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The Biggest Activations of 2023 and What We Can Learn from Them 

by | February 28, 2024

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If there’s one question I get more than any other, it might be, “what makes a good sponsorship activation?”

If your activation provides something your audience needs while fulfilling a sponsor’s need concurrently, then congrats, you’ve got yourself a winning activation. 

Many sponsorship seekers are surprised to hear me say that, because it’s more about what an activation does than what it is or looks like. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on it, just that it achieves those two objectives.

Ideating activations can sometimes feel like searching through a room in the dark, looking for a key. That’s why I thought it’d be fun to review some of 2023’s hottest and most talked-about sponsorship activations.

Along the way, I’ll explain why these activations worked and what you can learn from them. 

Top Sponsorship Activations of 2023 – Insights and Lessons

Since the needs of your audience and sponsor can vary so drastically, an activation is never a one-size-fits-all approach. An activation that succeeds for one company or organization can fail for another. 

I’m not sharing these examples so you can directly emulate them. Instead, they’re for inspiration and to help you see why some activations connect as effectively as they do.

About-Face Pop-Up Beauty Shop at Lollapalooza 

Lollapalooza is one of the biggest music festivals in the world. While you may think that only larger-than-life activations will do here, that’s not always the case. 

Halsey, a musician, has a makeup brand called About-Face, which appeared at Lollapalooza. About-Face had a pop-up beauty shop set up at the entrance, where it was selling its About-Face Festival Kit. 

The makeup in the kit included smudge-free matte products that can handle the heat of Chicago in August. As part of the activation, the shop had mirrors customers could use to apply the products they just bought.

To further incentivize customers to continue buying, the mirror had a text code you could use to save 25 percent off your next About-Face purchase. 

Why It Works

There are a lot of reasons this activation was so successful. For one, About-Face understands its audience’s needs well. People who attend Lollapalooza want to look good. It’s about showing off while enjoying your favorite bands. 

Its makeup achieved that objective and also catered to the hot temperatures. Imagine if they sold lipstick or foundation that melted off in the heat. That would be disastrous. 

The addition of a mirror area where users could apply the makeup before checking out their favorite artists was another genius idea. If any other festival goers ask about the look, they could mention they’re wearing About-Face makeup and that you can buy it at the entrance. 

The text code on the mirror is the icing on the cake. As if using the makeup and realizing its quality and staying power wasn’t enough to drive another sale, About-Face dangled the 20-percent-off carrot.

L’Oreal at Essence Fest

Essence Fest is a music festival established in 1995 named after a magazine celebrating African-American women’s culture.  Well-known cosmetics brand L’Oreal appeared at the event for the first time, and it decided to go big or go home (and it didn’t go home).

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L’Oreal had oversized gold cassettes and a gilded boombox. The relationship between the activation and L’Oreal was that the cassettes name-dropped the brand’s products. 

Attendees could wait in a line to see The Beauty Mixtape and live demonstrations of L’Oreal’s products. The Beauty Mixtape also featured other beauty brands, like Garnier, Dark & Lovely, Carol’s Daughter, and Maybelline.

Why It Works

Sometimes, big and visually appealing is all you need. L’Oreal is a major brand with plenty of money to spend on sponsorship activations. If you’re contemplating doing the same, you need the bank to back up your aspirations.

More so than just succeeding because it was big, the L’Oreal golden boombox and cassette was a great way to promote other beauty brands at Essence Fest while still advertising its own products. 

The live demos were also smart, as who doesn’t want to see how these products work before trying them for themselves?

American Express Exclusive Lounge at Austin City Limits

The 2023 edition of Austin City Limits also had more than its fair share of activations, but one that caught my eye was the American Express Centurion Lounge.

The lounge was perfectly positioned aside the ACL main stage, the most coveted area of the entire festival. Rather than get there at the crack of dawn or fight through the crowd for a decent spot in the main standing position, the American Express lounge offered festival goers a way to see the acts without all the chaos.

To add to the exclusivity of this VIP activation, only those with Centurion or Platinum Cards could access the Centurion Lounge. It had its own entrance that required festival goers to display their card to be granted access.

Besides the A+ view, the Centurion Lounge also offered VIP festivalgoers access to the side of the stage, free food, and a bar.

Why It Works

VIP sponsorship experiences are universally acclaimed because who doesn’t want to feel like a superstar? Any activation at a busy festival that will give people a break from the crowd should be a success, as American Express proves.

Rather than require attendees to buy something extra for access to the Centurion Lounge, all festival goers had to do was carry their American Express card and show it.

The only thing that would have made this activation even better was giving people the option to sign up for a card on the spot.

Vodafone 5G at Wimbledon 

The visually impaired deserve to enjoy a tennis match as much as anyone. That’s why Vodafone created an activation at Wimbledon just for those attendees. The tech brand made a headset that uses 5G to stream the game live via TV cameras.

The GiveVision headsets, as they’re known, did more than project a TV feed. The footage was designed to activate the eye’s photoreceptor cells to improve sight when wearing the headsets.

Why It Works

This activation proves that you don’t need to target a large audience to achieve an awesome activation. The GiveVision headsets changed the experience for the visually-impaired attendees, allowing them to watch the game like anyone else. 

The technology was simply astonishing, and with an opportunity to showcase Vodafone’s 5G, attendees who used the headsets might keep Vodafone in mind next time they upgrade their internet. 

Neutrogena at Coachella

Coachella is an enormous festival for big brand appearances, which is why it may be surprising that Neutrogena has never appeared there before. Its first year was one for the ages, as in 2023, Coachella added sunscreen dispensers across the festival grounds. 

Overall, the dispensers held over 1,700 fluid ounces of sunscreen. Although the festival happens in the spring, it’s in California, so sunscreen is a must. 

Besides that activation, Neutrogena also worked with Jack Morton Worldwide to showcase Neutrogena’s latest scientific innovations.

Why It Works

Although Neutrogena’s activation looked over-the-top, when you boil it down simply, this activation works because it provides a basic need festival goers have: to protect their skin.

Outdoor festivals like Coachella are several days of spending all day outside, morning through night. You might forget your sunscreen in the rush to get out the door for the day, and going back to your hotel is way too inconvenient once you arrive at the festival grounds.

Another scenario that can happen is bringing sunscreen but running out because you used it all day or let some friends do so. Either way, the Neutrogena activation kept dreaded sunburn away at no extra charge to festival goers.

Adobe Art Garden at Lollapalooza

Another epic activation at Lollapalooza 2023 came from Adobe, the makers of tools like Express and Photoshop. 

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The Adobe Art Garden showcased Chicago artists’ 3D sculptures. Festival goers could scan QR codes for more information on the artist and the piece. Better yet, Adobe offered Adobe Express templates for posting tailored social media content. 

Why It Works 

Adobe is a massive brand, and it somehow managed to shift the focus to others while still bringing it back around on itself while not seeming self-centered about it. 

Showcasing local Chicago artwork is way cool. Lollapalooza is a major stage for attracting crowds, so these artists surely had new sets of eyes on them in mass numbers that they might not have gotten otherwise. 

Not only that, but Adobe gave festival goers the chance to be artists themselves with its creative Adobe Express templates so they’d have a social media edge. This is the part of the activation that’s more audience-centric, and it shows!

Beats, Cleats & Eats for MLS

I’ve talked briefly about the Beats, Cleats & Eats activation elsewhere on the blog, so it should come as no surprise to see it again on this list. MLS All-Star Week occurred in Washington, D.C. on a pier in summer 2023. Coca-Cola was the main brand behind the activation, in conjunction several others.

The Beats, Cleats & Eats activation featured a tent sponsored by Goldfish and Snyder’s, an interactive soccer game sponsored by DoorDash, and more. Even Acura and Smartwater had spots. 

With so many touch points, is it surprising how successful this activation was? Coca-Cola and company handed out 4,500 samples. 

Why It Works

I still think this activation would have done great if it was only sponsored by Coke, but the multiple brands all participating in one activation is certainly unique. The variety of activities and entertainment, not to mention samples, gave attendees an enriching experience no matter which touchpoint they gravitated toward most. 

The activation’s ideal waterfront placement also certainly inspired its foot traffic. The Beats, Cleats & Eats stage was surrounded by sea, an idyllic placement. 

Pinterest Manifestival at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity

The 2023 edition of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity had a lot of giant participating brands, from Reddit to Facebook, Spotify, and Netflix. Yet it was Pinterest’s activation that stuck in my mind and those of a lot of other attendees.

Called the Pinterest Manifestival, Pinterest and agency Amplify worked together to bring the Carlton Beach Club one of its most fascinating activations. The entrance gate was all colors, with the name of the activation spelled out in a rainbow of hues and faux palms in bright pinks and yellows.

Pinterest previewed products trending on its platform to inspire those to do what they love. The activation also featured private meeting rooms. Taking a page out of Coca-Cola’s book, the meeting rooms had gorgeous views of the water, as they were positioned on an old pier. 

The Pinterest Manifestval also had the Future You Studio with tattoos (real ones, mind you), tooth gems, piercings, and hairstyling. Besides all that fun stuff, attendees could also create their own accessories and jewelry, customizing merch. 

Why It Works

The Pinterest Manifestival is effective for a lot of reasons. Its colors lured guests in to a multifaceted activation experience, complete with meeting spaces, a beauty studio, and custom merchandise.

It checks a lot of boxes, presenting different attendees with what they need. Those who attended the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for networking and business opportunities had the meeting space for a conference.

Those who wanted to flex their creative muscle could make jewelry and accessories or get their hair done or their teeth bedazzled. There was a little something for everyone. 

Wrapping Up

Activations continued to grow throughout 2023, with larger-than-life displays from the likes of L’Oreal and Coca-Cola showcasing what money can buy. 

However, even smaller brands proved that you don’t need the largest or flashiest activation in the room to garner media attention and critical acclaim. For example, the About-Face pop-up shop at Lollapalooza was an clever activation for myriad reasons, and it wasn’t over-the-top or by a household name. 

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Remember, the goal of sponsorship activation isn’t to see who can outspend their competitors or create the largest display. Your efforts won’t matter unless you find a way to solve an audience’s need and a sponsor’s need. 

If you have the budget and can add flash and panache to your activation once you’ve gotten those needs fulfilled, by all means, go for it! However, your activation must have substance above all else, less flash.