What is brand activation?

The phrase essentially refers to the process of making your brand known to people, increasing awareness and engagement through some kind of brand experience.

Think about when you first start a business. Nobody knows who you are and they sure as hell aren’t aware of your brand. Your brand is effectively lifeless. Dead. And it needs to be ‘activated’ before it can be of any use.

But it doesn’t just apply to new brands. If a business wants to rebrand itself it can’t just make a few changes and hope people notice. It needs to go through the process of switching people’s minds over to the new brand and making them aware of it.Isn’t that just brand marketing?

Sort of, yes. Except it specifically refers to the process of getting your brand from one state to another, better, state. Whereas brand marketing is the all-encompassing ongoing process of promoting and maintaining your company’s brand.

I’m a writer, so excuse me while I attempt a metaphor. If your brand is a cold and lifeless lump of coal in the dark, brand activation is the firelighter that makes it burn hot and bright for all to see. Or something…

With me so far?

Perhaps it would be helpful to look at a few examples of brand activation and the different types of activities it might involve.

How do you ‘activate’ a brand?

With an increasing number of channels and touch points comes a growing number of ways to introduce your brand to people.

Let’s take a look at some of those methods.

1. Experiential marketing

Perhaps the best way to activate your brand in people’s minds is by allowing them to experience it first-hand.

Experiential marketing has become increasingly prevalent in the last few years, perhaps the most famous example being Carlsberg’s ridiculously successful beer poster campaign.

This type of campaign can be a powerful way to get your brand in front of people and make it stick in their mind.

Take this campaign from water sports equipment brand Tribord as an example. To make people aware of its new flotation jacket, it created a fake drink called ‘WAVE’, which was actually just seawater in a can.

The idea was to mimic part of the drowning experience – i.e. your mouth getting filled with salty water – in a safe way, and remind people of the dangers at sea.

This approach is much more likely to make a brand stick in someone’s head in a meaningful way that an online banner ad or piece of junk mail through their letterbox.

2. Sampling campaigns

But the experiential element of a brand activation campaign could be something more stripped-back. It could simply mean giving people the opportunity to try your products.

Giving out free samples of a new product can be a great way to introduce people to your brand and get them talking.

But make it timely and be creative to ensure the best result.

Mountain Dew carried out a sampling campaignin 2012, during which it drove around the country in an enormous branded truck handing out bottles of its product at festivals and other popular events.

Certainly beats standing outside Liverpool Street station desperately trying to stuff product samples into the hands of impatient rush-hour commuters.

3. In-store brand activation

Another opportunity to activate a brand is through in-store promotions or events. Again, this comes down to creating an experiential element whereby customers can touch and interact with your brand.

John Lewis took this approach with its Monty the Penguin Christmas campaign in 2014.

It built a ‘Monty’s Den’ in 42 stores across the country, using immersive technology to tell stories about the characters in the ad campaign.

This – combined with products such as stuffed Monty toys and clothing, and an app version of Monty’s Christmas Storybook – enabled John Lewis to really bring the brand to life for in-store shoppers.

It also created ‘Monty’s Magical Toy Machine’ at its flagship Oxford Street store, which scanned toys bought by children and transformed them into lifelike characters that moved and danced on a screen.

All of this helped launch the Month the Penguin brand in the run-up to Christmas.

Join it all up

As I mentioned earlier, the marketing world has more channels than ever and it is important to understand how to link up the brand activation experience across the various customer touch points.

The first thing to mention is social. If you are running an experiential campaign, for example, it is vital that you coordinate social media activity to ensure the campaign gets the exposure it deserves.

There is no point putting a huge amount of time, effort and resource into something if you’re not going to shout about it at the same time.

Part of Carlsberg’s experiential success comes from its corresponding efforts on social media, encouraging a huge amount of user-generated content that gives its campaigns an extra boost of publicity.

PR is another important part of the process. If you’re handing out cans of seawater then it’s likely the press will be interested in running a story about it. It’s not like that kind of thing happens every day.

So make sure you have a strong PR strategy in place so that the right publications know about your campaign at the right time to ensure maximum coverage.

What is the end goal?

As with all types of experiential marketing, brand activation should not always be measured simply in terms of additional sales.

Of course the end goal in everything marketers do is to increase revenue, but more directly a brand activation campaign is about raising awareness and opening a two-way dialogue with potential customers about your brand.

It is about creating an emotional connection between them and your brand so that it sticks in their mind and they are more likely to engage with it and become long-term customers.

Conclusion: emotional reaction through interaction

We often talk about the need to elicit an emotional reaction through content, and with brand activation it is particularly important.

Often it is the first experience somebody will have with your brand, therefore it’s important to make the right kind of impact so that your brand sticks firmly in their mind for a significant period of time.

Whether you make people laugh, cry, feel anger or excitement (this will all depend on your product and audience), you must create some kind of emotional connection or it is unlikely people will remember the experience or your brand.