Are Marketers Ready to Dive Into Summer?

Brands need to shift gears for what’s expected to be a surge in consumer time spent outdoors

By Chuck Kapelke

jamielawton/Getty Images

This time feels different. More than two years after the coronavirus brought the world to a screeching halt, life may finally be returning to normal. Despite an Omicron subvariant spreading through Europe, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are on the decline. "Mask mandates" are turning into "recommendations." And Americans are back to planning summer travel by planes, trains, and automobiles. Consumer-facing marketers will need to shift gears somewhat, from supplying an accelerating amount of digital content to ramping up efforts to reach people who will be spending a lot more time outdoors in the months ahead.

A recent study by the Out of Home Advertising Association of America (OAAA) and Harris Poll found that 85 percent of U.S. adults are expecting to travel this summer, taking even more vacation time than they did in 2021. The poll, based on a survey of a representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adults, found that 69 percent of the public feels safe flying — up from 59 percent last April — while 67 percent feel the same about trains.

Of course, with inflation at a 40-year high and record gas prices, consumers could put the brakes on their summer travel plans.

Nevertheless, there's an ample amount of pent-up energy among consumers to expend. As people head outdoors for music festivals, beaches, amusement parks, and Fourth of July celebrations, marketers can take advantage of billboards, digital displays, live demonstrations, and other out-of-home and event-based marketing. "Consumers have shown an appreciation for traveling and being outside," says Anna Bager, president and CEO of the OAAA. "It's like it's a novelty. If we can keep pandemic-free, it's going to be a great summer."

Still, a return to "normal" does not mean life will be exactly as it was before COVID-19. The digital transformation accelerated by the pandemic has shifted consumers' expectations, particularly when it comes to their media habits. This summer, brands will need to be nimble, creative, and deliver a seamless, integrated experience that combines the best of what in-person and digital channels have to offer.

No Letup On Digital Marketing

The ability to turn on a dime has been a hallmark of successful brands during the pandemic. When COVID-19 forced restaurant chain White Castle to suspend its 30-year tradition of in-store Valentine's Day meals — replete with hostess seating, flowers, and live music — the company's marketing team adapted by inventing the "Love Cube," a packaged meal for two that could be ordered online, picked up at the outlet, and taken off premise (consumers couldn't eat the meal at the restaurant).

The company also enlisted paid social influencers to share ideas for planning a couple's White Castle meal at home for the special day. The efforts racked up 1,200-plus media stories and more than 5 billion impressions, according to Lynn Blashford, CMO at ANA member White Castle.

The fast-food chain is also looking forward to getting back to in-store traditions, like grand openings that draw crowds, but understands that digital must remain part of the equation.

"We are looking forward to some of the restrictions being lifted in the larger cities where our restaurants reside," Blashford says. "Our Castles are preparing their dining rooms to welcome back customers in cities like New York, where the dining rooms have been closed for months. Like most of the retail world, we will also continue to refine and optimize the digital experience of ordering, a trend whose growth rate may flatten but is now part of the everyday way to do business with us."

Key takeaway: Regardless of how COVID-19 plays out, flexibility and creativity will continue to be essential, and digital should always be in the mix. "Focus on getting more agile with your creative messaging, because we don't know how things are going to be in a few months," says Andrew Frank, research VP and distinguished analyst at Gartner. "Prepare for different scenarios and be really nimble about switching strategies at the last minute."

Consumer Engagement for Real

With more crowds converging for live events this summer and people meeting with each other in-person in much higher numbers than last year, experiential marketing is bound to play a crucial role this summer in reaching consumers and getting the message out.

"Experiential marketing's true power is in its ability to collapse the consumer adoption cycle: In one experience, trial, education, and affinity all occur," says Marcy Karpowitz, founder and CEO of MKMCreative, an experiential and brand agency that has worked with clients such as Airbnb, SKYY Vodka, and Lyft. "When the experiential activation is rich, robust, and designed in a way that speaks to the target market, people organically spread the word firsthand."

At this year's NHL All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, for example, Discover set up an oversized air hockey table where fans could challenge friends, former pros, and broadcasters to a game.

Fans check out an oversized air hockey table set up by Discover for this year's NHL All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas. As people venture out this summer after being cooped up for the past two years, experiential marketing will play an instrumental role helping brands get reacquainted with consumers. Image courtesy of rEvolution
Fans check out an oversized air hockey table set up by Discover for this year's NHL All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas. As people venture out this summer after being cooped up for the past two years, experiential marketing will play an instrumental role helping brands get reacquainted with consumers. Courtesy of rEvolution

"The key is to continue to deploy campaigns that are integrated and ladder up to an overarching marketing strategy to have the optimal impact," says Dan Lobring, SVP of marketing at rEvolution, the agency that produced the air hockey experience and whose other clients include American Family Insurance, Chipotle, and Continental Tire. "Consumers are savvier than ever, so brands that add value and make an impact on the community are more important than ever before."

Key takeaway: Whether indoors or out of home, the most memorable brand marketing provides a coherent narrative across multiple channels and encourages people to participate. "Every brand has to chart their own path and lean into the differences that are most meaningful for their customers," Blashford says. "It is not enough to just be different; look at what elevates the difference and makes you special."

Out-of-Home Experience

The e-grocer FreshDirect provides a taste of where marketing may be headed this summer. In March the company launched an ad campaign on digital billboards inside New York City subwayshighlighting the company's prepared meals. When users scanned QR codes from the displays, it sent them to the FreshDirect site, where they could buy the ingredients needed to make the meal.

"Out of home is the ultimate contextual medium," the OAAA's Bager says. "You know a lot about an audience by knowing where they are at what time. By knowing what's going on in that location, and what type of people traditionally are there, you can target really well. It's a medium that can drive conversions, and maybe even direct purchase."

Outdoor digital displays can now be purchased programmatically, and marketers can pull a range of data to maximize their effect. Clear Channel, for example, helped livestreaming service Twitch attract gamers to watch the 2021 Streamer Bowl, in which top gamers teamed up with NFL athletes using digital and printed OOH displays targeting regional audiences. The campaign generated a 245 percent incremental lift in on-site viewers of the event, according to Clear Channel.

Key takeaway: As much as Americans have suffered "screen fatigue," marketers should continue to use digital platforms to engage consumers and deploy tools like QR codes to strengthen relationships online. "As consumers enjoy this freedom of movement, they do so with their devices in hand, not as passive 'exposed audiences,' but as active participants who respond to brand messages that they see in the real world," says Dan Levi, EVP and CMO at Clear Channel Outdoor Americas. "The opportunity for marketers is to create impactful brand experiences in the physical world and connect these ad exposures to behaviors in both the physical and digital realms."



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