HBO Max leans into customer demand for enhanced digital experiences in stores5 min read


Following the long period of lockdown in 2020, many consumers (nearly half) were ready to get outside and into stores, according to a Snapchat study. But are they bringing with them higher expectations for in-store experiences? Marketers serving brands with a brick and mortar presence should be thinking about how to create hybrid digital/physical experiences (or “phygital,” as Uberall is now calling them).

This demand is anticipated in particular from the rising group of Gen Z consumers who are acquiring real purchase power — although, across the board, customers can be slow to adopt new in-store technologies.

High expectations

AT&T and HBO Max are banking on consumers expecting much more from physical stores, including augmented reality and other technology-enhanced experiences. “Our AT&T retail locations are incredible places for innovation to take flight,” said Jeannie Weaver, AT&T’s VP, Retail and Special Experiences Marketing. 

Read more about how consumers miss shopping in-store

“New forms of interface and interaction, real-time visualization tools and platforms, and the pure speed of computing power running everything are all proving to be fruitful ways to engage both individuals and large groups in incredibly thoughtful and refined design experiences,” said David Schwarz, Founding Partner of experience design firm HUSH.

The firm, over the last year, has worked with AT&T and WarnerMedia to create an in-person retail experience that uses motion capture and facial recognition as an interface for consumers to explore HBO Max content. “The HBO Max Orbit experience was a great example of that coming to life, and allowed us to give customers and fans a tangible way to interact with the characters they love,” said Weaver. The installation debuted at SXSW and has since spun off to several select AT&T stores through the end of 2021, in San Francisco, Chicago and at the AT&T Discovery District in Dallas. 

“The idea of using the same kind of unique interactions of voice and facial tracking to unlock a special release cut of a new entertainment property was the SXSW strategy,” said Schwarz. 

In an in-person store setting, the HBO Max Orbit setup allows visitors to use a full range of motions and facial expressions to manipulate the display, unlocking content from the HBO Max library, which includes such hit shows as “Game of Thrones” and “Friends.” 

Visitors get an introduction that instructs them on how to use body motions to direct the hardware. “Visitors are largely browsing the breadth of ingested content, rather than looking for something specific, allowing them to explore the world of HBO Max,” said Jason Mulderig, SVP, Brand Marketing for HBO Max. “It’s all very intuitive.”

“The rationale for the Orbit experience was about drawing rapid, real-time connections between you and the wealth of content through unique and playful interactions,” said Schwarz. “Sure, you can find any episode of Friends on HBO Max. But it’s way more interesting in the retail and experience context to discover that twenty characters in twenty different HBO Max series all said the same line of dialogue, ‘I love you,’ or that they all put their bodies in the same exact posture at one time or another.”

“Customers don’t care about the specific technology working hard behind the scenes — they care about how that technology manifests in their own lived experience,” he added.

Staying connected

During the pandemic, customers have slowly become acquainted with digital enhancements to the in-store experience, including contactless payments and pickup, as well as scheduling their visit in advance.

Getting consumers to participate in the HBO Max Orbit experience requires some of the same digital setup — which also allows the AT&T and HBO Max to stay connected with their customers. “In order to engage with the experience guests are emailed a reservation (QR code) which then allows HBO Max Orbit to subsequently provide a custom, shareable video of their interactions,” said Mulderig.

The highlight video provides a memento for HBO Max fans and a way to communicate brand affinity to friends on social media. In this saturated digital ecosphere, however, the focus is on creating visceral sensory experiences that traffic to a specific location.

The brand strategy moving forward is to build on the momentum from HBO Max Orbit by introducing other experiences. In this way, interested fans will have to keep coming back so they don’t miss out. “HBO Max Orbit is just one of the 5G+-powered experiences we’ve recently launched, with more to come,” Weaver said. “In fact, AT&T is working toward lighting up more than 30 company-owned retail locations with 5G+ by early 2022 so we can bring more of these experiences to even more customers.”

“In store, customers are looking to discover something that they simply cannot get at home in the same way,” said Schwarz.

About The Author

Chris Wood draws on over 15 years of reporting experience as a B2B editor and journalist. At DMN, he served as associate editor, offering original analysis on the evolving marketing tech landscape. He has interviewed leaders in tech and policy, from Canva CEO Melanie Perkins, to former Cisco CEO John Chambers, and Vivek Kundra, appointed by Barack Obama as the country’s first federal CIO. He is especially interested in how new technologies, including voice and blockchain, are disrupting the marketing world as we know it. In 2019, he moderated a panel on “innovation theater” at Fintech Inn, in Vilnius. In addition to his marketing-focused reporting in industry trades like Robotics Trends, Modern Brewery Age and AdNation News, Wood has also written for KIRKUS, and contributes fiction, criticism and poetry to several leading book blogs. He studied English at Fairfield University, and was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. He lives in New York.

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