Making Your Activations Work Hard
One of the big jokes about advertising and marketing is that only half the budget is doing the work – but you never know which half!
Social media numbers (ie., shares, impressions, likes, follows) are a seductively convenient way to measure brand sentiment. Many agencies and brands rely heavily on social metrics to determine how the world feels about them. But often, it’s difficult to tell if social media engagement will really lead to sales, or how soft those numbers truly are.
This is partly why Advantage creates events, pop-ups, and experiences for clients; it gives them an extra vector along which to connect to consumers, along with better ways to measure that connection. But if you want to throw an experiential activation that will grow and solidify your brand, you have to do it right – your activation must have purpose.
KNOW WHO YOU ARE
Many brands, even successful ones, put the cart before the horse with marketing and activations; they try to sell themselves to consumers before they have truly looked inward and understood their own identity. And just like in dating, if you don’t know who you are, it’s going to be difficult to make a connection.
Douglas Rushkoff, my favorite thinker about branding and digital culture, gives a hilarious example at the beginning of this talk, where he describes consulting with “an American Television manufacturer” who actually just outsources all their design and production to other companies. The first question he asked them when trying to help them build their brand is “what do you actually do?” In other words, what are they really passionate about that they can share with customers through branded channels? They had no answer.
In stark contrast, Lost Spirits Distillery (in Los Angeles) has a long history developing innovative ways to age spirits and because they know their stuff, they’re excited to share it with you. They’ve created an entire immersive experience in downtown LA, complete with a boat ride to a “secret laboratory,” to introduce you to their methods and history. Smart!
Get deep into what makes you excited about your own brand, and you’ll have the raw material for a purposeful activation.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF YOUR AUDIENCE
Along with this principle of identity, you need to have some courage. Being who you are as a brand (just like being who you are as a person) will resonate with consumers in different ways. But you can’t win by hiding yourself, especially in the age of transparency and social accountability.
Weedmaps, for example, knows that being a cannabis-focused service comes with brand risks. Marijuana has a complex history vis a vis social transgression and racial inequality. How do you engage with this history in a way that will attract new consumers, while ringing authentic to already-savvy ones and remain socially responsible?
The Museum of Weed was their answer; an immersive activation in Los Angeles that went way beyond mere “selfie museum”-hood. The exhibit dug deep into the racist and anti-immigrant history of cannabis law, the medical benefits of marijuana, the transgressive, weed-fueled art of the 60s, and even offered visitors the opportunity to participate in activism for prison reform.
By refusing to hide from the real history of their marketplace, Weedmaps showed they weren’t afraid to meet their true audience face-to-face. And a small true audience is worth far more than a massive, lukewarm one.
The Advantage staff and I recently attended Refinery 29’s LA deployment of their 29 Rooms Instagram bonanza; an experiential smorgasbord of twenty nine different immersive installations and brand partnerships, many of them optimized for photos and social sharing.
Though there were some great moments, there was also a lot of drastically missed potential, because the twenty nine different competing ideas had very little relationship to one another. Opportunities for synergy were lost.
I remember one particularly obvious misstep where feminist online occult sensation The Hoodwitch had crafted an incredibly beautiful, immersive, mystical cave in one corner of the space. And in another, there was an entirely separate AR activation put on by Instagram where you could summon, and interact with, virtual plants, animals, and crystalline forms through the magic of your phone–but the actual environment was dull, drab, and badly designed. I have never seen a bigger missed collaboration opportunity in my life. What if Instagram had brought The Hoodwitch’s cave to magical life through AR?
By contrast, if I can brag for a sec, Advantage’s Event Studio created an activation for Wing Stop where we partnered with Rick Ross to serve hot wings inside a NY sneaker boutique. Sneaker culture, hip-hop, and hot wings came together in a beautiful symphony of brand synergy – and oh holy lord, does Rick Ross love Wing Stop! It all fit together, it all made sense, and the fan bases of all of these different verticals cross-pollinated like crazy.
If you want your activation to “feel purposeful,” the leg bone has to be connected to the thigh bone, as it were.