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Creating Brand Experiences While Social Distancing

Luis Infante, Creative Director
April 30, 2020



The rise of experiential design over the last decade has sent ripples across the marketing landscape. We have just begun to scratch the surface of what it is and what it can achieve. In many cases, good experiential design can be more effective than traditional media. That's because audiences nowadays don’t want to be talked at – they want to be engaged with. If traditional advertising is a megaphone, think of experiential design as an open forum. 

At its core, experiential design is a simple idea: a moment where a brand can connect with its audience in a personal and meaningful way. As design experts, we work to design that moment to be as impactful and memorable as possible. The principles we follow are fairly simple too, though sometimes hard to achieve: make it unique, make it engaging and make it shareable. As Jason White, Executive Creative Director at Leviathan, puts it: “Experiential design is the most effective way to intrigue audiences, because people flock to new experiences in unexpected places.” Big and loud doesn’t cut it anymore.  If it’s not remarkable, it’s invisible.

Fast forward to today. Brands are still trying to connect and engage with customers in unique ways, and give them experiences worth talking about. But how does experiential design come to life in a world of self isolation and social distancing?

Content vs. Experience

Lately, we’ve seen endless brands, celebrities and social media users inundate our feeds with clever and click-worthy content. While most of these are awesome, they don't always fulfill the sense of community or engagement created in physical experiences. In fact, some of the best examples of experiential design are coming from people who are trying to create connections within their neighborhoods.

Take, for example, the idea of Takeout Brigades. Groups of friends choose a locally owned restaurant to support through takeout, place their orders and then all meet in the restaurant's parking lot. This seemingly simple idea has all the makings of a great piece of experiential design. Unique, very engaging, and highly shareable. 

Brands should take note of these kinds of ideas, and help facilitate our much needed human connections. For instance, a big box retailer brand could use their empty parking lots and create drive-in movie experiences. People gathering together in the safety of their cars, brand ambassadors delivering food from food trucks, etc. This would give the brand a captive audience to engage with and entertain for hours as well as create legitimate goodwill and connection within that community.

From low tech to high tech, one platform that is ripe for brand experiences is the world of Virtual Reality. Millions of people around the world are already connected through VR headsets and using them for full-immersion experiences. From going to movie theaters together to flying star ships with their friends Star-Trek-style to attending live show recordings, they're able to use an avatar that can go anywhere and interact with anyone – all without the risk of getting infected. So far, few brands have taken the leap to this platform, but this may change in the next six months. Imagine a brand sending out a mail invitation to a VR event, where the invitation itself is a pop-out Google Cardboard headset. All consumers would need to do is insert their phone, tune in and engage in an immersive live brand experience with their friends. 

So how do brands adjust their experiential design principles to fit a post-COVID-19 world? All we really need to do is proceed with empathy and tweak the priorities to meet what people need. What we value as people is changing, and we should change, too. Where before we valued bespoke adventures, now we reminisce on common experiences we took for granted. Here is how we are adjusting our principles for good experiential design to fit a post-COVID-19 world:

  1.  Make it unique and valuable

    Think about what people are missing most and try to find ways to achieve it. Hint: it's not always going to be another funny internet video, or another livestream (these are great, but people are seeing them in spades). It is the sense of community and being with one another that we’re craving. That's why we honk and cheer every night, or why drive-by birthday celebrations and teddy bear hunts are sweeping the nation.

    Thought starter: Could a brand like Netflix or Disney partner with a VR company and create legitimate movie theater experiences? Imagine giant virtual theaters filled with people from all over the world, watching and reacting to the same movie together.
  2. Make it as interactive as possible

    It’s hard to have a personal engagement nowadays, but adding interaction makes the sense of community and belonging that much stronger. It’s why people are waiting an hour in Starbucks drive-throughs, to have that meaningful positive interaction with their baristas. Interactive Zoom classes and livestream concerts are great, but imagine an activation that makes you leave your home and drive somewhere to take part in something bigger.

    Thought starter: If sports teams will be playing in empty stadiums this summer, why not create a “tailgate” brand activation outside, where people can cheer, make noise, be on kiss-cam, play mobile phone trivia, etc. – all from inside their cars?
  3. Make it about your audience, not the brand

    Audiences today often care more about what a brand stands for than what they sell. This is more true than ever in a post-COVID-19 world. Activations that spread goodwill will rise to the top and become memorable engagements for years to come. The likes and shares will follow.

    Thought starter: Imagine a hospitality brand sending out beautiful, high quality self-care kits complete with sanitation essentials, self-care products and other takeaway goodies to surprise and delight both customers and people in need.

It’s safe to say experiential design will look very different in a post-COVID-19 world. Time will tell if people will be itching to go back to packed lines and concert crowds, or if they will think twice before hitting their local farmers market. One thing this pandemic has highlighted is that the sense of community and sharing of experiences is paramount to the well being of all of us. People will always have the need to gather and engage. The field is open for brands to respond by creating experiences that are unique, safe, authentic and meaningful.

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