Here’s to the ethical and immersive, not forgetting that festival vibe
From a supersized bath toy cleaning up the River Thames through to a hard-hitting pop-up confronting poverty, knife crime and bullying, the activations of 2019 were bold and full of impact, designed to deliver actionable changes.
The Store of Modern Childhood by The Children’s Society addressed the critical issues and findings of the organisation’s The Good Childhood Report 2019 through an unsettling pop-up stocked with stab vests, phone cases that featured bullying messages and a make-up station selling bruise hider and black-eye fader. Delivered by XYZ and W Communications, the activation highlighted the harsh reality of life for young people in modern Britain.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned "The Good Ship Ikea", delivered by Mother, scaled up the retailer’s popular Smakryp bath toy, and set it afloat on Deptford Creek, clearing up to 20kg of rubbish on its way and demonstrating sustainability in action. The activation was on point as Ikea opened its most sustainable store to date in Greenwich, which it promoted with a lasting change to the city’s waterways, rather than grandstanding though a quirky stunt.
This is the age of the ethical consumer, and the mistrust of other media has long served to boost experiential as a way for brands to be authentic and talk directly to their fans. Now, it’s a way to demonstrate their credentials upfront.
But it is also a vulnerable time, as consumers grow savvier about materials and waste. For brand experiences, the potential to leave a much bigger footprint than other forms of marketing is one that needs to be addressed urgently. Jeavon Smith, Amplify’s executive creative director, says: "From an architectural perspective, we’re seeing a rise in more permanent and reusable environments. Materials are going to be a big area of focus in 2020 as we collectively seek out more robust, efficient and sustainable solutions."
The focus on ethical consumerism has never been more acute, highlighted to dramatic effect at last season’s London Fashion Week. When the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion declared "a funeral for Fashion Week"’, it neatly galvanised the conversations around consumption, the fashion industry and waste. Understandably, then, the accompanying citywide activations were somewhat thinner on the ground.
This year, however, could be the one in which savvy brands embrace the opportunity to highlight alternative materials and ethical fashion by using London Fashion Week as a spotlight.
Yet a renewed focus on excess consumption and the purchasing of goods is likely to further boost the appeal around experiences. It’s little wonder that festival attendance in the UK is soaring: Live Nation’s global fan study estimated that in the UK, attendance at festivals rose by 22% in 2019. This, coupled with a decline in the UK club scene, provides the perfect slot for brands to fill, with 90% of fans believing that there is at least one thing a brand can do to enhance the experience at a live event.
Red Bull was one brand that capitalised, delivering four weeks of music across 16 standalone events, with more than 100 artists, for its Red Bull Music Festival London. Pernod Ricard also bolstered its experience credentials when it partnered the new Boiler Room festival, which covered jazz, rap, bass and club across a four-day stint.
The cult of immersive
Meanwhile, the quest for "immersive experiences" has also been well documented, creating a competitive playground of choice for consumers looking for a night out, while adding an extra layer of competition for brands.
Across the country, art galleries are also vying for the experience pound. The National Gallery’s "Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece" exhibition – revered and reviled in equal measure – perfectly demonstrated organisations’ desires to engage new audiences while trialling innovative tech and staking a claim to deliver new experiences.
Leading the charge in the arena of live storytelling is Netflix. From transporting New York’s Little Italy district back to its 1975 heyday to promote the Martin Scorsese film The Irishman, through to partnering Secret Cinema for a production of Stranger Things, the on-demand streaming service is taking its content out on to the streets of major cities as it brings its storylines and characters to life.
"Over the past couple of years there has been a lot of excitement about immersive experiences," Damian Ferrar, global head of Genuine X at Jack Morton, says. "Cultural shifts and subsequent rising consumer expectations mean the next opportunity and challenge for brands is going to be much more about making those experiences more responsive."
As the new decade gets under way, predictably, the competition in the agency landscape is fierce. The last decade began with the dominance of global giants, but in the past five years there has been a rise in talented creative indies stealing a march on the competition, creating much-admired experiences that have captured the hearts of their audiences and shown real cultural resonance. In 2020, the list of creators delivering experiences spans small creative shops through to the global experience agencies, PR agencies, ad agencies and studios – all going head to head to deliver solutions for experience-savvy clients.
Let’s join the dots from storytelling to sustainability…
Creative director, XYZ
In 2020, we’ve all got to get better at proving how and why our events have been successful. The integration of technology into the everyday fabric of our lives means there are more measurement touchpoints than ever. As with all things, the magic lies in how you join these dots together to tell a meaningful story. There has been some solid foundational work from the Institute of Promotional Marketing; now, it’s up to us to take this on to the next level as a sector.
And, in the same way that agencies no longer have a "digital" department, instead integrating digital, social and mobile into their daily work, sustainability needs to move from being a story to a behaviour. Consumers, quite rightly, are going to expect sustainability to be standard, ethical behaviour, rather than brands using the issue as participation-bait. Agencies need to play their part in walking the walk and genuinely integrating always-on sustainable practices into their work, rather than offering it as an optional extra.
Reductive audience demographics are as outdated as fax machines (I’m showing my age here), brands and agencies need to embrace the fact that audiences can be different people at different times, and tailor their actions accordingly. Hopefully, 2020 will see an end to the lazy "millennial" tag once and for all.
This may be wishful thinking, but I think we’re seeing, increasingly, experiential at the heart of campaigns, rather than being the delivery mechanism for a generic message. Audiences are experts at decoding brand messages and can smell inauthentic work a mile off. Using the unique qualities of experiential to craft and deliver creative is a far better use of resources than trying to shoehorn in something designed for another medium. Brands that trust experiential agencies as experts in their field will see stronger, more effective and impactful work as a result.
Online purchasing isn’t going away, so retail brands need to figure out how to deal with this significant shift in consumer behaviour. That’s where experiential can help. Physical retail spaces should be tasked with providing the reason for purchase – creating context, product storytelling and emotional engagement, then driving purchase to take place at the customer’s convenience. The days of stores being purely a transactional space are coming to an end, and brands need to adapt or face the consequences.
…to create new realities that will excite and engage
Deputy executive creative director, VCCP Kin
It has never been more difficult to capture and sustain attention. Even harder to be liked. Harder still to be remembered. It’s all down to how our brains are wired. We’re inundated and unable to retain everything we see and hear. But new experiences boost the formation of memories, and the brain prioritises the most rewarding ones.
To cut through in 2020, we’ll need to create new realities that will excite and engage consumers in unexpected ways. Here are some of the influences that will shape the next generation of brand experience:
AR and 5G will transport brand experiences into the consumer’s home, as well as the palm of their hand. Customer-service holograms, the red carpet beamed to our coffee table, and living surfaces (traditional media brought to life through AR) will become new realities. We’ll also continue to see more installations and experiments with mixed reality, AI, and VR as brands and agencies get their heads around the tech.
The convergence of selfie culture with the rise of immersive art installations – notably Yayoi Kusama’s globally ’grammed "infinity mirror rooms" – has brought a mass cultural shift to art as experience. We’ll see the influences of contemporary visual artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Nam June Paik and Pipilotti Rist reflected in the creation of new realities that consumers will want to explore and share.
The more innovative and purpose-led brands will use experience to educate and inspire everyday sustainable living, particularly in fashion.
As the authentic alternative to influencers, we will see a resurgence of trust in curators, who will help shape these new realities in culturally relevant ways.
But none of this will matter without an answer to that age-old client prompt: great idea but how will it drive reach and ROI? And here’s where social and content come in. We’ll see more integration of real world with social, creating a more seamless customer journey that reaches and lasts beyond the physical experience.
We can’t underestimate the emotional impact of a new decade, and the close of such a turbulent one. Cultural shifts such as JOMO (joy of missing out) and social-media overload will make the human experience more relevant and meaningful than ever.