A bold red button standing in the middle of the street comes with a sign that invites passersby to “push to add drama.” When one cyclist does, a Hollywood scene unfolds promoting a television network.
A staircase resembling a piano keyboard nudges people into exercising instead of using the escalator.
A vending machine that stands more than 11 feet off the ground challenges friends to climb on each other’s shoulders to get a Coke.
These are just a few great examples of brand communications aimed to produce a physical response. It sounds kind of simplistic, but getting people to act is a big part of any good activation idea. We use the word “activation” loosely here to describe a vast array of practices, disciplines and channels. It’s often paired with promotion, experiential marketing, ambient work, guerrilla events, shopper marketing, vending machines, sampling demonstrations, and the like.
When you break away from the bounds and conventions of traditional media, the world is a canvas, open to vast new possibilities.
But activation is not just about the freedom of formats. The greater goal, beyond even creating a tangible response, is to reinforce or modify an existing behavior, to replace it or to create a new one. And in that sense, activation is perhaps closer to creating a game than it is to creating content or an advertisement.
Let me back up. In traditional advertising, the approach typically is to find a killer insight that leads to the key message. That insight brings the message to life in the most creative way possible, so that it stands out and consumers remember it. (It’s true that most briefs today now talk about “desired response” rather than “key message,” but for the most part this is still how things work.)
Message has always been king. Meticulously crafted images and words push brands to the top in people’s minds. Creatives played the role of artists.
With activation, by contrast, it’s more about convenience and rewards. You want people to respond to incentives, choice architecture, or even their own simple curiosity (as seen on the examples above). All of these can become powerful means to nudge consumers and shoppers to act. In order to do this, creatives have to think more like game designers, engineering the right carrots and sticks that will move people into action.
Volkswagen coined “The Fun Theory,” arguing that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better. However, “fun” is only one of many types of triggers available to influence behavior.
Let’s take personalization, for example. Cadbury’s “Say it with Chocolate” in-store promotion boosted impulse purchases and bulk buys by finding an ingenious way to engrave custom-made messages on regular chocolate bars without damaging the wrapper.
Another powerful trigger is convenience. Hellmann’s “Recipe Receipt” extended the usage of mayonnaise beyond the sandwich by making recipes seemingly appear magically on the receipts of shoppers who bought the product.
Even counterintuitive tactics can move people to do things. Independent fashion designers competing with the big labels are using the familiar “you may also like” phrase in real life to recommend each other and encourage people to “Shop Elsewhere.” By creating a sort of urban treasure hunt for customers to embark on, they give themselves a better shot against their far larger competitors.
Whether it’s fun, personalization, convenience, a clever form of recommendation, or any other behavioral trigger we choose to apply, the goal remains the same: finding new imaginative ways of getting people to act. In more ways than one, activation could be described as “behavior design.”
When you think of it this way, it’s a practice that can draw inspiration not just from storytelling and branding but also from other fields outside the communications industry: behavioral economics, game theory, UX design, neuroscience… The possibilities are enormous.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying that activation is a better way to market something—it’s just intrinsically different. All disciplines play important roles in campaigns.
But if advertising is the blockbuster movie, then activation is the theme park. Once the big brand story is introduced and loved, being able to experience that story in real life is priceless.