In the name of the experience age, brands are shelling out on pop-ups that don’t sell anything.
Through Sunday, Coach’s “Life Coach” pop-up in New York’s Soho neighborhood will draw people in, either those who walked by and felt curious, or those who made a reservation online after seeing promotions on billboards and at other events like Governors Ball. What the Life Coach pop-up entailed was shrouded in mystery in its promotions, on purpose. Elusivity is part of the recipe that The Projects follows with every fashion brand it consults with an experimental pop-up experience.
Brand consultancy The Projects has worked with Barneys, Calvin Klein, Moët Hennessy and now Coach on limited-time activations, pop-up stores and events that put technology, social media and intangible brand experience ahead of shopping.
“The Coach brand hadn’t done much in terms of activations outside of their own stores and off the runway,” said The Projects founder Jack Bedwani. “They wanted a new way to interact with people interested in the brand and to leave an impression on anyone not familiar with it. The most important part is that it wasn’t about selling anything, but if you look around, Coach is represented everywhere.”
Life Coach includes three different rooms: one modeled after a New York City subway car that guests could graffiti, one modeled after Coney Island with games and one with tarot card readers offering free readings. During the duration of the pop-up, there will be featured performances from a lineup of musicians and other attractions, like astrologers. The Coach logo is used in patterns and in lighting fixtures, while other signature branding — like Rexy the Dinosaur and the year 1941 — is also featured throughout.
Coach, which is going through an internal restructuring and turnaround strategy that includes higher-quality products and more limited distribution, is hoping it can pique interest through Life Coach with the Instagram demographic. While the pop-up store is a tried and true model for new brands to test out physical retail, the format has become home to temporary event spaces and social media fodder for established brands that have stores but have heard repeatedly that customers today want experiences, not hard sells.
Over the past year, The Projects helped Barneys orchestrate its “Drop” events in New York and L.A., which invited streetwear industry leaders to stores on each coast for performances and panels (as well as shopping limited-edition collections). It also designed the Calvin Klein x Amazon pop-up, which focused the selling component on Alexa interactions. For companies that have the funds to back ephemeral projects that last only through an Instagram feed, the model is proliferating across industries. Beauty brands like The Nue Co. are hosting pop-ups to promote events and classes, not product, while media companies like Byrdie and Refinery29 are pulling audiences into real-life settings with the promise of a social media moment, snacks and drinks. Even young direct-to-consumer brands, which need store investments to be profitable selling spaces, are making more out of their spaces: Modern Citizen, for instance, sells tickets to things like meditation classes and wellness panels in its apparel store in San Francisco.
“As brands shift their marketing budgets from media to stores, they need to create a retail experience that’s both memorable and emotional,” said Elizabeth Layne, the chief marketing officer of Appear Here, a company that facilitates pop-ups for brands like Nike and Marc Jacobs.
Of course, when considerable marketing budgets are being spent on a six-day spree, there has to be something to act on at the end of it. Bedwani said he worked with Coach’s global marketing team to plot out success indicators that didn’t involve sales. He said 8,000 people are scheduled through the Life Coach RSVP page to visit over the course of the pop-up, and there’s a follow-up plan in place using data culled from the sign-ups as well as registration at the door for walk-ins. In the weeks following the event, the Coach marketing and creative teams will reach out to visitors. The hashtag, #LifeCoachNY, will be monitored as well.
Bedwani said that the partnership with Coach is ongoing, and there are plans in the works to bring the concept to new cities.
“Fashion brands today are realizing they need to be more multidimensional and they have to engage customers in a way that’s not about the sale but about inviting them into a world,” said Bedwani. “That’s how you create connections today.”