Categories
Articles Insights US

How US and UK perceptions of experiential are converging

It’s no secret – the past 16 months have been tough for experiential agencies. So, it’s thrilling to see live brand experiences bouncing back strongly. It’s also important to acknowledge and applaud the innovation we’ve seen during this time, fast-tracking industry progress and stretching the possibilities for brands, beyond what might have seemed possible pre-pandemic. The brand experience landscape is forever changed. As are the perceptions of it.

What does this mean for the future of experiential? What is the impact in terms of how brands (and which brands) are using the discipline, and how and why does this differ by market? Starting with those at the forefront; the US and UK.

The omni-channel mindset

Before the pandemic, US brands were more inclined than their UK counterparts to view experiential campaigns with an open, omni-channel mindset, looking to their agencies to create engaging experiences, regardless of the channel and developing more integrated activities. This forward-thinking “format-free” approach was not being embraced in the UK to the same extent.

Agencies could often be siloed or selected for their “specialisms”, and briefs were often more prescriptive, at times stifling the creative possibilities. The same brand types would incorporate brand experiences into their annual plans in the UK, in a somewhat formulaic style. While several of these brands remain on the experiential sidelines, we’re seeing the challengers stepping forward, with a more flexible, open-minded approach. Fully embracing the lull, or lethargy, from their big-brand competitors.

As US brands emerge into the recovery, it seems their hunger for this free-thinking approach has grown, as is their reliance and trust in their agencies to advise on the best and most appropriate approach.

Increasingly and refreshingly, brands are supplying briefs with no specific format in mind for their activation, willing to let the agency lead on how best to engage the target audience to meet campaign objectives. Idea first – execution second.

A cautious return

An activation for Henkel brand Zotos Professional (ZP) started out as a more traditional brand experience brief in a live environment, but evolved into a purely digital campaign, in order to deliver the best, most relevant, and engaging experience for the audience in question. ZP was comfortable with the shift in format, so long as the integrity of the idea was maintained. It is one of a number of post-pandemic US activations being digitally led.

Indeed, the term “hybrid” appears to be the new normal, with agencies now able to offer clients the best of what went before, while also drawing on the innovation seen during the pandemic to amplify and deepen experiences. Live activations have a live-stream element. Digital is booming.

Brands are understandably cautious, so it makes sense that they’re leaning towards digital/virtual activations, but with more live elements being built into the mix than was the case a few months back. In this way, digital technology is helping to accelerate the experiential revival in the US.

There’s been a similar, if slightly more cautious, return to brand experiences in the UK, but in a more traditional way, with touring activations across the country still popular to reach consumers nationwide, rather than digital amplification.

However, there are signs that UK brands are taking a broader view. A recent survey of about 100 brand marketers found that 91% felt brand experience didn’t just have to mean live, which is unlikely to have been the case 16 months ago. So it appears that brands are starting to open their eyes to other forms of activation and potentially looking to their brand experience agencies to offer this range of options – just not as enthusiastically as in the US.

The contrast could well be due to the sheer scale of the US compared with the UK, forcing brands and agencies to explore efficient ways to achieve reach for the experiences they create, making PR-able stunts and campaigns with a social or digital aspect more typical.

However, by embracing a hybrid, omni-channel future, the UK will not only be able to rise to consumers’ hunger for experiences but also deliver more effective activations that also acknowledge the acceleration of digital technology that’s taken place during the pandemic.

The future of experiential

It’s telling that YouGov’s tracker informs us that “boredom” and “frustration” are the strongest emotions currently felt by the British people, replacing “stressed” and “scared”.

Brands can meet this demand with exciting, engaging activations delivered in the most appropriate way, not only with respect to health and safety restrictions but also reflecting where the audience is and what they want to do, embracing digital technology and social media to build engaged communities united through experience.

US brands are setting the pace in this new world of experiential and, as if often the case, we foresee a similar trend emerging in the UK.

Sarah Priestman is President at Sense New York, and Nick Adams is Global CEO of Sense.

This article first appeared in Campaign Magazine, July 21st 2021.

Categories
Articles Insights US

As screen fatigue bites, how can brands walk the analog/digital tightrope?

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Millennials were increasingly abiding by the trendy advice that excessive “screen time” was as bad as smoking, but for your brain. However, just days into quarantine, our devices became portals to employment, virtual experiences, and education, and a lifeline to (often reluctantly) staying connected to the in-laws, ordering toilet roll in droves, maintaining our manes on YouTube, and enjoying some escapism in the form of channeling our anxieties into memes. Screen time went from sin to survival tool

People have self-reported being glued to screens 30-70% more. Kids’ screen time is up by 50%. Gaming is up by 75%. Zoom has become a household verb. Dancing grannies have gone viral on TikTok. Things got weird on Houseparty. It’s safe to say that Coronavirus ended the screen-time debate. Screens won, for now at least.  

Virtual experiences

With the social distancing rules came the surge in virtual experiences and events. Perhaps one of the most notable of all being the Travis Scott Fortnite concert, which was lauded by many as “surreal and spectacular”. Conversely, a writer for The Rolling Stones described it as “a full on sensory assault” that “felt like marketing”, with Travis himself depicted as a “giant capitalist”.  Regardless of which side you’re on, there’s no denying that attracting over 12 million viewers is impressive – and that virtual experiences can be a powerful and effective means of connecting brands with audiences, especially when interactivity lies at the heart.

Now, months into the pandemic, screen fatigue is setting in. Our attention spans are waning rapidly after enduring a number of decidedly mediocre online ‘experiences’. We’ve given up on Zoom happy hours and quizzes with friends we haven’t seen since college. We’re running out of shows to binge on Netflix, HBO, Hulu and any other streaming platforms we can feast our (increasingly rather tired) eyes on. Not to mention the damage that the blue light is doing to our sleep patterns. Then there’s the newfound ability to nail the Hunchback of Notre Damn impersonation after weeks of incessant videocalls. 

As the Screen Time app abruptly reminds us of the staggering number of hours we have spent surgically attached to our devices, many of us have been dusting off old vinyl, writing letters to friends, keeping journals, baking banana bread, digging out board games and swapping books with neighbors. All the result of a craving for some kind of tactile physical experience that a predominantly digital world cannot deliver, which has also driven the increased consumption of newspapers and magazines. This shift represents the resurrection of human emotion and value, which is needed now more than ever, reflected in a new 30-second ad from Mars Wrigley’s Extra Gum, which seeks to celebrate the connections that occur offline. 

As we’ve seen in reams of research pre-pandemic, Millennials in particular (who have a projected spending power of $1.4 trillion in the US alone) have been in search of analog for some time, which has helped drive the experience economy. A study by Harris Group found that 72% of this powerful demographic would rather open up their wallets based on experiences than spend on material items – one of the very few ‘nice’ stereotypes attributed to this vilified group (full disclosure: I’m one of them). Cue the excessive use of ball pits, morning raves, “Instagram museums” built for the selfie obsessed and the notion that, if you didn’t it post on social, it didn’t really happen. As a result, in recent years, we’ve witnessed an influx of experiences that arguably prioritized social over the real world, which have frequently led to creating purgatory, not pleasure! 

On the contrary, there’s also been a reaction against the always-on digital lifestyle through a wave of neo-luddism – the philosophy that opposes modern technology, due to the psychological cost of constant checking and swiping, the fear of data misuse, political polarization and so on. This has resulted in young people quitting social media platforms in their droves, with Facebook being the worst hit. We’ve seen the launch of Yondr (pouches to help organisers keep people off their phones at events), hugely successful You Had To Be There parties in the US and Unplugged Festivals in the UK (banning phones), and Bashful (an app that locks you out of your smartphone at set times) – just to name a few examples.

So, with this in mind, how can brands walk the tightrope of analog and digital, and deliver unforgettable experiences during a pandemic? How can they adapt the brand experience strategy to fulfil the consumer need for something tangible and more meaningful, while maximizing digital in a genuinely helpful way?      

A pandemic playbook for marketers doesn’t exist, but there are some key pieces of advice to take on board for virtual experiences:

Think idea first, media second

Now that we’re slowly moving into a ‘new normal’ phase, there’s no excuse for vanilla. We can learn a lot from Burger King’s global CMO Fernando Machado who is “100% focused on the idea” – and doesn’t get caught up in the channel. Machado and his team have been delivering some of the most award-winning brand experiences over the past three to four years, combining analog and digital, and proving this approach is a winner. 

Ask heretical questions about your brand

Questions that jolt preconceptions and spark healthy debate, to develop strategies and creative ideas that will thrive in the outside world. It’s what led to Trojan’s ‘Rising Time’ cookbook, which was designed to spark passion during lockdown. A physical book which played into certain lockdown habits (encouraging those that were notably missing, cue the ‘Rye’d That D’ recipe) – generating a huge amount of press and traction online.

Humanize your brand and exercise empathy

A smart example of brands keeping it real is the Babe Wine and Bumble collaboration, which together created a real life ‘moving company’ to save people from living with their ex during the pandemic. They’ve even managed to land a touch of humor and avoided the hugely overused and frequently insincere ‘we’re in it together’ trope.

Practice reciprocity

Heineken’s latest ‘Stadium in a Box’ contest brings the sports venue to your home, with a replica seat, a Heineken beer fridge and a gift certificate for game day eats. Generosity in the form of physical items and experiences will go a long way in creating FOMO-fueled experiences, especially when combined with digital to maximize reach. 

Think beyond eyeballs and impressions

A digital ad is counted as a view when just 50% of its area is visible on the screen for at least two seconds. When this is coupled with the fact that, according to WFA, 10-30% of global digital ad spend is wasted on fraud, it pays to think user engagement and experience first.

Analog and digital are not concepts that should be considered in a dichotomized way

Some of the best brand experiences demonstrate that they must and should coexist, especially when they are participatory. No doubt the recent collaboration between Puchdrunk and Pokemon Go will demonstrate this brilliantly.

Tear up the rule book

Let’s make room for fresh and innovative ways to connect with audiences, focusing on being more genuine and authentic than ever before, avoiding tricks and gimmicks that cynical audiences see straight through.

Hayley James is Vice President of global brand experience agency, Sense New York.

This article first appeared in AdWeek.

Categories
Articles Insights US

Raise money for Coronavirus relief by celebrating your Resilient Ones

Through #TheResilientOnes initiative, we are giving people the chance to pay tribute to their chosen heroes of the pandemic by creating personalized illustrations for a $20 donation to the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Entries can be made by emailing a photograph of their hero to theresilientones@sense-nyc.com. Submissions will be accepted until 9pm EST on Friday May 22nd. Then 15 will be chosen to be visualized by illustrator Alana McDowell in the striking, vibrant style of her #TheResilientOnes artworks.

“The more characterful your chosen photo, the better!” said Sense New York President Sarah Priestman. “Those selected will then donate to our Coronavirus Relief Fund page before receiving their illustration. If you’re feeling generous, then please feel free to donate regardless!”

Sense New York recently launched #TheResilientOnes, a series of four stunning artworks designed and developed by fierce creative duo, Alana Mcdowell (Illustrator) and Nathaly Charria (Creative Director). Each is free to download and focused on the humans and happenings that have inspired hope and strength during lockdown. The fourth illustration, entitled ‘Thank You’, featured some of the people who had tragically lost their lives to save and protect others. This proved the inspiration behind the new fundraising initiative.

#TheResilientOnes include:

Part 1 – ‘We’ll meet again’ draws on the agency’s British roots and celebrates Elizabeth II’s candid and inspiring address to her citizens – plus ways to stay positive, until everyone is reunited.

Part 2 – ‘New York Tough’ pays homage to the agency’s home, one of the worst hit cities in the world, and the collective strength and solidarity of New Yorkers, together with Governor Cuomo’s masterclass in leadership.

Part 3 – ‘Lean on Me’ celebrates the incredible coming together of the global community that’s taken place to care for one another and beat the crisis. Plus the late, great Bill Withers.

Part 4 – ‘Thank you’ marks the relentless courage and dedication of critical workers, some of whom have lost their lives to save others and help re-build the world. The illustration captures the faces of some of those heroes, including the late Kious Kelly from New York, Ketty Herawati Sultana from Jakarta and Li Wenliang from Wuhan.