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Activate Your Event

How brand activations are rocking the events world—and how to create your own

It seems that as immersive experiences are on the rise, being steeped in only one world is no longer enough. Immersive brand activations have been growing in popularity the past few years, and they’re currently a staple feature of any big event. From Coachella to SXSW to the Super Bowl, brands are working to create entire mini-worlds for guests to disappear inside.

Software company ZoomInfo describes brand activations as “a campaign, event, or interaction through which your brand generates awareness and builds lasting connections with your target audience. Most brand activations are interactive, allowing audiences to engage directly with a brand and its products.”

These activations are part of a larger marketing strategy to familiarize consumers with a brand; according to HubSpot, it takes five to seven impressions for people to remember a brand. To help, HubSpot says these activations “forge lasting emotional connections between a brand and its target audience. These activations are usually a specific campaign or event that is meant to generate brand awareness and interactivity with your audience.”

According to CEO and Creative Director of AOO Events David Merrell, brand activations are necessary in the modern world. “As print advertising and advertising on live TV continue to be less and less effective, it is important that products remain in front of consumers’ faces,” he told Special Events. “This is a great way to get that high-touch encounter with your guests.”

Brand strategies aside—activations are quickly becoming event stars because they’re simply fun to participate in.

Coachella: Activation Central

Done well, brand activations are entire immersive experiences, creating spaces for activities, photo shoots, and fun. People enjoy attending these experiences, which can themselves be the draw to an event.

Take Coachella. It’s known for its extravagant brand activations. This year, it had experiences from Adidas and musical artist Bad Bunny in the form of a Zen garden; Marvel Studios promoted the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie with a space-themed “abandoned” diner; and American Express partnered with eco-friendly camera company Paper Shoot for a Y2K themed photo shoot.

This year’s festival also had its first-ever 360° immersive performance featuring virtual popstar Yameii Online. The soundproof, digital-forward experience from VIRTUE, the agency powered by VICE, was launched in partnership with client Coca-Cola, allowing festival goers to step inside Coca-Cola's world of “Real Magic." The activation utilized AR technology to bring the concert to life through attendees’ phones.

Past Coachella activations have been just as intricate. In 2022, Absolut vodka created Absolut.Land, which incorporated the metaverse into a real-life bar and hangout setup. Spotify had a desert oasis activation, Don Julio Tequila hosted a cocktail experience from an Airstream speakeasy, and HBO Max created a “flight attendant pre-flight lounge” to promote its show The Flight Attendant. HP and Pico created REGEN, an immersive 360° multi-sensory journey combining tech, art, and music.

Keys to success

Today’s consumer thrives on stimulation, so big events are places where attendees look to do more than observe the main attraction. Lydia Berg-Hammond, Senior Creative Strategist of MKG, an A-list experiential agency, told Special Events, “Brand activations bring so much to sports events and festivals, where the point is ostensibly to watch a performance, but a lot of the fun takes place in the lead-up or in-between time. People are looking for something to do between innings or before the headliner goes on, and they’re primed to engage and have fun.

“Of course, guests’ attention is pulled in a million different directions at big events, so the most successful activations offer something they really want and need. For some events, that’s a FOMO-inducing photo op, for others it’s a well-placed snack or service, an engaging game, or even just a comfy spot to grab some shade.”

Cindy Y. Lo, CEO of experiential marketing and event agency RED VELVET, agrees that brand activations work because of humans’ brief attention spans. “The main reason why brand activations have been so key to sales and marketing initiatives over the years is that we as humans are being sold to every day and every which way. Our attention spans have gotten shorter (no thanks to social media), therefore people are looking to be entertained, wowed, and impressed.”

In other words: pique your target audience’s curiosity. Merrell says that successful activations include “something that draws them in...the look, the entertainment, something that makes them curious to explore more.”

Getting started

By now you might be brainstorming how to bring activations to your next event—or how to create activations yourself. Here’s what you need to know:

Decide which brands you want to work with.

When you work with a brand, you align yourself with their values. Your future clients are going to look at who

you’ve aligned yourself with in the past, so look for brands that share common values, interests, and goals.

“Some quick research can usually turn up what creative agencies [brands] work with, so from there you can reach out to their Director of Production to see about opportunities on future projects through pre-production planning or on-site support,” says Berg-Hammond. “This will help you to start climbing the production ladder, and from there it’s about a willingness to work hard, problem solve, and adapt for the success of the agency and the brand.”

This is the time to show off your expertise. “Clients who are wanting to create activations are typically looking for someone who has done it before,” says Merrell. “They are concerned about the quality of the event being created, but also the manner attendees/clients are received, how they are treated, and what messaging the client wants attendees to walk away from [the] event with and how long they retain it.”

Get to know the brand.

The true point of an activation is to familiarize attendees with the brand, and to do this, you must start by familiarizing yourself with the brand.

Lo encourages going beyond color and brand guidelines and really understanding the nuances of the brand. “Who is the target audience; what's the voice/tone/style/etc.” This includes the language they use, their personality, their overarching narrative, the stories they tell, and the emotions they want to evoke in their target audience.

Define your objective.

While it might seem obvious, Berg-Hammond says the most important aspect of an activation is the reason behind it. “If someone asks ‘why?’ and you don’t have a good answer, it’s unlikely that you’re going to have a successful event.”

Lo agrees that the activation’s objective is the best place to start. “First is to get the client to answer a brief—to truly understand what their hopes/dreams/wishes/desired outcome is with the activation.”

Merrell encourages asking a lot of questions to attain “a complete understanding of the product or messaging that they want to get out, and the goals they are hoping to achieve.”

Getting clear on the objective also lets you know how to move forward. “Once we’re clear on our shared goal,” says Berg-Hammond, “we bring in MKG’s expertise in creative direction, design, and production, almost always in close collaboration with the client, to execute a brand action that not only hits the objectives, but also pushes the envelope and creates meaningful new connections and assets for the brand.”

Knowing the ins and outs of the brand is the best way to get creative and go beyond the basics. “Our process always starts with talking to the client and really getting to know the brand, their objectives, and what we can do to create the most successful activation for them,” says Berg-Hammond. “Sometimes that means big, blue-sky thinking for a headline-grabbing stunt, and sometimes it’s more about getting a product into consumers’ hands or connecting with a specific audience in a specific way.”

Lo says that successful objectives accomplish three things: people remember the brand, they talk about the activation effortlessly, and it “does its job of either getting more social media users, getting talked about in the press, etc.—this goes back to each brand's individual goals/desires.”

Understand the target audience.

Like any event, part of an activations’ success is knowing who is going to be drawn in and participating.

Merrell says to know “who they are, how they want to be approached, and what information does [the brand] wish the audience will take with them.”

The approach you take can vary greatly by demographic. “If the audience is geared toward younger demographics (i.e., teens), because they have not been exposed to as much of the world, it's easier to impress them with creative florals or a step and repeat wall,” says Lo. “For someone that is more sophisticated and has seen a lot, it might take a few more dollars to impress them just because they have experienced a lot to get where they are in life.”

Thoroughly understanding the brand’s target audience will uplift the success of the activation and the engagement that it creates. Successful brands conduct market research to know who their target audience is, and utilizing this research will help you create the right type of activation for their demographic.

Develop a real relationship with the brand.

Building a relationship with a brand benefits you both and leads to a more successful activation.

“Our success depends on healthy, synergistic relationships with our clients,” says Berg-Hammond. “We want to help them reach their goals and actualize their vision, while offering our expertise...and sometimes a friendly nudge to push the envelope a little.” It’s a tale as old as time: building relationships with healthy communication can eliminate issues and lead to better problem-solving.

Building real relationships also benefits everyone involved. “I think the most successful activations are win-win-win,” says Berg-Hammond, “creating real value for the brand (through new fans, media attention, sampling/sales), for consumers (an awesome experience, a new favorite product, a valuable keepsake), and for our agency (a strong client relationship, work we can be proud of).”

Be creative.

Event planners know that when it comes to being innovative and creative, no idea is too absurd.

“We do a white board exercise of throwing out all of the craziest ideas that money can't buy on a wall and see which ideas trickle to the top,” says Lo. “Then we layer it with logistics in making sure that it can realistically happen from both a timing and budget perspective. Of course [we] get the client buy-in and then we adjust based on feedback and keep working toward the deadline.”

After you’ve set your sights high, see how your ideas can line up with the physical space. Merrell notes that the physical parameters (“when, where, why, and how much”) all help create the design.

The activations that make headlines are those that are unique, bringing fantastical ideas to life, so don’t be afraid to start with big ideas and narrow them only as physical limitations crop up.

Make it photo-worthy.

Strong visual components are key to successful activations. “Many times they are Instagrammable moments, and festivals and Super Bowls, etc., are a great way to pique interest,” says Merrell. “Plus, [attendees] will then push it out through their own social media followers, to extend messaging to a larger group!”

This is where you can shine as an artist: use bold color palettes and lots of textures, include props, and think of what your design will look like as a photo, Reel, or TikTok video.

Keep it simple.

That being said, innovation shouldn’t mean overly complex. Berg-Hammond recommends keeping a low barrier of entry—and to keep it simple where you can. “People are willing to put in a little work to experience something awesome, but once it gets overly complicated or requires too many steps, you’ll lose your audience’s attention.”

Simplicity combined with easy entry will mean more people truly engaging with the activation.

Don’t forget your KPIs.

“Always start with clarity on objectives and KPIs [key performance indicators]!” Berg-Hammond advises. “It’s easy to look at KPIs at the beginning of a project and then leave them on the backburner while you get excited about details, but it’s wise to revisit them throughout the process, holding them as your true north as you develop the activation and nail down logistics.”

Looking forward

If brand activations were a passing fad, it would be easy to overlook their importance, but that’s not the case. As they continue to trend upward, it seems that activations are here to stay.

“I think [activations] will slowly make [their] way through the different industries because pre-pandemic, I was seeing this heavily in tech,” says Lo. “Then during the pandemic, a few financial institutions were asking us to get creative for them since they really wanted to show that they were not just an old bank; and now I feel like we are having our CPG (consumer product goods) moment.”

We’re also seeing mobile activations on the rise: portable activations that take place in a vehicle, like an Airstream or VW van. In his Catersource + The Special Event session DAVID MERRELL PRESENTS: Current Trends in the Events Industry, Merrell discussed how brands are increasingly using mobile activations for promotion. It’s a “much more inexpensive way to get your marketing out there with your budget.”

As activations make their way into the fabric of events, industry sustainability initiatives still apply.

“Sustainability and DEI awareness continues to be a hot topic,” says Lo, “so often times we have to review our plans to see if we are being conscious of what is being reused post-activation, and did we design the activation to be inclusive (not just for gender, but body types, food preferences, neuro preferences, etc.)?”

While you’re planning your upcoming events, remember that activations are a great way to drive engagement and create a buzz!

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