Self-Actualization for Brands: How To Grow With Brand Activation

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Phil Grossman

26 Feb, 2020

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If there’s one word that defines the zeitgeist of today’s advertising landscape, it’s “experience.” With everyone and their mother trying to get noticed with a viral post, more and more brands are realizing creating great experiences for their customers is often more effective than throwing darts at the proverbial whiteboard and hoping they land on a piece of content that sticks. 

Indeed, great experience marketing is a perfect combination of content marketing and word of mouth marketing. In the best cases, brand activations and experience marketing won’t even feel like marketing to people, and they’ll be happy to spread the good news of your brand to their network.

But how do you know if experience marketing is right for your brand? And how do you get yourself started with this new advertising paradigm? If those questions strike a chord with you, then read on for your answer. 

What is brand activation?

Let’s start by getting a clear idea of what exactly we’re talking about here. Brand activation is a form of advertising that focuses on experiences that leave a lasting impression on the participants. Although brand activations are usually in-person experiences, such as a pop-up shop or a music festival, new technologies make it possible for brand activations to take place entirely online, such as a virtual reality event, a video that requires submissions from customers, etc. 

The key to a successful brand activation is that it needs to make an impression without feeling like an ad. If it doesn’t check those boxes, it won’t “activate” your brand in your customers’ minds and bring it to the front of their awareness. Ideally, your experience will make such an impression that everyone who attends will be lining up to get their requisite selfies and tagging your company on the ‘gram.

Who should (and shouldn’t) try brand activations?

For the most part, brand activations work best for businesses that have tangible, physical products. For example, if you’re a food company, it’s easy to make an impression by setting up a pop-up food truck that sells some of your most unique items in the middle of a crowded street. By doing so, you introduce your product to a whole new audience that may never have heard about you otherwise. 

Or maybe you’re a fitness equipment brand and can set up shop in the middle of a mall and offer free, fun fitness activities using their equipment. 

Unfortunately, brands that don’t have physical products or “fun” products are at a disadvantage. While it’s not impossible to do a brand activation for a software company, it’s far more difficult for a company like TurboTax to create an impressive experience that draws a crowd. Unfortunately, doing your taxes simply isn’t as exciting as eating an oversized ice cream cone filled with Reese’s cups and topped with a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. 

That said, with a little creativity, even less “fun” brands can have successful activations — it just takes a bit more brainstorming to find something that hits. 

What’s the difference between brand activations and branding? 

The answer lies in the names themselves. When you do branding, you’re building up your brand’s identity — designing your logo, crafting your brand story, and coming up with a great slogan. In short: you’re finding ways to make yourself stand out from your competitors. 

When you do brand activations, you’re quite literally “activating” that identity — you’re putting that machine in motion and finding a way to let others know. It’s the difference between building a car and turning the key in the ignition, or writing a great song and playing it for an audience. Brand activations help your brand “socialize” — they put your brand out into the real world and let others interact with it, understand it, and become “friends” with it. You’re introducing or reintroducing your brand to their awareness

Clearly, branding and brand activations are both important and both require equal attention. If your brand identity isn’t well developed, its activation will fall apart just like a car with loose screws. Conversely, if your brand is set and never activated, it will just be a hit song collecting dust on a cassette in an old box in the attic. 

What makes a great brand activation?

Conceptually, the differences between good and bad brand activations are pretty easy to understand: a good brand activation is targeted at a certain customer demographic and is relevant to them, and a bad brand activation simply doesn’t connect. 

Practically, however, figuring out how to make your planned activations connect with your audience is a more difficult task — an art of sorts. But there are a few foundational steps you can take to get yourself on the right path.

The most important of these is the tried-and-true wisdom every business owner and marketer has heard a thousand times over: know your customer. Understand what types of experiences they enjoy and already partake in and create something that is in sync with those. 

For example, Sephora likely wouldn’t do too well hosting a contouring demonstration featuring Ronda Rousey followed by an MMA match with her just to show how well Sephora makeup holds up under pressure. While it’s an impressive idea, the violence inherent in an MMA fight wouldn’t fit well with Sepora’s luxurious aesthetic. Maybe it would make for a great ad, but few Sephora customers would be interested in watching an entire MMA fight. 

Similarly, hosting a free CPA consultations event outside of a nightclub is not going to get much traction. But placing it in the middle of a commercial district right around 5 o’clock as everyone’s getting off from work? Now you’re getting somewhere. 

When in doubt, think about what would get you to become interested in your own company. It can take some practice, but you’re often your own best guide, and following your own tastes and interests instead of thinking about what others would like to see can lead you to great success. 

Types of brand activations

So, we’ve talked a lot about brand activations on a conceptual level so far, but let’s dig deeper into the nitty-gritty — let’s get practical, so to speak. Here are a few popular types of brand activations that you can peruse through to start getting an idea of how these things come together. 

Pop-up shops

This is the first thing that most people think of when you say brand activation. A pop-up shop is a short-term shop that “pops up” for a few days or weeks before quickly disappearing again. The idea is to turn your brand’s shopping experience into an event of sorts by placing your brand in the middle of an (ideally) busy area — like the middle of Times Square, for example. Furthermore, you generally want to have some type of interesting twist or host an event that’s only available in the pop-up shop to draw in visitors. 


Sampling activations are just what they sound like: you set up a booth, drive around a car, or simply hand out samples of your product to passersby in a mall. These types of activations tend to work quite well for software companies as you can easily set up a booth and run product demos for anyone who walks in. 


Experience activations are a bit of an abstract concept — pretty much anything can be an experience. However, when someone talks about an experiential activation, they usually mean a brand activation that isn’t a pop-up shop or a sampling of a product. Sure, there can be some overlap between them — a pop-up shop could deliver an interesting experience, of course — but an experiential activation usually refers to something like hosting a music festival, having an athlete perform some type of a stunt, or recreating a set from a show. 

Experiences can be one of the most effective types of brand activations because (if they’re good), they encourage the attendees to take photos, post them, and tell all their friends about what they just experienced. If you hit on a really great idea, it’s easy to go viral. 

Digital experiences

Although this technically falls under the umbrella of experiences, it’s worth noting the differences. Experiences need not be tied down to the physical world — the digital one is ripe for brand activations as well. Digital experiences often take the form of websites or unique web apps that users can have fun playing around with for a while. Sometimes they’re fun little games, other times they could be deep interactive narratives. 

Examples of brand activation advertising

So, let’s take things down yet another level of abstraction and talk about how some real-life brands are activating themselves. Here are a few of our favorite brand activation campaigns.

Red Bull and Felix Baumgartner’s Stratos

Pretty much everyone who was alive at the time remembers when Felix Baumgartner skydived from the stratosphere, becoming the first skydiver to break the sound barrier. This is a clear example of an experiential activation. Even though most people witnessed his death-defying jump online, it was an experience few will ever forget, and cemented the connection between Red Bull and the go-getters and daredevils of the world. 

This is perhaps one of the best brand activations of all time as it was so incredible that you simply had to pay attention. While most brands won’t have the resources to pull something like this off, it does give some serious inspiration. 

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Blamé by the YWCA

Sometimes the line between an experience and a pop-up shop is blurred, and Blamé by the YMCA is a perfect example. Storegoers entered the pop-up thinking they were about to shop at a high-end French fashion store. However, when they looked at the tags of the clothing, they found texts along the lines of, “she’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky.”

What started as a run-of-the-mill pop-up turned into an experience — visitors realized that Blamé was really just a play on words of “blame,” and that the whole store was designed to bring attention to the problems of victim-blaming. It was a truly artfully executed campaign and shows how a bit of creativity can make a lasting impression. 

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Xbox’s Survival Billboard

When adventure game Rise of the Tomb Raider was ready for release in 2015, Xbox launched an experiential activation that invited audience members to brave the elements and subject themselves to 24 hours standing on a billboard in extreme weather. The theme was survival, the same theme that permeates Tomb Raider, and what better way to promote a game than to bring it into the real world? 

Although this is a great idea and fairly achievable for small brands, it’s important to be careful with these types of extreme events as any brand that engages in this sort of marketing will need to account for the cost of medical teams on-site. That said, the event garnered some serious interest in the game and the audience will probably never forget it — and you can be sure the participants won’t either. 

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Exclusive Networks UK & Ireland Kickoff Event

Let’s bring things a bit more down to Earth and into the realm of what most brands can achieve. You don’t need millions of dollars or extremely creative ideas to do a solid brand activation. Exclusive Networks was able to create a successful brand activation by simply hosting a party and adding in a nice background for a photo. 

If there was ever any doubt in your mind, people love taking photos. And people love posting them on Instagram even more. Setting up a photo area is a great way to help your event’s guests cherish the memories and then share them with everyone they know. 

Mary Price Paintings’ Pop-Up Shop

Rounding out our list of examples, pop-up shops don’t need to be lavish and done up to the nines either. Mary Price set up a pop-up shop to sell her paintings in Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Market, and this is a great example of the true heart of brand activations: simply getting yourself out there! 

Mary was sure to get some attention just by putting herself in a new situation and showing the world who she is as an artist. There’s really nothing more you can ask for when it comes to brand activation.

At the end of the day, brand activation is really quite similar to self-actualization. A brand activation needn’t be record-breaking nor death-defying, it just needs to turn the key in your brand’s ignition switch, and let the world know who you are.

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