[Updated] 12 Engaging Brand Activation Ideas to Boost Event Sponsorship

Michael Ilves, LA-based brand activation specialist that has worked with some of America’s largest festival properties. The very best brand activations integrate seamlessly into the event by solving a problem, whilst also acting as a vehicle for data collection and inspire engagement on socials. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite festival experiential concepts from the past couple of years, and offer some vital tips and takeaways that you can integrate into your activation strategy for 2018.

HP’s The Lab Brand Activation

This one was a particular hit at music festivals in 2016/2017, having a particularly strong presence at Goldenvoice’s festivals Coachella and Panorama.

HP clearly acknowledge that they have become a company that many millennials associate with printers and fax machines, and they highlighted music festivals as a space to engage with a new demographic and showcase their creativity. They partnered up with visual artist Android Jones to create an incredibly trippy projection mapped video onto the ceiling of the dome, while fans lay back on bean bags and cushions and blasted off into space.

While waiting in lines for things like the bar or the bathroom is the scourge of the festival experience, waiting in line to enter a mysterious art dome created a sense of anticipation, and stoked the FOMO flames that burn brightly at festivals like Coachella.

What can you do?

  • Do something cool with a limited capacity to build some hype. Sure you’re going to lose some people that don’t want to stand in line, but those that do will rave about the experience.
  • Offer something with air conditioning. Summer festivals are hot and exhausting, so creating an activation which keeps fans chilled is always going to be a hit.

vitaminwater Human Car Wash

Vitaminwater human carwash at Wayhome music festival

Anyone that has been lightly spritzed by a good samaritan’s mist bottle after spending a long, hot weekend trudging around a sweltering festival site will attest to just how refreshing this can be. Clearly the people involved in vitaminwater’s Human Car Wash knew this simple bliss all too well…

vitaminwater’s Human Car Wash was welcomed with open arms throughout the blistering heat on the busy July weekend at WayHome Music Festival in Canada. Guests checked-in with their RFID wristbands, rejoiced in the refreshing mist of the human car wash, and a photo of their experience was captured by a photographer.

Electric Daisy Carnival and the DoLab stage at Coachella—which are two of the hottest festivals you’re likely to attend—also make great use of the subtle power of mist, though vitaminwater is the only branded experience that we’ve seen.

What can you do?

  • Solve a problem. It’s going to be really hot? Let’s get a brand to erect a shade structure, throw down some bean bags and hand out water.
  • Understand the festival experience. If the creators of the activation don’t know what it’s like to attend a festival you’re running the risk of creating something that just doesn’t impress or solve a problem.

29Rooms from Refinery29

While Refinery29’s 29Rooms activation doesn’t fit particularly well into the festival or live event context, it’s a fantastic example of an activation that managed to become a pop cultural moment.

By riding a cresting wave of Instagrammable art gallery experiences, the millennial-focused lifestyle publication integrated brands like Dunkin’ Donuts, Adidas and Netflix into a safe space shared with nonprofits like Planned Parenthood and Women’s March and checked every box needed for a successful activation in 2017.

Set up in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, the activation was simply 29 branded rooms which the audience are encouraged to mill around and snap selfies in. In some ways this brand activation represented peak millennial experience: heavily branded, collaborative, socially conscious and designed to be viewed almost entirely through a phone screen.

The whole thing was a top-to-bottom experiential marketing masterclass, and so much user generated content that it was arguably the most hyped activation experience of last year. 

What can you do?

  • Know your audience. There are lots of brands enticed by Refinery29’s audience and they really nailed the kind of branded experience that the audience and its partners are looking for.
  • Give people something interesting to take pictures of. #29Rooms has almost 45,000 posts on Instagram. 

Camelbak’s Hydration Station

Camelbak event brand activation and experiential water station

As we mentioned above—and time and again on this blog—intimately understanding the festival experience will hold brands in good stead when they try to activate the space. The relationship between the festival and the brand can be more mutually beneficial than just a cash-for-audience-access transaction. 

And that’s exactly what Camelbak has done here.

With a simple water refilling station they have delivered an on brand activation that provides a necessary solution to a major festival problem, which also touches on brand goodwill given the dangers of dehydration at festivals.

While hardly a social media hype generator, the Hydration Station allows Camelbak to have direct engagement with their customer base and potential future customers, all around the watering hole!

What can you do?

  • Provide a solution. Not only will this save the festival money but it will make the event better. Everyone wins.
  • Consider the key aspects of your brand identity and look for ways to integrate that seamlessly into the context.

Durango Boots Bull Riding Competition

Boots and Hearts experiential brand activation

Boots & Hearts fans tested their endurance trying to tame El Diablo, The Mechanical Bull. Durango Boots’ fun brand activation falls perfectly in alignment with Canada’s largest camping and country music festival.

It was a fun sight to see as cowgirls and cowboys got tossed and thrown around to their heart’s content, and engage with a familiar, kitschy activation that was successful in its simplicity and for understanding the event’s demographic.

We were left wondering how many rides on the bull were followed by swift beelines for the bathrooms…

What can you do?

  • Consider your audience. A mechanical bull is so perfectly on-brand for Boots & Hearts’ country-loving demographic and it provided a lot of valuable user generated content.
  • Don’t be afraid to keep it simple. If there is an idea that provides value to the event and will endear the audience to a brand, don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

Weedmaps Coachella House

At this point, if you’re a competitive brand trying to tap into the millennial market, you need to be either in or around Coachella. Having a brand activation around the Palm Springs area in April is a right of passage, but given how saturated the space is, you need to do something that’s either extremely lavish or downright genius in order to build some buzz.  

Riding in on the passing of Prop 65 a few months beforehand, online cannabis community and marketplace Weedmaps rented a fabulous pad and got everyone lit AF. Given the novelty of legal—or at that point soon-to-be legal—cannabis consumption, this activation was widely covered in by the press and was the most buzzed off-Coachella party in 2017.

What can you do?

  • Do something timely. Cannabis was
  • Book the right talent. Weedmaps knows its audience and culture extremely well, and by booking talent like Rae Sremmurd, Hannibal Buress, Reese Laflare and Action Bronson the Weedmaps Oasis reflected that.

HBO’s The Escape 

HBO escape room activation at SXSW

It wouldn’t be right to talk about innovative brand activation ideas and not touch on SXSW. For a couple of weeks in March, Texas’ hip island Austin is taken over by swathes of brands, tech firms, and culture vultures, and some of the most novel brand activations from the biggest brands and agencies are on display.

HBO turned the sets of Veep, Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones into escape rooms. Capitalizing on the curious new phenomenon of escape rooms, they created the ultimate engaged experience, giving groups five minutes to solve a string of puzzles and escape the Oval Office, Castle Black and Erlich Bachman’s Incubator. 

West coast hippie festivals Lightning in a Bottle and Symbiosis both have DIY, non-branded versions of escape rooms on site at the festival, and they are equally popular with festival audiences looking for non-musical experiences. 

What can you do?

  • Look around at current trends and think about ways to integrate that into your experiential.

Snapchat’s Twilight Concert Series

This one deserves a special shout because it represents an important marriage between a brand and an existing experience. While not technically being a brand activation, it certainly morphed into one and manages to check a lot of the requisite boxes.

The Twilight Concert series on the iconic Santa Monica pier will be entering its 34th season this year, and in 2016 partnered with Snap Inc., integrating the social media behemoth as the presenting sponsor. This coincided with Snap signing a $15 million, 5-year lease in Santa Monica, and represents an important goodwill move for the company in its local community.

But it should be said that while the quality of the event and performances are very high, Snapchat have imposed themselves aggressively on the space. At every turn, a little Snap ghost is vying for your short attention, and there’s no question that the event would benefit from taking a step back on the branding.

What you can do?

  • If you’re a cool event, look for a big local brand to be a presenting sponsor. If you’re an influential brand, look for an existing event that engages your target demo. You don’t have to build something from scratch if there’s already a big, authentic audience already in your back yard.
  • Don’t go too heavily on the branding. While we like that Snapchat saw an opportunity to partner in this great local event series, we see their zealous logo plastering and in-built Snap-based activations as a tad unsavory. Soft sell guys.
  • RSVP. While the concert series is free, you are required to RSVP beforehand, meaning that Snapchat and Twilight Concert series have some important data on you.

Virgin Rail at Festival No.6

The staggering picturesque Festival No.6 in Wales partnered up with Virgin Trains and had the bright idea to turn one of their trains into the No.6 Express, a sort of decked out party locomotive that got everyone hyped up on their way to the festival.

“We wanted our customers to have fun from the moment they jumped onto the train, so we kept everyone entertained with live music, free cocktails and bucket loads of glitter face paint. Combining the good vibes of Number 6 and our ability to create amazing on-board customer experiences, the No. 6 Express took the pain out of festival travel,” wrote Virgin on their blog.

What can you do?

  • Think about the journey to the festival as an opportunity to create a branded experience. Work with your travel partner to build some hype on the way there with some music and drinks.

Urbanears Hideout at ADE

Urbanears hideout brand activation at ADE

We’ve made no secret of our love of the Amsterdam Dance Event. The annual monster conference-festival hybrid in the Dutch capital attracts more than 350,000 fans and dance music industry professionals for five days of panels, activations and a dizzying array of club nights.

Swedish brand Urbanears has been the official headphone manufacturer of the festival since 2014, and each year releases a signature yellow and black pair of cans to match the festival’s distinct aesthetic. But it was the Urbanears Hideout that really caught our eye.

The lush little enclave was like a post-modern Hobbit’s living room, and acted as the zen’d-out press lounge for the festival. Recognizing that ADE is a seriously hectic and at times stressful affair, Urbanears built out a space that was designed for chit chat, low key mixers and allowed them to demo their products to a responsive and relaxed audience.

What can you do?

  • Do the opposite. ADE is crazy and you can find yourself sleeping between blinks by the end of the week. Urbanears created a space to chill in amongst the madness, and it was a welcome change of pace for those that knew it.
  • Brand the press tent. Sure, you’re not going to be getting much social engagement, but you’d be surprised at how much the press love a little free food and drink at festival. It’s also a great opportunity for you to expand your network.

GE Healthymagination

GE Healthcare built an expansive activation that walked users through a variety of simulated medical rooms in Africa to show how their technology was being integrated into practices across the continent. It’s a fantastic example of a company using context and storytelling to convey the value and impact of their products.

This is the only B2B activation included in this list, simply because there isn’t much competition. We cast out minds back through all the conferences, summits and trade shows that we’ve been to and were struggling to recall business-focused activation that really stood out.

There is a serious window here. Chris Baylis of Canadian firm The Sponsorship Collective is fond of telling a story about a young, somewhat hip accounting firm that he convinced to splash out on a superhero photo booth at a really dull conference. Given the noted tedium of the event, this simple idea stood out a mile and brought some life to the event and business to the client.

What can you do?

  • Be creative! B2B firms, think about the context that you’re showcasing your firm in and make a point of standing out.

Tito’s Vodka Ponchos

A very quick one from Tito’s Vodka to finish the list off. It’s not an activation but it is festival marketing genius and should be recognized as such.

The Austin-based vodka company had branded ponchos made and was handing them out as soon as the rain started on Sunday at Governers Ball in New York City. Vendors were apparently selling Ponchos for $5, so when word spread that they were giving out free ponchos at the Tito’s activation, it was game over.

This move has also been done artfully by Ultra Records. Understanding that there is a 99% chance that it’ll rain at some point during the Amsterdam Dance Event (it’s late October in Northern Europe…), Ultra get some cheap umbrellas made with their logo emblazoned on them. And lo and behold, as soon as those drops start pouring from the heavens, the streets of Amsterdam are packed with matte black techno bros cowering under Ultra umbrellas. Perfect.

What can you do?

  • Again, one more time, think about what people need.
  • Check the weather! If it’s sunny, sunscreen. If it’s raining, ponchos. This is a gamble but it could really pay off.


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