Until 2020, experiential marketing projects nationwide provided a steady stream of opportunities for wide-format graphics providers to vehicle wraps, pop-up event structures, temporary signage, backdrops, and custom props and environmental graphics. But this work dried up instantly as in-person gatherings were halted due to COVID-19. So what does 2021 look like for experiential marketing?
Agency EA, an award-winning brand experience agency in Chicago, has announced the findings of its fourth annual research study on the state of experiential marketing. The industry-wide survey looks at anticipated trends impacting experiential marketing in 2021 and beyond.
This year’s proprietary research study asked representatives of Fortune 500 companies, top agencies and vendors questions about:
their perspective on industry spending,
factors impacting in-person programming,
the most effective virtual event tactics, and
the best use of experiential investment when budgets were drastically cut
Below are a few findings from the report:
60% of brand-side marketers continue to invest in experiential as a way to effectively connect with their target audience.
66% of brands noted that their budgets decreased with the transition to virtual events.
More than 1 in 3 marketers anticipate growth in their organization’s experiential budget within the next 18 months.
90% of brand-side marketers say they agree that virtual and hybrid experiences are critical to their organization’s success.
60% of those brand-side marketers look at virtual events as a short-term solution to global social distancing policies rather than a long-term investment.
90% of brand-side marketers continue to stand behind the effectiveness of in-person events as being a vessel to connect and strengthen their organization’s relationships with their customers.
Brand-side marketers agree that engaging and connecting with their audience, capturing audience attention, and organic networking opportunities are the biggest challenges when planning virtual or hybrid events.
72% of brand-side marketers are relying on the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as an indicator of when they can transition to hybrid experiences.
72% of event marketers agree that attendee safety/security and health/wellness are key issues to address in 2021 and beyond.
88% of attendees feel more connected to a brand after an in-person, rather than a virtual event — proving the value of face-to-face experiences.
About Agency EA
Agency EA is a full-service brand experience agency that connects brands with their target audiences through hybrid and virtual events, strategic marketing campaigns, digital engagements, and experiential activations.
The company began as Event Architects in 1999 with just two employees and two clients. They primarily produced events for Chicago-area companies. In 2011, the company rebranded as Agency EA to better serve clients seeking full-service agency capabilities.
In 2020, Agency EA became a division of the EA Collective. The other two divisions in EA Collective include: Storyhorse and Studio Sage. :
Storyhorse is a brand-development and storytelling agency that helps clients with research and strategy, messaging and visual identities, style guides, and rollout tactics.
Studio Sageis full-service, state-of-the-art broadcast and green screen studio. Specialties include webcasts and webinars, virtual events and conference broadcasts, and corporate and brand videos.
“Working together or independently, our divisions help strengthen our clients’ brands, engage their target audiences, and optimize value,” says Gabrielle Martinez, co-founder of EA Collective. “Every journey is unique, and our clients can choose a custom solution, partnering with one, two or all three of our divisions as an integrated team.”
When COVID-19 stay-at-home mandates reduced the number of commuters, travelers, and event-goers exposed to out-of-home messages in urban centers, OOH agencies quickly adapted. They posted public health messages, supported small businesses, and thanked the frontline heroes in hospitals. They also provided data and insights to help brands understand some of the changes in audience movements and behaviors. Here are a few examples:
Amplifying the Ad Council’s COVID-19 Messaging
In March, the Ad Council, White House, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention convened OOH industry leaders to bring critical COVID-19 safety messaging to the American public.
By donating ad space on premium out-of-home advertising billboards, kiosks, and car tops, the OOH industry helped amplify the important Ad Council messages that were also being broadcast on TV and promoted through social media.
OAAA(Out-of-Home Advertising Association of America) published a landing page from which members downloaded the Ad Council’s creative assets for COVID-19 campaigns. While each OOH company provided customized support, all Ad Council’s creative assets were designed to drive audiences to www.coronavirus.gov, the centralized information resource from HHS and the CDC.
“The American public looks to the Ad Council in times of crises, and Circle Graphics hopes getting printed materials strategically placed by our partners Clear Channel, Lamar Advertising, Outfront and others extends the reach of these life-saving messages,” said Rod Rackley, president of Out of Home at Circle Graphics.
“Out of home has historically played an essential role in informing our communities and residents on how to stay safe during times of uncertainty and crisis,” said Scott Wells, Chief Executive Officers, Clear Channel Outdoor Americas.
Other OOH companies that supported Ad Council messaging included Firefly, Intersection, Lightbox, Octopus Interactive, and ReachTV.
Fireflysupported COVID-19 work across their platform on digital screens topping ride-share vehicles and taxis in major markets.
Intersection ran the creative on their assets in New York City and worked with the Ad Council to launch multiple distribution efforts nationally.
The Lightbox OOH video network ran public service announcements across their video screens in malls across the U.S.
Octopus Interactive activated its nationwide network of digital displays inside ride-share vehicles to deliver the Ad Council campaign’s ads to passengers.
ReachTV launched the Ad Council’s COVID-19 public service announcements on TVs in 90 different airports and posted videos on the ReachTV Celebrity Fan pages on Facebook and Instagram.
Uber activated its cartop OOH ad space technology to bring the campaign’s messaging to multiple markets across the U.S.
“We’re incredibly grateful to all of our extraordinary out-of-home partners who are ensuring that these critical messages are being seen by the American people,” said Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council.
Using Vehicle Advertising to Support Gig Workers
Wrapify is a fast-growing OOH company that enables gig-economy workers to earn extra money by displaying ad messages on cars they drive for ride-share and delivery services such as Uber, Lyft, GrubHub, and Postmates.
On March 24, Wrapify announced an 8-week “Delivery Drives Relief” campaign to help gig economy workers who transitioned from driving passengers to delivering meals, groceries, and supplies to millions of home-bound workers and their families. While ride-share use dropped as much as 70% during the COVID-19 shutdown, drivers hoped to replace some of that income by making deliveries for restaurants and other local businesses.
The wrap graphics Wrapify designed for brand partners encouraged people to “Flatten the Curve: Get It Delivered.” The campaign was conducted on 1,900 gig-work/delivery vehicles in cities in which restaurants were hit hard by the COVID-19, such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Savannah, Georgia.
Promoting Hyper-local OOH Advertising
Billupsis an advertising technology company that uses data analytics to help OOH and DOOH advertisers plan and measure campaigns in a manner that meshes with digital advertising campaigns.
In April, they published researchabout how COVID-19 shutdowns had affected exposure to OOHcampaigns. The study found that while airports, restaurants, hotels, malls, and other sites experienced significant decreases in foot traffic, essential businesses such as grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies and general merchandise stores were seeing higher numbers of visitors.
To enable brands to stay connected to their audiences, Billups recommended shifting OOH ads from traditional high-traffic sites such as highways and urban transit platforms to hyper-local OOH sites in neighborhoods.
For example, Billups suggested that brands place empathetic COVID-19 messaging on neighborhood street furniture or on signs near grocery-store entrances. They even proposed reaching consumers at home through printed door-hangers or advertising inserts with pizza, restaurant takeout, or Amazon delivery boxes.
Helping Local Businesses
Some OOH companies, such as do-it-outdoorspromoted their ability post brand messages on mobile hand-washing stations or trucks used to deliver products to neighborhoods.
During the week of April 13th, they also ran three of their largest mobile billboard units along routes that passed every grocery store, healthcare clinic, hospital, and pharmacy in York, PA. The graphics featured eye-catching ‘Thank You’ messages targeted toward essential local grocery and healthcare workers.
“What would our cities be without the local and independent merchants and restaurants, arts organizations, and non-profits that define the culture of our communities? These organizations not only employ more than 50% of US workers, they enrich our lives and make our cities unique. We must support one another as we navigate the devastating effects of COVID-19,” said Pete Scantland, CEO of Orange Barrel Media and IKE Smart City. “Our mission is to utilize our media platform to improve lives in cities, and we are committed to leveraging our assets to help those who are suffering during this time.”
As the COVID-19 crisis intensified in March, brands had to quickly shift their ad messaging to be more empathetic to consumers whose lives have been disrupted. OOH advertising companies demonstrated how quickly they could help brands pivot. They also showed how OOH advertising can be a measurable, real-world component to social-media and other other online marketing campaigns.
While many brands cancelled previously scheduled OOH campaigns for March and April, OOH companies encouraged them to plan ahead and reserve prime OOH space for the late summer and fall months as business gets back to normal.
Hyperlocal is the New High Profile In an OAAA Thought Leadership post, Jan Jeff of Billups notes that “The traditional experience of OOH has completely changed in our current situation. It is normally seen as something to be experienced concurrently, with billboards that reach many people simultaneously, and on a large scale. But, with the seclusion of audiences to their homes and neighborhoods, hyperlocal, which features types of OOH media like bus shelters, street furniture, transit, package inserts, kiosks, and more, all have a unique ability to reach audiences on a more personal level.”
A trend report “Hello, Print in a Digital World 2018” illustrates more than 70 creative ways brands are combining the tactile, sensory nature of print with the real-time technological powers of digital. Thanks to augmented reality technologies or specialty inks, printed billboards, posters, magazine ads, and packages are serving as platforms to more engaging and immersive digital experiences.
The report was written by Michael Chase, Chief Marketing Officer at St. Joseph’s Communications, a full-service, smart-content factory that helps brands navigate the world of omni-channel communications.
Chase introduced the Print in a Digital World report in a presentation at PRINT 17 last fall. He points out that “We are in an information revolution powered by the intersection of two of the most commanding knowledge transfer mechanisms of our time — the Gutenberg Press and the Internet.”
Instead of relying solely on digital content to generate likes, retweets, and clicks, many marketers are finding innovative ways to integrate printed materials into their campaigns.
For example, below some case studies featured in the report:
McDonald’s Canada turned ordinary drink trays into the McDonald’s Boombox.
Travelers on Emirates airlines could scan their amenity kits to unlock augmented reality content such as games and travel tips.
French retailer Castorama created interactive wallpaper that allows children and parents to enjoy storytime together.
An SS+K ad agency holiday greeting card included a custom-designed Google Cardboard mailer that connected recipients to an 360-degree virtual reality bobsled ride.
Google and Vogue collaborated to bring voice-activated content from the print magazine to Google’s Home device. By prompting Google Home to “Talk to Vogue” users can access behind the scenes audio content from selected celebrity interviews.
IKEA “Cook This Paper” campaign used food-safe ink on parchment cooking paper to produce illustrated, interactive recipe posters. At-home chefs added the designated ingredients, rolled them up the parchment paper, and popped the creation into the oven.
Samsonite printed a specially designed sheet that customers convert into a handle-like, paper “Weight Tag.” When customer wrapped the tag around the handle of their luggage and picked it up, they could determine if their packed luggage exceeded the 50-lb. restriction set by most airlines. Special perforations on the tag snapped off when the weight exceeded 50 lbs.
ASICS used thermochromic ink to publish a print ad that folded out to create a mat that readers could step on to see the shape of their foot. A chart on the ad talked about what types of shoes were best for specific foot shapes.
Crust Pizza used capacitative touch technology from Novalia to create vinyl outdoor advertising posters that could play music. The posters encouraged passers-by to remix music on a pizza-shaped DJ deck.
About St. Joseph Communications
St. Joseph’s Communications in Toronto began as a printing company. Today, printing is just a portion of what they do. In addition to printing catalogs, custom publications, and packaging, they assist brands with omnichannel marketing, including digital production, digital signage, augmented reality, social media, custom videography and photography.
If you are having trouble finding tech-savvy design professionals to help your business serve clients who want more than print communications, there’s a good reason. A new wave of opportunities for designers is coming from technology companies, start-ups funded by venture capitalists, and professional services companies.
Since 2013, companies such as Google, Facebook, AirBnb, IBM, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Accenture, PWC, and Shopify have been acquiring digital design firms with expertise in fields such as user experience, app development, creative technology, industrial design, and video storytelling.
Instead of hiring graphic designers and other design professionals to aid in short-term, campaign-related projects, these big technology and professional services companies want design teams that can assist in planning and developing new products and digital experiences for their customers.
Design in Tech
In his 2016 “Design in Tech” presentation, John Maeda, design partner of the venture capital firm KPCB, attributes the recent wave of acquisitions to the growing importance of customer experience as a competitive advantage.
He cites a Temkin Group study that shows that if people have a positive emotional experience with a company, they are 6 times more likely to buy from that company, 12 times more likely to recommend that company, and 5 times more likely to forgive a mistake.
Maeda believes a new type of design is emerging that will require designers with skills that are radically different from classic design disciplines such as a graphic communications, fashion design, architecture, interior design, and landscape design.
When designing for digital experiences, he says, “Design isn’t just about beauty. It’s about market relevance and meaningful results.”
Instead of spending weeks or months to create a “perfect” design for traditional distribution channels, designers of digital experiences can have their work instantly delivered to hundreds of millions of users. The design will never be “final,” but continuously evolving through continuous testing and data analysis.
Because classic design and design thinking are not the same as computational design, Maeda believes “The general word – ‘design’ – will come to mean less as we will start to qualify the specific type of design we mean.”
Computational designers will be business-savvy professionals who know how to use research and data analytics in their designs. In addition to coding and testing skills, computational designers will need to be able to design systems and cultures.
Design Education is Lagging
Maeda predicts “The large influx of designers into top services companies through mergers and acquisitions activity will reboot the design industry,” predicts Maeda. “We will see more designers becoming investing partners at VC firms, and eventually starting their own funds.” He said many designers in tech are active angel investors.
Because this new field of design is still evolving, it has been difficult to traditional design schools to adapt their programs. Maeda notes that, “Currently design education lags behind the technology industry’s needs for data-oriented, coding-enabled graduates with business acumen. Many resources are available on the internet to supplement formal education in design. Becoming a skilled self-learner is a critical skill for a new designer.”
According to a 2016 SGIA Industry Survey Report, 15.6 percent of graphics producers rated ad agencies as their top declining market. In contrast, the four biggest growth markets were interior decorators/designers (55.7 percent), health care institutions (55.6 percent), environmental graphics (53.5 percent) and hospitality services (46.6 percent).
In my opinion, the decline of ad agencies as growth customers reflects three interrelated trends: (1) the rise of customer experience design; (2) the growth of in-house design teams; and (3) the emergence of different types of agencies for new types of creative services.
As I researched career opportunities for designers for my Creatives at Work blog, I discovered several articles that suggested the traditional advertising agency business model is archaic.
Instead of hiring ad agencies to buy ad space and design campaigns, companies today are hiring multiple agencies to help their in-house teams with specific elements of “customer experience design.”
Customer experience design determines how customers discover a product, learn more about it, buy it, and use it. The goal of delivering a consistently great customer experience is to build a following of loyal customers who will recommend a company’s products to colleagues, friends, and families.
While paid advertising plays a role in customer experience design, it’s becoming less important. Customer experience is also affected by product performance, packaging, and ease of use as well as customer support, and in-person interactions in stores and at events. Other customer experience tools include personalized communications and the delivery of educational content that is relevant to the customer’s interests.
In the article “Are Branding Agencies Still Relevant?” on fastcodesign.com, Paul Woods argues that the traditional top-down “brand-development” strategy is a waste of time: “Increasingly, a brand is defined by what a product actually delivers, not by how the marketers tell us how we should feel about it.”
He points out that many startups forgo lengthy brand-definition processes in favor of getting their products out into the marketplace. After the product is launched, the goal is to deliver positive customer experiences that can help build a community of fans. The start-up can then use real customer insights to refine the products and articulate the brand.
In UX magazine, Chuck Longanecker explains why “Customer Experience is the Future of Design.” He writes: “Experience design (XD) is not just a medium, like an advertising campaign or online app, but rather a strategy to keep customers engaged with a brand through impactful interactions.” It’s a strategy in which everyone in at the company must deliver a unified customer experience: “The idea is to wow customers at every point in their journey.”
The ultimate customer experience may involve virtual reality. In Kevin Kelly’s fantastic Wired magazine article about virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality, he quotes an neuroscience expert who says, “VR talks to our subconscious mind like no other media.”
Kelly writes that virtual reality technology “forces you to be present — in a way that flat screens do not —so you gain authentic experiences, as authentic as real life. People remember VR experiences not as a memory, but as something that happened to them.”
New Types of Agencies Are Forming
While many companies are becoming less reliant on paid advertising and ad agencies, most businesses do need help navigating the many complexities and opportunities in customer experience design.
New types of agencies (and print-service providers) are stepping up to help manage complex projects, test emerging technologies, or provide specialized skills.
Today, some agencies focus on creating digital products such as apps, websites, videos, and virtual reality experiences. Others coordinate the design, execution, measurement, and analysis of integrated multi-channel marketing campaigns.
Members of the Society for Experiential Graphic Design collaborate with architects and interior designers to shape content-rich, experiential spaces for stores, airports, museums, campuses, healthcare facilities, and offices. They blend printed and digital signage, artwork, displays, and information kiosks into buildings and public spaces in a way that ensures a consistently positive experience for visitors and employees. (Note: The Society for Experiential Graphic Design was formerly known as the The Society for Environmental Graphic Design. The update from “environmental” to “experiential” indicates how quickly agencies and design studios are evolving.)
A Talent Drain
With so many new opportunities emerging on in-house teams or for new-era agencies, it’s not surprising that many young designers are leaving traditional advertising agencies behind. One industry analyst believes entrenched Boomer-age executives in ad agencies have been slow to adopt new business models and capitalize on changing technologies.
Schenk writes: “An increasing number of young creatives are turning not to advertising, but to companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, companies where creative freedom is virtually infinite, where their ideas are more likely to result in something tangible, and where, rightly or wrongly, there’s a sense of purpose – compared with the frequently suffocating atmosphere of agencies.”
Instead of producing TV commercials or negotiating product placements in TV shows or movies made by Hollywood, ad-agency creative teams could help brands produce their own feature films, short series, live streaming events, virtual-reality experiences, experiential events, museum exhibits, and more.
The creative team might include a producer, writer, director, designer, story architect, and technologist.
Print-service providers should pay close attention to shifting business models within all sorts of creative services agencies, because printed graphics will continue to be needed.
As brands become more active in creating entertaining and educational experiences for customers, print-service providers that can produce a full range of large-format graphics, custom interiors and backdrops, digital signage, and 3D printed objects may be well-positioned to benefit.