Last weekend, I stood in the center of Memorial Park for Labor Day Liftoff, surrounded by a milling crowd. My first stop is the Pikes Perk coffee tent. It’s only 6 am, and the September morning feels brisk on my bare legs. I get a drip coffee with two creams, and pick my way across the field to the top of a nearby hill. A prime viewing location.
Hot air balloons lay limp on the ground until the pilots receive permission to inflate. Suddenly, the balloons begin to fill. As their bulbous shapes slowly rise, I am aware of the excited buzz of the crowd and the warm coffee cup in my hands.
After almost being squished between an inflating Tweety Bird and Sylvester, I station myself in front of the Remax balloon, taking another sip of coffee. Each time a balloon takes off, it reveals a dozen more slowly inflating behind it. Each take-off is heralded with claps and cheers from the crowd. I am enchanted by the bold designs and delightful impracticality of balloon flight.
How many brands did I just mention in my description of the balloon festival? Three, in as many paragraphs–Remax, Pikes Perk, and Warner Brothers’ Animation. And I could list more—the La Casita food truck where I bought a breakfast burrito, and the Xfinity balloon leading the second wave of launches, for example.
I am writing this over a week after the event, yet I can recall 10+ distinct brands between the vendor tents and those featured on the balloons themselves. Why?
Balloon Fest 2021 essentially provided a branded experience to consumers. According to Matt Johnson Ph.D and Prince Ghuman, in their book Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes our Brains, “Marketing that adeptly ties together multiple boosters to ensure a memory is well associated with a brand is experiential marketing” (55).
Johnson and Ghuman identify 4 boosters that help our brains create memories–attention, friction, emotion, and music. Usually in experiential marketing, brands have to build these boosters into the experience, but community events already have several memory boosters built in that businesses can leverage with minimal effort.
Attention is a key aspect to forming memories, and our attention is usually attracted by change or contrast (Blindsight, page 44). Events like Balloon Fest are already a change from our ordinary routine, and we come to the event intending to observe and enjoy. We are primed to pay attention.
Nearly every part of the balloon fest experience is designed to create visual contrast from the bright colors and patterns of the balloons to the colorful vendor tents.
Friction occurs when information requires a bit of extra mental effort to process. Our brains remember information better when they are forced to think more deeply about it (Blindsight, page 45).
Raising Cane’s had a prize wheel at their balloon fest tent, which guests could spin for free merchandise. While the spinning wheel certainly had participants’ attention as they watched to see which prize they would win, a slightly more challenging activity would create a deeper impact on potential customers.
The brain prioritizes emotional experiences, according to Johnson and Ghuman (Blindsight, page 46), and most community events have built-in emotional appeal.
Balloon Fest usually inspires joy and delight, especially when shared with loved ones. (Or perhaps disappointment if the balloons are unable to launch.)
Music stimulates multiple regions of the brain, allowing us to create stronger memories, so anytime music is present at an event, those songs become linked to other aspects of the experience, including your brand (Blindsight, page 47).
How Pikes Perk Leveraged These Boosters
As a small business, you may not have the time or resources to plan an experiential marketing campaign, but participating in community events offers a low-cost way for you to raise awareness of your brand and create strong impressions in the minds of potential customers.
The Pikes Perk tent at Balloon Fest 2021 couldn’t have been more simple—a neutral colored canopy with their logo and folding tables with drip coffee. They brought minimal equipment and simply relied on the memory boosters already present at the event.
Just by being there, they had my attention. It was early and cold, so coffee was the natural first stop. I also now have positive emotions associated with the brand—the delight of watching hot air balloons with my husband, while sipping a warm cup of Pikes Perk coffee.
Friction and music weren’t present as boosters, but adding friction could be as simple as asking a customer to take a picture of a specific balloon for a discount, or complete a simple activity for a free cup of coffee.
As for music, the balloon fest featured a concert series, I just wasn’t there at the right time.
Balloon Fest is a large-scale event that requires a bit of planning and preparation to participate in. Smaller neighborhood events can also be great for building awareness and brand loyalty, however.
The restaurant that I serve at, Stellina Pizza Cafe, has built a strong connection to the Middle Shooks Run Neighborhood Association. We display flyers and signs for their events in return for free publicity at the events themselves.
Stellina had a gelato tent set up at the Shooks Run Showcase, which featured live music, a food truck, and local artists, and we are looking forward to participating in the upcoming Neighborhood Arts and Crafts Crawl on Saturday, Oct. 9.
Comment below with community events that your business has participated in, or events that could be good candidates for this type of experiential marketing.