10 Takeaways From Brand Activations That Adapted to Crisis in 2020

Marketers can apply these lessons to future experiences, even post-pandemic

Brand activation photos from HBO Max, Fisher-Price, T-Mobile and Wendy
Brands such as HBO Max, Fisher-Price, T-Mobile and Wendy's got creative with limitations. HBO Max/Tool of North America, Fisher-Price, OnePlus and T-Mobile, Jordan Strauss for Wendy's
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

The Covid-19 pandemic devastated experiential marketing as we knew it in 2020, but the physical limitations it presented brands and agencies also brought about innovation.

Pandemic-proof virtual festivals, hybrid experiences and drive-in activations are now part of a new normal for brands’ overall consumer engagement strategy. While it’s still unclear whether “normal” in-person activations will be able to bounce back in 2021, marketers now have lessons from nine months of pivoting that they can apply to future projects—whether they’re occurring in a pandemic or otherwise.

Here are 10 industry takeaways from some of the most innovative and notable brand experiences that adapted to crisis this year. 

Consumers respond well to physical-digital hybrid experiences

Most consumers couldn’t physically attend brand experiences this year, but that didn’t stop brands from producing IRL programs—and creatively bringing them to consumers’ mobile and desktop devices. 

For its U.S. 5G phone launch in November, OnePlus and T-Mobile tapped experiential agency The Bait Shoppe to create a nationwide scavenger hunt, placing three real pop-up stores in remote locations and tasking consumers online with finding them. The seven-day activation averaged 1,900 logins or guesses per hour and 41,000 guesses per day, with more than 9,000 correct guesses and a total of 319,200 total participants. 

“There’s a lot of opportunity to excite consumers right now and give them programs that last longer than a traditional virtual event,” The Bait Shoppe founder Evan Starkman said. “Just because people can’t get together in the same room doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something to anchor a program. The anchor can’t just be a digital RSVP.”

Let guests choose their own adventure

Hulu

Producing a virtual conference or festival with a linear schedule is a recipe for attendees leaving after 10 minutes. To combat the inevitable at-home distractions people faced this year, some brands created nonlinear events where guests could pop in and out, and choose what they wanted to experience.

Adobe pivoted its annual flagship conference online in April, rolling out more than 100 sessions across six content verticals on the software brand’s website. Attendees could choose to watch keynotes first, or skip ahead to see tech in action with prerecorded product demos.

“We decided the best way to do the storytelling was to allow a lot of user choice and not keep them captive,” Adobe’s vp of experience marketing Alex Amado told Adweek.

In June, Hulu celebrated Pride Month with a virtual festival that included performances and panels headlined by LGBTQ+ talent. What set that Pride event apart was the fact that attendees could create avatars and navigate the festival’s digital island as they pleased.

Immersive theater still works in a virtual setting

Using actors and plot to immerse consumers into a world of a show or product has been an experiential tactic for years. This strategy can still work and be just as effective in quarantine.

To celebrate the release of miniseries The Flight Attendant in November, HBO Max partnered with Tool of North America to produce a livestreamed virtual coffee class using videoconferencing platform BlueJeans. But the class quickly turned into a murder mystery event tying into themes of the comedic thriller. The barista teaching guests how to make lattes was kidnapped on camera, along with certain participants at home. It turns out, those involved with the drama were actors following a script, meant to generate unease and suspense among the invited press and influencers.

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.
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