Franchises are turning to pop-up experiences to drum up fervor and FOMO

“We’re pulling from that idea that people love going to theme parks,” said one creative agency exec who has worked on experiences for Westworld and Game of Thrones.
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Kelsey Sutton

· 5 min read

Ahead of the season two finale of Only Murders in the Building, fans of the hit Hulu comedy were able to visit the Arconia for real.

At The Prince George Ballroom in Manhattan, the fictionalized Upper West Side high-rise in which much of Only Murders takes place came to life for a Friday and Saturday in August, complete with model kitchens and living rooms, along with the faux art gallery and a replica of the classic diner that serve as other central locations in the show. Visitors could climb through secret passageways, push through hidden doors, uncover clues, and guess who murdered Bunny Folger ahead of the season’s explosive conclusion.

For fans of TV around the world, these kinds of experiences have fast become the new marketing table stakes. In-person events are a proven way to cement franchises into the cultural conversation while strengthening show fandoms.

“You’re extrapolating the content and the IP—which purely to that point has only lived on screen—and making it real to allow audiences and consumers to get closer to it,” said Alex Wilson, executive creative director of the brand experience agency Amplify, which has worked with entertainment giants including Apple TV+, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. “To see it realized in a physical space, there’s a massive appeal for that.”

You had to be there

If you’ve ever been to Disney World or Universal Studios, you know in-person experiences based on entertainment properties are big business. And experiences are especially popular among younger audiences: more than three-quarters of millennials prefer spending money on experiences and events over buying material things, according to a Harris Poll survey commissioned by the ticketing and event management company Eventbrite.

Some agency executives working on experiential events and pop-ups said they aim to capture the same kind of amusement-park magic on a smaller scale.

“We’re pulling from that idea that people love going to theme parks,” said Marc Simons, the co-founder of Giant Spoon, a full-service creative agency well known for the experiences it has built for HBO titles including Westworld and Game of Thrones.

Like theme parks, entertainment properties that already have built–in fan bases are well-suited for in-person installations, Simons said. But unlike theme parks, pop-up installations—which can sometimes take months to build—are relatively short-lived, often only accessible during events like Comic Con or South By Southwest, or over the span of a weekend.

That means brands are tasked with getting people excited fast, which they can try to do through press coverage and by designing pop-ups that are photogenic and easily shared.

“If you can do it well enough, you can generate press and buzz and excitement and a little bit of FOMO from the thing that you did,” Simons said.

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That FOMO—and the user-generated social content that often ripples out from it—can be a way for entertainment brands to cut through all of the other entertainment properties jostling for audience attention.

“It’s not just about that PR shot, it’s not just about [streamers like] Netflix talking about it on their own channels,” Wilson said. “They want their advocates and their evangelists, the fans of those shows, to go experience it and then share it with their audiences and their fans.”

That potential social impact serves as one way to measure the effectiveness of experiential marketing, which can otherwise be tricky to do. While agencies estimate ROI using metrics like social chatter and press mentions, Simons acknowledged that it’s difficult to measure the full impact of experiences.

“We’re creating this memory that is taking root,” Simons explained. “Quantifying the value of that memory is a difficult thing, but there’s something to it.”

Living in the moment

As the streaming wars have intensified, there has been a “groundswell” of in-person experiences to accompany series and platform marketing efforts, Wilson said. That groundswell is likely to continue as competition continues to grow in the space, and as the overall experience economy continues to grow, Simons predicted. Among all marketers, more than 80% said they expected to spend the same—or more—on experiential marketing this year, according to HubSpot.

To see a recent example of how in-person experiences can pay off, look no further than House of the Dragon, which premiered this month with a record 10 million viewers. To help promote the series, HBO and Giant Spoon created Dragon’s Den,an expansive replica of King’s Landing, Dragonstone, and the Red Keep at San Diego Comic Con. It was a “home run,” Pia Barlow, HBO and HBO Max’s EVP of originals marketing, told Marketing Brew: more than 4,000 people walked through the activation, and some fans lined up the night before to ensure they could experience it.

Activations like the Dragon’s Den build-out are a “no-brainer” for tentpole series, Barlow said. And while in-person activations can act as “true fan service” by delivering fans their favorite nuggets from a series, build-outs can also help introduce first-time viewers to the series in an engaging way.

That balance is a crucial one, Wilson said.

“You don’t want to make anything that is impenetrable for people who aren’t fans already,” he said. “You want to make sure that everyone can have fun with it.”

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