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Ideas Experience2021-01-28

Borderless brand experiences: The hybrid future of brand experience

Alex Bousquet-Chavanne

‘Experience’ is a word that’s been overused in our industry in the past five years.  It’s been in every trends report, every creative response, and in every Millennial and Gen Z segmentation. Everyone’s seeking ‘experiences’. 

Brands have jumped on board – from exclusive pop up experiences like cocktails in a Breaking Bad themed mobile meth lab, to the most recent fad of branded islands and storefronts in Animal Crossing. Experience is everywhere. But when the pandemic hit almost a year ago,  experiential marketing as we knew it took a hit. Travel and tourism halted, brick and mortars closed their doors, and pop-ups disappeared. For the first time, brands and marketers had to reconsider what experience means and looks like without its core physical, in-person essence. In 2020, experience became virtual-first for the very first time.

As vaccines are rolled out and people start to return to their ‘normal lives’, leave their homes and go back to physical spaces and experiences, what will have changed? What will this future look like?

We know – because we feel the void inside of us – that physical, shared experiences will still be sought out. We’ve seen hundreds of millions flock to virtual spaces to indulge in live Entertainment in the absence of a physical alternative. In six months time, if given a safe option, would you rather be sitting in the National Theatre for a play or behind your laptop? Would you rather be listening to Travis Scott live in an outdoor concert, or virtually in Fortnite with your headset on? Of course, the answer might be different depending on who you ask, but the demand for IRL experiences will be there.

Physical, visceral and shared in-person experiences will always play a role in people’s lives – across entertainment, sports, retail and travel – and an important role in continuing to foster brand affinity. But today there are a myriad of new virtual spaces that have opened up, where people have found comfort, solace and community during the better part of a year. Spaces made accessible to more people than in-person events could ever accommodate and spaces that have become part of culture.

New expectations have been set and brands are going to have to plan their marketing, media and partnerships to deliver experiences in both physical and digital realms, leveraging the combined power of these different spaces to bring value to people’s lives.

So what will this look like?

A different kind of access

Beyond engaging remote audiences, the online experience has also opened up once-exclusive, city-centric events. The future of experience will be hybrid, blending exclusive paid experiences with inclusive, accessible digital executions. Because of new consumer expectations, brands must continue to consider how to deliver immersive experiences beyond their physical retail spaces or events. Online should unlock a different kind of access to complement IRL activations. 

In 2020, out of necessity, launch and press events have been transformed. Usually only accessible to a select VIP few, brands are now bringing their most loyal customer base into these premium moments. To launch Fenty Skin, Rihanna and LVMH invited fans to attend an entirely virtual “House Party” – literally. Rihanna hosted the product launch in a virtual mansion with a cocktail bar, beauty spa, hot tub and dance floor. Guests could discover hidden ‘treasures’ and facts about the products by the hot tub in the garden, go to the bar and download CYO cocktail recipes, or even livestream themselves on the virtual dance floor. Covid has changed the way talent and marketers involve audiences in their brand worlds, and this virtual realm of opportunity is also scaling their impact.

This open access will have a lasting impact across industries, especially those traditionally bound to physical venues, like Sports and Entertainment. Fans who aren’t able to attend gigs or matches in-person (because they’re too expensive or far from home) can now find comfort in the limitless opportunities they have to participate online. Pre-pandemic, Premier League ticket prices rose by 14% between the 2014-15 and 2019-20 seasons and the cost of watching matches on TV increased by 40%

Price is less and less of a barrier. Leagues or sponsors can now deepen and extend virtual fandom by delivering an added layer of magic to live sports broadcasting with technology, or with e-sports or social activations to match. Building on BT Sport’s app, EE recently unveiled Match Day Experience, a new immersive sports viewing service with AR viewing available on-the-go, along with 360 pitch-side viewing and a ‘Watch Together’ split-screen interface.

Similarly, the live entertainment industry has had to adapt quickly to survive, but pandemic constraints have returned creative license to talent and creators and fuelled new formats. People have embraced the behaviour of attending live gigs and music festivals from home, with crowds in bigger numbers than physically possible: over 100 million people watched the BTS virtual concert. Venues, sponsors and agents will need to consider how to deliver virtual experiences to go hand-in-hand with in-person events and unlock new paid online opportunities. The O2 Brixton Academy opened up their first live gig since Covid to wider audiences using VR tech via the MelodyVR app. The virtual events company has just acquired Napster for £53m, signalling that VR concerts are here to stay. 

Surprising creative alliances

We’ve seen brands forging new creative alliances to succeed in this hybrid experience reality, with partnerships remaining key to success and brand love. During the pandemic this has boomed with Sports and Gaming, a natural alliance due to their competitive elements. In March, La Liga hosted a FIFA 20 charity championship on Twitch and YouTube, attracting an audience of over one million. The tournament was co-organised by the football league, its sponsor Santander and EA Sports. Brands need to look for partners beyond their sector, who will not only increase their reach, but also give them the credibility and license to play in new creative arenas.

Powerful alliances across different art forms and mediums are proliferating. For example, in November Netflix and The Brooklyn Museum brought to life the “Royal Virtual Costume Exhibit”, an interactive tour showcasing costume designs from The Queen’s Gambit and The Crown Season 4, a beautiful execution that brings content streaming and arts & culture together. 

Luxury fashion and retail are also beginning to break out of their mould and take ownership of the gaming sphere, with top fashion houses setting up shop in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. Valentino dropped 20 custom virtual looks for the video game’s 11 million+ players to try on. Other services have piggy-backed nicely: global payments service Klarna partnered with influencers to create an in-game virtual shopping experience, featuring pieces by The North Face and Issey Miyake. And for the biggest bang in Fashion x Gaming, Balenciaga released its new Fall 2021 collection in video game format: Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. The game takes the audience from their retail store to a secret rave in the woodlands. Avatars populate the virtual world dressed in pieces from the latest collection. 

‘Insperience’ as much as experience

Many people won’t be comfortable returning to crowded venues, which means the “Insperience” trend is one to take seriously. Don’t abandon your audiences that prefer to indulge in experiences from the comfort of their own home. Brands will need to provide equally immersive and creative in-home experiences. Of course, home entertainment has been around for decades, but this evolution considers a more complete experience, from food & drink partners (like Haagen-Dazs partnering with Secret Cinema) to at-home fitness (with Beyoncé x Peloton classes who needs a spin studio?). The home space is where brands actually have to consider how to incorporate a physical element to the activations they deliver. Baking and mixology are obvious examples, but we’ve even seen travel and tourism kits: IKEA sought to provide at-home travel experiences in the UAE, selling “Vacation in a Box” — custom made kits filled with objects and instructions to transport people to Tokyo, Turkey, France or the Maldives. 

The insperience trend is just as important for employers and B2B brands to consider. Many employees have been stuck in a WFH world for the better part of a year and the connection with our employers is more fragile, and intangible, than ever. This is a great opportunity to reinvent the employee experience and corporate culture. How can employers leverage the new tech and creativity we’ve seen from brands to keep their employees inspired and connected? Think in-game Team Days or VR company meetings.

Think people-first (No, really)

It’s important to remember who sits at the centre of our virtual or physical experiences. 

Start with the question: what do people need right now? What can my brand do for people? How can I play a positive or uplifting role in their lives? It’s been nearly a year since Italy was the first European country to call a state of emergency on Jan 31, 2020. Today many European countries are still in lockdown. Morale is low and global news cycles make it increasingly difficult to have a positive outlook on the economy, unemployment, children’s education, or the growing mental health crisis. In the UK, Eventbrite saw that demand for mental health virtual events was closely linked to lockdown periods, with interest peaking in May, dipping in August and rising again through October. Support is welcome, especially through the form of shared experiences. And while it might not seem like much, helping people immerse themselves and connect with others in alternate realities and virtual spaces that take them away from their day to day is an important way to be there for people.

Some predictions, in summary:

  1. It’s not either or — both in-person, physical and in-home, virtual experiences will play a part in building brand affinity. People will go back to IRL experiences AND expect the option of participating in the complementary virtual experience.

  2. Physical real-world and virtual elements will seep into each other and we’ll find ourselves in a more multi-layered, mixed reality media (is the future finally here?!). 

  3. Experience media will be more democratic, blending exclusive live or paid experiences with inclusive and accessible digital executions for completely immersive brand events. 

If the past 10 years have been about democratisation of content and content-sharing across borders, then surely we’re about to enter the next 10 years of democratised, shared experiences across the globe. With proof that constraints do unleash creativity, hopefully we can look forward to a whole range of shared, immersive experiences in 2021.