Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production
Can Pop-Up Experiences Be Sustainable?
London, UK
Experts from M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, Backlash, HELO, The Park, Momentum Worldwide, VMLY&R Commerce, Amplify, 2LK, Jack Morton, Makers and Kantar share their thoughts with LBB’s Nisna Mahtani

For consumers, there’s nothing quite like experiencing a product rather than just hearing about it or seeing it. When it comes to the marketing side of this for brands, new product launches and events transpire into pop-up experiences – installations which showcase a product and allow it to become more tangible to consumers.

There are many different ways in which pop-up experiences can be executed, and often it depends on the scale and impact a brand wants to create. From large installations to taking over shopfronts, a recent example comes in the form of Burberry taking over Norman's Cafe in London and rebranding it with a signature blue tartan. And while these events are impactful and create conversation, they often beg the question of sustainability and reuse after the event.

On a mission to find out exactly what sustainable considerations are being taken into account and begging the question, ‘Can Pop-Up Experiences Be Sustainable?’, LBB’s Nisna Mahtani asked several experts in the industry to share their thoughts on the subject at hand.

Thinking Green from the Offset

“In a word, YES,” says VMLY&R Commerce’s global chief experiential officer Laura Mignott, answering the aforementioned question. “All it takes is intention from the beginning of the experiential activation planning process.” She goes on to explain how the structure of the activation is the first thing to be considered when asking if things can be reused or recycled, then it falls into the materials made – from cups to products and if it’s brand new, what could be reused or updated?

She further explains, “We recently built a custom vending machine for Sprite in the UK that had a screen to use live data to detect relatable moments of everyday ‘heat’. Anytime the heat goes up, a refreshing, ice-cold Sprite drops. The results were fantastic, but more importantly, now that vending machine can be re-used for other projects, and all it requires is updating the screen.”

[Above: Sprite pop-up by VMLY&R Commerce]

Similarly, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment’s managing partner Ross Watson shared how green considerations now sit at the heart of brand activity, dictated by consumers’ increasing sustainability wants and needs. “The demand for green and sustainable brand experiences is growing,” he says, “as brands increasingly recognise, and act upon, the need to play their part in a more sustainable future and forge meaningful connections with consumers.”

A campaign the agency has worked on to showcase this comes in the form of adidas’ ‘Store Twenty-Two’ pop up, following footballer Jude Bellingham’s transfer to Real Madrid, which was delivered with what he calls “a green conscious mindset.” He further explains, “Utilising an existing retail location and existing equipment, we ensured there was a life after the event for all products, branding and materials. The only bespoke element was a 5ft x 5ft print of Bellingham himself, which is now proudly showcased at adidas’ HQ in Stockport. While not a sustainable-first activation in premise, the activation demonstrated how to deliver an event with sustainability baked into its very construction with green impact considerations made throughout.”

[Above: Heineken's 'Greener Bar']

The agency also supported the creation of Heineken’s ‘Greener Bar’, made to reduce water, waste, emissions, and energy “to ensure that good times don’t cost the planet.” Reflecting on this campaign, Ross says, “So perhaps, when it comes to delivering sustainable brand experiences, the question is less whether or not possibility is on the table; the answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’. 

“The more pressing questions instead ask how brands embed sustainable practices into the heart of live events, and who, if not the planet, is paying the cost. The brands that step up and play a meaningful role in forging sustainable solutions, will ultimately be the brands that win.”

At the Jack Morton team, SVP and executive creative director and global head of sustainability Julien Le Bas also focuses on how the design aspect of the process is significant, reflecting on a statistic by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – “80% of a product's environmental impact is influenced by decisions made at the design stage.”

With this in mind, the agency has made sustainability an integral part of its mission, reflecting on how, “Reducing the impact of our marketing activities requires more than just eliminating single-use plastics or switching to green power. It demands a comprehensive approach that integrates creative, design, and production processes with circular thinking at its core.”

Greener Solutions with Circularity and Spend in Mind

Speaking of this circularity, Julien mentions a recent example that the Jack Morton team have worked on. “One example of our circular thinking in action is HERE Technology’s presence at CES. By using a Lego-style steel and glass system, intelligent lighting, and AV, and managing storage, transportation, recycling, and waste, we achieved a 90% waste reduction on an outdoor 2,000 sqm booth in Las Vegas over three years.”

Learning from the project and working with its supply chain partners, Jack Morton is drafting emissions and waste reduction plans for their clients as “knowledge and data are fed back into the loop, powered by our circular mindset.” 

It’s often thought that sustainability comes with costly implications, but this sentiment has slowly been debunked according to Backlash’s business director and founder James Barnes. He says, “Previously brands saw ‘sustainability’ and ‘cost effective’ as being mutually exclusive, but with the much wider options of solutions available and clever investment strategies ‘sustainable events’ are fortunately becoming the norm”

Backlash’s approach to working with clients is threefold: considering sustainable materials, carbon offsetting and choosing to hire rather than create new. “We have adopted this forward-looking approach into our briefing process to ensure we are asking clients about future use potential at an early stage in project development,” James explains. Creating a ‘kit’ which considers the 12-month plan for events, the team prioritise the adaptability of materials and how they can benefit each activation, whether that be trade events, PR, retail environments or all of the above. 

[Above: Ritual's pop up by Backlash]

Momentum Worldwide also approaches sustainability similarly, as explained by its North American chief experience design officer David Chamberlain. “At the centre of our mission-driven approach resides the ‘Make it Matter’ platform, a concrete expression of our philosophy, a strategy that resonates throughout our thinking,” he says. 

"We have made a transformative shift in the way we approach creativity, design and production and place the circular economy at the very core of our practices. In a world grappling with environmental challenges, we adopted a mindset of responsible resourcing management and sustainability in every aspect of our work." The agency is focused on repurposing existing assets, extending the lifespan of products through this as well as ensuring that the materials they use are both sustainable and innovative. David says, “We explore alternatives that have a lower environmental footprint and can be recycled, upcycled, or composted. We have shifted from disposable to durable assets, emphasising innovative design and production quality.

"Additionally, we believe it is crucial to have a plan in place for the end of the life cycle of every activation asset. We take into consideration what will happen to the product or material once it is no longer usable. This proactive planning ensures that our creations do not become a burden on the environment."

A recent example of this is Verizon’s ‘London Hub’ innovation space which was designed as an immersive centre. In collaboration with native London artist Tom Robinson, the space actively diverts 334 kg of plastic pollution away from landfills. “Notable sustainable elements such as cork coffee tables and couches crafted from recycled polyester yarn derived from ocean and landfill plastics, showcase our dedication to reducing environmental and societal impact,” says David.

[Above: Verizon’s ‘London Hub’ by Momentum Worldwide]

A Collaborative Approach and Measuring Sustainability

“Yes, pop-up experiences can be sustainable, but it requires a collective effort from brands, agencies, and production companies to establish a clear definition of sustainability with concrete benchmarks right from the project's inception,” says HELO’s co-founder Brendan Kiernan. He explains how sustainability can mean several different things and finding a shared definition supports in achieving the goal. 

“At HELO, we encourage our agency and client partners to think laterally beyond the immediate project and consider the long-term implications of their activation strategies – especially when it comes to fabrication and construction,” he says. “Can we create something that can be used multiple times? If not, can we find creative ways to repurpose the materials?”

Brendan explains how the entire supply chain is considered when it comes to resource consumption and carbon footprint as opportunities for waste reduction and energy usage are considered, as well as offsetting for anything which cannot be reduced. He also mentions the need for this approach because he believes it’s important not to “cut corners” and resist the temptation to use budget constraints as an excuse to favour methods which do not contribute to sustainable approaches. “After all, our children's ability to inherit a habitable world depends on it.”

[Above: IKEA's store front by HELO]

“Let's be clear, pop-up experiences are never truly sustainable,” says 2LK’s executive creative director and agency partner Andy Sexton. “A pop-up is designed to be experienced in-person, so likely encourages some degree of travel from audiences.” Not only this, but he also mentions the wastage and products, which can often have negative environmental implications throughout the process. 

“The anomaly is when a pop up itself is focussed on helping businesses improve their ESG credentials, i.e. any carbon wastage incurred by its creation/deployment is offset by the impact of adopting the technology it's promoting,” says Andy. “An example of this is the activation we were heavily involved with for IBM at Think 2023 - an exciting, intuitive interactive table that tells the story of IBM software’s sustainability capabilities, showing business tech leaders a clear path to reaching their 2030 sustainability goals.”

With minimal carbon output for the pop up, Andy explains how even this was offset many times over by just one company adopting the new software. “The key to improvement is understanding what really constitutes sustainability and grasping how to measure it holistically and accurately - we must walk before we can run…and there’s no shame in that.”

[Above: IBM pop-up by 2LK]

Similarly mentioning the measurement and reporting process is Amplify’s sustainability lead Jennie Mossman, who highlights the importance of “end-to-end transparency and benchmarking for establishing baselines and setting future goals.” With the agency focused on making informed decisions throughout its processes, it also mentions the “circularity and conscious consumption” that others have touched on.

“From materiality, responsible sourcing, durability and the onward life of all aspects, the earlier these considerations are thought into the process, the greater the impact,” says Jennie. “At Amplify we have developed a measurement approach that incorporates industry reporting tools from Isla and AdGreen that captures meaningful data from our projects with a real focus on reporting and transparency, to help hold ourselves and clients accountable through capturing data, analysing it and sharing our footprint.”

Working with clients to reduce and remove carbon emissions and waste, the Sky Glass campaign is a recent example of a project that achieved "CarbonNeutral event certification" and sustainable retail was prioritised at the creation of the Westfield Good Festival. 

[Above: Sky Glass pop-up by Amplify]

Using Greener Measures to Give Back

“At The Park, we’re constantly trying to find ways to create and produce activities that leave positive impacts - on the people who experience them, and on the place and footprint we leave behind,” explains event producer Mollie James. She reflects on how the standard ‘tick list’ no longer cuts it.

The Park worked with footwear brand Asics recently during the Brighton and London marathons, working alongside Evolution Dome to support sustainability efforts through reusable tent skins. “The domes are powered by solar cells, running without generators for up to 21 hours. The structure is small to store and offers a natural air cavity that is efficient to both heat and cool, offering a near net zero solution, a super attractive option as opposed to building a custom experience from scratch, which would then have to be disposed of post event!”

Mollie also reflects on the longevity of custom builds, particularly focusing on the Spotify Beach at the Cannes Lions festival this year, where a giant foosball table was created to adorn the beach but also live at the office, as well as using the branded yoga mats and props to be donated locally to a school. 

Similarly, giving back to local communities is part of what Makers do, according to executive producers Tiffany Tse and Roma Ahi, who sum up their key points when it comes to prioritising sustainability:

1. Eco-friendly materials: We opt for eco-friendly choices like recyclable signage/branding, sustainable flooring, and rented decor to minimise waste. We're committed to repurposing and upcycling materials, giving them new life instead of tossing them aside. 

2. Tech for efficiency: We embrace technology to reduce paper use. Digital displays and smart systems cut down on energy consumption. 

3. Thoughtful venues and transportation: We pick accessible venues and encourage eco-friendly transportation options like carpooling and public transit. We also prioritise local and sustainable suppliers. 

4. Waste management and giving back: We're big on waste reduction with recycling and composting. Excess food and gently used materials go to local charities. Plus, we find ways to reuse or recycle event elements for the future. 

And finally, Kantar UK’s head of customer strategy and insights, customer experience and brand, Peter Aitken leaves us with what they have discovered. “Our research shows that, for now, sustainability is yet to become the prime consideration for pop-ups, in-person events and activations. For both brands and consumers, quality of experience remains king.  However, the tide is changing and environmental responsibility is starting to hold far greater weight when it comes to brand reputation than it has ever before.”

He continues, “If brands are going to use their commitment to the environment to promote themselves and their events, they’ve got to walk the walk and really use their activations to inspire change.” Peter explains now both a brand’s image and the environment could be damaged by superficial commitments to sustainability, which is why the need to genuinely implement these measures is necessary for brands – especially with the UK’s single-use plastics policies coming into effect in October of 2023. 

However, Peter leaves us with an important sentiment, “But remember, the immersive experience is what consumers are showing up for, so sustainability mustn’t come at the expense of enjoyment.”

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