From Retail to Re: Tale.

Malls were in turmoil before the pandemic began, and many of their tenants won’t survive. But we humans crave a commons. We are, at root, social animals. Which is one of the reasons why the second- and third-order health effects of the quarantine have been so terrible.

It’s also why the return to commons-type environments — once we’re given the “all-clear” — is likely to be robust. We exist differently in crowds. We just do. Like fish. Like birds. We flock together.

But unlike fish and birds, we have constructed our public square. And we constructed it, like it or not, around commerce.

So when we fully re-emerge into a ‘public’ setting, that setting, in most communities around the world, will involve commerce. Our lives are built around it. Which is not to say that the e-commerce trends won’t continue. They absolutely will. The convenience factor is just too profound. While intelligent people can debate the “efficiencies” of e-commerce in terms of total environmental-cost-per-product (where does the emission math net out in terms of bringing each individual product to the consumer vs. bringing the consumer to the product), there is no question that the level of effort required to obtain anything with a tap, as opposed to driving to a store, is incomparable.

But final purchase is just one component of the brand-consumer relationship (albeit a highly important one). There’s still affinity, engagement, persuasion and connection – all of which need to happen before you get to conversion. Get my attention. Tell me a story. Let me see who else responds to that story. Is that a community I want to be a part of?

In these spheres of the lifecycle, “real” life holds certain advantages over the virtual. After all, people still trust and follow each other more IRL than in digital forums.

That tendency will compound in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. When it’s safe to be in a crowd, people will flock to each other more than ever – ready for brands to engage them. Looking to each other for cues on where they belong.

All of which presents tremendous opportunity for smart brands to forge new pathways into their consumer relationship. Physical ‘brand centers’ and experiences will flourish. There will be ample, prime real estate available. And with purchases shifting online, these ‘brand centers’ will be free from managing the logistics of inventory – which means they can put even more emphasis on building great, memorable, positive experience centers. They can focus on the story they want to tell. Immerse their consumers into their brand tale.

This trend also isn’t new. Branded pop-ups. Bank-cafes. Insta-ready-sets. Retailers have been incorporating experiences in an effort to fight off the incursions of online shopping for years now. But what wasn’t clear was the purpose. Sure, you could go to an art showing set up in a clothing boutique. Or go see a performance in a shoe store. But it wasn’t clear why you would.

Now we’ve all had a clear vision of life outside the commons. Of commerce being purely relegated to click-and-deliver. And it works. It works beautifully. But something is lacking. It’s us, as a collective, being out, being together. In the world we’ve built, brand spaces are where that communion happens. Give us something to focus on – immerse us in a story – and we will come. Because the real reason to go out is us. All of us. Experiencing things together. And that, as it happens, is enough.