Woolworths customers were surprised and then moved when packers in a Johannesburg store last December suddenly burst into melodious song with Johnny Clegg’s ‘Asimbonanga’.
The ‘packers’ were actually members of the Soweto Gospel Choir and the three-minute flash mob was a tribute to former president and international icon, Nelson Mandela, who had died just days before.
Flash mobs, product demonstrations and product sampling are some of the many ways advertisers can bring products and brands to life.
“What’s great about activations is this one-to-one communication for a consumer. Where they can ask a question and receive an immediate answer back,” says Provantage Media Group’s account manager, Lisa Morris.
Zandile Manana, marketing director of Massbuild (whose brands include Builders Warehouse), says there are two main kinds of activations. “In-store activations, like product demos, are a way of promoting a product. [The Woolworths Mandela tribute] was really more intended to build the Woolies brand.”
As a brand awareness exercise, the Woolworths activation was a success, according to Provantage director Vaughan Berry. “It went viral, people were talking about it. It was surprising, relevant and pulled at the heartstrings. And it cost a fraction of what a TV ad would have cost.”
Yet in the retail environment, even much simpler activations, such as product sampling, can be effective if done in the right way. The one common denominator for all successful activations, media companies agree, is relevance – where are you staging the activation and who is it intended to attract?
Morris says activations are environment-based, so an activation in a strip mall will look rather different to one in a centre court. Malls targeted at the middle spectrum of the market require different sorts of interventions than those where the well-heeled shop.
Mall Active general manager Travis Brown says he prefers to stick to the concourses and centre courts. “I don’t do in-store activations on purpose. I think they’re irritating. Also, our thinking when we started Mall Active was, yes, it’s great to target a consumer at the point of purchase, but what about that 90% of people [walking past] who never even enter the store?”
What works in some higher-end malls and store environments may not be so effective in those targeted at the mass market. Says Morris: “The higher LSMs don’t have much time; they don’t have 10 minutes to spend with you, so you have to be quick. The main market, though, if they’re at a mall, they’re often on an outing and will stop and spend time with you.” People in the top end of the market are generally a lot better informed about the product already, she adds.
Says Brown, “I love doing activations for the lower end. They are way more willing to get involved. They haven’t been overexposed to activations and there is no snob factor with them.”
For the middle market, says Berry, spectacular and energetic shows work well. Provantage has staged about 10 000 such events and has a custom-built trailer for mall parking lots that can be used as a stage, complete with dancers and an MC. The company has also done flash mobs in train stations. Transport activations link to retail in the middle LSMs, as research has shown that most people in this market shop near their taxi rank.
For the upper LSMs, activations should be “sexy, sleek, compact and relevant”, says Berry. Tech and car activations are especially popular in this market.
And everyone loves getting something for free, says Brown. When EasyWaves hair styling product relaunched, Mall Active created a stand manned by stylists who gave anyone a free hairstyle. “We then pushed consumers into Clicks to drive the product sales. It’s difficult to push this from the stands because of the rules and regulations. And you can’t be in competition with an existing mall tenant.” The EasyWaves promotion was popular, he says, because it gave people value. “They’re walking past, thinking, ‘well, I need my hair done anyway’, and they don’t have to pay for it,” he says.
Manana says that in an environment such as Builders Warehouse, activations usually take the form of product demonstrations. “Customers who walk through a Builders store usually have a problem to solve, but they may not know what the solution is,” he says. A promoter demonstrating a do-it-yourself (DIY) product could provide advice to customers and sell them the product they need.
Some DIY and building projects, such as tiling, are a bit harder to demonstrate in store, so Massbuild also posts demonstrations on its website and runs them on in-store televisions.
Successful activations are not just about the where – the store environment – but also the when. “Brands always think they have to promote at the end of the month, but this isn’t necessarily the case,” says Morris. The lower end of the market shop at the end of the month when wages and social grants are paid out; in contrast, the upper end of the market shop when they have time. “And some of the retailers hate us doing promotions at month-end, when the shops are crowded and there are all these trolleys banging into one another,” adds Berry.
Product sampling is a standard in-store activation. And that’s because it works, says Berry. “But it falls down with poor execution, poor training and if the idea behind it is poor,” he adds.
Promoters who want to use sampling need to break down shoppers’ reserve, says Berry. “Do it in a way that takes down that barrier. Theatre is something that can do that.” Provantage once staged a sampling for a ready-made muffin mix. “We had a guy in a tuxedo and gloves, with muffins under a silver tray. He took the lid off and showed [customers] the muffins. It brought theatre and expression to it – and then, of course, there was the smell of the freshly baked muffins.”
Brown says activations should bring to life a brand’s above-the-line advertising campaigns. “It’s what you see on TV, what you hear on radio. Then you see the branding – the activation must look like that.” Mall Active staged such an activation in 2011 for SuperSport’s SuperDiski programme, where soccer-mad South Africans were given the chance to audition for a job as a commentator on the show.
Mall Active built a mobile sound booth that toured to mall centre courts countrywide, where would-be soccer commentators could showcase their skills. “Everyone had the chance to feel like they worked for SuperSport,” says Brown. “It was about bringing that experience, bringing the brand to life.” The activation attracted over
2 000 contestants and won an award.
This kind of innovative thinking is why brands should hire media companies to do their activations, say Brown and Morris. Morris says Provantage has noticed that retailers or brands are starting to do their own in-store activations. Manana says he has not noticed this himself, but says it makes no sense because retailers do not have the competency.
Activations can backfire and actually cause damage to a brand if poorly executed, so the right competencies – such as the training and recruitment of promotions people – and logistical experience are very important, says Berry. Brown adds that brands do not have in-depth knowledge of the rules and guidelines in place in retail environments. Those who flout or even unintentionally break these rules can damage their brand. Notorious examples include Dead Sea cosmetics’ promoters, who use aggressive sales tactics and “give everyone else a bad name”, says Brown.
Research has shown that advertising in the retail environment can sway consumer decisions, from entering the mall, right up to the point of purchase. Activations, when done professionally, offer attention-grabbing ways of selling products and building brand awareness.
This story was first published in the April 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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