One of my favorite themes from the critically-acclaimed show Mad Men is that 1960’s advertising was based off the half-truth that you would be happier if you owned more material possesions.

At the beginning of the series, the show’s main adman, Don Draper, passionately believes in this notion. It helps him sell whatever he advertises and it’s also the concept he molds his life around. Not only does Don sell the lie of money, status, and material items being the keys to happiness, but he also lives it.

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By the end of the series, though, Don realizes materialism can only bring him so much joy. After struggling through plenty of trials and tribulations, he learned that real happiness stems from living his life to the fullest, forging genuine relationships with his loved ones, and staying true to himself.

Mad Men taught people a powerful lesson about the pursuit of happiness, and today, psychologists and neuroscientists want to do the same.

Thomas Gilvich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, urges the public to prioritize experiences over material possessions because that’s what actually leads to happiness.

To explain further, while you can attach material items like your new iPhone or car to your identity, these objects eventually lose their allure. Eventually, you’ll throw them away to replace them with the newest, trend-setting product. So if you really think about it, material items can never really be apart of your true identity.

On the other hand, you’re the sum of your experiences, so they’re ingrained in your identity. Sharing experiences with people also has a special ability to forge close relationships. Even if experiences end like your relationships with material objects do, they’ll always be a part of your story, allowing you to bond with other people who’ve shared similar experiences.

In marketing, engaging your target audience in experiences is one of the best ways to resonate emotionally with them. And some of the most memorable experiences you can host are called brand activations. 

Brand Activation Examples

1. Vitamin Water | Brandon

I usually don’t pay much attention to subway ads, but Vitamin Water’s “Brandon” was so funny, it literally made me laugh out loud, get out of my seat, and take a picture of the ad.

But what I witnessed a few weeks later is arguably even more hilarious. When I was walking around Boston one Sunday afternoon, I strolled past Forbes’ Under 30 Summit and saw a guy holding a sign that said, “Need Handshaking Tips?”.

This guy seriously seemed like he was trying to give handshaking tips to the attendees of the event, but I needed to see for myself. When he told me what his handshaking service truly was about, though, I snorted out loud.

The guy was a part of Vitamin Water’s “Brandon” marketing campaign -- the one I saw a subway ad for a few weeks back. There were also other members of the campaign, handing out Brandon’s business cards, some swag, and even bottles of Vitamin Water.

The funniest (and most impressive) part of the “Brandon” marketing campaign, though, was that the members acted like they actually worked for Brandon. No matter how many times I prodded them about working for Vitamin Water, they stuck to their act.

Vitamin Water’s “Brandon” campaign resonated with so many people because instead of just giving subway riders a quick laugh on their way to work, they made the extra effort to interact with their target audience and bring the ad to life. To make things even more personal, Brandon accepts all of his LinkedIn requests.

2. InVision | Design Disruptors Documentary

In 2016, InVision, a digital product design platform, embarked on a creative journey that no other B2B brand has ever stepped foot toward -- they made a documentary. But crafting a feature-length film that could honestly list on Netflix wasn’t the most impressive accomplishment in this creative journey. It was actually their distribution strategy.

Instead of uploading their documentary to every digital platform possible, InVision stuck to the fundamentals of film -- they ran four red carpet premieres, which each attracted over 1,000 attendees. They also set up independent community screenings where organizations can sign up to show the film to their design team or special interest group. By November 2017, InVision had ran over 1,500 independent community screenings across the world.

By crafting a refreshingly creative piece of art and innovating on the typical distribution playbook most B2B brands use, InVision was able to drive over 70,000 leads, connect with industry leaders that they’d never have access to otherwise, and develop relationships with the design team leads at huge brands like NBC.

3. HBO | SXSWestworld

To promote the second season of their hit show Westworld, HBO built a miniature replica of the show’s Wild-West-themed amusement park in Austin, Texas for attendees of SXSW 2018 to explore.

With over 40 “hosts” who guided attendees on their own unique narrative within Sweetwater, the attendees felt like they were actually in an episode of Westworld, traversing a town full of trotting horses, troublemaking bandits, and money-hungry gamblers.

The park also contained clues of season two’s storyline and new characters, which helped generate a ton of suspense and anticipation for its upcoming premiere.

4. Charity Water | Waterwalk

Image Credit: Huffington Post

Charity Water, an organization that creates clean water sources for remote villages in developing nations, gave attendees at a trade show an experience they will always remember.

By setting up a booth where guests could carry two 40 pound jugs of water across a 50 yard platform, which African villagers do for miles every single day, attendees realized how challenging it is for villagers in developing nations to access something that most people can obtain with the twist of a faucet, boosting the odds that attendees would donate more money to the cause.

5. Nordstrom | Merchandise-free Shops

Image Credit: Retail Dive

Nordstrom is famous for their luxury merchandise, but in 2017, they decided to set up special shops that only sell experiences. By providing styling, makeover, and sampling services, Nordstrom can pull their customers into delightful, memorable experiences that make much more of an emotional impact than buying a product. These experiences also make for a compelling story that consumers will always remember and be more than happy to share with one another.

6. Netflix | Altered Carbon at CES

At CES 2018, Netflix designed one of the most popular booths at the event. But it didn’t showcase the inner workings of their recommendations algorithm or their process for green lighting shows. It actually spotlighted a concept their show Altered Carbon revolves around -- immortality.

In their booth, fictional employees from Psychasec, the company that offers transfers of their clients’ consciousness to new bodies, or “sleeves”, in Altered Carbon, pitched the benefits of their service and even displayed some models of their sleeves.

Netflix deeply immersed CES’ attendees in the narrative of their hit sci-fi show, and it made them feel like they could actually live forever -- if only Psychasec’s service was real.

7. CALM | Project 84

In the U.K., suicide is the number one cause of death of men aged 18 - 45. CALM, a suicide prevention charity, decided to spread awareness for the issue by creating 84 life-size sculptures of hooded-men, which is the the number of men who take their own lives every week in the U.K., and placing them on top of one of U.K.’s top TV network’s building.

Every sculpture is unique and tells the story of a real person who committed suicide. And to produce as much publicity for male suicide prevention as possible, ITV, the TV network CALM partnered with, agreed to air the campaign on their morning show and dedicate three days of programming to male suicide. The campaign also promoted a petition that urges the government to take suicide more seriously and take greater action to help solve the urgent issue.

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Originally published Apr 22, 2019 8:43:38 AM, updated October 14 2019

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