Digital and Virtual Connections Have Quickly Become a Brand’s Livelihood

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a matter of weeks, the dire economic and health challenges posed by COVID-19 have changed the way retail, food and beverage, and hospitality brands interact with consumers. This unprecedented crisis has impacted global supply chains, but it’s also forcing almost every industry to rethink their physical environments and reconsider consumer needs. As that long-term thinking comes together, what can brands do in the short term to connect with people in meaningful and authentic ways?

For several years, the world’s best brands have been delivering rich, interactive, and immersive live experiences to satiate a seemingly never-ending desire of consumers of all ages. The light-hearted traveling Museum of Ice Cream and the archival Louis Vuitton X exhibition in Beverly Hills have changed the paradigm of traditional museum tours. Popular outdoor music and culinary festivals (think Coachella, Stagecoach, and Aspen Food & Wine) have created throngs of fans ready to camp out for multi-day extravaganzas. Even the world of sports has built more fan-based programming around the main event of the game.

Today, we are facing a new normal. As restaurants, bars, clubs, theaters, shops, and sports and entertainment venues close their doors — hopefully temporarily — live experiences are not possible. Plus, consumers are focused on more pressing questions as many settle into life and work at home. When will kids go back to school? When will I feel safe again on an airplane? When can I shake hands in a business meeting?

For as much as we wonder about “how long will life be like this?” it has become evident that brands, from the largest retailer to the sole entrepreneur, are quickly finding new ways to authentically connect with their audiences through digital and virtual experiences. In this time of physical distancing, the digital world has never been more important in maintaining personal relationships.

Here are a few examples of brands that are innovating virtually to cultivate connection:

1. Building brand loyalty with virtual and personal connections.
What happens when the loyal gym-goers cannot flock together for their daily fix? We’ve seen brands like Barry’s Bootcamp (@BarrysBootcamp) launch “Barry’s-At-Home” on Instagram Live, where instructors are broadcasting classes live from their homes and following it up with instructors sharing what they’re fixing up for Sunday brunch. Making it personal is what’s building new brand loyalty.

In the instance of an up-and-coming cabaret singer living in Queens, New York, (@JohnBurnsLive) decided to sit down at the kitchen table and post a tribute to the late Kenny Rogers. The digital platform that the performer once used primarily for photos and promoting upcoming show dates and times has become his new stage.

2. Leaning into original content programming.
The world of Broadway also recognizes that the appetite for theatre remains strong even as physical stages are dark. BroadwayHD (@BroadwayHD) is offering subscriptions to stream critically acclaimed shows like “Cats,” “Sweeney Todd,” “42nd Street,” and “Macbeth,” and it’s the next best option to being there. Equally thrilling is finding @JonRoniger and the Good for Nothin’ Band host “The Quarantine Sessions” every night at 7 p.m. CST. The show is set up in what appears to be his living room, inviting you in to share in the moment, however temporarily.

3. Doing well by doing good and stepping up philanthropy.
Keep-us-entertained moments are popping up all over web and social media, but something else extraordinary is happening with how brands are rising to the occasion of meeting the various needs sparked by the COVID-19 health crisis. A few stand-out examples:

  • Luxury brand LVMH (@LVMH) is converting perfume manufacturing at all its Christian Dior, Guerlain, and Givenchy facilities to the production of hand sanitizer that will be made available for free to French health authorities.
  • Pari Passu (@PariPassuShop), a plus-size fashion retailer in NYC, posted on Instagram with an offer to convert their NYC garment factory into production for PPE gowns/scrubs. They are now working to connect directly with local hospitals.
  • A coalition of American apparel brands and textile companies have come together to build a supply chain virtually overnight and fast-track the manufacturing of medical face masks to help hospitals, health care workers, and citizens battling the spread of the COVID-19 disease.
  • Medical Memory (@TheMedMemory) is offering their (otherwise fee-based) app for free. This app bridges the gap between doctors and nurses to send a one-way video update directly to family members with loved ones in the hospital.

4. Showing you care by taking care of those who support you.
By showing support to their employees, partners, and others impacted by this crisis, brands can make an enduring imprint with discerning consumers.

  • Starbucks announced it will pay all in-store staff for the next 30 days, whether or not they choose to come to work, and will provide all U.S. partners and eligible family members access to 20 sessions a year with a mental health therapist or coach through @LyraHealth. Additionally, through May 3, front-line responders to the COVID-19 outbreak can receive a free tall brewed coffee as thanks for their service.
  • Miller Lite (@MillerLite) launched a “#VirtualTipJar” campaign to raise money to support out-of-work bartenders, while Jameson Irish Whiskey pledged to give a 1:1 dollar match for every donation made to the United States Bartenders’ Guild Foundation's COVID-19 relief campaign.

While the new measures taken by local governments during this crisis have restricted our daily lives, this moment also pushes brands to realize new ways of creating meaningful, authentic, human connections. Banding together in a global pandemic is what builds long lasting impressions amidst all the uncertainty.

It’s a new reality, however temporary, and the brands that take this moment to support the larger global cause are most likely to cement truly lasting memories — and new loyal followers — in this unprecedented time.

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Amy Bixler
Amy is a studio director and global leader in Gensler’s Brand Design practice. Her work, which ranges from retail to hospitality, workplace to community, blends strategy, graphic design, and digital communication with interior design and architecture to create unforgettable brand experiences. Amy is based in Atlanta. Contact her at .
Jill Wittnebel
Jill is a managing director in Gensler's Los Angeles office. She is focused on developing programs including brand strategy and identity design, experience design, print and digital communications, signage and wayfinding, hospitality design, retail design, workplace branding, and environmental graphics for clients across diverse industries. Contact her at .