Soo Youn Lee, a Los Angeles-based creator and model, was among the 165 influencers invited to Revolve Farmer’s Market, a three-day event held at the end of March in Los Angeles. The online fashion retailer’s first major in-person brand event since the pandemic began a year ago, the outdoor market with 15 booths featured 50 Revolve-approved brands, including private labels like Lovers & Friends and LPA, with a focus on Black and women-owned labels. Each stall — plus 75,000 flowers Revolve had planted for the activation — was designed to be a perfect Instagram backdrop.
“Obviously the last year has been all Instagram Live, and we saw great success with that, but it just doesn’t have the exact same kind of brand reach as we did with our [live] events that we obviously have become known for,” said Revolve chief brand officer Raissa Gerona.
#RevolveInBloom, the activation’s hashtag, generated more earned media value with fewer posts and fewer influencers than its #RevolveWinter activation, an ongoing term it used throughout the last several months, according to data from Tribe Dynamics.
In many ways, the online-only events that fashion brands have experimented with over the last year — from fashion show films to concerts to designer interviews — were simply an acceleration of a move towards digital activations. But they were also a stop-gap measure meant to keep consumers engaged when interactions were relegated to the digital realm, many with limited success.
As vaccination rates increase and parts of the world begin to reopen, brands are beginning to think more concretely about how to hold in-person events, eager to return to those activations, which helped generate both customer excitement and sales. Serious conversations started happening in the west in early March, as reopening seemed less a wish and more a reality for the near future in places like the UK and US. But it won’t be back to business as usual for events organisers — especially not now that digital events have become more commonplace.
“We spent so many months working on how to translate a live event into a digital format, and now that people have experienced digital, it’s all about, ‘How do we get back into that live mode?’” said Xavier Cadiou, director of Polar Black Events, which has worked with brands including Fendi, Cartier and Louis Vuitton. “Clearly, things are going to have to be done differently.”
The Logistics Limbo
In the immediate future, brands will have to navigate putting on events amid changing restrictions and protocols. Some fashion events have already been held in reopened economies, offering a glimpse into the future. Prada opened a new exhibit and has hosted parties at its Rong Zhai residence in Shanghai in March. That same month in Australia, nine designers showed collections at the Melbourne Fashion Festival, which attracted hundreds of guests.
Australia has allowed for large gatherings indoors and outdoors since last year but has required organisers to abide by Covid-safe guidelines. For example, social distancing is still required at events, and attendees must have assigned ticketed seating instead of general admission or standing room (to help with contact tracing in the event of an outbreak). Event organisers also must have plans — namely staggered arrival and departure times — for how attendees arrive and exit events to reduce bottlenecks.
For its part, Revolve assigned time slots for guests to attend the three-day-long Farmers Market. Attendees were required to take a Covid-19 PCR test and undergo health screenings within 72 hours of the event; Revolve paid for more than 400 of them. Everyone was told to keep six feet apart and keep their masks on — except when taking photos.
In the US and UK, limitations still exist on how many people can attend gatherings, requiring brands to more critically evaluate whether each invited guest helps them meet their marketing goals. Communications and events executives expect that, given the additional logistical considerations in holding live events, modest brand activations with key influencers or clients will be commonplace, at least into 2022 and 2023. Jamie D’Attoma, senior vice president of experiential at Shadow, also said brands are considering smaller-scale in-store shopping experiences.
It is also more important than ever that brands holding live events communicate the precautions they have taken. For Revolve’s Farmer’s Market, the brand posted preview content ahead of the event itself, explaining its approach to health and safety in a detailed caption.
Even still, there’s a risk of alienating some consumers in these early days. Lee said that while many of her followers engaged positively with the content she posted at the Revolve Farmer’s Market, others are still less receptive, particularly in states where Covid-19 cases may be rising or the vaccine rollout is slower.
“I’ve gotten messages — essays — about how I’m a part of the problem as to why this virus won’t go away,” Lee said. Other followers “message me saying that they are excited to be out and doing normal things again.”
Making Hybrid Events Work
Even after the pandemic ends — less like a specific date and more like a slow fade — marketing experts expect many brands will still opt for digital-only events.
D’Attoma said that digital-only events are more “democratic,” offering the most access and convenience for guests who may not yet have received the COVID-19 vaccine. They’re also available for consumers to attend no matter where they’re located.
Through the summer, into fall and for at least the next year, hybrid physical-digital events will emerge as the standard in order to reach a more global audience. But they’ll also be tricky to execute.
Aside from the additional cost of health and safety measures required to hold in-person brand activations for the foreseeable future, hybrid events tack on additional expenses. The best hybrid events will have to engage viewers at home, all while being remarkable enough for attendees to share with their own audiences.
Using specialised, multi-functional platforms — instead of relying on Zoom — to translate physical events online can help. Livio, a new live streaming platform Cadiou helped create, focuses as much on how the platform looks and functions as how guests are able to interact with each other, as well as the brand.
“I want to be able in a way to feel like I’m still sitting in that front row and have a good gossip about the collection with the person I’m sitting next to,” Cadiou said. Tools on Livio like private and group chats and product discovery pages would be particularly useful for fashion brands. So far, brands within LVMH have begun discussions with Livio about upcoming projects.
“What we’re trying to do is enable people to watch that content but to then be able to interact and chat about it, and talk and ask questions about a collection so they’re still getting value out of whatever a brand is presenting,” Cadiou added.
Ultimately, the learnings from the pandemic should apply to all upcoming activations. That means creating specialised landing pages for hybrid events, sending out email marketing to customers, and meeting them where they are, be it in person or online.
“We are trying to mix all of the tools in the marketing playbook that we have in our arsenal that we learned from this past year,” said Gerona. “How do we integrate everything so that the consumer feels like they’re really part of everything that we’re doing?”
Although some organisers in the West do not expect the return of large-scale activations like Coachella-style festivals through at least the next two years, reduced capacity physical and hybrid events are still very much “worth it,” said D’Attoma.
“Nothing is as valuable as the inherent and lasting connection brands can achieve by hosting in-person experiences — which, when appropriately executed, can create new memories and forge new emotional connections between attendees and the brand,” he added. “That said ... don’t throw an event to throw an event.”