Is Experiential Dead?

With the new measures of social distancing in place, the marketing industry as a whole is being challenged. We are seeing large organizations pause, and assess the impact the entire world coming to a halt has had on their business. Some brands are taking time and proceeding cautiously, analysing their numbers, while others are adapting quickly to this new era we are embarking on with a fight or flight mentality. 

With a multitude of economic and social pressures it is hard to know how to move forward. However, although unique, a moment of shift is not unprecidented. Historically, it has been during uncertain times, where we see resilience, as individuals, as a society, and as an industry.

Afterall, it was only after the great depression of the 1930’s that the advertising industry took off with the first television ad appearing on screens in the 1940’s. Advertising now, has never been bigger, and continues to play a key role in shifting progress, culture and societal norms.  

After the 2008 recession, we saw the emergence of Shopify, and e-commerce on the rise challenging the costly model of retail and the need of brick and mortar. Whatsapp, UBER, Pinterest, Slack, Square and Instagram – were all products of an entrepreneurial boom in the wake of ‘08.

And when it came to our industry, we saw innovation too – from the campaigns we made to the platforms we used. But we also adapted our ways of working and expectations of budgets as CMOS dealt with leaner wallets following the 2008 recession. And from that the world of experiential took flight. Today, it’s an essential part of the marketing mix due to the power a 1:1 brand connection has on brand loyalty and driving conversion in a cost effective way. Experiential now is used as a tool to drive PR, content and even TV or other media. Beyond industry shifts, the boom of experiential was attributed to a new generation, the first that valued experiences over commodities. 

But everything changed for experiences when COVID hit the world, and several months in, we still don’t see when life will reflect what we once knew it to be. 

This begs the question: where does this explosive experience based industry go now?

Many industries in jeopardy, and experiential is just another one. A question mark lingers as we see live global and local events cancelled, along with festivals, retail, sports, and entertainment. Brands are struggling to find an effective way to connect with their consumers in the ways they once knew how. This moment is forcing marketers to shift their strategies to find new avenues for brands to connect, engage, and entertain their audiences.

And so experiential evolves. Experiences and creativity continue to be high currency with the Gen Z and Millennial audiences who crave solutions to connect, potentially now more than ever before. 

Virtual experiential marketing (VXM) is now taking shape to deliver the equity building 1:1 connection of XM with the added value of content marketing and social amplification. 

We are seeing properties like the Bumble Hive; designed to be an IRL manifestation of the app, evolve to live on digital platforms driving connection, conversation, community and thought leadership. We are beginning to see brand forward virtual pop-ups appear as brands are looking for ways to make access to their goods easier for their consumers. Grassroots initiatives like ‘Club Quarantine’ are starting to take flight as not surprisingly to most, a twenty-something year old, is still a twenty-something year old who upholds the same need for entertainment –  even if that means going to a virtual bar to dance, let loose, and connect with other people just like them. 

As we are seeing the evolution of experiential take form in a virtual world, we as marketers have a responsibility to guide our clients and their brands in the right direction. Staying closely in tune with consumer sentiments is essential during this turbulent time.

We are seeing a shift in the consumer mindset, and values sway almost as rapidly as the world is changing. Tonality is going to play a pivotal role in the receptiveness of brand audiences. 

The marketers ‘gut check’ is important to have. Empathy led marketers will continue to succeed during these times and in fact will be table stakes. 

Marketers should be asking: what societal need am I solving? This could be a purpose driven initiative, support in driving connectivity during isolation, or could be pure entertainment for your audience. The answer can be broad in range, but the question enables marketers to get their finger on the pulse of their audience. 

A lot of people have asked me for my professional opinion, what is next for experiential and is it over? The answer I have is simply, no. It will change, it will evolve, and likely be more all-encompassing. There is no crystal ball to predict the future, but what we do know is experience based marketing is far too much embedded into our culture for it to be ignored, particularly during a time when people are needing experiential solutions to help break the monotony of their day-to-day lives at home. 

As the world changes, marketers need to as well. It is not time for us to be quiet as an industry but instead we have great power to make positive change and counsel our clients through this tough and uncertain time. Afterall, if we know anything from our past, it is through the darkness where creativity thrives, and innovation paves the way for the future.