Virtual events space can still drive an exciting brand experience

Using virtual technology as part of the marketing mix and more specifically in the eventing space, has surely been spurred on during this global COVID-19 pandemic. It’s one that not only presents an opportunity to innovate, but can most definitely support a new and exciting brand experience, writes Tarryn Knight, Head of Marketing and Product at Audi South Africa.

Glamourous award evenings (or any significant event for that matter) are an important activation within many organisations’ corporate calendars. These not only allow an opportunity to bring people together but they provide a tangible and physical demonstration of a brand’s personality, its character and tone. Events inspire a story and offer a unique expression when integrated as part of a brand’s overall marketing mix so, as a marketer, what do you do when you can’t host the conventional awards evening or brand activation?

In the time of physical distancing, when large gatherings are prohibited, it takes true innovation and unconventional lateral thinking to deliver a virtual alternative in a way that still achieves the marketing and brand objectives that the event was intended to.

The good news is that not only are the original objectives still achievable, but more becomes possible too. Done right, a virtual event is a progression, an evolution of an exciting idea. This was our recent experience at Audi South Africa a few weeks ago, during the staging of our annual Audi Silver Arrow Dealer Awards.

The Audi Silver Arrows is a Dealer incentive and awards programme which not only recognises outstanding individual and team performance within our retail network but it’s an important brand event which is based on the principles of excellence, motivation and celebrating hard work for the year which has passed. Audi employees look forward to this occasion not only for the special acknowledgement it bestows, but equally for experiencing the brand as a guest, boosting morale and setting the tone for achieving the business targets ahead.

Cancelling the Audi Silver Arrows event was not an option. It’s a long-standing tradition which has facilitated and formed part of the internal brand culture to a large degree. Especially during these uncertain times, cancelling such a revered event would exacerbate the uncertainty. The challenge to the marketing team was posed: How best do we execute it? How can we bring the magic and excitement of a traditional event and the networking and energy of an awards ceremony, to one held in a virtual domain while still maintaining a premium and exciting guest experience?”

Our answer was not a simple one but it sure was an exciting one. We hosted our awards evening as a pre-recorded show on a virtual stage through a web-based streaming platform. This was no simple audio-visual production. It was a digital show, blending 3D animation, live action and some innovative surprises to keep our guests engaged and excited to be part of their first virtual Audi event.

Our virtual event was executed through different platforms and phases. During the build-up phase (a few days before the event), we used the popular WhatsApp platform to create an element of pre-event hype. This included teaser videos, an event countdown and a cocktail recipe book where guests where encouraged and given ideas on how to design their celebratory drinks at home in preparation for the event.

On the night, guests could log into the event via a mobile phone, tablet or laptop. They were ushered into an animated 3D environment resembling a sophisticated New York rooftop bar, where they found themselves hosted by the Head of the Audi brand in South Africa, Trevor Hill, mixing virtual cocktails behind the bar – executed seamlessly through virtual reality technology.

We looked for as many ways as possible to make the event delightful and interactive. A WhatsApp chat room was created for guest banter and engagement during the event, which added an additional layer of “live interaction” and facilitated networking. Guests posted photos and comments about what they were experiencing on screen and in their “at home” viewing environment. Without being physically present amongst one another, the atmosphere of celebration and brand passion was still very prevalent.

We realised early on that the online broadcast approach had several new advantages over a physical event. We could have more attendees than before, fewer logistical costs and unique entertainment experiences for guests, whilst still delivering meaningful and premium brand touchpoints for our guests – just virtually.

This amplified one of the key functions of a marketing event or activation - allowing guests to experience our brand - to a far wider audience. This worked especially well for an awards evening where winners shared the stream with colleagues from across SA’s Dealer Network, amongst family and friends, all of whom were able to watch online and share the experience together. This would not have been possible had the event remained a traditional dinner.

Innovating in the virtual eventing space has been an incredibly exciting experience but it has also been a very interesting learning opportunity. Reflecting back on this, here are a few recommendations for marketing teams looking to create a virtual activation:

• Don’t try to recreate online exactly what you used to do at events. It’s no longer an event, it’s a show with interactive elements. Retain the elements that serve the primary objective of the event whilst embracing a new medium and a broader audience.

• Find a balance between being brave and playing it safe. Control what you can and allow the online space to reveal a new guest experience. We balanced a pre-recorded broadcast with a few live components in the show to allow for spontaneity whilst mitigating risk.

• Work with the best in the field. We were blessed to work with experts in the eventing and 3D animation field who could bring our vision to reality, making suggestions and improvements which helped us to define a new dimension of innovation for our brand.

• Be open and explore the possibilities of the virtual platform. Executing a virtual awards evening allowed us to expand our creativity and explore the opportunities available to us – to stretch the boundaries of our imagination and express our brand in a new way.

• Finally, keep your eye on the objective. Remember the primary purpose of that specific event and its role in the marketing mix. In our case, it was to acknowledge, recognize and inspire excellence throughout our Dealer Network. We made sure that this remained the focus for every guest touchpoint. It also helped us to avoid fragmentation in the end result and put aside some ideas when our imaginations ran away with us.

Uncertain and challenging times do bring out opportunities to reinvent the norm, to challenge our modes of working and express our brands in new ways. Embracing the digital space has created a totally new guest experience and presented an incredible space for brands to innovate, inspire and invent!

The equipment, data, information and prices stated in this document refer to the Audi model range and current brand initiatives offered in South Africa, at the time of print and/or upload. Subject to change without notice; errors and omissions excepted.