We can finally see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, but live events are likely still a ways off. In the meantime, pop-up activations can help to pave the way back.

When the time is right, in-person gatherings will be back as strong as ever, even if they do look a bit different. Look at Disney, for example. The company plans to open Disney’s California Adventure on March 18 for their “A Touch of Disney” event which will give small groups of visitors the chance to explore the entire park, enjoy food, and buy merchandise. Even without partaking in the attractions, it will draw customers in to begin to re-immerse themselves in the iconic brand.

But fully-populated theme parks, as well as music festivals, sporting events and trade shows, will come later. While experts have cautiously suggested that our lives may return to relative normal by the end of this year as long as safety measures stay on track, there’s no way to know precisely when we’ll be able to gather freely in large groups again. But as vaccinations increase, and as infection rates decline, and as local governments ease up on their restrictions, the number and types of social activities that are possible will slowly grow. And there are good reasons to believe that creative pop-up experiences can and should play a prominent role in that transition.

Pandemic Pop-ups

Over the last year, numerous pop-ups were able to give consumers direct, in-person experiences while being responsive to those consumers’ anxieties and health concerns. And these experiences allowed brands to continue building relationships with their customers using experiential marketing techniques, despite restrictive lock-downs. Such activations are often small-footprint and short-run, but they can still be immersive and bring people together to interact, learn, or just have fun. And just as importantly, they’ve been popular. Even with COVID restrictions in place, nearly a third (31%) of Americans have attended product demonstrations in the last year, while one-in five have attended pop-up shops, and 17% have engaged with in-person brand installations.

Pandemic pop-ups have needed to be more visual than tactile, sometimes using gesture-driven or voice controlled interactions. Maintenance of physical distance and the safe distribution of swag (or a transition to digital gifts) has also been important. One of the big challenges has been how to limit interactions between guests as well as guests and event staff while still making events enjoyable and social. But brands (and their agencies) have risen to the challenge. Take, for example, Netflix’s drive-thru Stranger Things concept that let fans enjoy the town of Hawkins with the help of a large, physical set and audio and visual effects. Or Nissan’s CHI-Together event which made use of Chicago’s Soldier Field to host a drive-in date night where guests could enjoy films, performances, enter digital contests, and donate to charity on their smartphones from the safety of their cars and with the city’s skyline in the background.

Pop-up History

Of course, pop-up events weren’t invented as a response to COVID. Brands have been hosting successful pop-up events for many years. In 2017 Acura popped-up for the 7th time at the Sundance Film Festival to unveil Mood Roads, a truly immersive virtual driving experience using a simulator that responded to a user’s biometric data. In 2016, Jaguar-Land Rover took their latest models around Germany for 10 events in 5 cities. And in 2013 Honda did a Cash Car pop-up in Times Square with the host of the then-popular show Cash Cab.

The last decade has also seen the use of vehicles (in the form of trailers and vans) to house mobile boutiques or bring product launches out of retail space and into new neighborhoods. Food trucks are a similar example and were already outpacing the growth of the commercial restaurant industry by 2017.

Getting Creative with Mobile Activations

While the pandemic has forced brands to change their approaches to experiential marketing in many ways, pop-ups have survived as a key immersive, in-person approach. And technology has only helped to broaden their scope by generating shareable content, using live streaming for inclusion, and taking advantage of social media to increase the reach of these events.

Lowe’s made headlines around Valentine’s Day when they reinvented date night with their “Night of Lowemance” event. Couples could enter for a chance to attend a socially-distanced painting event at 10 stores across the U.S. in which they could snack and sling paint in a “paint zone” in order to capture their love on canvas and take it home with them. The contest drew in those who were already partaking in DIY projects at home, provided a creative and fun experience, augmented the live event with a digital version, and gave people a chance for a socially-distanced night out.

Old Spice recently opened a pop-up barber shop in Columbus, Ohio that will not only be a retail store and test lab for products but serve as a digital content studio. Visiting celebrity barbers will undoubtedly lure in new customers as soft re-openings of social spaces put the focus back on personal grooming. Those who visit will not only receive branded, shareable content for social media but will get to use state-of-the-art 3D technology to view and request specific haircuts.

While these are stationary pop-ups, mobile activations are becoming more ubiquitous as well. The Washington National Opera took their show on the road with a Pop-Up Opera Truck to bring music to the people who couldn’t attend shows. Skin care brand Ole Henriksen used an old ice cream truck to make timed deliveries of their Lemonade Smoothing Scrub in Los Angeles. And for Halloween, Hershey’s used a mobile robotic door (since kids couldn’t go door to door safely) to deliver Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups via remote control and Bluetooth to trick-or-treaters.

Unleashing the potential

People want to stay safe, but after a year of being largely cooped up and separated, they’re eager to get out and about. This could also be good news for empty retail spaces that could use some interim income as well as brands that want to experiment with temporary space.

For now, getting outside may be the key to success. Luckily, good news about vaccine distribution could very well make the summer a perfect time to set up outdoor pop-ups that still maintain safe distances but allow for experiential activations.

According to YouGov, 44% of consumers prefer attending outdoor events in natural spaces than being at an indoor event anyway, so with Spring on its way, this is a great time to think about how to mobilize your marketing strategy.

Featured Image: Facebook Pop-up at Macy’s