Can experiential marketing survive the pandemic?

You are returning from work on a BRT bus. Out in the streets, live music tempts a crowd towards a branded food trailer. Steaming instant noodles is sampled out by a new food company. By the reception, people are calling it the next big thing because of the seasoning. Inexplicably, you agree.

Experiential marketing has always had a footing in the Nigerian marketing landscape, meeting audiences across socioeconomic status. At its core, it allows consumers to interact with a service or product without barriers, creating consumer-brand connections in tangible ways. Also, this engagement strategy can help brands tweak issues with their products based on real-time, organic feedback.

Negative impact of COVID-19

Taking its toll in 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses as the world hunkered down in safety. Before lockdowns took effect, the very nature of human interaction was the condition for experiential campaigns. Technological products, food and beverage, cosmetics, retail, real estate, and healthcare are just examples of things that have been marketed to old and new customers using an experiential framework, hoping to leave a positive and rewarding experience.

With the pandemic, physical interactions were vacuumed away in order to mitigate the spread of the virus. Usual marketing channels became severely limited, only leaving a husk of essential services. The UK experiential industry hemorrhaged a multimillion pound loss due to the coronavirus. Experiential marketing agencies saw a decline in patronage as brand projects from clients were suspended and budget spending tightened. This also includes occupational anxieties triggered by the climate, or the fear of losing one’s job.

‘’We conducted a number of outdoor activities during the ‘easing’ period of the pandemic,’’ says Agboola Kehinde Lateef, an experiential expert from Oracle Experiential Agency, ‘’The pandemic itself brought to bear changes which largely affected ideation, strategy as well as execution. At these levels, the campaigns focused on consumer empowerment as the central idea in an on-premise environment where strict COVID prevention protocols are instituted while ensuring sales and improved top-of-mind awareness.’’

Digital to the rescue

It’s important to note that digital experiential marketing has always existed, thanks to the advent of social media and its evolution. But with the stay-at-home orders because of the pandemic, it caused a shift towards digital spaces. Live engagement activations adjusted to digital infrastructures where everyone was congregating. For example, during the height of the lockdown in April, 2020, Chinese mobile phone maker Xiaomi collaborated with the video platform Bilibili for a 72-hour, live-streamed launch event for its Mi 10 5G phone.

Already tech giant Apple has built a loyal community with special events to launch new products, giving customers the opportunity to experience new product functionalities. It also routinely live-streams these events. Close to 2 million people watched the iPhone 11 live-stream launch on YouTube in 2019. This time, Apple stuck to a virtual event for its product rollout and new updates.

But coronavirus aside, the picture has been showing how offline and online marketing are overlapping. Experiential marketing strategies, while immersive and brings consumers close to brands, relies on virtual extensions to boost the promotional lifespan of products and services. 

What consumers experience at live activations are documented online, whether through broadcast mediums like Facebook Live, Instagram Live, or YouTube Live. It is why digital tools like hashtags are created to curate fun, in-person moments.

Will experiential marketing survive the pandemic?

The pandemic pushed experiential marketing into bouts of uncertainty, creating spells of doom-mongering that the medium will phase out. 

But that hasn’t been the case. In Nigeria, Nollywood producer, Charles Okpaleke played with experiential concepts like drive-in cinemas which allowed movie-goers to sit in their cars as they watched movies on a projector. Furthermore, it presented marketing opportunities to brands as they respected physical distancing.

Elsewhere, Amsterdam-brand Ace and Tate has attempted to reimagine the retail space in coronavirus times and beyond, rolling out a concept store in London’s Marylebone High Street which can be dismantled and reassembled. In essence, this format affords the brand the flexibility and mobility into areas where prospective customers could be restricted by coronavirus.

‘’With the discovery of vaccines and other non-pharmaceutical means, confidence is gradually getting into the business landscape which in turn may reflect on the experiential marketing sector,’’ Agboola says. 

Brands love experiential marketing because of how it engages the senses and fosters brand loyalty. This is a marketing consensus. Innovative and creative workarounds can still be administered, but in the current climate less scale is more. 

Experiential agencies can tap into the dynamics of smaller, local communities, and adjust marketing targets to reasonable expectations. With technologies being developed to improve safety against coronavirus, experiential marketing could emerge stronger and better.

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