BY JEFF BOEDGES | MARCH 2, 2021
There is little doubt the Experiential Industry was devastated in 2020. Due to COVID-19, over the course of four weeks in February and March of last year, like many other industries, we went from full throttle planning and execution to nearly complete shutdown. Early during the pandemic, there were far more questions than answers and nearly as much disinformation as there were hard facts. The resulting confusion helped devastate whole industries and left no corner of the country unscarred. We seemed to get a bit of a handle on the disease throughout the summer but as predicted, a second wave crashed on our shores and caused a tsunami of daily infections and casualties that have overwhelmed hospitals and inundated nearly every aspect of life in the US.
Beyond COVID, 2020 also saw a dizzying array of other societal challenges. Political discord hit an all-time high in the US as well as many other western countries. Polarization became rampant as misinformation on topics ranging from COVID to voter fraud have left many suspicious of their friends, family, and neighbors. Tragic racial incidents became nearly a daily occurrence on our newsfeeds even as awareness of the problem reached an all-time high. Our once unshakable faith in democracy was damaged significantly and seems to have reached a crescendo with the recent storming and ransacking of the Capitol building by an angry mob emboldened by those sworn to protect us.
The effect of all these simultaneous challenges is that many people are simply tired. They are exhausted with the inability of our leaders to address these issues and many if not most are experiencing fatigue on some level. We miss our old lives and have grown weary of the privations we have had to endure. But while many of these social wildfires are still largely uncontained, for the savvy marketer, there is plenty of reason for optimism and a host of ways to get off the sideline. Many if not most brands have adjusted to the phalanx of challenges now presented. They have leaned into social causes and are making a stand against injustice and hate. They have adopted a mix of physical and digital experiential and are actively planning for a post-COVID world. Businesses around the globe have continued to provide a constant comfort for their constituents, using their collective resources, energy, and creativity to help everyone see their way through this unprecedented moment in history.
COVID 19 Outlook
While any one of the tests we faced in 2020 would have been herculean by themselves, the most pressing challenge to our collective livelihoods has been COVID. And in this test, we are currently at a crossroads. Perhaps more than any other country, the US has had a very hard time containing the virus and it has become progressively worse. Whether it be from less time outdoors, or holiday social gatherings, our current infection and mortality figures are some of the highest per capita in the world(1). But on the positive side, at the time of this writing, five vaccines have been approved for use in the US; the immunization of front-line medical workers has largely been accomplished and we are now seeking to help those that are most vulnerable. Though there are still dark days to come, the end of COVID is in sight.
Our biggest challenge has now shifted from developing effective vaccines to the handling of vaccine logistics. Thus far, the rollout of the vaccine has been at best, haphazard creating a large amount of frustration for those that feel the most vulnerable. As of Friday, January 29th, only around 10.6 million people in the United States had been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(3). That figure is far short of the goal federal officials originally set to distribute at least 20 million doses by the end of December 2020. Exacerbating matters is the fact that critical information flow to most citizens about when to expect immunization or how to get it has been inconsistent at best.
But it is not all bad news, the Federal Governement has set a goal of 100 million immunizations in the first 100 days – a potential huge leap from the end of last year and new vaccines are coming online regularly. So, while the timing is unclear, one thing is certain, immunization and the critical heard immunity will come. And with it so will the return of the more social aspects of life in the US and around the globe. According to an NPR interview with Anthony Fauci in late December of 2020, Fauci opined that “… 50% would have to be vaccinated before we start to see an impact” but “75 to 85% would have to get vaccinated if we want to have that blanket of herd immunity.” He went on to say “if all goes according to plan, by the end of March or beginning of April more vaccines will be available to the general public” “Once we get there, if in the subsequent months, April, May, June, July, we get as many people vaccinated as possible, we could really turn this thing around before we get towards the end of the year.” With a current population of around 328 Million people currently in the US, if we can get to a million people per day, this opinion should bear out.
2020 was undoubtedly the most politically charged year in American History since maybe Watergate or maybe even since the birth of the country. Propelled by an unchecked flow of misinformation, coming from social media and “news outlets” of dubious character, Americans and others around the world were besieged with information designed to portray the world as hostile to their survival. Social media algorithms designed to channel content based on viewing history, continued to cement ideas on both sides of the political spectrum that compromise was to be avoided at all costs.
According to a recent Pew Research poll: a month before the election, roughly eight-in-ten registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly nine-in-ten – again in both camps – worried that a victory by the other would lead to “lasting harm” to the United States(4). If realizing you have a problem, is the first step to solving a problem, we may at least have that part checked. Americans both see this problem and want to address it. Overwhelming majorities of both [parties] surveyed this fall said that their preferred candidate, if elected, should focus on addressing the needs of all Americans, “even if it means disappointing some of [that party’s] supporters.” There are many opinions on how to fix the current divide and it will be one of the most complex tasks we face as a nation. Government, brands, corporations, news outlets, social media and all other traditional and non-traditional institutions will have a role to play.
Social Justice Outlook
Perhaps owing to a rise in hate groups or hate speech, or as a reaction to a perceived growing threat of one group vs another, 2020 seemed to provide an ugly exclamation point on a series of high-profile incidents involving violence against black Americans in the US. The killing of George Floyd, the shooting of Jacob Blake and a series of other high-profile murders have sparked nationwide protests, renewed calls for the removal of Confederate symbols and produced public condemnations of systemic racism from lawmakers, corporations, sports leagues and others(5).
Along with these incidents has come a new awareness among many but not all our citizens. This new awareness however is not a solution, it is merely the first step. Currently the public is about evenly split on whether the increased [awareness] will lead to major policy changes to address racial inequality (48% say it will and 51% say it will not). A sizable share (46%) say this will not lead to changes that will improve the lives of Black people. And while a majority say the heightened attention to racial issues represents a change in the way most Americans think about these issues, just 34% say this represents a major change(6). No matter where your own predictions lie, one thing is certain; solving the issue of social injustice will require sustained, well thought out policies by citizens, governmental officials, and by the corporate community especially.
Moving forward, businesses will be held to a higher standard than ever before. According to the Harvard Business Review, Consumers and other stakeholders want companies that see social good as a necessity, not just a marketing strategy. It’s up to companies to respond to this new challenge(7). The article also says that: Research has shown that companies with effective Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs are more profitable than those that aren’t. Ultimately however, profitability should not decide how responsible a corporation is, organizations the world over should embrace Social Justice because it is a just cause. The late, great John Lewis put it this way: “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet.”
There are many people that are now predicting a social bounce – a new roaring 20s. And why not? By any measure, 2020 was a year of deprivation, and if you have spoken to anyone over 50, they will likely confirm that 2020 was like nothing they have ever seen before. The last 12 months were filled with lockdowns, job losses, social inequality, climate crisis, global protests, and divisive politics. People not only faced real challenges to their physical wellbeing, they are also more anxious than ever(8).
So, after a year filled with sacrifice of nearly every sort, there is wide speculation that we will return to the hedonism of the 1920s, the period that ensued after the end of 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and World War I. According to Grant McCracken, the anthropologist and author of the Chief Culture Officer: “After a long year of restrictions and cancellations, when countries finally turn a corner with the pandemic, there will likely be a prolonged moment of collective indulgence and celebration”. Jonathan Portes, Professor of or economics and public policy at King’s College in London goes on to say: “As vaccines are developed and people feel more confident going outdoors to socialize and shop, a desire to make up for lost time may push them to splash out on things they missed in the previous year.”
This is not to say that everyone will have the ability to participate equally. The financial and emotional impact of the past year will see an imbalanced recovery. According to Portes: “… the lowest-earning workers were seven times more likely than the highest, to work in sectors that had been forced to close. Moreover, more than 55% of women reported lost income … compared to just 34% of men. For numerous people, 2021 will continue to present financial hardships, meaning brands may need to be more mindful of the varied experiences of their customers. The ability to rebuild long term robustness will depend on sustained economic stimulus from governments and other organizations. Consequently, the road to recovery may yet be precarious.”
The key takeaway for brands and marketers is that the grip of COVID will likely begin to subside mid-year as we make progress on immunizations. IRL events will begin to once more to be seen albeit they will bear a striking resemblance to events in late 2020 with stringent guidelines on PPE and social distancing. Anyone that watches professional sports has glimpsed the immediate future, where reduced attendance, PPE and social distancing are the norm. The timing, PPE rules, and maximum allowed attendance at all events will largely be a product of local and national government edicts but most of these entities appreciate the need for IRL experiences to restart. With a new President in the White House, look for continued strengthening of guidance and perhaps even federal laws regarding personal protection during COVID(9).
In the coming year, we will also continue to see the rise and eventual adoption of hybrid events or phygital, where the impact of reduced attendance is partially or completely offset by digital and virtual efforts. The adoption of this movement by marketers is equal parts overdue and well underway. Consumers have been living in a phygital world for over a decade. Shopping for, conducting research on and speaking to peers about your brands all in the digital realm. Ultimately, they have some interaction with your brand in the real world. We have seen it in experiential as well; every event produced for last 10 years has had ties with some form of digital, social, and virtual mediums. The big difference is now that both approaches, both types of experiences will demand equal strategic attention and likely equal investment.
Grant McCracken says: “In 2021, [consumers] will continue to experiment with digital channels (such as Twitch and Fortnite) for everything from therapeutic escapism to networking to protesting. With audiences clearly happy to adapt. Expect cultural forms to further mutate even after ‘normal’ play resumes, whether that’s more Broadway adaptations topping the streaming charts or more political campaigning in gaming sensations like Among Us.”
So, how does this measured, and hybrid approach compare with the idea of the roaring 20s you ask? Well, like all these issues, it is a bit complicated. Official events, like the Tokyo Olympics, Sydney Mardi Gras, pro sports, live music events and more are all set to return in 2021, they will be greatly scaled back and COVID Safe. Where the “roar” comes in will be a bit more hidden initially but will grow as heard immunity takes hold. In the short term, we will continue to see the rise of spontaneous events, driven by social media, that range from protests to post election street parties.
Perhaps most closely resembling the speakeasy culture of the Roaring 20s has been the rise in “illegal” house parties and rave style events. Popular apps including Vybe Together billed itself on TikTok and its website as a place to organize and attend underground parties, using the tagline “Get your rebel on. Get your party on”(10). Though Apple has removed the app from their store, consumers will simply turn to other mainstream apps including Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and others to fill the vacuum.
Whatever the type of impromptu event, we are far less likely to be scaled back or necessarily safe, but they will happen with greater frequency as COVID fatigue builds and confidence among the immunized continues to rise. Most likely the roaring 2020s will not get seriously underway until near the end of 2021 when heard immunity comes of age and daily infection rates, death rates and overall fear have dramatically subsided. Each quarter will see the world start to look a bit like its old self with an eventual full tilt return to in-real-life events and Experiential at the nexus as people rebound from our long isolation.
What Brands Can Do
Early in the pandemic, many brands chose to simply close the door on most of their A&P Spend. Of course, Experiential and other firsthand engagements were out of the question. But even advertising dollars were way down initially owing to a lack of promotable content with far fewer live sports, no new shows, etc. Other brands simply opted out for fear of striking the wrong tone(11). So what role should brands fill in 2021?
Many of the traditional institutions that could be relied on to provide a sense of calm during the storm have been at least temporarily interrupted. With lockdowns eliminating many of our traditional social interactions, and with many governmental agencies losing some or all of their relevance, consumers are going to place a greater demand on corporations and their brands to provide solace. While that may be a daunting task, it is also a great opportunity for brands. The line between altruism and capitalism will be even more blurred as brands work to improve the world in which their consumers live while simultaneously working to improve their bottom lines.
Simply put, in 2021, brands will be forced to demonstrate how they put people before profits. Helene Landermore, Associate Professor of political science at Yale University put it this way: “In the face of police brutality, political misinformation, and COVID-19, people grew weary of capitalist systems in 2020. As the pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of key workers and WFH policies saw people rethink the rat race, capitalist exploits were recognized, and people realized the value of those who are overlooked and underserved. In the UK, 70% of people believe the pandemic demonstrated the importance of immigration in running essential services. Wise to social issues – and how brands must structurally and financially respond – people will cast a critical eye over the capitalist system in 2021 and look for more equitable, kinder futures.”
Advocate for Social Justice
This past year saw people become more aware than ever about racism in our societies; it is no longer enough to be aware or to play lip service to corporate social responsibility, brands will now be expected to act in a leadership role for positive change. As many as 70 percent of consumers want brands to take a stand on social and political issues. That’s a 66 percent increase from 2017, according to Sprout Social’s 2019 #BrandsGetReal survey(12). Alex Ross, author of The Industries of the Future puts it this way:
“The smartest thing a brand can do is show why and how they’ve changed. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ are critical to building trust so audiences don’t think brands just flipped a switch one day. No – we read, we studied, we talked, we’ve understood why these things were harmful, and now we’re changing course because we want to do things differently.”
From our perspective, Social Justice will also need to play a prominent role in 2021. Brands and agencies alike will need to rethink what Social Justice means to them. In a recent article from the Harvard Business Review, navigating the waters of social advocacy is far more difficult for brands than many want to acknowledge, and the price of getting it wrong can be extreme(13).
From the Experiential side, sponsorships will need to be evaluated to determine each event’s record on social justice and what those organizations are doing to support the cause. Agencies and vendors will also need to be evaluated on their policies and procedures and how they are leaning into Social Justice. Finally, the types of events that we are creating, and producing, will need to demonstrate how they are inclusive and if possible, how they will benefit the cause of Social Justice reform.
Agencies will also need to take a hard look at their own makeup, ranging from their recruitment practices to their own efforts to provide social justice beyond the conference room. The Experiential industry in particular has done a poor job of integrating which is something we will need to correct at all levels, beginning with the classroom and rising up right through or executive teams. Look for Soho Experiential to continue its outreach to minorities for participation in its intern and new-hire efforts. We have now begun initiatives to develop more direct ties to colleges with Experiential curriculum in effort to encourage more diversity and to aid in our recruitment process. When hiring returns post pandemic, Soho will also ensure our pool of candidates, for any position, reflects a balanced spectrum and diversity. We’ll accomplish this by proactively reaching out to historically black colleges, and through other organizations dedicated to supporting minority advancement. And finally, we will be offering our services at reduced rates and when possible, pro-bono to organizations that foster diversity and equal opportunity within our own industry and beyond.
Alleviate Social Isolation
This year more than ever brands will be expected to help diffuse the agata afflicting many if not most people in this country. According to a poll by the American Psychological Association, U.S. adults are reporting the highest stress scores since the early days of the Pandemic. The survey shows that 84% of US adults feel the country has serious societal issues that must be addressed. 90% say they hope the country can moves toward unity(14).
So, what is a well-meaning brand to do? According to researchers at the University of Hong Kong, random acts of kindness benefit mental and physical health of both the giver and receiver. It is no surprise then that brands can experience many of the same benefits. Brands have always been a touchstone of identity; it is the holy grail of nearly every brand to make people feel something about what their brand says about them personally and about the tribe they belong to. So, when your most passionate brand fans see you doing something good, they feel good about themselves as well as you.
The implications are self-evident but every experience, be it in above the line, on package, in store or at an event, each interaction should contain an element that demonstrates caring and unity. For a prime example of what 2021 holds in store regarding community-based initiatives, you need look no further than this year’s Super Bowl. According to AdWeek, for the first time in memory, Budweiser took a pass. Their ad budget was instead be allocated toward Covid-19 vaccine awareness and education(15). Additionally, Anheuser-Busch ran a corporate spot in the game for the first time ever promoting positivity and their efforts for real change while other brands in the AB portfolio including Bud Light, Bud Light Seltzer, Michelob Ultra and Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer—acknowledged the current crises facing Americans with messages of inspiration and humor.
From an Experiential Perspective, we expect that brands should adopt a similar positioning. Be it virtual or IRL, brands should demonstrate their empathy and understanding for the various crises our consumers are encountering. The first being that people need to socialize. In the absence of IRL events, there has been an enormous vacuum of socialization for people. One of, if not the hardest thing people have had to bear over the last 10 months is isolation. It is not just that humans are evolutionarily social, it is also that they naturally crave interaction. No matter if they are hermetically sealed in their homes, or just avoiding large crowds, the primary cause of caution fatigue is the desire so be with and interact with others.
People are filling their social gap as best they can. Most have adopted digital experiences and smaller, socially distanced events. But these types of events have their limits. The typical digital event confines the number of people that can speak or participate at any one time. Body language is all but impossible and much of the warmth of a face-to-face interaction is simply impossible. Smaller events tend to avoid these pitfalls but they lack the energy you get from a larger communion of people with a common interest.
Boredom is another issue brands can help alleviate. In the past, brand events had to compete; not with other brands per se, but with baseball practices, corporate dinners and Broadway shows. This moment in time is especially unique in that there is basically no competition for share of attention and consequently, now more than ever, people are looking for new things to do. Brands are one of the few entities left with financial and creative resources to provide virtual or safer IRL events that can disrupt the day-to-day grind. The most innovative will find ways to rise above the limits of a zoom call to truly energize and excite.
Address Climate Change
ew climate change as a global emergency. Figures range a bit by generation with 69% of under-18s thinking this is true versus only 58% of over-60s. It seems that people are no longer swayed by messages that encourage the masses to take responsibility and instead are increasingly holding the government and large corporations accountable. More than two-thirds (67%) of people don’t believe the government is doing enough to reduce the effect of global climate change and consequently expect brands to take an active role in combating climate change.
The first way bands can lean into this is leading by example. Athleticwear giant Nike now powers 100% of its North American operations with renewable energy and is looking to do the same across Europe as it works towards using 100% renewable energy across its global operations by 2025. Microsoft recently unveiled a plan to become “carbon negative” by 2030, meaning it will take more carbon out of the atmosphere than it emits. It has planned for its new buildings to run entirely on renewables, with the Microsoft ‘corporate campus’ aiming to be entirely zero-waste, too.
Companies will also need to join the fight by putting pressure on authorities to make changes. This can be done by supporting environmentally leaning politicians. It can also be done by using the bully pulpit of their brand equity and public facing communications to galvanize public support and bring environmental issues to the fore. Brands like Ben & Jerry’s have recently launched brand extensions aimed at increasing awareness and generating signatures on environmental petitions(16).
When it comes to Experiential, it has become apparent that brands are moving past the point of asking their agency partners to support their environmental issues. With more than half our clients, it is now a contractual mandate. It has become clear that the Experiential industry must help lead the way. We can do this first by practicing what we preach, by being good citizens of the world and making environmental protection part of our DNA. From how we handle our own waste, to where we source our energy for our offices, each decision must reflect this commitment. Additionally, as we design experiences and event spaces, our materials must be sustainable, our energy, from green sources and our overall footprint, must become carbon neutral.
It was popular in 2020, to wish the year would end, so that we could turn the page on one of the most challenging 12 months in human history. The year seemed to provide a new unpleasant surprise on nearly a daily basis. Even just the name 2020 has become synonymous with dysfunction and why wouldn’t it be? The year was beleaguered with racially charged violence, the political polarization, a global pandemic and a never-ending barrage of weather-related disasters that seem to stem from global warming. Unfortunately, all these issues are still very much alive and well in 2021.
What is different now though is that we as a people feel a renewed sense of purpose, and optimism. Human history is littered with years, decades and even centuries that were “the worst ever”. But slowly and steadily, the pendulum swings back toward progress as individuals asses and eventually address the challenges.
In the past 12 months, we have seen the development of no fewer than 5 effective vaccines to combat COVID; this is in itself a miracle born of modern technology that would have been impossible only five years ago. The rise of social media and cell phone cameras have ushered in a new era of accountability. Witnessing the injustices committed by our fellow humans is nearly impossible to imagine and harder to stomach. Yet we could actually be on the cusp of a new awareness of racial injustice and we may yet find the path to the dream of Martin Luther King, “when a man is not judged by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character”. Finally, while it may seem that we are incapable as a species from walking back the adverse affects of an industrialized society, the reduction in global greenhouse gasses caused by pandemic locks-downs has given us a glimpse into what a cleaner world can look like. The leaders of this country as well as others, may finally be aware of how important the battle against climate change is and we are only now scratching the surface on innovations that are capable of reducing the impact of humanity on this planet we call home.
No matter how you look at it, 2021 is sure to be a year every bit as dynamic and surprising as 2020. However you describe your role, if you are in marketing, you are to a degree a behaviorists or amateur sociologists and as such, we are going to have a front row seat. The repression of this past year has coiled consumers need for change, and for real interaction into a spring that is poised to pop. When it does, the brands that succeed will be the ones that have done the legwork ahead of time, that have put critical thought into their message and their positioning. The brands that have made their plans to take advantage of a world where in-person experiences are going to have at worst a fantastic rebound and potentially, a new era of mass interaction as people seek to reengage other humans also tired of seclusion. Each vertical from banking to alcohol will see nuances in the ways this release manifests, but a new wave of positive change is coming.
7 https://hbr.org/2020/06/were-entering-the-age-of-corporate-social-justice#:~:text=Corporate%20Social%20Justice%20is%20an,equity%20in%20partnership%20with%20stakeholders.&text=While%2 0companies%20have%20no%20legal,communities%20%E2%80%94%20are%20regulated%20by%20trust