Be Cool, Be First: Does the Quest for Original Activation Concepts Come at the Expense of What’s Right for the Brand?

All marketers are seeking that ‘first’, that innovative use of technology that is going to garner awards and make their brand, their agency, or themselves famous. In this quest for originality, however, there is the danger that new technology in our industry is being used purely for the sake of it – with very little strategic rationale for the brand involved.

At Synergy, we are of course tracking with interest the evolution of this technology, but the challenge we face week in, week out is to ensure that we are creating both innovative and effective sponsorship campaigns. We therefore recognise the importance of continuing to offer original thinking, but are keen to discourage the ‘it’s been done before (and is therefore not appropriate)’ attitude than can be prevalent in the industry.

We believe that it is not necessarily about winning the race to use any new technology – but instead ensuring that this tech is used appropriately to make sponsorship activations as authentic and impactful as possible.

So why are we so interested in correctly handling this balance between utilising new technology at both the right time – and also for the right reasons – in the first place? As sponsors increasingly look to reach Millennials, we know that these digital natives fully expect their interactions with brands to be grounded in technology, and are eager to try out new things (even if they can’t yet envisage how these forthcoming devices are going to influence their lives). The onus therefore lies with brands to attract and then engage with this audience through digital activity that makes their experiences both memorable and sharable. Clearly, for things to be memorable for Millennials, activations need to feel fresh and different, and this audience is less likely to share something that is starting to feel old hat – so timing remains a crucial consideration. The Fall/Winter 2014 Cassandra Report from Engine Group agency The Intelligence Group reiterates this: Millennials ‘want to be the first to do or share something, [and] they admire brands that take this approach too’.

To ensure that we are creating original activation concepts for the right reasons, two key questions need to be answered:

Does the technology being used…

• …play an authentic role for the brand?

• …make the experience better or solve a problem?

If the answer is yes, then our thoughts can turn to how we can create impactful and engaging experiences that are seamlessly grounded in this tech.

We wanted to share some examples of brands using emerging technology in the recent past in truly authentic and innovative ways (whilst not necessarily being first to leverage them) that have helped set the benchmark for the future.

3D PrintingCoca-Cola & EKOCYCLE Cube

Coca-Cola, in collaboration with, have invented a 3D printer that uses a cartridge made in part from recycled plastic bottles, to create an array of lifestyle products – with the aim of bringing 3D printing to the masses. This initiative clearly fits as part of Coca-Cola’s commitment to sustainability and also has the potential to make recycling relevant to a younger audience. It will be interesting to see, however, whether The Cube’s retail price of $1,199 really helps lead to the democratisation of 3D printing.

According to Cassandra, 72% of trendsetters have heard of 3D printing and are interested in this, and as this technology begins to reach the masses, it could provide a great solution for a sponsor looking to give away bespoke, branded merchandise to fans at sporting events, for example.

Internet of EverythingOptus Clever Buoy

Optus, the telecommunications company, wanted to show the breadth of their network coverage and solve a genuine problem in Australia – creating the world’s first shark-detecting ocean buoy. Sensing their movement using sonar, the buoys then send instant alerts to lifeguards via Optus satellites. ‘The Internet of Things’ has been widely discussed in recent years, but this is one of the best examples of a brand using this connected technology to solve a long-standing, real-world issue, as well as to highlight one of the company’s key infrastructure strengths.

From a sponsorship perspective, this technology could be naturally used by Optus or organisers in surfing competitions, alerting surfers (via smartwatches) of any hidden dangers in the deep.

It will be interesting to see if rightsholders and sponsors will begin to find a role for innovative examples of NPD such as this. Saracens, a leading Aviva Premiership rugby club, plans to assess real-time data around the impact of big hits on the rugby field, which is a great example of a rightsholder using new technology to address a genuine challenge facing their sport.

3D ScanningJohn Lewis and Monty’s Magical Toy Machine

John Lewis teamed up with Microsoft Advertising UK to produce an effective and emotive in-store activation that quite literally brought to life their Christmas 2014 TV ad. Using advanced 3D mapping technology, they gave children the chance to bring in their own soft toys and then watch them come to life in front of their very eyes, just as Monty the Penguin did. With this, John Lewis creatively connected an otherwise unrelated technology to deliver a genuine moment of wonder for children and parents alike.

50% of trendsetters have heard of image or facial recognition technology* and we have already seen a few nice examples of this technology being used by brands. Wouldn’t it be great to see this in a sporting experiential arena – anyone fancy shadow boxing with Floyd Mayweather?

Wearable TechVB Cricket Watch

Another great example from Australia – with Victoria Bitter using their sponsorship of the Australian cricket team to offer fans the world’s first ‘cricket watch’, a wearable timepiece that delivers live scores from the Aussie matches by pairing with a compatible smartphone. Supported by an on-pack consumer promotion and a multi-platform campaign, this is a really nice example of a sponsor improving the fan experience (and we all know how much the Aussies love their cricket) through the appropriate use of new technology and also generating widespread PR through this ‘first’.

Only 18% of trendsetters have currently heard of smartwatches and tried them out (The Cassandra Report Digital Fall/ Winter 2014), so this is a great example of a brand using technology first, but in a relevant and engaging way.

There is a school of thought that brands are taking a risk by using the latest technology before their target audience can fully appreciate it. Whilst this approach can bring the obvious benefit of a completely novel and fresh experience, it does raise the possibility that consumers will only associate certain technology with marketing campaigns, which in turn could bring a degree of cynicism.

We know that Millennials don’t like being ‘sold to’ and therefore, if new technology isn’t being used to genuinely improve an experience (or worse, seen as a poorly thought out gimmick), then this approach risks damaging both the brand and the tech in question. This is a criticism that has been levelled by some at the Oculus Rift headset – and despite a few interesting activations involving this specific hardware – it is fair to say that we’re yet to see a game-changing execution using this equipment. With the big money purchase of the company by Facebook and the news that they are to launch a consumer product this year, however, it’s likely to be a case of when, rather than if.

There’s no question that the pace of technological innovation will continue to create new opportunities for sponsors – but rather than racing to be first, the marketing challenge for brands remains as it always has been: to reach their target audience with key messages in a relevant and authentic way.

The challenge for how sponsors use new technology should mirror how they approach key strategic considerations: it’s not just about white space, but right space; not just real time, but right time – in terms of tech, think less first-mover and more right-mover advantage.

Matt’s blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship outlook for 2015, which can be viewed in full here.