy but then in a rethink, a spokesman for the company said: “Due to significant interest in our 20-shop trial, and the risk that excessive numbers of customers may plan to visit Greggs, we will now initially operate these trials behind closed doors in order to effectively test our new operational safety measures.” That tells you everything you need to know about consumer priorities, or at least desires.

Brand responsibility

Face masks, hand sanitiser, gloves, social distancing. It’s all still a bit of a muddy puddle from an experiential point of view. Until the government release precise guidelines about how brands and, in particular retail, can safely get back to volume business we won’t necessarily know exactly what processes and measures we, as experiential marketeers, must take to protect not only consumers but our experiential staff as well. And I mean more than the 2 metre distancing rule. I’m talking about bumper to bumper checkout queuing. Retail will no doubt be the marker for both economic recovery and consumer confidence and that in turn will begin to pave the way for experiential resurgence. It might be baby steps at first but once mass gatherings are re-enabled then as long as consumers are made to feel comfortable and safe by brands using genuine (not just token gesture) social distancing measures and protection then there’s no reason why brand experiences, sampling and pop-ups shouldn’t become more of an everyday occurrence again.

Old habits die hard

Most of us are creatures of habit. Pre-lockdown we had daily routines that we generally liked to stick to. It gave us a rhythm for life at a pace we could control. Coronavirus threw everything and everyone’s lives off course within two weeks. And that’s why I’ll refer back to public sentiment and the sense that most people are straining at the leash to be let out again. I have some sympathy for the government; they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place of trying to save lives and the economy at the same time. If we all come out of this at some point soon(ish) then those consumers with whatever level of disposable cash will be back on the pedestrianised high streets of the UK. Browsing. Shopping. Buying. Interacting. And retail will need experiential to drive that purchasing power forward. There’s only so many times influencers can shout about new trainers before it starts to become just a marketing exercise.

The new normal?

I’m not a fan of this new phrase. It’s been repeated so many times in such a short space of time it’s quickly become ingrained in lockdown lore. In fact I’m definitely not subscribing to it. I want my old normal back. That was my normal. Not new normal. New normal will be social distancing, face masks on the tube and so on, but when (and I don’t know when) the coronavirus situation is at a level where we’re not afraid of the person next to us sneezing, I’ll be happy to go back to complaining that I’ve got too much work and I have to stay late at the office. That’s normal. And because that will mean that experiential is back.

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