Amex turns US Open into marketing opportunity

A view of the American Express Pro Walk at the American Express Fan Experience at the 2016 U.S. Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 30, 2016, in New York City
Source: Jason Kempin

Tennis isn't the only event at the U.S. Open, according to American Express.

This year, the financial services company — which has been a sponsor of the tennis tournament for 23 years — set up the American Express Pro Walk fan experience. The augmented reality installation lets fans see what it's like to walk out from the locker room onto the court, as well as be virtually greeted by tennis legends Pete Sampras and Monica Seles.

"In our 166-year history, the real throughline of the brand is at the core, it is about service," said Deborah Curtis, vice president of experiential marketing for Amex. "We see this as serving these great lifestyle moments that our card members care about and really bringing the brand to life in a service proposition, real-life way."

A view of the American Express Fan Experience at the 2016 U.S. Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 31, 2016, in New York City
Source: Jason Kempin

Instead of just traditional television, print and digital advertising, Amex has been increasingly throwing brand-sponsored events, known as experiential marketing. The promotions offer exclusive access, whether that's an air-conditioned make-your-own sunglasses exhibit at the Panorama music festival, an Uber ride and tickets to see Beyonce or having dinner on the 50-yard line at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Wash. Some events are available to the public, but special bonuses are reserved for card members.

"We feel experiential plays a critical role to bring the three dimensions of the brand to life," Curtis said.

More brands are tapping into experiential marketing to reach consumers. For brands that have a product that isn't directly tangible, it becomes a great way to explain what they can do for consumers. What's more, these events create social media–worthy photo and video opportunities, which create free, organic digital-media ads on behalf of the brand.

The EventTrack 2015 report on experiential marketing showed that 79 percent of brands surveyed said they were creating more events and experiences than the year prior. Around 58 percent said corporate was creating a separate budget to pay for these events, while 42 percent said experiential marketing costs were supplemented by taking away from other advertising initiatives.

The report also said the main two reasons companies used experiential marketing was to drive brand awareness and to increase sales. A little shy of two-thirds of brands said they had direct evidence that an event led to more purchases.

Refinery29 during Fashion Week
Source: Ryan Kobane |

Women's media company Refinery29, which raised $45 million from Turner in July, is hosting 29Rooms from today until Sept. 11. The Brooklyn pop-up New York Fashion Week art installation takes people through 29 experiences, from a silent disco with a responsive light display floor to a panda-themed play ball room.

Some rooms were presented in collaboration with a brand sponsor like Fossil, Ford, Papyrus, Perrier, Michael Kors and Ulta. Other areas were mini-branded experiences, including a GIF booth for TNT's "Good Behavior." The company did not disclose how much of Refinery29's revenue is made from event marketing, but said it was a "significant" portion.

"People are realizing more and more the power of interplay in the digital realm and taking that offline," said Philippe von Borries, co-founder and CEO of Refinery29. "What I loved this year about 29Rooms was how unbelievably collaborative and creative the partnership of the brands was. You don't get into any of the rooms and feel like anybody is hitting you over the head with a message."

Refinery29's event is also primed for Instagram-worthy photo and videos and fleeting Snapchat story posts. On each doorway, there's a Snapchat code that allows people to scan with the app to learn more about what they are about to experience.

"The event is really a canvas for self-expression," von Borries said. "It's something that is a critical value to Refinery 29, and a value that is built into every event."

Refinery29 during Fashion Week
Source: Nina Westervelt

The idea of turning every experience into a social media–worthy moment has also extended to the retail space. In July, Sonos opened up its flagship retail store in New York. Instead of just your regular storefront, the location is made up of soundproof pods, each one decorated like a living space. Potential customers get to experience Sonos' sound in the comfort of a "home," instead of just having to pick some speakers off a shelf. The store is decorated with artwork from Mark Stamaty, Thibaud Herem and Mark Chamberlain, as well as an eight-foot portrait of producer Rick Rubin.

In June, Turner-owned sports-media company Bleacher Report teamed up with streetwear brand Kith to create the Bleacher Report X Kith #BR99 pop-up shop in New York. The carefully curated store, which was only open for nine days, sold limited edition Bleacher Report X Kith clothing, and summer items like water bottles and towels. It also sold Kith's classic ice cream and cereal concoctions, and had special programming each night.

"I think Gen Z, while they obviously stay a lot in the digital realm, I think they crave experiences," said Bennett Spector, vice president of brand strategy at Bleacher Report. "For us, this was about taking the digital presence that we have and going physical, which isn't exactly the norm for media companies right now, but it is the future. People want to connect with the brands that they are engaging with online."

Spector said the company wanted to be where their fans were, and work with a brand that already has clout in the sports lifestyle space such as Kith. Creating a physical space allowed Bleacher Report's team to talk to their readers in person. The company has plans to expand pop-ups to different brands and other cities.

"It was about building a physical representation of our brand, and bringing it to the people," Spector said.