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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

COVID killed marketing. Long live the experience economy

In a post-pandemic world, brands will be immersing customers in experiences.

COVID killed marketing. Long live the experience economy
[nateejindakum/Adobe Stock]

COVID-19 has all but killed traditional marketing, but the “experience economy” is taking its place to reengineer our relationships with customers and engage more deeply than ever before.

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The experience economy is based on a simple principle: Brands should stop marketing at their customers and, instead, engage with them through shared experiences. Although the pandemic has accelerated the experience economy’s adoption, it’s been a long time coming: Seventy-two percent of Millennials prefer spending their money on experiences over material things, according to Eventbrite. We can expect this number to grow larger among Gen Z.

Not long ago, I visited a Belgian gallery and watched a child attempt to swipe a painting like they would a screen. Future generations will be primed for everything to be interactive. Imagine the experience museumgoers would have if—through AR—Vincent van Gogh could leap out of a painting and walk through his process.

I learned how to craft meaningful customer experiences during my 30-year career at Disney. Arguably the greatest lesson about the experience economy comes from Walt Disney himself. When “Fantasia” was released in theaters in 1940, Disney pushed for immersive experiences through “Fantasound” and “Smell-o-Vision.” Theater owners, however, weren’t interested in paying for and installing new technologies to accommodate the enveloping sounds and scents. In response, Disney took his movies where customers could experience the brand in its entirety, and Disneyland launched in 1955.

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Sixty-five years after Disneyland opened its doors—and one year after I declared marketing would be dead within a decade—COVID-19 changed everything. For all the heartbreak and loss, it also highlighted what’s truly important.

Think about what we worked so hard to virtually recreate during lockdowns: Family dinners. Concerts. Cooking classes. We didn’t spend our time in isolation dreaming about a trip to the mall. We spent it dreaming about shared experiences.

When I was tasked with driving more traffic to Disneyland Paris for its 25th anniversary, survey data said people come to parks for the rides. But when we sat down with real customers and asked why they visited, we learned that the real reason was to create family memories.

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Instead of spending millions on new rides, we ran a simple communications campaign focused on creating memories—one that drove more park traffic than we’d seen in the previous five years. Asking “why?” helped uncover the true experience our customers desired.

As we emerge from the pandemic, the brands best positioned for success will be ready to provide engaging experiences (even remotely) that get at the heart of consumers’ desires.

I recently conducted a training for the Philadelphia Eagles. During our event, I learned that 90% of fans never attend a game in person due to reasons such as cost. I encouraged the group to consider this: “How might we engage the 90% of fans who will never visit our stadium, and what revenue opportunities could that deliver?”

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The pandemic has done wonders for hybrid event technology. Just look at the interactive fan displays used by the NBA during its bubble. Or even pre-pandemic, when Manchester United used Google Hangouts to give fans a front-row seat. By asking how they might solve a particular pain point, brands will tap into new experiential ideas that go beyond the typical marketing messages that people are familiar with.

In a post-pandemic world, brands will be immersing customers in experiences—and it will no longer be enough to market at people.


Duncan Wardle, former Head of Innovation & Creativity @ Disney. Founded iD8 & innov8 to help organizations embed a culture of innovation.

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