How brands can start helping to fill the voids being created by Covid-19 and reach homebound consumers

Gabe Garner SVP, business planning, at Firstborn.
Gabe Garner SVP, business planning, at Firstborn.

From a marketing and advertising perspective, any brand using experiential as a major pillar of their mix is taking a big hit.

"May you live in interesting times" is an English saying erroneously attributed to a Chinese curse. It’s meant to be ironic as, really, the best times are the least interesting. Peace and happiness are rather uninteresting. So wishing you "interesting times" is really a way of wishing you ill. 

Today, working from my laptop at home while trying to get my son to do his home-school work, I’d say we’re all living through interesting times. Covid-19 is impacting Americans’ lives in ways that go way beyond inconvenience. These days, I’m grateful for having a job I can do from home, while friends are struggling in the restaurant, entertainment, and travel industries, or are unable to work due to illness.

Social distancing and working from home are creating a shared experience for millions of us trying to wait out Covid-19. This means a much higher concentration of people stuck at home, reaching out through the internet. And with limits being placed on public gatherings, people are already turning to digital to try and replace pre-scheduled events with socially distant digital alternatives.

For instance, a group of intrepid SXSW attendees created their own "unconference" through Slack, and philharmonics around the world are turning to streaming to reach an audience absent from their concert halls. I’ve also spoken with teachers who already use Google Classroom, which has been a boon to keeping their students engaged from home.

From a marketing and advertising perspective, any brand using experiential as a major pillar of their mix is taking a big hit. This is especially true of beer and spirits brands, which heavily rely on a steady stream of scheduled events to market their products. As bars, restaurants, and concert venues close across North America, so do the opportunities for these brands to engage with their consumers.

Here are a few alternatives for brands that are looking for ways to reach consumers who are stuck at home: 

  1. Experiment with Twitch

Twitch could be an especially appropriate substitute for concerts or celebrity events that were planned and postponed (Twitch-chella?). The streaming platform has been keen to attract consumers beyond its core gamer target for years now and has seen some success.  Twitch creates a real-time dialogue between a subject and their fans, and bridging this gap between a celebrity and their audience would be a good role for a brand.

As a hypothetical, think of a canceled concert where a beer brand was a major sponsor. The concert could be moved to an acoustic set on Twitch, where the artist could talk with fans between songs in a more intimate environment. The brand’s sponsorship role would remain intact--and would likely increase in value as a result of having brought creative solutions to bear on the crisis we’re living through. Overall, expect to see many new and creative uses for Twitch in the coming weeks.

2.   Invest in Virtual Reality

VR has been in the backseat lately, being overlooked by its sexier younger sibling, AR. But there is a really unique story to be had by a brand willing to dive back into virtual experiences, especially with new headsets like the Oculus Quest that came out last May. The biggest complaint of headset owners to date has been a lack of content, and now is the time to deliver some to them in a thoughtful, socially distant package.

There are limits to the number of people who can meet in person right now, but no limits on those we can meet virtually. Social VR is a future we knew was coming (eventually), but it’s already here to a certain extent. Not unlike Ready Player One, Social VR is literally a group of folks in headsets, interacting with each other in a virtual space remotely. 

VRChat is probably the most promising platform for creating completely custom social VR experiences. It’s the most developed community of users visiting virtual worlds, with tens of thousands of regular visitors, and an open universe where we can create pretty much anything we want and walk around in it. But be careful; it’s still a wild-west internet community (think Reddit in VR). To partake, brands need to be willing to step outside their comfort zone a bit.

While the number of users on the platform are relatively low from a media perspective, there’s a good story there for press pickup and PR. A virtual branded social VR experience on VRChat is a welcome and safe place for people to explore and congregate. Curiosity alone will bring eyeballs.

Meanwhile, Facebook has had many stops and starts with Social VR over the years but is putting its eggs in the basket of Facebook Horizons. The platform is still in beta, unfortunately, but look for its release to perhaps be pushed up in the next couple of ths due to current circumstances. It promises to be a little more brand safe than VRChat, and a lot more of a virtual theme park. 

3.   Support out-of-work restaurant and bar employees

Finally, there are plenty of opportunities for spirits and food brands to do good for closed bars and restaurants, whose employees are suffering. 

A clever brand tactic could be for major spirits and food brands to solicit content from bartenders and chefs who are stuck at home, and to then post them via their brand’s social channels. For example, what’s a good cocktail to make for lunch at home? Or what does a chef cook for herself while self quarantining? Putting a focus on some of these folks and drawing attention to their circumstances is a great role for brands right now. Include links to the fundraisers, charities, or GoFundMe accounts that are cropping up to keep these communities afloat while everyone stays home, and match donations where you can.

I think the key to any of these approaches is to avoid "looking for opportunities" (which is distasteful) and to instead think about ways brands can help fill voids people are experiencing in their communities. Some of them will be lighthearted. Some of them will be experimental. Some might be for a good cause. But everyone is feeling the world shift a bit beneath their feet, and we crave stories that inspire us. 

In times as interesting as these, don’t forget to be an interesting brand. You’ll be remembered for it in less interesting times.

Gabe Garner is SVP, business planning at digital agency, Firstborn.

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