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Five ways to reimagine ‘IRL’ brand experiences in the COVID-19 era

06 July 2020

This article first appeared on Warc, written by Head of Connected Experiences, Christophe Castagnera.

Social distancing and other COVID-19 regulations will require a reimagining of brand activations and experiences, even as lockdown lifts.

In-person brand activations and experiences have been turned on their head by COVID-19, and will require creative new solutions as new regulations define social interaction.

Adapting and responding to the COVID-19 crisis will require bold thinking, especially in the world of brand experiences. A rethink of the value of experience will enable marketers to elevate their quality, value, and appeal.

Experiences have always had the potential to be transformational and inspirational, but are often dogged by questions over their true return on investment. Now, following a sustained period in isolation, the sense of belonging and local community they offer is going to be accentuated, and reduce the focus on purely transactional aspects.

On a human and emotional level, the unique combination of sensory immersion ‘IRL’ cannot be matched by purely ‘URL’– based online experiences, but new hybrid experiences that blend these two worlds will lead to exciting new possibilities.

1. Immersing with confidence

First and foremost, a more transparent and signposted approach to safety and hygiene will be required to provide confidence for guests. There needs to be a visible and active approach to informing and communicating how experiences can still be enjoyed. This will involve sharing best practices and increased visibility of components such as signage.

2. Designing experiences around elevated fundamental principles

Whilst each experience is a unique combination of spaces, communication channels and activities, there are new principles which are fundamental to how we could design elevated experiences.

The surprising thing is that many of these strategies are already being used effectively today and have been around for several years. Now the time has come to apply them more widely and take them a step further.

Rethinking people flow with bookable experiences…

It’s right to assume that the COVID-19 regulations set by governments and advisory bodies will affect the length of time people can spend in the same space. It will require brands to completely rethink the flow of people throughout their experiences and create fluid spaces.

Brands will have to focus on bookable spaces - this has the added benefit of allowing them to build their CRM function and gather customer data, and put more emphasis on the role of seamless logistics.

In China, the advanced offline/online ecosystem used by Alipay and WeChat has allowed them to apply a data thread to accessing certain venues. People need to use a QR code to enter a premise and they can only obtain this ‘digital passbook’ if they have completed an online declaration. Temperature sensors are also being used in some cases.

… or location-based gamification

Alternatively, a less controlled approach may be more open and welcoming. Several brands have already come up with innovative and successful ways of controlling the flow of people, going beyond simply asking them to book a time slot at an experience. A pre-COVID-19 example from Burger King, executed at the end of 2018, was witty and audacious. Its Whopper Detour experience redirected customers within 600 feet of a McDonalds to the nearest Burger King and offered them a Whopper for 1 penny!

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What if a brand could similarly gamify its experience space by employing intelligent software that monitored the flow of people in and out of rooms. If this software was also linked to personal devices, customers would have a more unique experience while keeping a safe distance from crowds. We’re already seeing technology that allows a brand to flex and change its environments being used by escape rooms, and the approach has long been used by interactive theatre experiences such as Secret Cinema to keep guests wrongfooted and in suspense.

3. Curated journeys: creating more space to breathe

Controlling the flow of people and ensuring that social distancing is upheld means redesigning the same spaces but for fewer bodies.

Brands should see this as an opportunity to curate tailored experiences for the customers they want to invest in, offering them a deeper level of engagement in spatially safe havens.

Before COVID-19 hit, Delta Airways was planning to launch ‘parallel reality’ flight information screens that displayed personalised content for multiple customers at the same time. The screens show highly curated data such as the customer’s specific flight information, the weather in their destination, and even info on shopping they might like in the airport. Rather than relying on facial recognition tracking, which throws up many issues around privacy, it relied on mobile phone tracking.

What if brands were able to tailor spatially safe experiences for each customer by using similar technology as in the above Delta example? A brand home, for instance, could consist of several safe ‘pods’ that transform to display different content whenever a new customer steps within them. Brands can offer depth of experience while keeping their customers safe.

4. Contactless engagement: interact with confidence

Designing experiences around contactless engagement will be crucial to ensuring guests have the confidence to interact with their favourite brands and products. This should involve contactless registration, voice technology and gesture controls instead of touchscreens. If this technology is integrated with a trusted mobile device, customers will be empowered to control their own experiences.

On top of this, the use of materials that are inherently more virus-resistant, such as copper, will become a selling point, as will the implementation of cleaning systems such as ventilator-standard air filters and UV-light cleaning technology These examples of existing B2B commercial innovations could become mainstream for B2C experiences.

It is not quite contactless, however, the novelty of wearing a ‘safe outfit’ has long been a selling point of many experiences. Bompas & Parr added another layer of storytelling to its seminal ‘alcohol architecture’ experience by asking guests to wear a protective plastic coat when walking through the cloudy rooms of intoxicating mist. With this in mind, we can expect an increased consumer sensitivity to smells and other sensory experience, especially if they pertain to hygiene.

For the experiences of now and tomorrow, looking at ways to incorporate safety measures into storytelling will be key.

What if brands made use of two emerging technologies – voice and haptics - to take customers on a completely frictionless journey through a visitor centre or brand home? Combined with the principles of curated spaces, this could lead to an experience that offers the ultimate in safety and personalisation. Being able to use haptic technology will allow a customer to touch and try specific products, all the while being communicated to by voice technology that recognises them as an individual.

5. Virtually accessible: adding augmented layers to every experience

Reaching high volumes of people through experiences has never been more exciting. Millions can be engaged through remotely accessible platforms using broadcasts, virtual reality and augmented reality.

Now, whenever a brand designs an experience, they need to consider the potentially high volumes of people who can be engaged online, whilst at the same time focusing on more targeted numbers to attend in person.

Curated in-person experiences should be aimed at a specific market, be that high net worth individuals, once-loyal customers you’re seeking to re-engage, or an untapped demographic. There is now a huge opportunity to go deeper into how to mix and combine the physical and online worlds to create ‘hybrid’ experiences.

What if your brand experience catered as much for the people visiting in person as it did for those who could not? Taking a step beyond cameras and social media to create a ‘digital twin’. For brand destinations that involve unique cellars, production facilities and iconic locations, a fully immersive experience would add a new layer of interaction and could even open up new revenue streams, especially with travel restrictions limiting the number of international guests.

Conclusion

The brand experience industry is at a multidirectional crossroads. It was already changing and evolving at a rapid pace before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, there is a larger demand on everyone involved, from designers and creative staff to engineers and people front of house, to deliver something truly engaging while overcoming the obvious barriers that the pandemic has created.

Brands that have experimented with these five approaches already have a distinct advantage because they will be the first to launch innovative experiences at scale to a mainstream audience. For others, they will have to make a difficult choice between investing in new ways to adapt or choosing to scale down and specialise in one key area of the industry.

Crucially, whether we are working for audiences in a pandemic or not, these five principles should stand the test of time because at their heart they offer better, more thoughtful experiences and, in turn, more value for brands and their customers.

Key takeaways

  • Brands will have to focus on bookable spaces - this has the added benefit of allowing them to build their CRM function and gather customer data, and put more emphasis on the role of seamless logistics.

  • Controlling the flow of people and ensuring that social distancing is upheld means redesigning the same spaces but for fewer bodies.

  • For the experiences of now and tomorrow, looking at ways to incorporate safety measures into storytelling will be key.