Pop-ups: How brands can turn one-night stands into long-term relationships using brand activation

Pop-ups, your opportunity to have a one-night stand with a brand. Walk around the dark, twisting streets of Soho and you’re bound to bump into one. Brand activations are everywhere nowadays, each one promising something immersive, something memorable, and something shareable. The challenge for brands is how to turn those one-night stands into long-term relationships. How to get people to text back in the morning and not just disappear forevermore.

With investment in experiential marketing campaigns growing rapidly in recent years, pop-ups have become an increasingly popular activation for brands looking to attract new people to their brand or tell a new story. Pop-ups don’t just appear in city centres. You can find them everywhere. Festivals, expos, markets, county fairs. North Face even built one up a mountain. The challenge for brands is making sure a pop-up delivers more than just press coverage and a pretty picture. Do they drive commercial results? Do they result in online sharing and word-of-mouth fame? Do people hang around the morning after the night before?

There’s no magic bullet solution for making a successful experiential pop-up. A long-lasting and meaningful impact is achieved through a combination of factors:

Experiential strategy

For most brands, integrating different channels under one overarching brand strategy is usually a good idea. Integration helps drive saliency which ultimately leads to sales. Pop-ups are no different to any other channel. A good pop-up should take a key brand proposition and brand activation strategy, and bring it to life in a live environment. This doesn’t mean literally building a physical version of your latest TV ad. It’s got to work as an experience first and foremost.

Take the classic Lidl pop-up from a few years ago. The supermarket chain built a five-star restaurant in Stockholm called Dill, which provided a fine dining experience and was a huge success, selling out for weeks. The twist was that every ingredient used at Dill was sourced from Lidl. Dill was a physical manifestation of a brand proposition: “Budget food doesn’t mean a compromise on quality.” Experience and strategic thinking came together to produce something that worked underneath an overarching brand strategy. 


Many brands invest time and money ensuring their pop-ups tell a full and immersive story. For super-keen brand fans, this level of detail is important. However, for the majority of visitors, the message a pop-up is trying to communicate needs to be more immediate. Take Lidl and Dill as an example. If visitors took only one thing from Dill it was quality (which is later associated with Lidl).

A message doesn’t have to be communicated literally. It can be signalled through more subtle, sensory means, such as atmosphere. The lighting level, the smells, the sounds. Everything about a pop-up comes together to produce an experience. A good pop-up should convey a brand message in two seconds as well as it does in two hours.

Take Benefit’s Roller Liner Diner (RLD) in LA. Through it’s wonderful pinkness, the RLD was immediately feminine and fun, with additional nods to the worlds of fashion and art. With several experiences available as part of the pop-up, Benefit managed to instantly communicate the essence of its brand while leaving more for people to discover.


In order to deliver the most impactful pop-up experience possible, production should never be compromised. Brands are never so closely scrutinised as at their own pop-up. People judge brands much more rationally in a live environment and it’s not just the sexy details that matter. The quality of the seats, the number of toilets, the queue for the bar, everything comes together to deliver an impression. Always try to avoid a production budget ruining the quality of your experience.

An American pop-up that’s gone above and beyond with production value in the last few years is Refinery29’s 29Rooms, a celebration of culture, style and creativity to promote Refinery29’s various media channels. The production team didn’t miss a trick which created stunning social content. Nothing was left to chance in their mission to create a great impression.

Brands don’t need a production budget the size of Refinery29’s to create an amazing pop-up experience. The devil is often in the detail when it comes to creating something truly memorable.


Another reason why production value is so important is the increasing pressure on pop-ups to be amplified online. Social reach is not a bolt-on. It needs to be built into the fabric of a pop-up from day one. It’s almost impossible to control people’s behaviour in a pop-up space. Brands can’t direct people towards the social areas of their pop-up. Everything needs to be photogenic. The quote on the wall. The way the products are laid out. The brand ambassador’s uniform. It all adds up.

Take method’s slow fashion store from last year. The space ran for two days in October 2018 and generated excellent social results. Rather than relying on anything too sophisticated, the slow fashion store was simply a beautiful space. Social media sharers are more creative than brands sometimes realise. Give people nice surroundings and they’ll do the hard work.

method also used influencers in the form of Millie Mackintosh and Jasmine Hemsley to promote the pop-up on their social profiles. Influencers are a great way of reaching a specific audience through the buzz they generate on their own accounts and in the press.


Finally, brands should never underestimate the importance of a pop-up’s location, whether their immediate surroundings or the town they activate in. A pop-up in a church conveys a different message to a pop-up in a small unit in Shoreditch. The space a pop-up occurs in is another way of immediately conveying a message about a brand. It’s why festival-based pop-ups remain so popular. Nothing communicates fun and escapism as well as an amazing festival experience. Outside of festivals, in order to reach the right audience, the correct city or town should also be chosen. Not all pop-ups have to take place in Soho or Shoreditch!

There’s no one thing that makes a pop-up better at delivering long-term results for a brand. Great results come from several disciplines crossing, such as a strategic and creative thinking and production that doesn’t compromise. When everything is on point, brands can experience the full benefits of building brand experiences that make people want to stick around more than just one-night.

Vaughan Edmonds is Planner at global brand experience agency Sense, which has offices in London and New York.

This article first appeared in Chief Marketer magazine.