Top 10 Innovative Brands 2018: #3 National Geographic

The network continues to expand upon its franchise events while developing new technology for its audience and guests.

By Michele Laufik October 10, 2018, 6:16 AM EDT

At the viewing event for the network’s 10-part series One Strange Rock, in which astronauts tell the story of Earth, guests tested out the brand’s new OSR Space Projection Helmets. The replica space helmets, which National Geographic developed with creative agency McCann New York, use projection technology to create an immersive, virtual experience with footage from the series. 

Photo: Eduardo Munoz

By playing off its rich content and diverse programming, National Geographic continues to connect with audiences beyond the screen through interactive experiences featuring cutting-edge technology and multi-dimensional storytelling.

And through Instagram. The 130-year-old brand dominates social media with over 350 million followers across all platforms, including almost 92 million followers on Instagram.

“Our event strategy is designed to bring our brand to life. It always has a clear objective, whether it’s a premiere for a network show or a client event. But it also always has to represent the very best of the National Geographic brand. We have fans who read the magazine or watch the network—but what they really want to do is feel and touch our brand,” explains Chris Albert, executive vice president of global communications and talent relations for National Geographic Channels.

That desire to make the content jump off the screen, to make something ephemeral into something tangible, was evident at the viewing event for the network’s 10-part series One Strange Rock, in which astronauts tell the story of Earth.

At the New York event in March, guests tested out the brand’s new OSR Space Projection Helmets. The replica space helmets, which National Geographic developed with creative agency McCann New York, use projection technology to create an immersive, virtual experience with footage from the series. The experience combines laser projection, custom fish-eye optics, and built-in audio. As opposed to other VR headsets, these helmets offer a wider field of view and were designed so that viewers can move their heads inside in order to see the entire field of vision. After the series premiere, the helmets traveled to science centers and educational facilities across the country to help educate and engage young people about space.

Using fancy tech gadgets to promote a show about astronauts might seem like a marketing no-brainer, but what about an old-school analog artist? To promote the second season of its anthology series Genius: Picasso, National Geographic built an immersive, digital-forward experience inspired by the famous abstract artist.

Located in New York's Soho neighborhood, the activation featured larger-than-life Instagram-friendly installations, as well as interactive digital easels, designed by multi-disciplinary studio RadicalMedia, that allowed visitors to “paint” their own masterpieces with shapes, textures, line art elements, and colors. A large digital collage pulled in the artwork from the easels, creating a giant mural that evolved over the course of the activation.

“We constantly look to employ high-tech experiences in many of our campaigns,” says Albert, “boundary-pushing thinking to create experiences that will surprise and delight our fans.”

“We have fans who read the magazine or watch the network—but what they really want to do is feel and touch our brand.”

For its Further Front media event during the NewFronts season in New York in April, the brand hosted a dinner inside a private townhouse that was transformed into the “Nat Geo House,” with each floor highlighting a different show and offering the chance to mingle with luminaries such as Ellen Stofan, head of the National Air and Space Museum, and Alex Honnold, 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. It included a behind-the-scenes VR experience from the set of the series Mars and a rooftop full of puppies (definitely a surprising delight for attendees) to promote the Nat Geo WILD network.

And in October 2017, the brand, in collaboration with SPE Partners, opened a permanent space called National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey. Located in Times Square, the immersive entertainment experience transports visitors on an undersea journey where they encounter life-size photo-real versions of some of the largest creatures in the ocean, including 20-foot-long sharks, a 50-foot Humpback whale, and a pair of Humboldt squids, each of which could have as many as 40,000 teeth.

In addition to these innovative, large-scale experiences, Albert adds that the network also tries to “create intimate, meaningful moments that really showcase our brand.”

For example, at the Hollywood Bowl premiere of the feature documentary Jane, more than 15,000 attendees, including Jane Goodall herself, gathered to watch the film, which featured a live soundtrack from a 54-piece orchestra who performed the score by composer Philip Glass.

“For us, this was much more than just a film premiere. It was really a moment to showcase what we stand for on a pretty impressive stage,” says Albert. “And there was one moment that all of us will always remember. And that was when a young girl, McKenna Booth, came to the premiere dressed as Jane Goodall. Jane was her hero, and as soon as we saw her, we knew we had to make an introduction. And when we did, the result was magical. So not only did we entertain 15,000 fans, we made a dream come true for one. And that is why we do all of these events. To inspire and enlighten new generations of scientists and explorers and dreamers.”

Events tied to the network’s slate of new programming, which includes Valley of the Boom, Hostile Planet, and Hot Zone, are yet to be determined. But Albert says he looks forward to this germination phase the most. “For me, the most exciting part is now—the starting part where we delve into each show and strategize what our event strategy will be and brainstorm all ideas with the team to produce meaningful experiences—big and small events—where attendees can engage with our shows and our brand.”

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