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Experiential Marketing in 2020

Experiential marketing goes by many names — on-ground marketing, loyalty marketing, live marketing — but it is, at the heart, marketing built around one-on-one, direct interaction with customers. Experiential marketing covers things as small as a free taste test inside a supermarket to a million-dollar onsite Super-Bowl activation. It’s also where brands get creative in new ways —from the reinvented Oscar Mayer Wienermobile to the pop-up experience promoting Taylor Swift’s 2019 album — generating affinity, recognition and the opportunity to make a lasting impression on its customers. In response to the pandemic, marketers are staying local and going virtual to accomplish their experiential goals.

Experiential marketing is akin to “a form of dating that hopefully manifests into a lasting relationship,” Michelle Collins, president of A Non-Agency, tells WWD. And in 2020, that dating needs to be safe for customers. As social circles and interaction have tightened, leaning on influencers and limited-access social events is one way to build virtual events. Collins points to VR and Augmented Reality as possibilities for brands, and says that the next Fashion Week will be a bellwether for what’s possible with live events during the pandemic.

While large-scale events like Refinery29’s 29 Rooms or even brick-and-mortar businesses like the Taco Bell Hotel are unlikely to have the draw they did in 2019, there are still ways to meet customers where they are. According to Collins, a compelling marketing event must connect the customer to a story, an experience, and an emotional takeaway. The Wienermobile may be silly, but it sparks joy for many who encounter it.

During the warmer months, outdoor events have provided safer options for branding opportunities. Impossible Foods celebrated a product launch by delighting visitors with a socially distant car wash event: “The Great Patty Pickup Party.” With many people opting to stay closer to home during the pandemic and supporting local businesses, marketers can benefit from replacing large, destination events with a series of local experiences. Of course, an even safer mode of experiential advertising right now is the virtual event.

Not surprisingly, the Internet has become the biggest new home for experiential marketing. Seeing an opportunity to fill a void left by the cancellation of E3, and later San Diego Comic-Con, Warner Bros Entertainment and DC Comics created a brand-new streaming expo called DC FanDome. The two-part event, held online in August and September, drew a global audience of 22 million and earned praise from The Verge for setting “the new gold standard for virtual events.”

As savvy marketers know, the modern customer craves personalized experiences.

Because Gen Z is increasingly demanding meaningful connections with brands, and many people of all ages would rather spend their money on experiences than products, finding authentic ways to connect with customers is becoming more important than ever. Even during a year with different rules and expectations, there’s something about participation and face-to-face contact, even via Zoom, that engenders new loyalty, intrigue, and affinity. To stay relevant with consumers, it’s worth paying attention to experiential successes in these new and different circumstances.