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From URL to IRL: How digitally native brands are harnessing the power of experience

We are living in a “I want it now” reality. Consumers can have what they want when they want it. Instant gratification has become an expectation, rather than an exception.

This habit of impatience is apparent across most industries. People can order groceries to their door within the hour, watch shows on demand without commercials, hop in a cab in minutes and go on a date with a simple swipe. ‘Uberisation’ has disrupted industries globally and has arguably become the most popular business buzzword of our time. The pandemic has given rise to an explosion of direct-to-consumer (DTC) businesses and the On-Demand-Economy, which is fulfilling needs by giving instant access, convenience, and personalised experiences to next-gen consumers.

Millennials make up for around half of the On-Demand consumers, which means activity and growth will likely persist. According to PwC research, it is estimated that the On-Demand Economy will soar to reach a whopping $335 billion by 2025. Coupled with this, millennials are the first generation that would rather stay in that go out, which has helped drive this trend.

From URL to IRL – Giving Rise To In-Person Experiences

From Stitchfix, Quip, Away, to Harry’s, what these businesses have in common is that they are digital natives. Born and bred online, these ‘faceless’ challenger brands are growing up and discovering the same truth we all do as we mature: sometimes those who came before us had the right idea.

Initially, these digitally native brands were pumped full of venture capital, aggressively marketing via paid online advertising in order to drown out the competition. This catapulted many to success, aided by the pandemic, which invited some of the highest sales as people were forced to shop online while physical stores shuttered.

However, the cost to acquire customers online has skyrocketed, coupled by the anti-tracking headaches these brands now face. As a result, many are ‘going back to the drawing board’, turning to in-person experiences to acquire new consumers and drive brand equity.

Brand experience is what people want

While the pandemic saw a huge boost in DTC sales, these success levels are beginning to plateau as people go on digital detoxes, seeking to get back to a greater level of ‘normal’ in the real world. Browsing for goods in person is part of this, with approximately 82% of millennials believing it’s important for a brand to have a physical store.

With growing consumer concerns over screen addiction and a desire to seek tangible, real-world experiences post pandemic, brands have an opportunity to exploit the multidimensionality and multisensory possibilities of physical spaces in new and imaginative ways – at every step of the consumer journey.

Creating real-world experiences that drive acquisition, equity, and retention 

As digital customer acquisition costs soar, we’re seeing brands attract new consumers IRL through reactive, hyper-local activation teams – particularly with product sampling in the meal and grocery delivery sectors. In a crowded digital sphere, this is an effective way to drive awareness and stand out amongst the fierce competition. It adds a personal touch to the recruitment process, delivering brand experiences that are memorable and drive loyalty.

Gorillas: Always-on acquisition program

Kickstarted by digital darlings Warby Parker, we’re witnessing a click-to-bricks’ expansion trend, with interaction, experimentation, and play helping to foster deeper emotional connections with consumers. Using smart technologies that unify data. Intimates brand Adore Me is another perfect example of a digitally native brand and start-up using data to strategically enter the physical retail market, poaching customers from its rival competitor, Victoria’s Secret, while giving people a new way to immerse themselves in the brand through in-person experiences.

The pop-up shop, although nothing new, has become the go-to test solution – and nowhere is more booming than New York’s SoHo. In 2021, self-storage brand MakeSpace launched an instagrammable space, offering in-store appointments and meditation space for consumers – a move that made them stand out amid an increasingly crowded digital ad ecosystem. “A lot of people think we’re crazy,” said Miriam Kendall, SVP of marketing, adding that MakeSpace found that customers wanted an in-person experience based on their feedback. “Why would you open a physical store during a pandemic when ‘retail is dead’? But we think differently.” Stores have become their very own ads – immersive billboards that drive awareness and sell.

These digitally native brands are also producing exceptionally creative experiential moments to gain earned media and grow brand love. To position themselves as the experts in sleep, native online mattress brand Caspar hosted a glamping trip during the last total solar eclipse and even set up a $25-a-pop nap hotel called the Dreamery.

Casper: The Dreamery in New York

DTC brand Babe Wine created a socially distanced manicure truck to deliver much needed TLC and real-world experience to New Yorkers during the pandemic. They partnered with Bumble to help fans survive lockdown breakups and released jockstrap-scented candles. It’s these types of curated brand experiences – ones that answer consumer needs and engage on a deeper level – that can help brands build lasting relationships with consumers.

Babe Wine: Manicure experience

As they mature, digitally native brands are realising that the consumer journey is not linear. It’s an ongoing cycle, whereby businesses cannot sustain growth via digital marketing alone. As Diageo’s CEO Ivan Menezes explains, “it’s not about doing ‘digital marketing’; it’s about marketing effectively in a digital world”.

Here are some key principles for brands who are planning to include in-person experiences in their marketing efforts in the year ahead:

  1. Think idea first, media second – having separate budgets for ‘digital’ and ‘non digital’ is outdated. Plan your marketing strategy by ditching the D word
  2. Zig when others zag – in a world that’s rife with blanding, it pays to think up fresh and innovative ways to connect with audiences beyond the screen
  3. Take a 360 approach – real world experiences can be used strategically to recruit as well as to retain consumers on an ongoing basis
  4. Team up – look for likeminded brands to collaborate with to extend reach and provide credibility to play in new creative arenas
  5. Test and learn – consider testing on a local level before rolling out larger scale plans with confidence, ensuring that cultural nuances are addressed per market to ensure resonance
  6. Combine URL and IRL to maximise success – use technology and the vast level of data available to create a seamless customer experience between online and in-person experiences
  7. Know what success looks like – be clear on your KPIs and ensure you have a comprehensive evaluation plan in place before embarking on the work

Hayley James is vice president at brand experience agency Sense New York.

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In-Person Experiences Will Come Back Stronger Than Ever Post COVID-19

The experiential and events industry has been ravaged financially by mass cancelations and postponements, causing thousands of lay-offs and widespread business uncertainty. There has been a dizzying use of the word “pivot” as companies scramble to reimagine their events and physical stores digitally or virtually. BrewDog has lined up a series of virtual events including beer tasting, homebrewing masterclasses, live music, pub quizzes, and comedy, while daily Chipotle Together lunchtime hangouts on Zoom are drawing 3,000 fans.

However, not all experiences can – or arguably should – be digitized.

Experiential moments are designed to evoke the senses and connect people on a more human level. Can you imagine viewing Refinery’s 29Rooms maze-like art experience through a live stream, or the truly immersive production Sleep No More without the physical company of others? It’s clear nothing beats the magic of IRL, even if that means dealing with crowds jostling for the perfect selfie.

Nobody knows how the next few months will play out, but China offers a glimmer of hope, with relative normality gradually returning to the country.

As John F. Kennedy noted, “crisis” in Chinese carries two elements. Danger. And, Opportunity. No matter the difficulty of the circumstances, at the heart of each crisis lies hope for a better future.

Setting the stage for a new normal

For now, we must be patient and hope the impact on our industry is temporary, using this time to think about how we can evolve in-person experiences to ensure we return stronger than ever.

Revive human connection: When the crisis recedes, many of us will want to put virtual happy hours, online yoga, and binge-watching behind us and head to cafes, bars and events to catch up with friends – and finally meet that guy from Hinge. This makes creating time and space for conversation at events critical, such as analogue zones that help attendees stay present, which in turn incites serendipity.

Keep it real: Contemporary audiences will demand more authenticity through deep, impactful experiences. So now’s the time to analyze who our audience really is and how we can improve their lives. Our core mission and real-world purpose must shine through, so that branding isn’t the main focus. If we’re working with influencers, let them be themselves. Let’s collaborate with partners in more thoughtful ways and integrate them from the outset. Let’s create casual and spirited environments that make people feel inspired.

Know when and how to digitize: We’ve seen brilliant advances in technology, from live-streaming and social-casting to next-gen augmented and virtual experiences. But it’s vital the goals dictate the platform. What’s the story we want to tell and how can we capture our audience’s attention? How can we focus on community and create that feeling of togetherness, without overwhelming? What does success look like and how will we measure it? Are we giving our audience a truly meaningful and unique experience?

Test and learn: Running large events takes big budgets and months of planning. Post pandemic, brands wanting to connect with their consumers will likely prefer smaller, intimate gatherings that provide a brilliant opportunity to test and learn new approaches and ideas to roll out when appropriate. This also allows us to trial new technologies to extend reach and find more unique spaces to make events really stand out. 

Embrace mindfulness and wellbeing: Hustle-mania phrases born out of millennial angst, like “you snooze, you lose” and “grind now, shine later” may fizzle out, as we realize the importance of time spent recharging. Expect to see more events incorporating “brain breaks” to inspire creativity, outdoor activities to let off steam, and clean eating to keep attendees sharp.

Support small businesses: Local businesses bring growth and innovation to our communities and economy. When seeking vendor support, look first to small, independent companies that are likely suffering the most. Use this downtime to reach out to new experiential agencies, production houses, caterers, etc to develop relationships and scope out capabilities.

Re-consider the need for travel: As it turns out many meetings could have been an email or Zoom call, it’s now our responsibility to question whether it’s critical to jet from New York to LA for a pitch, or fly from London to Dublin for a meeting. Let’s follow Greta Thunberg’s lead and consider a flight diet, putting pressure on employers to follow suit.

Waste not, want not: Sustainability will continue to top the agenda, so seriously consider how we can do more to reduce our impact, from banning single-use plastics and digitizing swag to offering charitable donations, providing leftover food and drink to local communities, and offering more plant-based catering. We should question vendors and each other, ensuring we’re all doing our part.

Keep it clean: Whether you’re doing it singing Happy Birthday or your national anthem, it’s safe to say you’re doing it often, and this newfound hypersensitivity to hygiene will persist. This means not only making hand-washing more accessible, providing anti-bacterial sprays, and improving cleaning regimes, but also designing event spaces to reduce crowds, increasing ventilation and having a plan to deal with suspected cases – and ensuring insurance policies incorporate satisfactory cover.

Immerse the senses: Bowing, elbow bumps and footshakes may be more appropriate currently, but when multi-sensory events eventually become the antidote to digital overload we should look to blur the boundaries between these experiences and more traditional events to create something more memorable for guests.

Let the chaos fuel your creativity: A coronavirus culture is emerging, with brands devising imaginative ways to provide support. Dyson has developed the ‘CoVent’ ventilator, KFC has partnered with nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack to provide meals for kids in need, and the Mattel Playroom delivers activities and tips for children, to name just a few.

 If we can combine creativity, technology and humanity in the right way, we will once again be a truly unstoppable force. As experiential agencies, we should continue in this spirit by thinking even further out of the box with every brief, keeping innovation and dexterity front of mind, whilst embracing the positive change experienced during this crisis, to move the industry forward for good.

This article was published by the Vendry