Opinion

New Normals: from social distance to shared experience

20 July 2021

By Sandra Mardin

Over the past year, TRO has been curating case studies and opinion pieces penned by our Omnicom Experiential Group colleagues on the pivots in the experience economy during the Covid-19 pandemic – as part of a content series New Normals. As most restrictions in England are being lifted this month, we wrap up the series with a reflection on how this period of prolonged physical distance is going to impact the next chapter of experiential marketing.

In an opinion piece for Marketing Week, “Experiences make memories – it’s time for brands to be bold again,” global head of consumer media planning at Diageo, Andrew Geoghegan, writes: “Our memories are made from our experiences, and therefore interlinked with our sense of self or identity. Great brand experiences consider how they might be relevant to people’s broader lives and culture, even offering valuable knowledge, emotional impact, talkability, social cache or status.”

Adapting to social distancing during the pandemic meant recreating this powerful experiential impact remotely, pushing the boundaries of what was possible. We realised there wasn’t going to be a singular ‘new normal’ globally but that we would see events and live experiences be adapted in multiple imaginative ways – and so the idea for New Normals was born.

Experiential marketing had long been saddled with the problem of reach, which in today’s internet-era has so far been addressed by amplifying the content from a live experience through social media and press coverage. Only 1% of the audience may get involved, while the 99% hear about it. The industry is now shifting to shared experience, where events and experiences are not only designed to be experienced in person, but they are planned to actively engage audiences online and in culture.

The restrictions effectively led to much more than mere amplification. Sharing experiences online became an opportunity to create something wholly new that exists only for audiences remotely, as a ‘third’ form of content. While we can’t wait to come together in person, the legacy of 2020 will continue to transform the experience economy.

In this piece we map the different ways in which sharing experiences in person, online and in culture is impacting industries globally.

Sharing experiences online became an opportunity to create something wholly new that exists only for audiences remotely, as a ‘third’ form of content 

SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT: TURNING REMOTE INTO AN OPPORTUNITY

“When sports came to a standstill, fans rightfully felt lost. The idea of no sport to fill our weekends or plan our summers around was unheard of until now. But where there’s chaos and uncertainty, there’s the potential for innovation.” Ania Sponaski, GMR’s VP of Global Sponsorship (US) analysed the nascent crossover between mainstream sports and eSports that has opened potential for new experiences, new content, new perspectives and overall more fan interaction from anywhere in the world.

This crossover came to life through the case study of the Red Bull M.E.O World Finals in Istanbul as a herald of “a new hybrid era, mixing multisensorial experiences with technology,” captured by Egemen Ozcan, CEO and Experience Designer at HeyMo® The Experience Design Company (Turkey). Similarly, Andrea Togliani, Strategist at Inventa TRO (Italy) wrote about the potential of social audio in creating intimacy at scale through the example of Inter Milan’s innovative use of Clubhouse.

We saw new tactics of fan engagement beyond sports too – DC’s FanDome set the new gold standard for virtual events by “designing around the monotonous feeling that comes with watching different Zoom calls back to back.” As music marketing strategist Bas Grasmayer explains for Pitchfork: “The goal is not to replicate the activity, but to recreate the emotions people feel when they go out.” These experiences opened the avenue for a wholly new form of content consumption that will complement live events with greater fan intimacy at scale.

Red Bull Mobile Esports Open

TRAVEL AND HOSPITALITY: RETHINKING ESCAPISM

“Not only do virtual environments allow users to experience somewhere new but the spaces can be designed with unlimited imagination, allowing infinite possibilities from floating cities and colourful landscapes to barren deserts.” Will Jordan, 3D Designer at TRO explored the new frontiers in virtual environment design through the example of Dreamscape by Paul Milinski that took our relationship with familiar objects to another level through utopian and surreal environments. Likewise, former TRO Strategist Fola Enifeni explored the use of VR beyond gimmicks through the example of a Czech travel business Sygic Travel.

Recreating escape virtually opened endless possibilities for experimentation which would be costly or impossible in the physical environment. Furthermore, these experiences reframed the idea of escape – from a whim to an expression of creativity and a necessary release valve for mental wellbeing.

“One of the (very) few positives to come out of a global pandemic is its consequential softening of the stigma around mental health. Several brands have opened up the wellness dialog with their audience, inviting them to release frustrations, feel loved and manage stress,” writes Sara Moore, Creative Director at The Story House (US) in her piece “Excuse Me While I Scream Into Iceland.” For example, Iceland’s tourism board played on the frustration of not being able to travel at all by broadcasting people’s screams through speakers placed throughout the island’s striking landscape.

‘Dreamscape’ by Paul Milinski

HOME & AUTOMOTIVE: CARVING OUT A FOURTH SPACE

“We will reimagine the home as canvas for different types of experiences. These could range from entertainment, to family/bubble activities to self-improvement and beyond.” Miranda Valentine, former VP, Strategy & Communications at Pierce (US) reflects on how Tequila brand Patrón brought the cocktail making experience to people’s homes.

This is just one of many examples that kick-started a so-called ‘Age of Insperience.’ A term coined by Barclaycard as a result of their research into the phenomenon that turned people’s homes from a space of retreat to one of adventure. According to their research, a third of retailers launched products and services designed specifically to be used at home during the months of lockdown, while 78% were considering similar future brand partnerships.

Mike Thompson, VP at The Story House (US), covered the trend of the fourth space through the lens of how Pepsi pivoted stadium activations to the home with their “Tailgate in a Box” promotion to celebrate the start of the 2020 NFL season. Likewise, Andrea Togliani, Strategist at Inventa TRO (Italy), explored what this trend could mean for the automotive industry and the future of multi-brand motor shows and launch events. But what if the car itself could act as a fourth space? This is exactly what The Story House’s Senior Account Director, Matt Furrie, reflected on through a case study of how Netflix evolved the ‘drive-in’ with immersive Stranger Things experience.

‘Tailagate in a Box’ by Pepsi

SHARED SPACES: SAFE, CONNECTED, MODULAR

“The pandemic has ushered in a new culture of living that favours the concept of “sensitive environments” and maximises the wellbeing of residents.” Stefano Albè, Head of Live Communication at Inventa TRO (Italy) wrote about the lasting impact of the pandemic over living spaces, with houses and buildings becoming as self-sufficient as possible to withstand future shockwaves and long periods of isolation. Equally, we saw how the requirement for social distancing creatively transformed shared spaces with Stella Artois’ street art in the heart of London’s Brick Lane district.

On the flip side, in the opening piece for New Normals, “Pokémon GO creators set up immersive theatre collaboration to create post-COVID experiences,” I warned of the potential risk augmented reality experiences could pose over shared public spaces. The lockdown restrictions put into sharp focus the importance of unmediated access to public spaces such as parks. One of the biggest criticisms of augmented reality is that it has the potential to corrode the sense of a public sphere.

This is partly why the enthusiasm for tech-mediated smart cities has been tempered this year. Both Europe and North America saw significant dips in the number of smart-city deployments in 2020. According to data quoted in City Monitor, top suppliers have also slowed or pivoted away from smart-city deployments across the world. “People are more focused now on creating outcomes in their communities,” says Story Bellows, a partner at the urban-change management consultancy Cityfi.

CULTURAL IMPACT THROUGH SOCIAL PURPOSE

“With limited opportunities for consumers to engage with brands, many companies are shifting how they spend their budgets from traditional experiential activations to more purpose-driven and practical experiences such as fellowships, job training and educational programming for students, to help communities get back on their feet.” Sara Moore, Creative Director at The Story House (US) notes how Covid-19 also saw brands embrace the purposeful and practical power of experiences; while Ania Sponaski, GMR’s VP of Global Sponsorship (US) highlights how Anheuser-Busch beer brand Natural Light turned heads in pandemic with the power of purpose.   

Many companies are shifting how they spend their budgets from traditional experiential activations to more purpose-driven and practical experiences 

Natural Light have been committing $1 million annually since 2018 to help college students pay back student loan debt through the Natty Light College Debt Relief Program. In 2020, they launched the ‘most expensive piece of art in the world’, a frenzied arrangement constructed from the diplomas of 2,600 college graduates. With each diploma representing an average cost of $180,000, the total value of this exhibit surpassed $470 million. Similarly, this year saw Netflix announce a Fund for Creative Equity, which will invest $100 million over the next five years in organizations that help underrepresented communities train and find jobs in TV and film.

Social purpose for brands is often the subject of heated debate amongst marketers. For example, Steve Harrison challenges the purpose-orientation in his 2020 book Can’t Sell Won’t Sell: Advertising, politics and culture wars. Why adland has stopped selling and started saving the world. While the jury is still out on whether marketers are well placed to “save the world,” they should certainly think about how to best communicate credibly with audiences facing challenging times.

‘Da Vinci of Debt’ by Natural Light

In conclusion, there is no singular path for the future of the experience economy but a multitude of ‘new normals.’ The prolonged period of restrictions on socialising expanded the idea of experiential marketing online – from mere amplification to new ‘third’ form of content specifically designed for remote audiences. Even though we can’t wait for live experiences to return in their full glory, sharing them online and in culture will continue to push new experiential frontiers.

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