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Why hybrid events are a brand opportunity, not a fix-it for COVID

18 December 2020

The article first appeared on Warc by our Head of Connected Experiences, Christophe Castagnera.

Of all the industries most affected by this year’s coronavirus pandemic, live events have been particularly hard hit. Whether concerts, sports events, summer festivals, theatre shows or dedicated brand experiences, anything that involved tens, hundreds, or thousands of people brought together in close quarters has had to go through a radical overhaul since March.

For those of us working in brand experiences, COVID-19 meant we faced a sudden and unexpected challenge on behalf of our clients. From immersive storytelling to theatrical reveals, brands have been tapping into all the drama and excitement of live events for a long time. For some, it has become an essential part of their marketing portfolio for their products and services. So, this year required a significant rethink – how to engage and entertain audiences while the people who would have formed that live audience are confined, in the main, to their homes.

What has emerged has been the hybrid event

The wonder of the hybrid mode of experience is that it exists on a spectrum of creativity blended with technology – from pure play virtual at one end to physical combined with virtual in real time at the other end, plus anything in between.

There has been a business imperative for everyone who works in events to find the best option along this spectrum for their particular event or product. We’ve seen music, entertainment and technology accelerating their hybrid experience activity to develop new commercial models and keep engaging their fans. Although this change has come from adversity, it has resulted in many successful new options. Many brands have triumphed, and they won’t be going back to purely live – hybrid is here to stay.

There are examples across the board. In the tech space the Web Summit, one of Europe’s largest tech conferences, went virtual this year but has announced that the Web Summit 2021 will be a combined virtual and in-person event hosting 70,000 attendees in Lisbon and up to 80,000 online.

After its worldwide tour was postponed because of COVID-19, K-pop boyband, BTS, created multiverse shows to play to fans globally, on a scale that’s simply impossible with a live tour. They used XR, a virtual mixed-reality environment to create ambitious shows that often resembled their music videos.

Like music, sports events have gone through a number of stages as they have sought to find the best version of maintaining competitive sport in a COVID-safe way and sharing that experience with spectators stuck at home.

No matter what the area, the advantage of the hybrid world is that it offers a modular approach that can accommodate restrictions as they vary across the world.

In the US, the NFL has turned its 2021 Pro Bowl competition into a virtual gaming extravaganza. The event – which pits the best players from NFL’s American Football Conference and National Football conference against each other and was meant to take place in Las Vegas – will involve players competing in Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL 21 video game. This week-long event will be broadcast across social media channels and will see current players, past names and celebrities playing Madden online. Many interested parties gain from this option; it means that EA can use the Madden game as a springboard to be more interactively involved in the sport, and sponsors see their advertising placed in a virtual stadium.

No matter what the area, the advantage of the hybrid world is that it offers a modular approach that can accommodate restrictions as they vary across the world. If being physically present in Asia is possible, but not in Europe, the hybrid experience model allows both regions to partake to the best of their ability.

A physical environment can be created with a digital twin built alongside. A highly selective event can be shared globally with a digital counterpart. This hybrid world offers new levels of style, reach and storytelling that can be adapted to changing circumstances.

For Ford, Imagination built a digital platform called Ford Horizon: a designed and curated interactive experience that can be used for vehicle reveals, media events, technology deep-dives and more. The aim was to avoid simply reproducing physical events virtually or opting for a corporate video. Instead, this was a way of reaching and engaging audiences in an entirely new way. And it can be adjusted for different situations.

It was first used in September to showcase Ford’s new connected in-car infotainment system next-generation SYNC, which was launched in Ford’s new all-electric car, the Mustang Mach-E. More than 100 people from the tech and automotive media attended across a series of six presentations and interactive Q&As.

Elsewhere, mobile phone giant Samsung was faced with launching its flagship Galaxy Note20 to the media just as lockdown swept across Europe. With technology journalists expecting exclusive access and hands-on time with a device to write their stories, we had to find a way of achieving that remotely. We created a digital experience that allowed journalists to get as close to the device as a virtual event would allow, while maintaining the exclusivity and hospitality that is key to a successful media launch. Journalists virtually attended one of 14 sessions that featured a bespoke keynote filmed at the Samsung KX Experience Centre, followed by a live product demo and Q&A broadcast from our studio in London.


The physical element of this hybrid saw each market given a toolkit – including artwork and lighting – to deliver one-on-one, socially-distanced sessions. More than 350 media were briefed across 20 regions, making it Note20 Samsung’s most pre-briefed product to date.

At their best, virtual experiences allow people who would not normally be able to attend an event, to gain access. The scale achieved with virtual events may have been borne out of restrictions, but they have resulted in the brand being able to break out of the confines of restricted access. For instance, in the art world, the Telstra National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Art Award (Telstra NATSIAA) opted for an integrated campaign and virtual gallery experience when COVID-19 struck, and the outcome was that the Telstra NATSIAAs reached a much broader audience of Australians – with genuine connection and appreciation – on a scale that had never before been possible. In fact, 97% of its audience was from outside the Northern Territory – its normal regional visitor profile.

So, as we move into a new phase of COVID-19, this hybrid world offers greater scope, innovation and optimism for the way in which brands can build and share their experiences. We have witnessed the rapid rise of virtual as a solution for brands. However, there is a bigger picture here than simply adapting to the current situation. This is a new paradigm and it will become the gold standard where virtual and physical experiences will live in parallel and emerging new technology ignites more creativity.

In the year ahead, when restrictions ease and some form of normality resumes, the brand experience industry will not go back to how it was pre COVID-19. Rather, the questions is, how will other sectors adapt to thrive in this new blended world?