What content strategy and technology will leading brands use in 2024?

The state of digital content 2024


Brand activation: How to light the match to ignite your brand

by Casey Schmidt  |  January 5, 2021

8 min. read
A megaphone speaking to people.

Imagine decorating a building with strings of electric lights. The ‘wow’ moment comes at the end, when you plug them in, bringing all the colors to life.

A building with LED lights on the side of it.

Brand activation is like plugging your brand’s lights in and letting customers see the beautiful colors.

Follow this guide to see the different ways you can get creative with your brand activation.

What is brand activation?

Brand activation is a unique way to alert customers and potential customers to a brand through creative communication and experiences. Brand activation campaigns are meant to inspire customers to take action, spreading the word about a brand. Brand activation creates meaningful brand interactions for target markets.

Brand activation is a confluence of many different branding efforts, such as building awareness, brand image, communication and more. It’s typically a one-time event that gives meaning and purpose to a brand while connecting with customers.

Why brand activation matters

Most brands rank customer outreach, brand awareness and brand image at the top of their marketing priorities. Because brand activation is valuable because it touches on and builds all three. However, brand activation is its own category with specific benefits.

Think of brand activation as a way to jumpstart your brand, giving it a new perspective in the eyes of your target market. This can lead to developing a deeper, emotional connection with your customers, even if the method of activation seems minor.

Customers shopping outdoors.

On top of encouraging lifetime relationships with customers, brand activation also increases the chances of bringing new customers to your brand.

Now that you’re aware of how important brand activation is, let’s look at some different types of brand activation campaigns.

Different variations to consider

The following are unique ways to successfully go about brand activation.

Live events

It’s tough to beat a live event when it comes to brand activation. There’s plenty of truth to the fact that a live experience is more memorable. Most live events are planned, but they can be spontaneous as well.

A live event with a lot of confetti.

For example, it might be beneficial to head to a trade show to show off your brand and introduce it to new customers. However, it might be just as interesting to try a less defined live setting, one that isn’t about brands, like a day in the public park.

The downside of live events is they’re limited in their outreach most of the time, and taking photos or videos of the event for social media doesn’t spread the word as well as you think.

Creative free sample handouts

For a lot of brands, the free sample is one of the easiest ways to promote a brand. This method is mostly associated with food, but free trials and other common marketing practices also fall into this category.

A sign that reads 'free samples'.

The key to making a free sample campaign work for your brand activation: you’ll need to go beyond the sample without being overbearing. Handing out a sample with no further efforts won’t get you far. Conversely, handing out free samples with too much effort will have negative consequences as well. Brands that do it right generally understand the balance required to not seem too desperate to make a sale.


Partnering up with another brand or popular figure is a unique and creative type of brand activation. Associating yourself with a brand people trust is a shortcut to getting them to trust your brand too.

For example, there was a recent chess tournament which included the world champion among other top players. The event was hosted by Airthings, a brand I hadn’t heard of until this event. They leveraged this chess tournament as a way to promote themselves indirectly, since people who would have never heard of the brand now feel connected to it since they hosted the tournament that interested them.

Trend-based campaigns

Following trends and using them to create a brand activation campaign is highly effective when done right. For example, if environmentally-friendly products are all the rage, you could promote your products’ contributions to sustainability efforts.

A person writing a to-do list.

The potential downside to a trend-based campaign is when it flops, it flops hard. Audiences will quickly sniff out a ruse. If you’re not genuine about the trend, they won’t be interested in learning more about your brand.

Tips to make your campaign a success

Now that we’ve discussed different types of brand activation campaigns, let’s consider what you need to keep in mind to make your campaigns a success.

Be unpredictable

If your audience is able to predict what you’re going to do at an event or in a campaign, they won’t be all that impressed when you do it. If they’re expecting a free sample, make it a free sample with some cool experience attached. If they’re expecting a speech promoting your brand, make it a show promoting an ideal.

A strange house in the city.

Too many brands rely on the same old methods to activate their brand, which doesn’t inspire customers. Think of brand activation as a success if and only if it does more than spread awareness about your brand. It should be a comprehensive success, creating numerous new possibilities.

Find ways to talk to (and listen to) your customers

One of the most underlooked aspects of brand activation is the power it has to inspire communication between brands and their customers. However, communication can come back to bite brands if not done right.

The key is to make the campaign a chance to hear your customers. The more that an event gives customers a chance to give meaningful thoughts and feedback on a certain issue, the higher they will regard a brand. Remember that this event is for them, not you.

Inexpensive; not cheap

Lastly, it’s important to aim your brand activation campaigns to be for everyone. When an event is free or requires little to enter or partake, it has a chance to pull more people in.

Don’t confuse inexpensive with cheap, though. A brand activation won’t be satisfying if it’s full of corner-cutting and low quality. Put forth the effort to get people truly excited.

Examples to help guide you

These brand activation campaigns combined great ideas and solid execution to successfully engage customers.

Nature Valley’s Be Great Out There

Nature Valley's live events.

What began as an effort to offer samples to audiences in a creative way, turned into an effective, lengthy campaign for Nature Valley.

What they did: The ‘be great out there’ campaign began as a simple way to give out free samples of Nature Valley’s granola bars in an outdoor setting. The twist was that the audiences were able to design the packaging and take photos for social media with their designed food.

One way to activate a brand, as I discussed above, is to get free samples or a free trial to your customers. Taking advantage of this idea, Nature Valley found out that they could have their cake and eat it too, as they were then able to leverage their sampling success into an ongoing marketing campaign.

This creative way to give free samples was a game changer for Nature Valley, because they did it in a way that removed the sales aspect from it and focused more on the customer and their outdoor lifestyle.

How we can apply this to our brand activation attempts: This sets a good example of how to make a campaign laidback and fun while promoting core values, spreading the word of your brand and getting customers involved, all while giving them free samples. You don’t have to copy this blueprint exactly, but there are a lot of helpful things here to use for your own campaigns.

Blair Witch Project (Film)

The Blair Witch Project website.

This doesn’t fall under the typical category of brand activation, but it’s highly relevant and can lead the way to all types of new ideas.

What they did: In an attempt to promote an upcoming film, the makers of the ‘Blair Witch Project’ took an all-out marketing blitz approach, creating flyers, internet rumors and other fake lore to create a unique realness aura of their fake-documentary film. The result was evident in the ticket sales, as the film sold approximately $250 million worth worldwide, a number they surely wouldn’t have reached without their pre-release marketing efforts.

How we can apply this to our brand activation attempts: A new brand can make just as big a splash as an established one. Brand activation is the key to make it happen. Just be sure to put in the effort and think creatively.

Wendy’s Carter

A screenshot of a Twitter post to the Wendy's brand.

Wendy’s is one of many brands who took to social media as a way to further connect with their customer base in a unique way.

What they did: When one of their fans, a boy named Carter, asked for free food for a year, Wendy’s set a goal, which Carter eventually reached. They made good on their deal, and the publicity of the event carried to other platforms.

How we can apply this to our brand activation attempts: Don’t restrict yourself to traditions. Take a chance on giveaways or new personas. There is often a new market waiting to be explored, and your brand could be the first in the door.

Closing thoughts

No matter what steps you’ve taken in the branding process, there’s a likely chance you need an extra little push. Your audience might be broader than you think. Create a brand activation campaign that pulls them in and let’s them connect in a meaningful way.

Make sure whatever you choose illuminates your brand and gives everyone a chance to see it clearly.

For more branding information, check out my comprehensive branding guide.