Along the north side of the Long Beach convention center, a renegade punk-cabaret musician and digital rights advocate sits sipping tea with a biophysicist in a space created to mimic New York’s extraordinarily popular Highline park.
Nearby, a leading nonprofit entrepreneur who develops new micro lending strategies for the world’s poorest waits in line for a “photon shower” – a walk in experience meant to rejuvenate the jet lagged and generally weary – with a hip hop choreographer she met at last night’s opening block party.
These scenes are normal for the annual TED conference in Long Beach, CA, an event which anchors a larger organization committed to spreading “ideas that matter” across online and offline platforms. While people know TED as a conference and online presence, most don’t know it as one of the most experimental venues for creative brand sponsorship.
The origins of TED lie in a small, members only event that began in the 1980s. Since then, the organization has become a global force for intellectualism and creativity, particularly after it began to post talks online for free in 2006. These talks have been viewed more than a billion times, and unleashed wave after wave of new initiatives, including TEDx – a community hosted TED event platform which has seen more than 5000 events hosted everywhere from Kansas to Kenya in just a few short years.
As its prominence rose, the organization was faced with an interesting question. How could TED integrate brands in ways that actually accentuated the value of the attendee experience, rather than falling into the transactional sponsorship patterns that lead gaudy trade-show style banners to mar conference spaces?
TED has become a model of just that sort of high-quality collaboration between brands and event owners. For the TED partnerships team, the bedrock principle is that any brand presence at the event has to add new experiential value to the community.
With this in mind, they begin working with partners to plan brand integration months in advance. The venues for those partnerships are the 9 social spaces, physical areas around the convention center where brands can set up instillations, exhibits, and experiences for attendees.
The two installations referenced at the beginning of this piece were strategies that The Tiffany Foundation, the sponsor of the Highline installation, and Delta, the sponsor of the “power up/power down” lounge that featured the photon shower, came up with in collaboration with the TED partnerships team. The goal was to amplify existing corporate missions by creating genuinely cool experiences for people at the event. Tiffany’s is a major sponsor of the Highline park in New York City and other public space restorations, and Delta is launching a major campaign to get people to think of them as the best airline for minimizing the pain of travel, providing significant brand continuity to their TED activities.
Another popular installation was a brainwave monitoring station sponsored by Target that asked attendees to experience content differently by laying down and measuring brain activity during the viewing. The station came out of Target’s recognition that innovative design (the “D” in TED), such a core part of the company’s DNA, should be the guiding force behind any collaboration with the TED team. In between sessions, people could compete in brainteasers linked to an EEG and compete for bragging rights around brain function (unsurprisingly, Google founder Sergey Brin spend much time near the top of the leader board). This installation was one of the most buzzed about at the event and on social media, demonstrating again how the key to sparking conversation about a brand is to create something exciting enough to talk about.
Not all brands can find the right ways to manifest themselves at TED. Many conversations begin that don’t ultimately lead to anything because there just isn’t a clear way for the brand to create something that amplifies the attendee experience.
Sometimes brands want to be involved with the community, but don’t necessarily want to activate new campaign and instead want to learn as much as they can from the amazing minds at the event. When this desire came up more and more, the TED partnerships team launched the TED Institute, a structured way for brands sponsoring the event to have private meals and deep brainstorming sessions with the attendees.
What makes both of these strategies so effective both for TED and the participating brands is that they recognize that the main value of association with the event is not garrulous banners that maximize impressions generally, but maximizing the impression that they make on the individual influencers who participate in the community, who ultimately have an improved association with that brand and a higher likelihood of sharing that positive association with the people they care about.
Although TED2013 has just wrapped, the partnerships team is already hard at work scheming for the future. The event celebrates its 30th anniversary next year with a move from Long Beach to Vancouver, creating an entirely new canvas with which to work. One part of that new canvas may involve exploring ways to more directly connect the experience of onsite activations with the extensive community of viewers who experience the conference via simulcast from other parts of the world.
Offline events offer brands a totally different platform for creatively expressing their identity, values, and curiosity. What TED’s integration of brands demonstrates is that by collaborating and pushing to think differently, sponsors can not only bankroll experiences, but actually add new and unique value to them.
Photo of the Target-sponsored social space at TED2013, courtesy of TED.