The view from Down Under: does Australia point the way for a return to IRL brand events?

Despite low numbers of Covid-19 cases, Australia is experiencing a downturn in brand experiences.

The coronavirus continues to have a global impact on the brand experience sector, bringing most in-person events to a standstill. In recent weeks, a ray of hope can be seen from sporting events such as the Australian Open, which welcomed 30,000 spectators before a five-day lockdown came into play. Although the Australian Open encountered this hiccup, it has once again opened its doors, with masks remaining mandatory both indoors and outdoors when social-distancing rules cannot be followed.

The measures in place at the Australia Open have enabled crowd levels that the UK has not experienced since early 2020. To event organisers currently experiencing lockdown measures here, the journey back to IRL can't come soon enough. However, although sporting events are in full swing, the brand experience sector in Australia is not following suit thus far.

Read the room

Although Australia has avoided the high rates of Covid-19 cases and deaths seen in the UK and most other European countries, IRL brand experiences across the country are taking place at a much lower frequency compared with the summer of 2019.

Gareth Davies, managing partner at Amplify Australia, tells Campaign: "2020 was a very challenging year for many and when you're creating campaigns that connect culturally, you have to be able to read the room and understand what consumers are ready for, if anything.

"While IRL as we knew it took a back seat, we were lucky enough to work with great clients on at-home, content, hybrid or outdoor experiences that were scalable and would work as a 1:1 guided experience or as an open event depending on restrictions. The concept was never compromised, but was created to flux in line with regulations."

Heath Campanaro, director at Imagination Australia, estimates that the market is more than 90% down in face-to-face marketing and events compared with 2019.

"External influencers such as global anxiety and uncertainty and isolation are impacting consumer behaviour," Peter Pengly, managing director at Studio Messa, says. He adds: "What we're seeing is heightened brand allegiance, a more conscious form of consumerism, consumers embracing digital and higher considerations around health, hygiene and safety."

Pushing creativity

Although the decrease in IRL events is undeniable, Davies says there are positives to be seized. "The pandemic is expediting changes long overdue in the world of brand experience ­– pushing creativity, innovation and integration harder than ever before."

Brands have needed to become savvier and adapt to new ways of creating connections, Erika Morton, managing director of The Park Australia – one of the latest agencies to set up an outfit in the country – explains.

"2020 forced marketers and brands into incorporating more digital experiences and virtual touchpoints," she says. "Content creation has always been integral to events, but finding ways to make a live experience live beyond the physical space has never been more important.

"There are also the health and safety processes that are now even more critical to the planning stage. The pandemic is not going away any time soon, and we know that this won't be the last one we see, so we have even more stringent procedures on how IRL experiences are managed."

With brand events dwindling, there is an opportunity for brands that do step up to "get noticed", Vinny Panchal, managing director at Jack Morton Australia, argues. Consumers have also become more open to hybrid events and embracing emerging technologies.

"There's room for brands to be in the spotlight and get noticed. Australia is one of the safest places concerning the pandemic," he says. "And we're also a strong creative hub. We have plenty of crowd-free outdoor space, even in our city centres. We expect to see more mixing of virtual and live audiences together in a risk-free way... If there is anywhere it can be done safely, it's here."

Brands taking the spotlight

For its 11th year, the Vogue Fashion's Night Out is one event that looked a little different from usual. Due to Covid, it was reimagined by Studio Messa as Vogue American Express Fashion's Night In – the same event but unfolding online.

To encourage participation in the 11-day virtual fashion and beauty festival, four pop-up activations were hosted throughout Sydney in spaces with high footfall. Guests could explore, register to become a Vogue VIP, listen to a live DJ and share their experience through a dedicated branded social media space, all with the addition of on-brand, Covid-safe measures.

Pengly says: "The events of 2020 have given rise to a new consumer: one that craves meaning, authenticity and fulfilment from the brands they connect with. The digital and physical experiences brands create, both now and in the coming months, will sway allegiance for years to come.

"Building experiences that enable consumers with the freedom to play and experiment, they instil an invaluable sense of escapism and excitement in the audience and offer a rare feeling of control in a climate where consumers often feel powerless."

Amplify Australia delivered Google's first IRL event in the world since the pandemic started. The Google 5G Pixel launch was a guided journey featuring playful Aussie scenarios inspired by the key product pillars. For example, entertainment at high speed was enjoyed on a Melbourne tram and the camera features were "aced" on the tennis court. Guests who could not make the event received an at-home package that included gifts inspired by the product pillars and an at-home, projected version of the personalised photo moment.

It is important to play to the strengths of different formats, Tim Baggott, creative director at Amplify Australia, argues. "Hybrid experience shouldn't mean a compromise for either the IRL or 'URL' audiences," he says. "Where we dial up the environmental storytelling for IRL guests, we can offer a similar level of immersion for 'URL' guests through richer, deeper storytelling through film."

In-store experiences are also a way brands have continued to communicate with consumers – something that Dylan Reed, chief executive and partner at Kreate, has become increasingly familiar with.

"In the last six months, we've mostly delivered some in-store activations in the states in Australia which are not as impacted by Covid," he says. "The levels of engagement in those states has been steady, but there is still a reduction in the number of usual consumer interactions – especially in the retail space."

An evolved future 

The near future is still looking a bit different for Australia, according to Morton. Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade is one event that would normally take place on Sydney's busiest streets but which is now set to take place at Sydney Cricket Ground in March.

She says: "The organisers have had to tailor their approach and will now run the parade in a controlled environment at the Sydney Cricket Ground, with capped crowds and the event broadcast out to the masses, still allowing all the glitter and fanfare that it deserves. We're likely to see more of our favourite events going ahead but in a slightly different way than before."

All things considered, Reeds feels that it is a good time for brands to host activations in Australia, especially in certain states and with well-planned-out contingencies.

"There are many major cities, with large populations, where there are no lockdowns and minimal restrictions – these are great places to activate in a safe, responsible but highly engaging way," Reed observes. "Australia has bounced back from the economic slowdown of 2020 and there is strong consumer confidence in discretionary spending and in being out socially."

Despite the Covid-19 case numbers indicating Australia could be back to "business as usual", this is not the case.

Campanaro adds: "The Australian market has been even more conservative with live events than most of our global counterparts. However, this halt in live events has allowed for great development in the world of virtual and digital content, as well as investment in retail or brand centre experiences."

In Australia, Covid numbers are remaining on a steady decline and a vaccination roll-out is beginning this month. But some challenges lie ahead, such as the supplier network re-crewing to meet demand, after many were forced to retrain and exit areas of the industry.

With a large-scale vaccine roll-out in the UK in full swing, it remains to be seen if the infection rates dropping will be the confidence boost needed for brands to return to IRL events immediately.

"I think deep down we all recognise that 'normal' will be different than before," Campanaro points out.

Main image: crowds cheer Novak Djokovic after victory at the semi-final of the Australian Open on 18 February (Getty Images)

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