19 Nov 2020

Pandemic Lessons: You’ve Got to Break from the Norm


Pandemic Lessons: You’ve Got to Break from the Norm

Branding expert Julie Cottineau provided ECEF attendees with ideas for thriving in disrupted times.

Julie Cottineau is an idea machine. She framed her November 18 keynote at the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum around her experiences as a branding executive at large companies like Interbrand and Virgin, and from leading her own brand consultancy, BranTwist. But she also brought her “twist” philosophy to the disruptions that event organizers are facing today as a result of the pandemic.

Essentially, Cottineau’s idea of a “twist” is to apply fresh thinking to a problem and put a positive customer experience at the heart of the solution. ECEF designed a twist in the keynote itself, splitting the virtual presentation into two segments of about 20 minutes each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. That split took into account virtual attendees’ preference for shorter educational sessions but without gutting the content. And after each segment, Cottineau spent about 10 minutes in a live question-and-answer session with ECEF founder Sam Lippman to dive deeper into the topic.

Twisting, she says, “really starts with looking at what your customer, your sponsor, your exhibitor needs, versus what you’re used to doing.” Here are three examples from her talk:

• Early-bird discounts are a mainstay of the conference registration process, but not an idea that’s going to work in 2021. “People aren't planning in advance anymore,” said Cottineau. “So maybe we can reward people somehow for late registration, or for I'm-not-sure-I-can-make-it registration, or I-meant-to-sign-up-but-forgot registration.” While her brainstorming ideas might seem funny and unworkable, the point is to get “inside the heads” of customers and understand the issues they’re facing. Lippman agreed, noting that the pandemic has altered other standard practices: “Obviously, the airlines have changed their whole approach towards cancellations and rescheduling.”

• Enforcing new safety protocols are a challenge at in-person events. However, organizations that find a way to connect the new rules with their brand can turn it into a win, Cottineau said. “Instead of just saying we should be six feet apart, how about making it more fun and easier to maintain the proper distance?” She illustrated her point with a Dos Equis beer campaign this summer that gave away six-foot-long beer coolers. And if you want people to wear their masks, maybe you hand them out with clever messaging or provide materials for attendees to personalize them.

• Cottineau suggested creating “vomit-bag moments,” in reference to Virgin Atlantic’s approach to the amenity that you hope you never need. Instead of the common white “barf bag,” Virgin’s are red and completely covered with text humorously lamenting how air travel has gotten so awful. Cottineau said to think about the drab parts of the conference experience and add in the unexpected. For example, what if the registration process has a few fun questions? (Virgin, she said, enlivens its booking process with the question, “How much wood can a woodchuck chuck…?”)