Activation: time to re-activate its purpose

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In an article, Wasting Time‘, on India’s demographic challenges and the need to create better jobs, The Economist said this about the supply of security personnel from Bihar: ‘it is not supplying labour for a manufacturing boom of the kind that helped so many in China, South Korea and Taiwan out of poverty, or for the IT services at which India has excelled. Instead it offers relatively unproductive service-sector jobs—in particular, security guards. It has become de rigueur for every ATM, office, shop and apartment building to have guards. Across India millions of young men now sit all day on plastic seats in badly fitting uniforms with braids and epaulettes, unshaven and catatonically bored as the economic miracle passes by‘.

I was reminded of this in the context of an ‘activation’ programme I saw, for the ‘Google Online Shopping Festival‘ at a swanky mall in Bangalore. There were 3 youngsters standing like mannequins on a temporary ‘stage’ gazing into the distance. They were holding what looked like 7-inch tablets in their hands and the screen had a date (presumably the dates of GOSF) displayed. Not surprisingly, curious passers by gave them a look, probably wondered what GOSF was and moved on. Now here is an _online_ shopping festival doing something like this in a non-interactive way in the offline world. I am not sure if there were other activities planned but in my mind, this was similar to the ‘relatively unproductive sector jobs’, The Economist was referring to.


Across virtually every mall in India, such activations are executed, especially on weekends. I remember seeing such activities for diverse categories – premium cars, SUVs, laptops, time share holidays to name a few. The common sight across such activations: an MC trying to work up the crowd, a handful of enthusiastic participants and a large crowd of onlookers (peering down from the top floors). They get to participate in fun games, get to know more about the product and may result in quality leads and eventually sales for the brand. But I have always walked past such activations wondering, ‘are these guys really the potential buyers of this brand?’. To me, at a glance, there invariably seemed to be a mismatch between those interacting in such events and the target audience perception I had in mind. Sure, a well-conducted activation has the entire mall buzzing and there is a lot of positive energy. But is that the real objective of the activation? To me, it seems like the equivalent of an objective often touted in mass media campaigns: ‘creating awareness’. What good is awareness (especially of a well-known brand) when it does not trigger a quality lead or better still, sale?

Needless to say, a clear realistic, quantifiable objective is a must for such activations. Sometimes the activation programme could nebulous as ‘creating a brand experience’ – think of an entertainment resort or a computer processor showcasing its multi-media capabilities at a mall. But the objective can still be quantified in terms of ‘number of quality leads’. The programme can then be engineered to deliver the brand experience and garner the leads. The activation works best if it results in an immediate action at the venue. If the programme is designed to simply ‘show a good time’ for the participants in the hope that they will get back home, remember the brand and take action it is a bit far fetched. In that context, check out what fifty-fifty, a non-profit organisation did.

Activations (even local ones in a mall) are sometimes designed to go viral in the online world. Or rather created (and shot on video appropriately) in the hope that it will go viral in the online world. The operating principles there are totally different. The activation idea must be spontaneous (or at least look spontaneous), not look like an ad or an in-your-face commercially sponsored message and have a surprising twist or twists. It must evoke a jaw-dropping reaction or at least a smile or a laugh. The video must be slickly produced and make for great entertainment. Only then is it deemed share-worthy by consumers.

Unfortunately, the GOSF ‘activation’ was none of these. I am still baffled at the need and objective of such an effort. Since the overall theme of GOSF is to convey that ‘there is something for everyone – from a mother to the geek, maybe even a ramp walking fashion show showcasing the products they could buy would have driven home the point. But not three youngsters standing like statues. What say?

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