Picture last year at this time: the ambiguity around the rollout of the vaccine, the experiential programs easing into singular markets, the longing for personal connection beyond a Zoom call. Indeed, as we rang in 2021, uncertainty loomed. But what has unfolded across this industry over the last 12 months is nothing short of remarkable. You’ve learned to pivot virtual programming developed at the height of the pandemic back into in-person experiences. You’ve discovered that producing a successful hybrid event is possible when you have a nuanced, rather than literal, approach. And you’ve shouldered the weight of budget cuts, the labor shortage, polarizing cultural movements and, more recently, a supply chain crisis, without compromising the quality of the work you produce. Over and over again, you proclaimed to the world, “We got this.” Now, as we look ahead to 2022, it’s worth revisiting the year’s top experiential trends and takeaways to help inform next year’s strategies. Following is a breakdown of our top 10 stories of the year, along with key trends and predictions for how tactics will evolve in the coming months. So raise a glass, pat yourself on the back, and rewind with us.
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FX’s collection of nighttime bakeries promoting “American Horror Story” and a new anthology series marked the triumphant return of immersive pop-up programs, and both media and consumers ate. it. up. The sinister-meets-sweet “Night Bites Bakery” experience was activated in three cities, each offering fans a chance to get their “AHS”—and sugar—fix. Consumers could order series-themed cookies at a creepy counter, where a bakery worker announced their selection into a retro-style microphone. They collected their treat at a pick-up window that opened to reveal Rubber Woman: an eerie, black-latex-clad figure instantly recognizable to fans of the franchise. An online component was also available via a microsite that offered surprise cookie “drops” and invited consumers unable to attend the pop-ups to enter to win sweet treats, ensuring everyone could participate (Agency: NVE, Los Angeles). –B.K.
TREND: The digital + live approach reigned supreme once more as marketers worked to ensure that those not comfortable with attending live events were able to participate in experiential programs virtually. Choice is now paramount.
PREDICTION: Event marketers will grow their on-demand content strategies for virtual audiences as part of the “hybrid” approach, including event-specific podcasts or broadcasted programs and highly produced pre-records.
Salesforce’s flagship event, Dreamforce, returned San Francisco with a “global family reunion” theme and a hybrid strategy, serving as one of the first high-profile hybrid events delivered since the onset of the pandemic—and that meant everyone was watching. The event offered panels hosted by Soledad O’Brien, cinematic live broadcasts, entertainment, including a performance by the Foo Fighters, celebrity speakers, philanthropy and community-building programming. The conference included a 100-percent outdoors, invite-only experience on-site for 1,000 people, while the virtual experience was broadcast globally on Salesforce+, the brand’s free streaming service that launched during the event and featured original content tracks for the global attendee base. The brand invited virtual attendees to customize their event experience by industry and topic (such as sustainability) to enjoy a more personalized, Netflix-like experience (Agency: George P. Johnson). –A.Z.
TREND: Shrinking attention spans, a shift that started pre-COVID but was spurred on during the pandemic’s influx of virtual events, inspired more purposeful, concise experiences in both virtual and live settings.
PREDICTION: Smaller, more targeted events and roadshows will continue to flourish as marketers cater to attendees’ varying levels of comfortability. Micro events will also offer attendees a more enriching, high-touch experience, while keeping marketing budgets in check.
After the pandemic dealt what appeared to be a death blow to brick-and-mortar retail, the sector quickly bounced back thanks to retailers’ propensity to leverage experiential tactics that drove consumers to physical stores—and kept them there. Brick-and-mortar brands heavily leaned into tangible in-store experiences to build brand connections that went well beyond a transaction, while taking into consideration the “phygital” experience today’s shoppers crave, which seamlessly blends digital and physical elements to create an interactive and more personalized journey. From Gibson’s 8,000-square-foot hands-on flagship store to DICK’s on-site turf field and track to LEGO’s retailtainment concept featuring gesture technology, larger-than-life installations and hyper-personalization, retailers showed consumers that there was a good reason to leave the comfort of their homes and trade clicks for bricks.
TREND: Virtual made it easier for brands to tailor content to the individual need of the attendee, whether through targeted recommendations or personalized content packets.
“‘Horror Story’ fans are the most rabid, so any way they can touch, feel, taste, smell, be a part of what the show is, is a win for us.”
–Sara Mald, VP-Integrated Promotions, FX
After an agonizing period in which sports fans weren’t allowed in stands, the 2021 US Open Tennis Championships helped usher in the return of largescale sporting events—and spectators. Sponsors wasted no time capitalizing on the moment’s fervor, activating both on- and off-site with technology experiences, art installations, lounge spaces, immersive photo ops, hospitality plays and beyond. Whether it was Mercedes-Benz’s kinetic floor tiles that generated reusable clean energy with each step consumers took, Wilson Sporting Goods’ interactive tennis museum or Amex’s pop-up, riverside tennis courts, sponsors rose to the occasion to engage tens of thousands of rabid tennis enthusiasts after a bleak year and a half.
PREDICTION: Net-positive is the new green as event organizations, inspired by audience sentiment, corporate policies and global climate studies, take measurable steps toward sustainability and investigate renewable energy sources and partnerships to support the mission.
The struggle was real for both the restaurant industry and consumers itching to dine out safely amid the pandemic in April, when Seamless came to the rescue. The delivery app teamed up with four New York City restaurant partners to create a whole new way for foodies to enjoy takeout while supporting businesses that were hit hard by COVID. Rolling through the city in its bright red, illuminated Presto! Resto! truck, the brand tapped into the reverse activation trend by arriving at consumers’ doors with a restaurant on wheels. Three contest winners per day, along with three guests of their choosing, got a taste of a beloved New York eatery. The winners first used a generous stipend to purchase their food and beverages, then watched as a Seamless driver rolled up to their homes to deliver the meals packaged in COVID-safe wrappers. Participants then entered the Presto! Resto! truck, which had been transformed to replicate the décor and ambience of that week’s featured restaurant, to chow down (Agency: MKG).
TREND: A marked uptick in mobile tours this year underscored the importance of having an agile experiential strategy.
PREDICTION: What began as the gradual democratization of everything from fashion to art will move full steam ahead in 2022. Brands will be expected to provide attendees with unfettered access to talent, products and experiences previously available to a limited audience only.
The reverse activation concept in which a brand comes directly to a consumer’s home rather than asking that person to travel to their event, gave brands the opportunity to forge highly personal connections with their audiences thanks to the intimate nature of the strategy. Several brands leaned into the approach. Take TBS and the launch of its new Conan [O’Brien] Funko Pop! figures, which typically takes place at San Diego Comic-Con. When the convention went virtual, TBS needed a way to cut through the clutter. So with everyone at home, the network put out a call to Pittsburgh area fans that would be available for a special delivery: drones, decked out with speakers blaring music and a message from Conan, that airdropped crates chock-full of the new Funko figures, complete with his signature pompadour and styled as iconic movie characters (Agency: Deeplocal).
TREND: While the reverse activation strategy was prevalent at the start of the year, as the country began reopening at scale, the reverse pivot came into view, and event marketers were tasked with shifting the virtual events they developed during the pandemic into real-world experiences.
PREDICTION: The grand return of virtual reaffirmed the importance of leveraging digital channels to connect the dots between a company’s marketing touchpoints, including live experiences. Brands will opt for an omnichannel approach that weaves the channels together.
“I think having that personal relationship with the brand that you love is something that people are going to want more of in the future.”
–Mark Agnesi, Director-Brand Experience, Gibson
With stadiums opening up and vaccines rolling out leading into the summer, every sports marketer wondered what sponsorship activations would look like in a post-pandemic world. Those who took the plunge first led the way to a renewed sports sponsorship landscape that altered the way brands engage fans and leverage partnerships. From Mastercard’s sponsorship of the National Women’s Soccer League, which includes in-person activations like a VIP Game Day Experience offering premium seats, swag and snacks, and a virtual component on its Priceless.com platform, to Corona’s more intentional approach to forging partnerships with sports properties that provide measurable value for its business, sponsors shifted their strategies to align with the new era.
PREDICTION: After sports sponsors demonstrated their ability to provide fans with unprecedented digital access to player talent and other perks at the height of the pandemic, the fan engagement bar was officially raised.
An estimated 385,000 attendees descended on Chicago’s Grant Park for Lollapalooza in July, and critics sounded the alarms, suggesting it was too big a crowd to gather safely. But event organizers reported that an impressive 90 percent of attendees were vaccinated, and, two weeks after the festival concluded, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health declared that there was, in fact, no evidence indicating that the show was a super-spreader event. It was a pivotal moment, with Lollapalooza kicking off an in-person festival season, and serving as one of the industry’s first big opportunities to physically connect with consumers at scale. From Toyota’s graffiti-clad music den to Cupcake Vineyards’ laid-back wine lounge to Grubhub’s expansive sampling station, a range of sponsors stepped up to deliver activations that were reminiscent of pre-pandemic festival experiences. (Can we get an amen?) –K.H.
TREND: The return of the festival scene over the summer was a big step forward along the industry’s road to recovery—particularly because sponsor activations largely lived up to their former glory. Festival culture and the unique activities that come with it (like making and trading Kandi friendship bracelets) were part of the resurgence.
HBO Max On Location was an outdoor pop-up experience featuring 20 branded installations planted around New York City that were designed to illustrate how the streaming service’s breadth of content appeals to a range of entertainment lovers. A 10-foot-tall, branded purple pin anchored each installation site, while an accompanying kiosk displayed a QR code. To activate each experience, consumers scanned the code, which automatically triggered access to a clip from a movie or series filmed in that exact spot (and available for streaming on HBO Max). After viewing the content, they entered their contact info to receive a reward from an HBO Max partner or a local business affiliated with the location. From revisiting that scene at Katz’s Delicatessen in “When Harry Met Sally” and earning a $5 deli coupon, to reliving the Toussaint necklace scene at the Cartier Mansion in “Oceans 8,” which yielded a $5 Lyft credit, there was a little something for everyone who participated in the rewards-driven walking tour.
PREDICTION: Recognizing how difficult the networking piece to events was to execute in the virtual landscape, brands will right the ship in the full return to in-person and make attendee connections as important, if not more, than the content.
“When we realized Comic-Con would be canceled, we had to find a way to fill that void and deliver comedy to our fans in a way that would be safe and uniquely funny.”
–Alex S. Page, TBS | TNT | truTV brand marketing
Verizon wasn’t going to let limited attendance at Super Bowl LV stop it from demonstrating its 5G capabilities so it developed a virtual 5G stadium built in Fortnite Creative Mode. The stadium connected football fans and gamers while showcasing 5G’s low latency—an attractive feature for the gaming and esports community. Using Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium as inspiration, Verizon and Fortnite publisher Epic Games designed the virtual stadium for players to create content, try out five different football-themed games, embark on scavenger hunts and potentially encounter an NFL player dropping into the game to play. For non-gamers, Verizon created two livestream events, accessed through Twitch and Verizon’s Twitter feed, featuring NFL players and pro gamers going head-to-head within the virtual stadium. (Agencies: Momentum; Beyond Creative; R/GA) –K.H.
TREND: Gamified virtual experiences came into their own as the world of digital engagement grew more sophisticated. Verizon’s virtual 5G stadium, activated in February, was a jumping off point, and others followed, from Complex Networks’ ComplexLand 2.0 to Ally Financial’s Minecraft-based Fintropolis experience.
PREDICTION: Brands will experiment with the Metaverse concept (an abstract 3D virtual world that users will navigate and engage with as avatars) by embedding themselves in popular digital platforms like Roblox to deliver fully-immersive experiences that blur the lines between reality and CGI.