Activations bring brands to life, communicating face-to-face with target audiences. But, asks Taryn Arnott, does it always work?
Flash mobs on planes, social media activation, guerrilla tactics and zombie invasions may sound like something from a war or horror movie. But they are just some of the techniques activation companies use to keep the public interested. But how far can promotions go before they become ineffective and off-putting?
Companies behind activations are constantly finding new ways of reaching consumers. But some marketers believe activations hold an advantage over other forms of advertising because of their ability to reach customers on a personal level.
“Activations help to build coherent brands by offering their consumers a complete brand experience with the company, be it face-to-face or digital,” says Wayne Kotze-Flemming, group executive for strategy of PenQuin International.
Vaughan Berry, director at Provantage, says activations that add value to a consumer’s day and are fun and exciting, work best.
Mobile operator 8.ta applied this strategy when it ran a flash mob – generally described as a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public space, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act, and then disperse – on-board a Kulula flight to Durban In December 2011. It had performers arriving at O.R. Tambo International Airport singing and dancing on to a Kulula plane, where they danced down the aisles. The activation was intended to show that having fun is part of the 8.ta brand, according to Stephen Blewett, marketing executive at 8.ta.
The campaign caused a stir and news of it was posted on several blogs around the country. But one commentator says the campaign missed the point because it didn’t reach enough people.
Flashmobs are fast becoming a popular advertising tactic in international advertising. ‘The Walking Dead’ Zombie Invasion campaign saw people in zombie costume invade public spaces – including on the streets of Braamfontein and in a movie theatre locally – to promote the Fox TV series ‘The Walking Dead’. South Africa’s zombies were voted “the best in the world” by Fox’s marketing head, Mark Ollington. TopTV subscription figures increased rapidly, and social media was alive with images of and posts about the campaign.
Social media and other new media technologies are opening up new possibilities for the way that products are promoted and activated. “By using technology – iPads, touch screens and lighting – one can bring in creative ideas using more senses,” says Travis Brown, general manager of Mall Active.
Bringing technology into the mix is a no-brainer, says Brown. “Everyone loves technology.”
Primedia Face2Face implemented a social media strategy in a recent high-end promotion for Sansui. The Sansui Summer Cup was held in nightclubs, and relied on patrons’ activity on social media, while in the clubs, to push the campaign. The Cup hosted competitions in clubs that saw promoters engage with customers, encourage them to write about the products on the social media platforms and to stand the chance of winning prizes such as TVs based on what they wrote. This gave the brand exposure on online platforms, while reaching consumers present for the activations in clubs. “Clients are learning the importance of integrating digital and live platforms,” he says.
Despite the opportunities that new advances in technology bring for activations, many marketers advocate going back to basics to make campaigns effective.
“Very often success is about innovation,” says Annie Malan, CEO of Annie Malan Promotions. “But more often it’s not about reinventing the wheel but rather ensuring the promotion itself is conducted with professionalism, respect and the right approach to a specific target market,” she says.
Rory Brien, head of experiential marketing at Primedia Face2Face, says the key to successful activations is communicating in an appropriate manner that the target market understands. “We find our successful campaigns lie in their relevance to customers,” says Brien.
Malan says one of the most effective campaigns her promotions company conducted involved a little bit of innovation that gave the brand the exposure it needed. In a holiday beach activation for a cellular network, promotional items such as branded beach balls were dropped on the beach from helicopters. The campaign drew nationwide attention when it made the television news that evening.
Brown says it is important to give customers the opportunity to play with and experience products.
In an activation conducted by PenQuin International, client Patleys required a simple in-store activation for their brand, Maille (producer of fine vinegar, mustards, sauces and pickles). PenQuin placed a display in supermarkets that featured a fresh mustard pump that dispensed mustard into limited-edition jars for customers. The activation was so popular that the company needed to order more stock to continue the campaign for a longer period. “There has been an enormous demand for the short-term promotion to continue as a full-term display and sale item in the stores,” says Kotze-Flemming.
But there is no one-size-fits-all activation formula, says Diana Heymans, marketer at Africa Media Warehouse – a company that deals with activations in Africa, outside of South Africa. “The same product often needs to be marketed differently in different markets,” she says.
Malan says promotional Items must speak to the target market in order for it to drive sales. Activations that do not reach or focus on the correct target market can be ineffective, she says. An activation’s relevance to its target market is imperative.
One activation campaign for a leading whiskey brand in a major township’s shopping mall was dubbed “ineffectual” by an anonymous commentator. The campaign intended to reach ‘black diamonds’ – the wealthy, creditworthy black middle class. The commentator claimed: “The black diamonds don’t necessarily go to the mall on weekends for a jol so the campaign ran in the wrong space. They assumed the customers would be there. But they were not, and the campaign failed horribly.”
According to Malan, thousands of rands can be spent on events – like campus campaigns with entertainment and watersport – but if they don’t drive sales, they are ineffectual. “Clients can spend money without getting returns on investment,” says Malan.
Kotze-Flemming says that activations can actually scar a brand when they are not effective. Placing a brand and activation in an irrelevant context can weaken its value, he says.
Many consumers have complained about the aggressive marketing tactics of fragrance and dead-sea product promoters who accost consumers in malls, giving activations a bad name.
Kotze-Flemming says successful activations depend on an understanding of the product or brand, and in knowing how to stimulate conversation with the correct target market.
Malan emphasises that activations allow consumers to form an emotional bond with products. “People are so appreciative of human contact in the digital age,” says Malan. Brands choose activations because interactive marketing can deal with the emotions of a consumer at a given time when one has a captive and focused audience, she says.
In one of Provantage’s effective campaigns, three ‘Jacobs Mobile Coffee Shops’ – fully kitted VW vans that contained a mini coffee bar for sampling the product – visited schools, expos, office parks and sport events on a daily basis, to allow consumers to sample the product, says Berry. This created an immediate bond between customers and the brand.
Companies such as Whirlpool find activations so effective for their sales that they have stopped their above-the-line campaigns altogether, says Brown. “By focusing on shopping centres and directly exposing the brand to customers, we have wielded a drastic spike in sales. Because customers can experience the product, it works,” says Brown.
While classic advertising is useful in creating awareness, activations have the power to stimulate the buying process, says Kotze-Flemming.
He says companies should see brand activation as a useful business tool rather than a frivolous event opportunity. Brand activation looks into the deeper possibilities within the brand, its strategy and its position.
This story was first published in the April 2012 issue of The Media magazine.