The Next Evolution in Branded Activations

by Jen Smith

The Next Evolution in COVID Production 

When COVID hit in spring of last year, we pressed pause on a lot of things—including pitching big, out-of-the-box activations to our clients. After about a month, we realized this was the new normal and we had to learn to pivot and think outside the box if we wanted to keep moving our client’s business forward. 

Production can be challenging at the best of times, and the added layer of COVID has multiplied the complexity of that coordination ten-fold for brands and agencies over the past year. Studios moved in-home, shoots became completely virtual, and the layers of red tape for planning any kind of in-person event only further complicated matters. At every step of the way, there are roadblocks that necessitate quick pivots and improvisations. But, it turns out that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

When Virtual Makes it Better 

First came the virtual shoots. Since quarantine began, we’ve found that our food productions actually look better, not worse. Why? It’s taught us to think differently and wear many different hats. Like learning to crisp up fried chicken with your at-home air fryer. Or having your director double as a food stylist, set designer, and sometimes even talent. 

The pandemic also forced productions to simplify, like finding alternate locations for shoots instead of having to rent out a full studio. These simplifications, in turn, save the clients money. These simplified, streamlined processes are the kind of changes that will likely endure long past the pandemic. Innovation, along with renewed thoughtfulness in execution, is a powerful, winning combination. Forced problem-solving sometimes yields the most impressive results.

From Virtual Shoots to IRL Activations 

It was only logical for us to take all of the learnings from virtual shoots and apply those to IRL activations. After all, if we can figure out how to make fried chicken look camera-ready without a food stylist, surely we can figure out how to hand out chicken sandwiches in a COVID-friendly way, right? You’re damn right. 

That’s the beauty of production in a post-COVID world: we’re more nimble, scrappy, and, as a result, more innovative in how we approach creative problem solving for our clients. 

How to be successful with Post-COVID Activations:

  • Lots of communication and planning with the crew and talent to ensure the days were seamless and no stone is left unturned. 
  • When in doubt, over-communicate, keeping all players in the loop will lead to a much less stressful activation day. 
  • Super small onsite crew with safety officer is always present 
  • Every member is COVID tested 48 hours prior to the shoot. 
  • Social distancing is a must 
  • Masks are on at all times and face shields when interacting with talent. 
  • Craft service is executed in pre-packaged bags for individual crew members. 
  • Real-time approvals happen over Slack to minimize team members on the ground. 

Why Brand Activations Matter

If the last year has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. And that’s not changing.  

Sure, doing COVID-friendly activations is a challenging undertaking — but well worth the effort and investment for our client’s business. Every brand, whether national or local, needs some sort of experiential marketing: something to create and keep brand awareness top-of-mind for existing and potential customers. IRL activations can be used to drive a trial for a new product launch (with a chicken sandwich truck) or simply drive meaningful connections with your customers over the moments that matter to them (like a drive-thru graduation for students who deserve it most). 

Pandemic or not, something will always come up. Each client and shoot has its own limitations, all of which require a full suite of executable solutions; little (or big) surprises that require creatives to change course and adjust on the fly. Sometimes, what seems like a roadblock actually pushes creativity, leading teams down a different path and, ultimately, toward a cooler and better idea than the original. 

The Future of Brand Activations

While branded activations and productions will resume back to normal soon, COVID may have shaped the brand activation landscape for some time to come. Uncertainty around how long immunity from the vaccines lasts, how long it will take to reach herd immunity, and how effective vaccines will be against variants, means teams will need to continue to test crew members to ensure health and safety. Even beyond COVID, crew safety may continue to be a trend for activations taking place around cold and flu season. Teams may also continue to be leaner than they have been for traditional productions and will have to continue to think on their feet and come up with new and innovative ways to problem-solve. This may be the longest-lasting change of all, as outside-the-box thinking will continue to help brands stand out to consumers.

Jen Smith