Loneliness is widespread among Americans, affecting three out of four people, according to a 2018 study by Cigna. With loneliness potentially having the same impact on life expectancy as smoking, it's clear we have an issue on our hands.
The paradox is that we live in a world seemingly more connected than ever—and not just via technology and social media, which has arguably contributed to the problem. Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic rise in co-working and living spaces, music festivals and coffee shops—all of which are inherently designed to bring people together and drive meaningful connections.
But there is clearly more work to do, and this issue provides an interesting opportunity for brands.
There are countless examples of how brands are taking an active role in creating a sense of inclusion online, including Peloton Riders, Sephora's Beauty Talk and Lego Ideas. However, it's not new news that true belonging is most effectively achieved through in-person connections, as Roxane Gay eloquently articulates. Even Facebook recognizes that community building in the digital sphere isn't going to cut it anymore—and that's saying something.
Cue experiential marketing, the medium that now plays a large role in combating this fluid state of isolation. Experiences are helping brands create a real human connection that today's consumers desperately want. Below are the key principles that should be in every brand's marketing playbook, with a focus on the in-person experience:
Curate authentic "human" experiences.
In a world of celebrity endorsements, sponsored posts and paid influencers, people crave authenticity more than ever, especially with the younger generations. So it's vital for real-life brand experiences to offer value and allow for meaningful connections. This doesn't need to come at the cost of the "Instagrammable moments," by the way.
Desperados embraced this philosophy recently, as the brand felt that people's dependency on their phones was negatively impacting socialization at parties. Upon arrival at their event, guests handed over their phones in exchange for a beer. Following this, the phones were linked up and played synchronized animations in time with the music. The result was a valuable connection IRL versus a device.
Inspire self-expression and play.
Surprise and delight, by giving your audience experiences that play into their own most idyllic selves. The House of Vans event spaces provide an always-on playground for people to get together, skate and enjoy shared passions like art, music, film and sports. These hubs are used to immerse consumers in the brand, but also enable creative expression and build grassroots communities.
Lead a movement.
The best brand communities are made up of fiercely loyal customers. Jeep fuels this sense of togetherness by hosting yearly "Jamborees" where owners gather for a weekend of fun, while Lululemon offers accessible, invigorating experiences and classes year-round. Both brands are positioned as essential members of a cultural movement, connecting people with what they love, and in doing so, these brands become indispensable.
Employ genuine fans.
Young adults increasingly distrust formal, marketed and curated communication—with personal experiences (66 percent) and people like themselves (65 percent) leading the charge, statistics recently outlined at the Youth Marketing Summit in New York. Adidas tapped into this insight, building one of the best global retail programs through its Adidas Field Agent Program. It re-established the brand as the second-place leader in a fiercely competitive category. Adidas' roots are founded in individual creators, and as such, it recruits, hires and trains in-the-know influencers who are local experts and can talk with conviction and passion when it comes to the intersection of sports and fashion. Viewing staff as "keepers of the brand" has been a game changer for the brand, harboring consumer trust.
Authentic community building in the real world is a powerful way to connect with consumers, and is a step in the right direction in addressing the current crisis of social belonging. Overcoming this loneliness epidemic will require commitment and integration across this business and beyond—and demand authenticity as a pre-requisite. The byproduct? A deep sense of brand loyalty, commercial opportunities and—for those that really master the art of community building—iconic cult status.