Did COVID-19 Kill Experiential Marketing?

As our agency begins planning (er, attempting to plan) for the extremely unknown 2021 calendar year, we must first evaluate our current market climate. We need to understand human behavior, shopping trends, purchase habits, etc. We need to look back on the past year and ask ourselves, “What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

For 99% of marketers in 2020, the answers to those questions are: Nothing. Everything. COVID-19.

Sure, we can’t blame everything on COVID-19, but we can attribute the majority of the changes in our behavior to the pandemic. And one of the biggest changes we experienced is the way we interact with, well, everything. Family members. Door handles. Groceries. Friends. Public bathrooms. Elevators. Shopping carts. Literally any surface anywhere. The keyword here is interact. See also: relate to, engage with, participate in, experience. If 2020 taught us anything, it is to keep your distance, preferably six feet. That doesn’t exactly go hand in hand {gasp!} with interacting. At least not the way we’re used to it.

What is experiential marketing?

Marketers use a strategy called experiential marketing to encourage consumers to interact with their brand. The concept is as simple as the name suggests. Consumers experience or make a connection—hopefully a meaningful and memorable one—with a brand, which drives usage and eventually builds brand loyalty.

Experiential marketing can take many, many forms. From samples and in-store experiences to test drives and tradeshows, experiential marketing can look very different although the goal is the same—create an experience that will cause an emotional, or at least personal, reaction for the consumer. Experiential marketing typically takes place in an event form where consumers can physically engage with a product. However, it can take place on or offline.

Marketers love experiential marketing because, well, it works. But also because it creates both user-generated content and brand-managed content. It is controllable, and it is generally repeatable.

Consumers love it because they can engage with a product in a way that is personal to them. It gives them the opportunity to trial or test a product before purchasing it. And, most importantly, it makes them feel as though their voice is valued by the brand.

What happened to experiential marketing?

COVID-19 happened. It snuck up on it and, well, you know the rest. If it didn’t completely destroy experiential marketing, it at least paralyzed it for the foreseeable future. We all lived through early 2020. One by one, events were cancelled. Some brands held out as long as they could, for example the SXSW festival, until it became undeniable that interacting with other human beings was too risky and, in some cases, fatal.

It sounds like a bad horror movie, but the reality was that everyone in the world had to ask themselves the same questions. Can I go inside a store? Should I interact with another human being? Is it safe to eat inside?

We now live in a world where safety is our number one priority, and the demand to fulfill that need interrupts our experience with a brand. It is no longer a question of, “Do I have time or desire to trial a new product?” It is a question of, “Am I putting myself at risk of contracting the virus?”

And that risk lies on both the individual consumers and the brand. No brand wanted their name negatively associated with COVID-19. So, logically, brands needed to reduce the risk of jeopardizing their brand integrity by avoiding physical interaction with consumers.

This caused experiential marketing to come to a screeching halt.

Of course, online experiential marketing still exists. Sweepstakes still take place. Contests can still be won. But online experiential marketing is different than traditional experiential marketing tactics. First off, it doesn’t engage all five senses. Really, it may only activate one or two. And, given how much time we spend online, it may not create a very memorable experience. Sure, the virtual world is important to include in experiential marketing, but can it stand alone? 2020 will be the test of that.

What is the future of experiential marketing?

It’s hard to say, really. In a world where “contactless” is now the preferred option for nearly everything, it’s extremely difficult to say what will become the new normal. Really, what is the future of any societal norm? We’ll have to wait until the pandemic subsides to really know.

If there is one silver lining, albeit a very, very thin line, of the pandemic, it is the acceleration of technology. Technology, through the use of virtual and augmented reality, will continue to make virtual experiences more readily available and meaningful.

Virtual reality (VR) has come a long way over the last several years and promises to continue to grow in its capabilities to offer incredibly realistic experiences in the future. In fact, according to HubSpot, in 2020, the economic impact of virtual and augmented reality is likely to skyrocket, reaching up to $29.5 billion. Moreover, it is predicted that the number of VR headsets sold could reach 82 million by the end of 2020. That’s an increase of 1,507% over the last three years.

VR has the power to completely immerse a consumer in a story and remove all other distractions from their view, which is something that most experiential marketing tactics don’t have the ability to do. So could VR become more impactful than traditional experiential marketing? Although the use of the technology is growing, it’s not yet a household staple. So, again, time will tell.

If you’re looking to include experiential marketing in your 2021 marketing plans but don’t know where (or if) to begin, let us help.

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