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  • Mark Evans

Covid-19 Kills Experiential Marketing (for now).

20 years ago, when I started Kommando, we were on the cusp of what was termed experiential marketing. This was perceived at first as revolutionary but before too long was proven by science to link brand affinity and emotional loyalty with the five senses.


Histogram of motion parameters

The use of visual scanning, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or FMRI technology in the late 1990s and a series of well documented tests and papers by Schmitt Bernd (1999) and others, proved that experiencing physically the personality and features of a product, be it taste or trial, can influence behaviour more so than other forms of advertising.


We have now reached the point of wrapping such brand experiences in breath-taking environments, built at scale and based on clever design where brands can really immerse us in their features and benefits using our five human senses


Women with her children

Pairing these experiences with social media and digital channels creates a powerful way to amplify and measure experiential. Success measured by the sharing of these experiences and post event engagement, likes and followers, has become the new currency and return of investment (ROI).


But what a change in only a few months: no one could have foreseen our current situation. Covid-19 has temporarily blown apart the basic human experiential model while also re-ordering the emotional priorities of consumers. Let me explain.


Not so long ago, in any shopping mall, you could have passed a dozen so-called experiential and promotional zones, each inviting passers-by to try, taste or trial products or simply to immerse themselves in an experience that related, one way or another, to a particular brand’s character or core message. This was playful and fun: relaxing micro events such as pamper zones and pop-up novelties at every corner.


Covid-19 has blown this model to pieces. Will any brand manager, for the foreseeable future, consider investing large sums on production and logistics to create and deploy an experiential event, that thrives on shared touch in a common interactive space and with a willingness to share a great selfie or post a fun interaction?


Perhaps, some say, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) experiences will now dominate the new experiential space. I do not think, on their own, that they will, unless there is huge financial investment in haptic technology, that is, touch-based, and other 4D environments.


Neither provide, in my opinion, true experiential immersion on their own, rather, they are nice fun enablers that contribute to driving passer-by participation in a wonderfully-designed but, in its essence, restricted experience.


In my opinion the experiential model has gone into freeze mode; we have moved from psychological to physiological needs: our basic needs are now key measurements of our shopping or visiting experience.


The complex psychological needs that promoted brand affinity and capitalised on brand equity are no longer easy to tap into. Until now, we have never had to worry about safety and personal security before allowing us to access the influence of brand experience.


Now, the safety of ourselves and our loved ones fills the priming zone. Any business that relies on footfall should take heed of this new norm.


To illustrate this we can look at the psychologist Maslow’s iconic hierarchy of needs:


psychologist Maslow’s iconic hierarchy

If we look at the pyramid we can place the psychological needs of consumers as the entry point for all successful experiential design.


If you can tap into that part of the mind that creates a bond through meaningful exchanges, you end up with greater affinity, loyalty, and brand love; in other words, all the fluffy stuff associated with the old experiential approach - touch, taste, smell - still exists, but the emotional primers of curiosity and desire, which lead to surprise and delight through the five senses, are radically re-ordered by the most important primers of the basic human needs: safety and sustenance, the base needs.


These two key primers form the base of the pyramid, for now and for the foreseeable future, as a result of Covid-19, will shape how we assess, rate and value our shopping or leisure experiences ahead of our psychological needs.


Let me give you an example: like many of us, I spent a huge amount of lockdown on DIY, ‘attempting’ to start and finish jobs I simply never had time to look at. I took myself to Homebase one day, gloved and masked up and queued for an hour or so then managed to get in and out the store as quickly as possible. How did I measure my experience? Was it by noting the ease of customer flow in well illuminated aisles and the occasional pop up experience?


No: I measured my experience on how safe I believed myself to be: were the gatekeepers at the front door wiping trolleys? Did they seem in control? Did they have safety PPE? Were they checking the idiots who stepped out of line? Was everyone social distancing? Do the staff value my safety? Am I in danger? In other words, what primed me emotionally was how safe I felt.


Bells and whistles would have absolutely no relevance to me during this visit; my state of mind and that of the others in the queue had shifted from a ‘happy to interact’ state to one of primal self- preservation.

You need look only at Maslow’s pyramid, and at every country affected by Covid-19, to observe how their populations behaved both at the start and during the pandemic. Our foundation needs are not the higher-level emotional needs associated with experiential, but the basic and core essentials of food and substance, shelter, and safety.


The new safety conscious normal is here for the foreseeable future. Some say it takes 21 days for humans to form new habit structures. During our global lockdown we have become changed people with changed behaviours influenced by an invisible threat but a defined risk. Our collective retail and leisure habits will be changed, even more so, the way we value and measure our experience when visiting retail locations will be different.


Large Venue People Walking Around

My view is that shopping destinations and large venues will no longer be measured solely on the old model of experience but, primarily, on how they are seen to make us feel safe. A few hand sanitizers on walls and notices to wash our hands is inadequate. Many of us, more so the older generations with disposable income will all be looking for constant reassurance during shorter visits, where time invested in shopping is measured against the risk of exposure to an invisible threat.


Design Innovation and technology

Management teams should look at how they make visitors and shoppers feel safe throughout their visit, from arrival through to exit. The customer’s journey will be marked not only by buying but also, just as much, about feeling safe.

With that in mind, any brands that wish to invest deeper emotional gravitas in their products should be looking for the most relevant combination of design innovation and technology.


Ends