Prior to the pandemic, experiential was one of marketing’s most dynamic fields. Now the industry is exploring what form such activations can safely and effectively take going forward, and our second annual Experiential Awards suddenly carry an extra layer of celebration (and an unexpected poignancy). After all, the campaigns honored here were all dreamed up before social distancing, back when the only parameters were the limits of one’s imagination. Was last year a turning point for experiential? It remains to be seen. In the meantime, we’re excited to highlight these truly remarkable experiential executives and activations, a wildly diverse set of immersive scenarios that range from a Taco Bell-themed hotel in the middle of the desert to fictional nuns touring the country in a Beelzebus to promote an Amazon Prime Video original series.
Use of Celebrity/Use of Out-of-Home Media Activation by a Media Brand
Awkwafina 7 Train Takeover
Brand: Comedy Central
Agency: OutFront Media, Posterscope
In January, when commuting on the subway in New York was still common, riders on the 7 train were treated to some humorous announcements from a voice that sounded like Awkwafina’s—because it actually was. The comedian and actress became the MTA’s first celebrity announcer as part of Comedy Central’s promotion of her new series, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. The network teamed with MTA’s advertising partner OutFront Media and location-based marketing agency Posterscope for the weeklong promotion.
Awkwafina announced facts about each stop on the 7, which runs from Flushing, Queens, to Hudson Yards in Manhattan. The announcements included tidbits like, “This is 33rd Street. In other news, 33 is a palindrome. Wait. Can numbers be palindromes?” and a PSA to stop manspreading. According to the MTA, the promotion was slated to kick off a celebrity-announcer pilot program. But with the city still under lockdown and ridership down more than 90%, it’s unclear when trains will get a new guest conductor. —Ian Zelaya
Brave Heart Award, Pop-Up Activation $1 Million to $2 Million
The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel and Resort
Brand: Taco Bell
Agency: UEG Worldwide and Edelman
The high-pitched hum that emanated from Palm Springs, Calif., last August wasn’t just the cicada bugs doing their heat-of-the-day singing. It was the palpable buzz around The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel and Resort, a four-day brandapalooza that drew 400 superfans from 21 states to a “dream destination” in the desert.
For the over-the-top activation, which sold out in two minutes, UEG Worldwide execs remade an existing local hotel in Taco Bell’s quirky image, stocking it with a salon (for themed manicures and Taco Bell fades), a swag shop (with branded bikinis and swim trunks), fusion food, poolside concerts and synchronized swimmers.
Attendees—a mix of loyalists, honeymooners, influencers and newshounds—took innumerable selfies and drank spiked Baja Blasts against a backdrop that turned everyday objects like yoga mats, throw pillows and beach towels into facsimiles of the chain’s famous single-serve hot sauce packets.
“Fans want to spend time with this brand—they want to be part of this collective universe,” says Gabe Banner, UEG’s executive producer on the project, noting its wedding chapel in Las Vegas and exclusive dinners at its top-secret test kitchen. “It wasn’t that much of a stretch” for the fast-food marketer to dive into pop-up hospitality.
The project, with zero paid media, captured the brand’s “unique personality traits,” Banner says, and snagged north of 4.4 billion impressions and 5,000 stories. —T.L. Stanley
Best Event/Conference Experiential Activation
Data Is Destiny
Agency: Giant Spoon
In honor of the Season 3 premiere of Westworld, Giant Spoon orchestrated a dinner hosted by Incite, a tech company featured in new episodes, to spotlight just how much consumers have shared online. The invitation-only event took place at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a perfect stage for the production since data privacy and regulation (CCPA was taking effect, but not yet enforced) were at the forefront of conversation. To pull off this eerie stunt, Giant Spoon put its team to work researching every guest who attended the dinner to find specific details about their lives, including what was posted in social media profiles and included in old newspaper articles.