Experiences in the Coronavirus Age

Does your neck hurt from all those COVID-19 commercials? It should, because it’s such whiplash compared to how brands have been talking to consumers for the past ten years. We’ve gone from “striving for the best experience” and “the best experience yet” to “focus on safety” and “for your protection” over the course of a few months.

And while it may be done with good intentions, brands are joking if they think their brand “experience” feels the same. With bars, movie theaters, and even theme parks reopening this upcoming month, you have to take a step back and look at how restaurants and retail have been doing. Are consumers going in to browse? Is the dining room still all about atmosphere? Is the bar as fun as it used to be with reduced occupancy? Personal preference aside, consumers are approaching experiential destinations differently—both by choice and due to regulations.

So what does “experience” look like post-pandemic?

You have to start with asking, what has it looked like during the pandemic? With businesses hurting for attendance and purchases, some brands are trying to rethink how to make their digital presence more attractive. Others, such as major theme parks, have loosened the reigns on what is accessible outside of parks in order to maintain a level of engagement with their devoted fanbase. And some have finally caved and moved online and in new direct-to-consumer access routes.

What’s interesting about those examples is that while they are all about brand experience, they are—more importantly—about access. Before the pandemic, experience led, with access being gated by the brand. Now, the brands are having to come into the consumer’s home in order to engage with and create an experience that everyone feels is safe. This has led to some dramatic realizations in branding for many, including that time gating, destination gating, and artificial scarcity only works when the consumer has the interest and opportunity to engage.

With the pandemic rearranging priorities for many, engagement has been pushed aside out of a need for survival and safety. This realignment has been significant, because it means we’re letting go of elements our consumer culture has built as focal points for years, in order to move the focal point back to ourselves. Making brand connections, creating affinities, sharing experiences—all of these crucial developments that emerged and were nurtured during the “experience boom”—aren’t as important to consumers anymore in the grand scheme of things.

This painful realization is becoming a forcing event for many brands, making them rethink not only their business model but also who they target and why. With “experience” now becoming so heavily reliant on accessibility, brands are approaching the pandemic not by casting broad nets and fishing for new brand loyalists, but instead by adapting to meet consumer needs that are closer to home—both physically and emotionally.

As we enter the summer vacation season it’s going to be interesting to see what brands do with their seasonal messaging, promotions, and reach in order to both keep consumers engaged and coax them into investing. In order for it to work, brands are going to have to create a new value proposition that encompasses experience, access, and safety in a single opportunity—and make it resonate.