If You’re Leading with Tech — You Aren’t Leading


Retailers have seen tech activations at expos, events, and at competitors’ retail spaces, and they’ve decided that it’s time they too start integrating tech into their strategies. They want holograms, video walls, social media this or that’s — solutions they’ve seen in comparable markets. But when a brand sets out to build an activation around a specific technology, the outcome doesn’t always — or even usually — align with its deeper mission.

Having worked with many brands as they make their foray into in-person digital experiences, I know that when a retailer suggests designing an entire in-store narrative around a technology they’ve become smitten with, what they’re really trying to communicate is, “There’s an outcome we want to achieve, and I think this technology would get us there.”

If a brand models its vision around, say, a selfie booth, what it’s likely saying is, “We want to create deeper in-person engagement with fans — and we want to do it in a way that also builds a bridge to our social media channels.” Or maybe even just, “We want to be seen as being social media savvy.”

A brand that requests a video wall? It’s possible they’re saying they want to create a flashy environment with a heightened focus on detail.

This tech-first approach highlights an underlying misunderstanding of the nature of technology. Technology isn’t a specific tool or particular service; it’s the technique, process or tool kit used to bridge the space between desire and reality.

While technology can, without question, elevate brands’ physical spaces, and achieve real and measurable results, basing an entire strategy around it usually doesn’t serve the brand’s real goals: creating brand loyalty, increasing time spent with customers, driving sales, or connecting offline and online, to name a few.

It also introduces artificial parameters around their activations, which suddenly become confined to whatever the tool at hand is capable of.

Instead of going that route, retailers should take the following approach as they map out their 2018 tech activations:

1.     Dream up all the ways the brand might manifest in real life, no matter how big.

The most exciting thing a retailer can say during the conceptual phase is, “I have an idea!” That idea might be a story, a feeling they want to create, a way to connect with people, activate their lives, make them feel at home, or anything, really, other than, “I want to use [name of technology here].”

Determining how a brand might manifest in real life is easy once you recognize that its story is already woven into every existing component of its marketing and production. If a brand makes jackets that are meant to be worn by jet setters, and if existing media content shows the products in that light, then it might consider turning its physical space into a globetrotting travel agency. Let the aesthetics of campaigns motivate activations.

2.     Define the lasting impression that you want to make.

How do you want strangers to talk about your brand in the future, after experiencing it in a retail space or other activation?

The answer to that should dictate what combination of methods will be necessary to manifest that goal. Frame the brand with activations while engaging patrons to become part of the vision.

Take HBO’s Escape at SXSW or The Walking Dead Experience. Both of these experiences placed the patron at the center of the action, quite literally. Instead of forcing audiences to interact with their brands on overly controlled terms, HBO and Skybound created interactive playgrounds where fans were immersed in the environments and stories that they love. People left excited, to have participated and for the future of the products.

3.     Remember that “interesting for the sake of interesting” is boring.

A common pitfall is making “interesting” the goal. This approach pretty much always forces consumers to interact with a brand in a way that’s both unnatural and distracting. 

Instead, imagine experiences where “interesting” is a function of how the customer can interact with the product or environment in new ways. Or one where positive engagement alters the physical environment, eliciting a type of psychological “reward” that encourages the patron to dive more deeply into the product.

Lowe’s nailed this with their Holoroom concept. Making a VR space where the shoppers are given an opportunity to engage on their own terms that has a direct path to purchase. No one needed to be distracted from home improvement, no one needed to do anything that wasn’t genuine. Lowe’s utilized tech to make a great tool connecting to the desires of their customers to sales.

4.     Create the world of your brand.

Redefine what a brand’s physical space can be. Don’t limit your digital to walls or stations that isolate themselves from the retail space. Retail has looked like retail for a long time: Racks, displays, POS. Create a retail space that not only represents a brand but is an embodiment of the brand. Let the patron’s aspirational experience of shopping merge into the real expression and embodiment of the brand’s identity.  Transform spaces into lifestyles. What if activations didn’t need signs or instructions, but were discovered through curiosity and surprise?

Adobe’s Unified Retail Experience is starting to introduce integrated shopping environments, but they are still layering digital and physical instead of letting them grow into a new shopping solution. Take Adobe’s proposals and merge it with brand identity to build a world where a physical retail outlet can be as intuitive and savvy as the shoppers.

5.     Make the brand and consumer part of the same story.

Consumers want to experience connection bi-directionally. Currently, there seems to be a unidirectional concern of driving traffic to online portals. This often feels like brands yelling, “Share this with a hashtag!” or, “Go online and buy more!” Don’t approach digital activation imagining what you want millions of people to do, and how to force them to do it. Think of the interplay of digital and physical space as an opportunity to begin or continue a conversation. Use digital to ask shoppers questions and to offer service, insight, or to give a gift. This starts a dialogue that lets the patron walk away having gained something.

Visitors can walk into space and become a part of a brand’s story while the brand becomes a part of theirs.  What if every activation was heartfelt and honest, no manipulation needed? Leave visitors thinking and feeling something. When they leave they should be mid-conversation, not at the end of a short exchange. Activate them, not just space.

Every tech solution that a brand has seen was a solution to someone else’s challenge. Don’t let one-size-fits-all tech undermine the real motivation to activate a physical space. If digital activations are brand-critical in their conception and genuine with their intent, rather than a product of a love affair with a specific technology, authentic, impactful, and meaningful touchpoints will forge stronger connection to the consumer and help achieve measurable goals.


Phillip Gulley is Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder of BeSide Digital, an experiential design and technology company that creates original digital activations for retail and entertainment brands, such as Macy’s, Diane Von Furstenburg, AMC’s The Walking Dead, Refinery 29, Rachel Antonoff, Michael Kors, and others.

Working alongside a team of engineers, artists, and technologists, Phillip and BeSide co-founder Matthew Haber conceive of and develop interactive experiences that allow brands to engage audiences in physical space, bridge their offline and social media activity, create lasting brand loyalty, and increase their relevance to the consumer.  

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