The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on on-ground activation campaigns. As social distancing measures were enforced, many brands had to cancel or postpone their planned events, and those that continued had to adapt to the new health and safety protocols. The pandemic prompted a shift towards virtual activations, with brands increasingly relying on digital channels to reach their audiences. However, as the situation began to stabilize, there was a gradual return to on-ground activations, albeit with significant changes in format and execution. 

During the pandemic, many on-ground activations were conducted with strict adherence to health and safety guidelines. For example, brands made efforts to limit the number of participants, implemented temperature checks, and provided sanitizing stations. Additionally, many activations were moved outdoors, providing a safer environment with better ventilation. 

Furthermore, brands increasingly leveraged technology to create immersive experiences, such as virtual reality and augmented reality, which allowed participants to engage with the activation from a safe distance. However, as the pandemic recedes, brands are once again exploring traditional on-ground activations, but with a greater emphasis on creating experiences that prioritize safety and hygiene.

To learn more about Australia’s diverse on-ground activation scene, MARKETECH APAC’s deep dive series The Inner State spoke with industry leaders Michael Ozard, group brand experience director at Havas Blvd, Hayley Westoby, founder of Gambit Collective, and Steve Fontanot, commercial managing director at Red Havas, to know about their insights on the recent changes on on-ground activations in the local market, how they are adapting to these changes, and what industries could tap more into this.

Recovery: the big change on the local on-ground activation scene

Before we even have to comment on how the pandemic changed the on-ground activation scene, Red Havas’ Steve Fontanot encourages us to first look at and reflect on how the industry has progressed over the years. Noting how outdoor strategies evolved from ‘ambush’ marketing to mobile billboards, one could easily see these drastic changes. He further notes that while we started simple back then, the pivots brought by the past three years have demanded more sophisticated marketing strategies.

Moreover, Fontanot pointed out that the pandemic has certainly pushed brands and agencies to not just earn revenue but rather focus on surviving and having their existing campaign strategies relevant to the ongoing consumer changes. But what struck him the most was simple: the pandemic reminded all of us that there is beauty in merging digital and physical experiences, citing a psychological need for humans to connect.

“Post-pandemic, brands can get back again to creating meaningful human connections which is amazing-all while using the relevant technology that they’ve created or evolved during the pandemic. And so, you know, that’s not completely new: brands were trying to marry digital with the physical for quite a long time, with varying levels of success. But the fact that they were able to hyper-concentrate on their digital data and social abilities during that time, being able to be back into the experiential and physical world, again, we can blend in and marry these two,” he stated

This was seconded as well by Havas Blvd’s Michael Ozard, who said that the pandemic have provided both brands and agencies with an opportunity to satisfy the public’s appetite for experiential on-ground activations. Citing a recent white paper their agency recently developed, a rising trend evident nowadays is that consumers are looking for more bespoke experiences which helps enrich the customer experience.

“The pandemic permitted brands to experiment with technology and fresh innovations, to engage with customers in new ways. Right now, audiences are–in terms of their acceptance–at their peak of acceptance in allowing brands to continue to push the boundaries and connect with people in a post-COVID world,” Ozard said.

He further added that marketers must come up with more meaningful connections within their community through in-person experiences in a post-pandemic time.

“The key to building real-lasting relationships between brands and audiences boils down to this basic need for human-to-human engagement and shared experiences,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gambit Collective’s Hayley Westoby, noted that while pre-pandemic experiences only relied on something eye-catching or very general, the saturation of content brought by social media changed marketing experiences drastically.

With an observation that most businesses are still operating at a pre-pandemic mindset, she encourages businesses to not wait for normalcy to come back, and instead check out how they can ride the ‘new normal’.

“Now, people and brands [have] to get more specific with who they’re talking to, what kind of audience they’re communicating with, and making sure that it sits as part of an ecosystem. Nowadays, you cannot rely on just one location or one activation to do the work [since] a lot of digital products and platforms can be doing [the same],” she said.

What do industry leaders think of mobile on-ground activations in Australia?

The industry leaders have shared the same sentiment on the effectiveness of mobile truck activations–which is about being launched as a companion for an existing marketing campaign–not being on its own.

However, the industry leaders have also noted the importance of mobile truck activations as a way to garner more eyeballs and attention for the brand.

Citing a campaign they did with the South Australian Tourism Commission (SATC), Ozard notes how they have partnered with local wineries and cheese producers for this tourism campaign, and adding that they executed vehicle campaigns where interested bypassers can get a wine and cheese sample from one of the many mobile vehicles they have launched alongside SATC to boost tourism in the region.

Coming from over a decade of experience in the brand experience scene, he notes three key essential elements of a successful mobile truck campaign namely having it being an ‘opt-in, opt-out’ perspective, tapping into people’s passion points, and availability of customer touch points during the activation process.

“You know, you can bring brands to life in more than one environment and being able to tap into someone’s passion point [that] gets to the heart of what motivates people, whether it’s a music festival or a sporting event. It’s all about putting the consumer first and creating that genuine connection with the audience,” he explained.

Ozard added, “Alternatively if you are looking for a deeper [and] more immersive engagement, you may be looking at using the vehicle as a platform to create a more in-depth brand experience. So ultimately, it’s up to you to choose the way that you [want to] customise the activation and design that customer experience.”

Fontanot has also echoed his agreement on the previous statement, stating that mobile truck activations could be used for staging campaigns with added elements of surprise for on-lookers. For him, such a type of activation cannot be solely the only brand experience but rather a platform for an integrated brand experience.

“I think that [by] using mobile trucks or vehicles of any sort can bring added value and added benefits to a brand by providing added benefits to a consumer. So, for example, if I’m walking past and I’m just gonna walk past a mobile truck, and it’s for an automotive brand, and it’s just a vehicle on the back of a truck: that’s a lo-fi way of getting people to observe it,” he said.

He encapsulates the ideal on-ground activation campaign in a term he calls the ‘one-five-fifteen’. This pertains to a minute of a bypasser’s time to get interested in the campaign, five minutes to introduce the bypasser to said product or service of a brand, and fifteen minutes to reel in that bypasser and convert them into a paying customer and later on a loyal one.

“People are giving us their time, which is probably the biggest commodity that they have. And so, we need to ensure that we’re respectful with them, [to the point] where they can get a benefit out of it in return. I think if we come from a place of respecting the consumer as opposed to selling to [them], that’s where you’ll stay true [to your message] to put the consumer and the brand and you kind of meet those in the middle,” he added.

Stating the benefits of said activation in terms of data collection for marketers, Fontanot added, “They see the branding, there’s a digital experience there, where people can kind of customize their journey where you might have data collection points where people can ask questions and feel like they’re not being sold to because they might not enjoy the dealership experience. And like, you start building the elements on it. You’re creating content opportunities or you’re even displaying interesting content that has been captured differently like, for me, it’s a good jumping-off point.”

Westoby also agreed with Fontanot’s statement on the mobile truck activation not being the sole factor for a brand experience. She stated that it is important for brands to ask themselves: is this activation making the customer experience much easier for those checking out the on-ground experience? Moreover, one should also ask that after the campaign happened, how will the brands follow up with these users and convert them into customers?

“It’s not just the experience at that point in time that they engaging with, it’s the experience pre-, during and post- that’s considered. So, that touch point for the brand is so much longer than just the 15 minutes that they stand at the event truck,” she explains.

Westoby also added, “[Mobile] trucks are more of an awareness campaign, [which are] utilised for more awareness, as opposed to acquisitional conversion. [However] conversion and acquisition require longer, dwell time and it requires more touch points.”

Capturing data to encapsulate brand loyalty: the future that awaits in the local on-ground activation scene

All industry leaders have agreed that the future of the on-ground activation scene in Australia is moving forward in a positive direction. Moreover, they have also pointed out that through this direction, brands have more unique ways to garner more eyeballs from audiences and convert them into customers.

For Westoby, despite the rising popularity of digital campaigns, one could not simply leave the allure and experience of physical campaigns.

“We’re seeing now, brands getting more and more reach and engagement from digital campaigns. However, I do think that physical and in-person events [as well as] activations and builds still serve a purpose because they provide that kind of tangible touch point for a customer to engage with a brand [and] they’re going to be a lot more considered as part of a bigger ecosystem of activity that’s happening for the brand,” she said.

However, she also noted that for brands to move into the future of on-ground activations, one must also integrate digital components to get actionable insights from would-be users.

“The more I know about a consumer, the more we can rely on the communications that they receive, the products that we serve them, the conversations that we have with them. I think that more on-ground activations will capitalise on capturing that data,” she said.

Meanwhile, Fontanot encourages brands and marketers alike to map out their on-ground experiences like parts of a car. While they may have their own thing, when worked together provides a car with a smooth journey. Much like how a campaign is not solely reliant on one avenue of communication, the various parts that make an activation successful will provide a seamless experience for existing customers and new users alike.

“I think that we need to always ensure that that we keep championing amazing consumer engagements at every touch point which kind of comes off the back of that as well. There’s no point of having this wonderful build, whether it be a vehicle or a stage whatever it is this wonderful experience but then the staff aren’t trained properly,” he said.

He also pointed out that brands always need to go back at the start of every campaign: what’s the purpose of it, and why they–as brands–need to do this.

“I encourage us all as an industry to ensure that we keep an eye on what the original purpose of the campaign is. It’s always about how do you ensure that you continue to have an eye always on the purpose of the campaign and the purpose of the brief,” Fontanot added.

Meanwhile, Ozard notes that the future of the on-ground activation scene is all about improving the emotional response of consumers and branding that involves a certain level of marketing psychology.

“We’re sort of living at the moment in this era of creativity and innovation. As an agency, we like to channel our creativity into these bespoke experiences and then harness amplification through social through content [and] PR,  and it’s really taking the pandemic for there to be a greater appreciation and sort of understanding from marketers that we can look beyond just recording the attendance, [which is a] pillar of success,” he explains.

He concluded, “People are responding positively to any sort of live experience, whether that is a mobile event truck or a launch event or whatever it is. People are more receptive to live experience experiences now that they were pre-pandemic, and people are also expecting a little bit more as well. So now brands aren’t just doing quite a basic sort of brand experiences, they’re having to build in multiple layers of the experiences.”

This feature is done in partnership with Unicom Marketing.

Unicom Marketing is an event management company spanning Southeast Asia that provides full-service such as roving event trucks, on-ground activation, online digital activation, and virtual event management.