Over the past few weeks our lives have been redefined on a continuous basis.  A testament to the creativity of marketers and their ability to quickly pivot, virtual brand interactions have been engaging restless consumers, while fear of the unknown has caused some rumblings about the future of the experiential marketing industry.

Our industry has successfully weathered rough seas, and this is no different.  We experienced similar uncertainty after 9/11 and during the 2008 recession, but experiential came back even bigger and bolder after both of these tragic times.  As we look ahead in the COVID-19 recovery timeline, the power of IRL activations will be more important than ever once social distancing restrictions are lifted as it is human nature to crave interaction and experience.

With large activations on hiatus until it is deemed that they can be held with an acceptable amount of risk, there are still powerful ways for brands to remain top of mind for consumers and provide support to retail accounts.  Once stay at home orders are lifted and social distancing restrictions ease, marketers will have the opportunity to get back to the roots of experiential by utilizing proven tactics such as retail demos and street teams, with clever lifestyle and social extensions layered in to maximize impact amongst today’s savvy consumers.

Instead of catering to large groups of consumers, these initial activations will engage individuals and small groups where they live, work in play versus in an organized event environment.  The end goal remains the same – creating memorable interactions that effectively spread brand awareness, encourage trial and facilitate dialogue with current and prospective customers.

To optimize results, these campaigns can be structured as mobile tours led by traveling Managers who are fully trained on current health and safety guidelines to ensure compliance at every activation, with branded tour vehicles maximizing visibility within and between each target market.  Taking inspiration from the early days of experiential, like-minded brands can partner together to split the cost of tour infrastructure while providing consumers with a robust lifestyle experience.

Creating activations that are more intimate in nature allows brands the ability to provide highly personalized experiences that strongly resonate with today’s younger consumers.  Innovative technology can be built into tour vehicles to provide impactful brand experiences that consumers will be eager to share with their networks via social and word of mouth.

PR stunts are also an interesting avenue for brands to explore as they provide surprise and delight moments in a time when positive experiences are especially valued by consumers.  Creating pop-up performances and live vignettes in retail store windows, glass trucks and public spaces will allow cautious brands to create IRL experiences with online extensions without fear of liability from direct physical contact with consumers.

Across all activations in both the short and long term, onsite safety and staff training will be key.  Marketers will need to keep their fingers on the pulse of updates from the CDC, WHO and local agencies to ensure the proper processes and protocols are implemented onsite.  It will be essential that event staff receive full briefings on current requirements and best practices, including specific instructions for sanitizing assets/devices throughout the activation, ways to minimize physical contact (i.e. having consumers pick up their own sample versus handing it to them) and when/where/how to wash hands before and during each shift.  Yes, activations will have to adjust to satisfy new expectations from health officials and consumers alike – but the core principles of experiential and the importance of face to face interactions will remain intact.

One upside to uncertain times is the opportunity to deepen connections, share insights and get ready for whatever comes next.  Our industry will be stronger than ever before if we use this time to strategize as partners to explore ways for experiential to thrive in the months and years to come.

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