Wearing a lacy pink bra and panties, a young woman gyrates slowly around a silver pole. Dozens of spectators gaze and gape in awe and undisguised pleasure as the dim red light illuminates the dancer's every curve. Welcome to the Buck Naked bar.
But this isn't a titillating scene at a strip club. Instead, the spectators are gathered in front of a Union Square shop window in New York. And they're viewing a live billboard.
A live billboard? Designed by Nasir Rasheed and Alex Calderwood, founders of the Seattle-based creative marketing shop Neverstop to promote the Sci Fi Channel's launch of the miniseries 5ive Days to Midnight, the performance art piece-meets-promotion recreates the mystery surrounding fictional college professor J.T. Neumeyer's death. The campaign, which ran for a week on Union Square last month, opened with a scene in a strip club and included the reenactment of Neumeyer's murder. Neumeyer had received a police report from the future containing graphic details of his own death, and the gathered crowd collected clues to help solve the murder as the mystery unraveled before their eyes.
If audience reaction was any indication, the new-school tableaux vivante made quite an impression on passers-by. Some took pictures of the window display with their camera phones. Others muttered phrases such as, "What is this?" And a few even wore expressions of disgust.
Does that spell success? As the attention economy becomes more competitive, marketers are pulling out all the stops to capture consumers. Experiential marketing embraces event- and location-based marketing efforts that bring potential customers together face-to-face with products and services to create a connection — and a longer-lasting impression. North American companies will spend an estimated $5 billion of their $11.1 billion events budget on experiential marketing in 2004. And the amount earmarked for experiential marketing is expected to grow as much as 25 percent a year, according to Jim Andrews, editorial director of Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report, a marketing industry newsletter.
With such a high growth rate, Neverstop is expanding its client base, which includes companies such as Nike, Washington Mutual Bank, and Song Airlines — as well as its range of service offerings. For the past two weeks, Rasheed and Calderwood have traveled around the world to cities such as Amsterdam, Dubai, and Tokyo making presentations and showing executives their events talent. The result: Neverstop may ink a deal to work their creative magic for two major cable television networks. The company also has projects to complete for DKNY, Mexx, and Liz Claiborne.
"We try to create a deeper memory or connection with a person about a brand or idea," said Calderwood, a former concert and club party promoter. Rasheed, a biochemist turned DJ, added that the billboards work because they're unexpected. "That makes it more compelling," he says. "They grab and stick with you."
Andrew Schulman, Sci Fi's director of trade marketing and national promotions, said the billboard helped bring people into the miniseries' storyline — and to think of Sci Fi as more than just a science fiction cable station. "Was it a success?" he asks. "Yes. I had consumers' active attention whether they knew it or not."
IEG's Andrews cautions that measuring the effectiveness of experiential marketing can be tough because a live billboard doesn't necessarily — or clearly — filter to the bottom line. Regardless, the sexy window dancers helped the miniseries' Web site, 5daystomidnight.com, receive a whopping 300,000 hits. Previously, the site was bringing in about 125,000. "It was a big risk for the network," Schulman said.
But it's a risk Neverstop is learning how to mitigate. Last December, Calderwood and Rasheed designed a promotion for the launch of Song Airlines in New York's Soho district that embodied the spirit and warmth of the brand as well as an opportunity to learn about Song. The result: A space that melded the vibe of a cocktail lounge with the insides of an airplane cabin. In six weeks, more than 60,000 New Yorkers visited the space, Calderwood said.
Last year, Washington Mutual tapped Neverstop to further familiarize Chicago residents with the fee-free bank. The best way to get to Chicagoans' hearts is through their stomachs, Rasheed and Calderwood decided. And that means pizza. The bank partnered with local favorite Lou Malnati pizza and enlisted Washington Mutual Bank employees to deliver pizzas around town.
And Nike engaged Neverstop to help create buzz around its new Presto line of athletic shoes. "There's pressure to find new ways to connect," says Mike Byrne, a Nike creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. "We totally look for new ways to talk to people."
A version of this article appeared in the August 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.