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Drive-Thrus & Drive-Ins: How Brands Are Using Cars to Bring Back In-Person Events

Cars are currently saving experiencification. These are the brands hosting drive-ins and drive-thru events during the pandemic…

COVID-19 forced almost everything to go virtual, paving for an era of live content. But as the pandemic and quarantines persist, families and young people have been finding ways to get outside and go to events (safely) outdoors—especially as autumn holidays approach. Apple picking and going to wineries have continued to welcome visitors, but with more social distancing and safety protocols put into place. And in recent months, some brands have gotten the hang of “pandemic marketing,” by getting creative about social distancing, and meeting consumers where they can spend their time.  

Another thing that has been increasingly useful for making this possible? Cars. Across major cities, young people have been renting and buying cars. According to the New York State D.M.V, they processed 73,933 original car registrations in June and July—a 39% increase from last year. For Automatch Consultation, which assists first-time car buyers, May and April were record months with a third of their sales going to New Yorkers. And, yes, while car expenses can be pricey, many young city dwellers are discovering that one of the most valuable things of owning a vehicle is the freedom to safely go where they want along with the “peace” and “relief in actual escapism.” In fact, YPulse’s upcoming trend research Drive Forward will explore the major shifts occurring in transportation for young people right now, and found that the majority of young car owners agree, “I’ve been driving my car more just to escape from my home.” (And yes, despite their reputations as Uber users, the majority of Millennials do own a car.)

Cars have become a mode of escapism, and brands are using them to reach young people and reimage experiences. Drive-ins and drive-thrus have become a major trend as the pandemic continues. Walmart, in collaboration with Tribeca Enterprises, was one of the first major brands to launch a drive-in event during the start of summer by offering quarantined families drive-in movie theaters, complete with car-side popcorn and drink service. But will the trend of car-focused events continue through the fall? So far, answers point to yes. Aside from orchards and wineries, traditional fall and holiday-specific events like going to haunted houses are getting the “drive-thru” treatment, while others are creating “drive-in” horror movie experiences to keep the spooky spirit alive. But it’s not just media and entertainment brands tapping the trend: the food and beauty industries have gotten creative with car-accessible experiences as well, proving that it’s an opportunity for all brands. Here are the brands putting on car-focused events and using “drive-thru” and “drive-in” trends to save experience marketing: 

Resy’s The Resy Drive Thru 

Of course, drive-thrus aren’t new to restaurants. Fast food chains have utilized their existing drive-thrus more than ever during this time, setting them up for success during the pandemic. McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell all ramped up their marketing to focus on drive-thrus by offering special promotions and deals, and according to the NPD Group, drive-thru visits increased by 26% from April to June. Some dine-in restaurants that were forced to temporarily close their locations, like Texas Roadhouse, transformed their empty parking lots into temporary drive-thru lanes to accommodate more customers. Now, Resy is creating a drive-thru concept that’s being referred to as “the future of fine dining.” The reservation platform is teaming up with American Express Gold Card for “The Resy Drive Thru” later this month at the Hollywood Palladium. It will feature several LA-based chefs and popular restaurants, and serve attendees a a 10-course meal—in their car. Upon entering, attendees in cars will be assigned a “designated waiter” who will guide them from “restaurant to restaurant,” which will be represented by tents that are socially distanced from each other. According to the two brands, they created the event as a way to give customers access to “sought-after restaurants and chefs” as well as a way to support restaurant partners seeking revenue during the pandemic with indoor dining closed. The first Resy Drive Thru event, taking place October 16th, quickly sold out. 


Impossible Foods’ The Great Patty Pickup Party

Toward the end of August, plant-based brand Impossible Foods decided to utilize a different type of “drive-thru” trend to celebrate and promote their new line of premade faux-meat patties at grocery stores: A car wash. In LA, “hundreds” of consumers attended the drive-thru activation at the Dodger Stadium to get free car washes as well as free packages of the meatless patties and goodie bags that included Ralph’s gift cards and “low-tech” French fry kits (a.k.a “potatoes with cooking instructions”). Young people have accelerated the trend of fake meat, and the pandemic has accelerated its popularity. According to Impossible Foods, they have seen “record breaking sale spikes” during this time, as consumers reduce their meat consumption and make more meals at home. Impossible Foods’ VP of Creative said they missed doing events, and wanted to make a COVID-safe solution where “no one had to leave their cars.”


Freeform’s Halloween Road

Sure, Halloween looks different this year, but some brands are quickly adapting to the new normal. While Freeform is continuing their annual “31 Nights of Halloween” tradition of airing classic Halloween movies, they’re adding a scary and “immersive” element this year: A drive-thru experience. With “Halloween Road,” attendees will be taken on “a thrilling journey” through classic Halloween flicks like Ghostbusters, Hocus Pocus, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Along the way, drivers can expect other “tricks and treats”: Themed surprises, interactive experiences, live entertainment, and “spooktacular” photo opportunities. Meanwhile, Hulu is instead using the drive-in experience to push some of their new horror movie releases. “Huluween” will take place in LA (which seems to be the natural epicenter of car-focused experiencification) over four days, and will also feature spooky and “pandemic-friendly” photo activities, live entertainment, and screenings of their new horror movies. 

Disney+ Drive-In Festival

YPulse’s data shows that young consumers are excited to go back to the movies, but a majority aren’t willing to take the risk just yet. Because of this, drive-in movie theaters are seeing an “unexpected revival” during the social distancing era—and brands are creating their own. Disney is familiar with quickly coming up with ways to entertain quarantined families during lockdowns. Early on in the pandemic, they created an “online playground” to give families the chance to virtually experience their popular theme parks, as well as meditative content to support kids’ mental health and wellness. Now, they’re finally leaning into the drive-in trend with Disney+’s first drive-in festival. Simply referred to as the “Drive-In Festival,” the week-long event is expected to debut this month with new movies from their Disney, Pixar, Marvel, National Geographic, and Star Wars brands. The new titles that will be premiering at the festival (and on SVOD) include The Right Stuff and Clouds


Dermalogica’s Drive-in: Masque and Movie

It’s no secret that the beauty industry and their events took a hit during COVID. While many have pivoted to virtual events with the help of Zoom, VR, and Animal Crossing, some have worked hard to get in-person events back and running. Enter Dermalogica. Last month, they hosted a Masque and Movie drive-in event at their LA headquarters in a “sprawling parking lot” where they invited several beauty influencers. Upon arrival, attendees got their own parking spot, and a table set up with products and snacks, and watched a live masterclass on how to use the brand’s new exfoliant. The brand prepared an extensive “safety plan” prior to hosting the event, which included mandatory virus testing for guests and employees, vendors, and their staff. There were separate product stations set up next to each parking space where visitors were parked, and their masterclass presentation even required the brand to hire A/V equipment. Dermalogica wasn’t the only beauty brand to experiment with drive-in events: In July, cosmetics brand Jouer also threw a drive-in movie-themed celebration in the summer for their new Champagne and Macarons collection.