Does a Person Need to Be Physically Present for a Brand Experience to Resonate?

The Internet, mobile ubiquity and social media are changing the way we connect

What defines an experience? According to “the Internet,” an experience is “something that happens to somebody.” I like that definition. It’s vague without prerequisites and it does not delineate the environment or space. With the onslaught of real-time marketing and social media, brands are challenged to connect with their audiences in a very real way that will create lasting impressions, memorable experiences and, hopefully, customer loyalty.

Illustrated purple face of a man and woman in the upper right and upper left. Center is a small iPhone with a smiling man's face.

Illustration: Max Estes

But in order to create meaningful brand experiences, we need to consider the following questions: Does a person need to be physically present for a brand experience to truly resonate? Does it require literal communal participation? Can a virtual experience still connect emotionally?

Every year, I attend the New York Philharmonic’s season opening concert in Central Park. The experience of sitting on the Great Lawn with thousands of people, hearing the music live is, at a very basic level, different than sitting in my apartment listening to that orchestra’s album.

But does the atmosphere of either of these experiences make me like the music any more or less? Does one experience sway me more to buy tickets to the next New York Philharmonic concert, buy the next album released, or recommend it to a friend? Perhaps the big difference in this case is that the live experience gives me a story to share with friends and colleagues.

So the question struck me: In this digital age, can you generate an experience specifically designed for virtual interaction and still have it resonate in a profound way? Take two campaigns we at DDB New York created for the New York City Ballet: Faile Art Series and New Beginnings.

Faile Art Series was an effort to introduce ballet to a younger audience with an interest in culture and art but who had not yet experienced the ballet. The NYCB partnered with Brooklyn-based street art duo Faile, best known for its urban-style, pop-culture collages. The series was infused with original Faile artwork that audience members received at the conclusion of each performance to commemorate the program. This was clearly designed for people to be physically present.

Conversely, New Beginnings, NYCB’s tribute to 9/11 victims performed on the rooftop of 4 World Trade Center on Sept. 12, 2013, was an experience specifically created to be shared virtually. The short film captures a moving performance at sunrise, and is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the city that NYCB calls home. Although New Beginnings was a virtual experience, the film most definitely resonated with people, in many cases moving them to tears. Looking at both campaigns, I would argue that watching the performance online didn’t resonate less because it was experienced virtually.

Perhaps one of the best, and most awarded, examples of how resonant a purely online experience can actually be is the project at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Through a series of incredible short films, live audio recordings and realistic 3-D animation, the site artfully helps us imagine (and feel) what it might have been like to be aboard that first manned spacecraft to the moon. Initially broadcast live to coincide with the actual timing of the original mission, the site is now in self-guided mode. But there is no doubt that it is an experience that makes you feel as if you were there. Emotionally and physically. And it’s presented entirely online.

There are those who still argue that real-life experiences resonate much deeper with consumers than their virtual counterparts. In his book Spectacle, author David Rockwell writes, “The experience of a virtual community pales in the face of the physical experience of a spectacle.”

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