Don’t Neglect Those ‘Vomit-Bag Moments’

“Everything is up for grabs” in the business events industry, said ECEF keynoter Julie Cottineau, who shared in her session how to use a “twist” approach to rethink how to engage attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors in the new normal.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Julie Cottineau

BrandTwist founder and CEO Julie Cottineau, shown here in Times Square, was a keynote speaker at the all-digital Exhibition & Convention Executives Forum in November. (Bob Plotkin photo)

Business events organizers would do well to consider “vomit-bag moments” along their customers’ journey, said Julie Cottineau, founder and CEO BrandTwist, in her two-part keynote session at the all-digital Exhibition & Convention Executives Forum (ECEF), produced by Lippman Connects. The tip (more on that later) was one of many Cottineau, a brand consultant and author of Twist: How Fresh Perspectives Build Breakthrough Brands, offered in her presentation, “3 Branding Rules For the Pandemic: Twisting Uncertainty Into Opportunity,” on Nov. 18.

Twisting, Cottineau said, is the practice of “looking at successful brand practices outside of exhibitions and conventions, and then twisting those ideas back with your industry.” The three rules she explored during her session included looking at your business and seeing if there are new ways of creating and presenting new products and services that meet the changing needs of your target; twisting your touch points — the many moments along your brand experience and seeing how to innovate and create higher engagement; and twisting for the greater good. “Brands need to have a higher purpose, but never has that been more true than right now,” Cottineau said. “With everything that’s going on in the world, we need to find ways for your business and your brand to enter that conversation and give some positive impact.”

Here are some of Cottineau’s unconventional strategies for twisting.

Deliberate disruption. If you’re planning an event, she said, instead of brainstorming and saying, “How can we make this wonderful?” some fresh ideas can come from asking the opposition question: How could we make this terrible? “That gives you the freedom to really go outside the box,” she said, citing an example from toy company Mattel. An innovation company that Cottineau worked with was asked by Mattel to come up with a new kind of Barbie. “So they tasked themselves with, what is the worst kind of Barbie that we could come up with? And you’ve got it, it would be a Barbie Lady of the Night. But by doing this — by giving themselves permission to really dive deep into this exercise — what they realized is that [little girls] didn’t really spend a lot of time with Barbie at night. … they put her away at night.” So out of this thinking, they created a sleep-over, a pajama party Barbie, which did very well in the market.

Cottineau also noted that event organizers can take a page from a recent ad from Burger King, which suggested to consumers to “Please order from McDonald’s.” “If you read the fine copy, what they’re basically saying is, ‘Please keep the industry alive. Order from any fast food. Yes, we’d prefer it’s ours. But if you have to, make it McDonald’s,’” Cottineau said. This, she added, “is a call to you all to look at how can we twist with our competition and cooperate with them?”

Call it something else. During the Q&A portion, Cottineau recommended “twisting the very nature of how we call [events]. Maybe it’s not an event. Maybe it’s a growth conference. It’s a, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ conference. [It’s about] really getting in the mindset of your target.”

Focus on your content. Creating a virtual trade show is particularly challenging, and Cottineau suggested focusing on content instead of the sales opportunity. “Instead of thinking about it as an event, it’s really a content opportunity,” she said. “Even rethinking the concept of a booth. Maybe it’s not, ‘Stop by at our virtual booth.’ Maybe the booth, to take a twist from telemedicine, becomes a diagnosis time. We’re going to really dig in with our experts. Not with the intention of selling, but with the intention of really healing you, of helping you. And give you a diagnosis and a prescription of what you can do to move forward.”

Don’t take any of your touchpoints for granted. “Your touchpoints are those moments of your brand experience all along the continuum, and great brands really look at four main phases,” Cottineau said. “They look at the discovery phase, which is when people are just finding out about your event and considering, ‘Should I join? Should I sponsor? Should I attend? Should I exhibit?’” The second phase is purchase, she said, when they’ve made the decision and are figuring out how to work with you. The third phase is experience, when they’re actually participating. This is the phase, she said, when “we really look at moments of how we can surprise and delight them.”

The fourth phase — overlooked by a lot of brands, Cottineau said — is commitment. “This is after the event. How do you keep the leads warm? How do you keep the conversation going? How do you turn people who’ve worked with you into brand ambassadors so they’ll help you promote your brand even when you’re not even there?”

Looking at this continuum, she encouraged the audience to think about opportunities to innovate. “Sometimes it can be really small moments. This is what I call vomit-bag moments, and this is probably the most important lesson I want you to walk away from,” Cottineau said. She explained that the FAA requires that any flight over six hours has a vomit bag in the seat pocket, but most of the time those bags are just plain white. “Virgin Atlantic uses this moment as part of the brand experience. They brand the bags red, which is their signature brand color, and they create a little story on them: Now, how did it get so horrible to fly? Remember when flying used to be fun? People used to get dressed up for flying, and they end up with, ‘On Virgin Atlantic, flying will always feel new. You’ll always feel like a virgin again on our flights.’”

Going deeper with the Virgin America experience, Cottineau said that the company’s safety video is a “fully produced music video with quite catchy music and great dancers that go over the safety features. People pay attention to this video, which makes them more safe instead of tuning it out.” She challenged participants to think about “moments with your safety protocols where you can deliver the absolute information, the critical information that you need, but also add a twist, have more fun, increase engagement and actually increase compliance?”

Twist for the greater good. More than ever, Cottineau said, brands need to show a higher purpose. Cottineau shared that she was thinking of canceling her Audible audio books monthly subscription until she got an email from Audible telling her that because of her subscription, the company was able to provide free audio books for kids over the summer. “That made me understand that they were doing some good, and I decided to keep my subscription,” she said.

Another example is on offer at numerous pizzerias, where you buy a pizza and you give money for another pizza that is donated to a first responder group in your area. ‘Maybe you could do something like this where two tickets to your event would actually allow you to provide a third ticket free to a colleague who’s recently out of work,” she said, asking: “How can you use purchase to also ignite and unlock some good?”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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