How Brands Are Using "Instagram Museums" to Reach Consumers in a New Way

Big-name companies such as American Express, Coach, and BET are increasingly creating hyper-visual, museum-like experiences to foster a stronger relationship with customers. Here's why it works.

By Claire Hoffman October 15, 2018, 7:01 AM EDT

Photo: Mel D. Cole

Designing events with social media in mind is practically a given these days. But an increasing number of brands are taking it a step further, crafting fully immersive, museum-like spaces rather than one-night-only events.

Recent multi-day, pop-up installations from brands such as Coach, Refinery29, BET, American Express, and Essence were produced with the goal of promoting creativity and self-expression—fostering a personal relationship with consumers and creating brand loyalty, in addition to that Instagram-worthy shot.

A Rising Trend
The popularity of hyper-visual pop-up “museums” can be traced to standalone entrepreneurial experiences such as the two-year-old Museum of Ice Cream, an interactive art exhibit filled with candy-color rooms and pools of sprinkles that quickly became a sold-out attraction in cities including New York, Miami, and San Francisco.

More Instagram-friendly museums have appeared since, including Happy Place in Los Angeles and Chicago, the Color Factory in San Francisco, and the upcoming Museum of Candy in New York. And the meta Museum of Selfies made its debut in Los Angeles this spring.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that big-name brands have begun to adopt the trend, with thoughtful twists. One of the originators of the concept is Refinery29’s wildly popular 29Rooms, a three-year-old multi-sensory funhouse featuring installations by contemporary artists and celebrities, as well as sponsored spaces.

Other brands have built on the concept to connect with consumers in a nontraditional way, including Coach, which created an interactive pop-up experience in New York in June that featured four interactive, design-heavy rooms and very subtle branding.

“They really wanted to reintroduce the Coach brand aesthetic to a younger customer,” explains Jack Bedwani, the C.E.O. of the brand consulting firm the Projects, which produced the Coach activation. “Coach could be seen as a multi-dimensional brand and we could tap into the multi-dimensional values of young people. In today's world, that means providing an experience that makes us feel something, and compels people to share. … It's not about pushing brand images down people's throats.”

For American Express Canada’s recent pop-up activation, which opened in Toronto in June, organizers wanted to give consumers a deeper, and more visual, understanding of how the brand impacts their day-to-day life.

“In today’s competitive brand landscape, wowing customers is more critical than ever,” notes David Barnes, vice president of advertising and communications for American Express Canada. “To maintain a competitive edge, brands must focus on creating unforgettable experiences. It’s also about meeting your customer where they already are, online or in person, and giving them the choice when it comes to how they interact with your brand.”

“We were always going to do something that was going to be beautiful, but where it really resonated with our audience is that it made them think.”

More Than a Selfie
Of course, getting that social share is a way to turn every attendee into an ambassador, driving up interest in a brand or event. When Essence magazine teamed up with Toyota to create a visual pop-up experience in New York in December, every element was designed to be Instagram-friendly, according to Jovanca Maitland, Essence’s director of live events and experiential. 

“The goal is always to increase impressions but to also be buzzy in this space,” she says, noting that the one-day event generated a whopping 11.25 million social-media impressions. 

Similarly, Barnes notes that the 11-day American Express Canada experience generated 17.3-million social-media impressions from its 5,000 attendees. “But simply sharing images of a fun experience would not be considered success—it had to be a conduit to deliver our brand messages.”

Bedwani agreed. “We were always going to do something that was going to be beautiful, but where it really resonated with our audience is that it made them think,” he explained. “It asked them questions, it made them take another look at [Coach] in a way that they perhaps hadn't before.”

A Worthwhile Investment
While brands were reluctant to release financial information to BizBash, several noted that it was important to keep the experiences free for consumers—another departure from the typical selfie-focused “Instagram Museum” trend, such as the Museum of Ice Cream, where tickets cost $38. 

“The experience was created as a space to inspire Canadians, and tickets were completely complimentary,” explains Barnes, who said that the event’s popularity caused organizers to extend it for an additional weekend. “Amex obtained no revenue from the experience.”

Bedwani says that a sales spike for Coach was never the immediate goal. “The project was validated with how customers responded to it; it was about leaning into this culture in a significant way, and looking at what the reactions and the behaviors [were at the activation]. So, we looked at things like attendance, we looked at things like online registration, at how was our awareness message received. There was very much a test of, ‘Is this language really landing with our customer base or the people that we want to entertain?’”

All signs point to yes. The Coach experience reached capacity by day two, with 5,500 attendees over the pop-up’s six-day run. “Statistically, it was one of the best performing campaigns the brand has ever done,” adds Bedwani.

Location-wise, these experiences tend to take over vacant spaces in heavily trafficked locations, allowing for more creativity—and more attention. 

“The experience was designed to meet people in the places where life and business intersect,” says Barnes, noting that Queen Street West, the site of the 12,000-square-foot activation, is a bustling business, restaurant, and entertainment hub in Toronto. “It was the perfect location to grab our target audience’s attention.”

Bedwani and the Coach team also looked for a central location, settling on a vacant space in SoHo, down the street from the brand's flagship store. “We really looked for a location that both met the creative ambition and fit with the Life Coach ethos,” he says.

Looking to the Future
The concept likely will continue to be popular in the future. “It’s fun, unique, interactive, and timeless,” explains Maitland. “And it shows [the brands] how valuable they are to their respective audiences.”

Bedwani also notes that the rise in technology may have led to a rise in this type of experiential activation. “Fifteen years ago, the Internet was an escape from the real world, whereas today, the real world is an escape from the Internet. We believe that we're really in the age of what we're calling the ‘image economy,’ and your personal brand has never been more relevant. This paradigm shift is really playing out across all sorts of creative disciplines.”

He adds that event producers in particular need to understand the new customer mindset and design spaces accordingly. “It's not just how guests will enjoy the space—it’s about how they will share it. How are they going to capture it, experience it, and share it with their audience?” he asks, saying that brands need to figure out their own spin on the concept.

“For me, that was a real paradigm shift in an experience like this,” he continues. “We're creating an opportunity for the customer or the guest to not just participate on a veneer level, but actually dig into a different level of consciousness within a beautiful, tactile, Instagrammable space.”

Launch Slide Show

This story appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of BizBash.

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