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What will virtual experiences look like once we’ve all been vaccinated?

Klarna partnered with influencers to create a virtual shopping experience in Animal Crossing

Alexandra Bousquet-Chavanne, creative strategy manager at Essence, wonders how digital experiences will look once the physical world opens back up to the public post-Covid-19 vaccination.

Over the last five years, ‘experience‘ has become a catch-all term to cover everything from websites and applications to in-person cocktail events in a Breaking Bad themed mobile meth lab and branded islands and storefronts in Animal Crossing. Everything that can be experienced is an ‘experience‘. But when the pandemic hit a year ago, classical experiential marketing as we knew it took a hit. Travel and tourism halted, brick and mortars closed their doors and pop-ups disappeared. For the first time, brands and marketers had to consider what an experience really means. In 2020, experience became virtual-first for the very first time.

So when vaccines are fully rolled out and people start to return to their ‘normal lives’, leave their homes and go back to physical spaces and experiences, what will have changed? What will this future look like?

A different kind of access

In 2020, out of necessity, launch and press events were transformed. Usually only accessible to a select VIP few, brands are now bringing their most loyal customer base into these premium moments. To launch Fenty Skin, Rihanna and LVMH invited fans to attend an entirely virtual house party – literally. Rihanna hosted the product launch in a virtual mansion with a cocktail bar, beauty spa, hot tub and dance floor. Guests could discover hidden ‘treasures’ and facts about the products by the hot tub in the garden, go to the bar and download CYO cocktail recipes, or even livestream themselves on the virtual dance floor.

Similarly, the live entertainment industry had to adapt quickly to survive, but pandemic constraints have returned creative license to talent and creators and fueled new formats. People have embraced the behavior of attending live gigs and music festivals from home, with crowds in bigger numbers than physically possible: over 100 million people watched the BTS virtual concert. Venues, sponsors and agents will need to consider how to deliver virtual experiences to go hand-in-hand with in-person events and unlock new paid online opportunities. The O2 Brixton Academy opened up its first live gig since Covid to wider audiences using VR tech via the MelodyVR app. The virtual events company has just acquired Napster for £53m, signaling that VR concerts are here to stay.

Covid has changed the way talent and marketers involve audiences in their brand worlds, and this virtual realm of opportunity is also scaling their impact.

Surprising creative alliances

We’ve seen brands forging new creative alliances to succeed in a hybrid experience reality, with partnerships remaining key to success and brand love. During the pandemic, this has boomed with sports and gaming, a natural alliance due to their competitive elements. In March, La Liga hosted a Fifa 20 charity championship on Twitch and YouTube, attracting an audience of more than 1 million. The tournament was co-organized by the football league, its sponsor Santander, and EA Sports. Brands need to look for partners beyond their sector, that will not only increase their reach but also give them the credibility and license to play in new creative arenas.

Luxury fashion and retail are also beginning to break out of their molds and take ownership of the gaming sphere, with top fashion houses setting up shop in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. Valentino dropped 20 custom virtual looks for the video game’s 11 million players to try on. Other services have piggy-backed nicely: global payments service Klarna partnered with influencers to create an in-game virtual shopping experience, featuring pieces by The North Face and Issey Miyake. And for the biggest bang in fashion x gaming, Balenciaga released its new fall 2021 collection in video game format: Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. The game takes the audience from its retail store to a secret rave in the woodlands. Avatars populate the virtual world dressed in pieces from the latest collection.

In 2021, brands should consider breaking from their category conventions and working with unexpected partners to unlock access to new spaces and audiences.

‘Insperience’ as much as experience

Many people won’t be comfortable returning to crowded venues, which means the ‘insperience’ trend is one to take seriously. Brands will need to provide equally immersive and creative in-home experiences. Of course, home entertainment has been around for decades, but this evolution considers a more complete experience, from food and drink partners (such as Haagen-Dazs partnering with Secret Cinema) to at-home fitness (with Beyoncé x Peloton classes, who needs a spin studio?). The home space is where brands actually have to consider how to incorporate a physical element into the activations they deliver. Baking and mixology are obvious examples, but we’ve even seen travel and tourism kits (Ikea sought to provide at-home travel experiences in the UAE, selling ‘Vacation in a Box‘ – custom made kits filled with objects and instructions to transport people to Tokyo, Turkey, France or the Maldives).

The insperience trend is just as important for employers and B2B brands to consider. Many employees have been stuck in a WFH world for the better part of a year and the connection with our employers is more fragile (and intangible) than ever. This is a great opportunity to reinvent the employee experience and corporate culture. How can employers leverage the new tech and creativity we’ve seen from brands to keep their employees inspired and connected? Think in-game team days or VR company meetings.

Think people-first

It’s important to remember who sits at the center of our virtual or physical experiences. Start with the question: what do people need right now? What can my brand do for people? How can I play a positive or uplifting role in their lives?

It’s been a year since Italy was the first European country to call a state of emergency on January 31, 2020. Today, many European countries are still in lockdown. Morale is low and global news cycles make it increasingly difficult to have a positive outlook on the economy, unemployment, children’s education or the growing mental health crisis. In the UK, Eventbrite saw that demand for mental health virtual events was closely linked to lockdown periods, with interest peaking in May, dipping in August and rising again through October. Support is welcome, especially in the form of shared experiences. And while it might not seem like much, helping people immerse themselves and connect with others in alternate realities and virtual spaces that take them away from their day to day is an important way to be there for people.

Physical, visceral and shared in-person experiences will always play a role in people’s lives – across entertainment, sports, retail and travel – and an important role in continuing to foster brand affinity. The future of experience will be hybrid, blending exclusive paid experiences with inclusive, accessible digital executions. Because of new consumer expectations, brands must continue to consider how to deliver immersive experiences beyond their physical retail spaces or events.

If the past 10 years have been about democratization of content and content-sharing across borders, then surely we’re about to enter the next 10 years of democratized, shared experiences across the globe. With proof that constraints do unleash creativity, hopefully we can look forward to a whole range of shared, immersive experiences in 2021.

Alexandra Bousquet-Chavanne is creative strategy manager at Essence.

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