Brand Sponsored Experiences: Powermouth by Refinery29 and Nars [Review]

Brand sponsored experiences with strong social media elements are a very exciting area of marketing that are developing at rapid pace.  I was excited to attend Power Mouth in London last month, an event created through a collaboration between Refinery29 and the cosmetic brand Nars. The event was interesting in so many ways for anyone that wants to learn more about how to use social first experiences for brand growth.

Firstly it’s very interesting that Nars choose to collaborate with Refinery29 in this way. Refinery29 are an online publisher that called themselves a modern woman’s destination for how to live a stylish, well-rounded life and include articles covering entertainment news, fashion tips and health. Refinery29 has over one billion pageviews per year and is among America’s fastest growing private companies. They have a strong social media presence; over one million followers on Twitter, approaching two million on across their various accounts on Instagram and over six million fans on Facebook. What sets them apart from a lot of other online publishers is their 29Rooms experience. I have to admit that when I first saw 29Rooms promoted on social I literally craved to go there. 29Rooms is Refinery29’s Funhouse Of Style, Culture, And Technology – basically everything I ever wanted in an event all wrapped up into one. 29Rooms took place in New York in September and opens in Los Angeles in December 2017. To get a sense of what some of the rooms hold take a look at 29Rooms on Instagram. Just looking at this now makes we want to run away and join the circus that is 29Rooms!

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Nars obviously see the reach that Refinery29 has with a young female audience and that the 29Rooms event is an extremely social first experience and no doubt hoped that by collaborating with Refinery29 they could get some reach on social into the Refinery29 audience and then strengthen that connection with the audience in person. The collaboration produced an event called Power Mouth, an exhibition which ran over two days (8-9 September 2017) at Protein Studios in trendy Shoreditch, London – lots of boxes being ticked there for Nars.

Power Mouth was promoted as a collaboration between Refinery29 and Nars and their founder and creative director, François Nars to celebrate the launch of Nars’ newest product: the Powermatte Lip Pigment. The female-only art exhibition featured works by artists Daantje Bons, Natalia Stuyk, Romily Alice, Shae DeTar and Vanessa Kisuule. I came across the event via an Instagram ad from Refinery29 and immediately signed up on the Eventbrite page hoping to get a slice of the 29Rooms experience. I follow Refinery29 on Instagram and they already have an established audience there that they were able to target on social to promote Power Mouth. Would I have been as interested if I had seen the same ad from Nars and not Refinery 29? Probably not so the strategy to use the collaboration to leverage the existing audience of Refinery29 was certainly a good one. The event was marketed by Refinery29 as being an Instagram dream so from the outset it was promoted as being a highly social event with lots of impactful, visual and  shareable content for attendees.

I attended the event with Amanda Webb of Amanda is a social media and blogging expert so it was interesting to get Amanda’s perspective as we experienced the event together. The exhibition was laid out over three rooms including an anteroom that had some signage explaining the exhibition and three artworks, two photographs and one sculpture – a rose nipple in a bell jar on a pedestal by artist Daantje Bons. This set the tone for the exhibition, it was to be very ‘feminine’ and very much about female empowerment. This is also as challenging as the work got. Still, a nipple is a nipple.

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From there we entered a room that had some other works, some female forms in neon by Romily Alice and a video featuring Vanessa Kisuule’s spoken word piece, A Personal Malleable Manifesto. Unlike the original in this one Vanessa’s lipstick wearing lips were a central focus. I think I would have engaged more with the authenticity of the original had it been used instead.

Surprisingly the main feature of the next room was a full Nars makeup studio, as if it had been lifted straight from a department store and dropped into the middle of the exhibition. We were approached and asked if we would like to get some lipstick applied and we both politely declined. I love my makeup as much as the next girl but we were there to have an experience, not try on lipstick.

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We took refuge in a small room within this larger space and to our delight this turned out to be a mirror box featuring work by Natalia Stuyk. This room of multi-colour video was a welcome surprise and felt like a small sampling of the 29Rooms experience. We stayed in here for quite a few minutes taking Instagram and Snapchat video.

Inside the magic room at #powermouth an immersive exhibition by @refinery29uk for @narsissist

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And that was it. Apart from a social photo stand where you could take your photo and have it sent to you on social or email, that was the full experience. I’ve since learned that there was also a ‘wall’ where attendees could write their own message but we missed that, thinking they were just coloured pieces of paper reflective of the various colours of the lipstick on offer.

I had really high hopes for Power Mouth. I was expecting more than two rooms and a lot more art and maybe a bit more of the 29Rooms experience. Given that a lot of the second room was taken up by product promotion I have to say it was a bit of a let down. I understand that selling product is the ultimate goal but I think this could have been achieved in a different way. Knowing that the experience was sponsored by Nars was enough to increase their brand awareness and consideration with me. I did not need to also be confronted with a request to try their product as part of the exhibition and I’m surprised that the artists allowed their work to stand beside such blatant product promotion in a gallery context. Amanda and I discussed what would have made us more likely to actually try the product during the event and we thought perhaps something that was a little more fun and irreverent like a glitter lip might have worked, who knows! I think it would have been fine to have been handed a sample of the product on the way out, perhaps with some print content about the artists and their work. In this context the art should come first and the product second.

On the flip side we did like the experience enough to share it on social, especially the part in the magic room aka mirror box and from looking at the content on the event hashtag lots of other people liked it too, so ultimately I think that this event was likely a successful one for Refinery29 and Nars though it could have been so much more.

Some key learnings from this event if you work with a brand that want to use an event like this to improve their reach and resonance:

  • Consider collaborating with an established publisher that has good reach and an established experiential framework like Refinery29 have with 29Rooms
  • As part of the collaboration include sponsored ads targeting the publisher’s followers
  • Don’t be tempted to oversell the brand or product at the event – yes there has to be an ROI for the collaboration but if you push too far it can make attendees resentful
  • Include micro experiences that are immersive and shareable like the mirror box at this event
  • Give maximum value. In this example that would have been more art, more content, just more to experience

For more examples on how brands create social first experiences take a look at my book.

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