2020 Is the Year of Virtual Proms and Graduations, With Help From Brands

Jack in the Box, Her Campus and Natural Light deliver digital alternatives to milestone events throughout May

Virtual prom dances are the norm for 2020. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Unsplash
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Key insights:

The middle of May is normally a time for high school proms, college commencements and graduation parties, but the Covid-19 pandemic has made those moments impossible for the class of 2020.

As millions of students in the U.S. are missing out on traditional graduation experiences, brands are stepping in to offer some quarantine-friendly alternatives: virtual proms and commencements.

Paul Soseman, CEO of experiential marketing agency Department Zero, notes brands are seeing the benefit in hosting these experiences because they make it possible for graduating students to still share memorable moments with family and friends, albeit in a nontraditional way.

“Brands sponsoring or being involved with graduation isn’t anything new, but now they have a captive audience that can definitely see their messaging. It’s an opportunity for brands to come in and play a bigger role,” Soseman says. “Graduating from high school or college sticks out in your memory, but graduating in 2020 in particular will stick out, because it was that time when we couldn’t leave our houses.”

Prom in your living room

When local governments began issuing stay-at-home mandates in March—and it was clear in-person gatherings would be unsafe, indefinitely—Jack in the Box was one of the first brands to announce plans for a virtual prom as part of a larger stay-at-home campaign. The fast-food brand started to tease the event on its social channels in early spring, leaving followers wondering: What exactly does a virtual prom look like?

The brand ended up hosting its virtual Prom in the Box on May 9, creating two experiences on Zoom for Rolling Hills Prep and Polytechnic High School in California. The brand also expanded the event to the public with livestreams on its Instagram and Twitch accounts.

Jack in the Box held its #PromInTheBox on May 9.
Jack in the Box

Adrienne Ingoldt, svp and chief brand and experience officer for Jack in the Box, explains the brand wanted to deliver a feel-good moment to high school students—and offer a culturally relevant livestream for brand fans.

“We uncanceled prom and became the first quick-service restaurant to make prom a virtual experience,” she says. “When we first started planning, we wanted to partner directly with schools in order to create a very custom experience for them since we knew how important this night was.”

Jack in the Box hosted two private Zooms for the schools so classmates could have a shared experience at home with the option of using custom backgrounds. The brand tapped YouTube personality Jesse Wellens to host the event at home, with remote DJ sets from Diplo and Dillon Francis. The event also included surprise pop-ins from rap duo Rae Sremmurd and TikTok star Jalaiah Harmon.

To offer viewers some prom necessities, the brand integrated sponsors digitally for physical deliveries, providing Uber Eats codes for discounted and free meals, and promo codes for flowers from 1-800-Flowers, dresses from Lulus and tuxedos from Black Tux.

Jack in the Box worked with Nice Sweater, a digital experiential division of marketing shop Cashmere Agency, to execute the event. According to the brand, the #PromInTheBox hashtag drew 30 million impressions on social, and six custom Giphy stickers generated more than 12,300 views.

“Outside of quantitative numbers, Nice Sweater and Jack in the Box wanted to do something that would recreate the human connectivity that consumers are missing during these unprecedented times,” says Ted Chung, chairman of Cashmere Agency. “We know consumers want more than just products; they want deeper connections to the brands they purchase from. This virtual experience was a safe space for the students to be with their friends and, most importantly, recreated the moment each senior had been looking forward to all year long.”

Jack in the Box isn’t the only brand that has hosted a virtual prom this season. DJ D-Nice and social app and group video chat platform Houseparty, arguably the two biggest breakout stars of quarantine, joined forces last week to host their own prom, which was open to the public.

#HousepartyProm viewers could "bring" DJ D-Nice into their room.

ian.zelaya@adweek.com Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.