• Transform magazine
  • June 22, 2024


Top of the pop-ups: How captivating brand experiences are designed in retail

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Over the last two decades, a worldwide digital retail revolution has left brands scrambling to connect with consumers in the physical world. Jack Cousins explores how pop-ups have emerged as a way of bridging the gap.

While recessions, digital shopping and the Covid-19 pandemic have all contributed to the demise of traditional retail throughout much of the world in the past 20 years, there still remains an avid demand for brands to physically interact with consumers. But rather than this relationship being exclusively forged and maintained in fixed bricks and mortar shops, brands have discovered the power of flexibility and novelty afforded by pop-ups.

Their growth has been explosive to say the least. In 2023, there were over 40,000 pop-up shops in the US alone, according to IBISWorld, while The Guardian reported a remarkable 18% increase in brands both small and large jumping on the pop-up bandwagon in the UK from 2022 to 2023. Meanwhile, Statista believes the transaction volume of pop-up stores in China could stand at a whopping 832 billion yuan by 2025 (a 260% increase in just five years). And in the rush to leverage this new and lucrative way of reaching consumers, two distinct kinds of pop-ups have come to the fore.

“Where retail experiences focus mainly on sales and transactional interactions, brand experiences allow consumers to be guests in an interactive, engaging brand moment,” explains Michelle Perrott, account manager at Gradient Experience, a creative experience agency based in New York. The benefits of creating a pop-up brand activation, she adds, is that individuals can immerse themselves in a brand’s values through visual and sensorial activation. This lends itself more to long-term brand loyalty, while retail experiences can be more short-term and sales orientated in nature.

An Intense experience

That idea of playing on the senses to drive engagement was plain to see in Gradient’s recent project with Prada at New York Fashion Week (NYFW). Tasked with launching the luxury fashion company’s newest fragrance, Paradoxe Intense, Perrott and her colleagues crafted a retail/brand hybrid experience, embodying Prada’s ‘invitation to explore and express the paradoxical multidimensions of women’ within the pop-up.


With the brief expanding the potential to develop something particularly creative, the brand’s three-day immersive event reflected the sophistication and elegance for which Prada is known, with the design directly rooted in its brand codes. From the experience’s entrance, where a specially designed neon entryway welcomed guests, the brand’s audience were immersed in the world of Prada Paradoxe. Fragrance activation stations, a personalised customisation station and a matcha bar all contributed to making this unmissable for brand fans.

Driving awareness for those missing NYFW was also crucial, so the pop-up was adorned with brand photo opportunities. Designed with user-generated content in mind, the event was launched with an exclusive VIP influencer preview and had a highly successful digital presence throughout the three days it was active and beyond, garnering 3.4 million social media impressions. On the ground, its 6,000 guests helped contribute to $45,000’s worth of event sales, an onsite record for L’Oreal Luxe.

Yuhan Wang, experience design director at Gradient, adds, “We created a world that provides escapism from a stale daily life that is rooted in the brand experience, but we also layered the product discovery experience to allow the guest not only to be engaged but also incentivised to bring the product home. That’s why this pop up was successful.”

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Does location really matter?

This brand experience specifically targeted the kind of edgy fashion enthusiasts who attend NYFW, recognising they were precisely the demographic who would appreciate Parada Paradoxe. But do all pop-ups need to make a beeline for their target audience and invest large amounts of money to be close to them? Not necessarily, according to James Barnes, founder and creative director at Backlash, a London-based creative experiential agency.

“It's not that important if it's a brand that people really love and you're creating an experience that just cannot be missed; you could put it in the middle of nowhere and people will still go to it,” he says. “I think sometimes brands focus on going somewhere which is very expensive, but often you only have to go a few roads over for the price to come down quite a bit.”


Then again, there are times when brands might have a good reason to pay that little bit extra to position themselves in a prime location like London’s ‘beauty quarter,’ Covent Garden. This was where Backlash set up shop for beauty industry disruptor Beauty Pie in 2022. Touted as the first luxury beauty buyer’s club, the company operates direct-to-consumer on a membership model and wanted a fun experience where that business model was celebrated.

Enter the ‘Warehouse of Dreams’, a garishly pink pop-up shop filled to the brim with 200 kinds of fragrances and cosmetics. The brand journey mimicked clocking in at a warehouse and doing a stocktake (with guests donned in pink hardhats and high-vis vests, of course). What elevated the experience further was the product experts who chaperoned guests around and helped them try on products. Afterwards, guests could pay for their favourite products in a beautifully designed stockroom.

Using influencers to help drive initial awareness of the experience, the Warehouse of Dreams generated 2.6 million online impressions over the 12 days it was in operation. Impressively, there were also 200 annual membership sign-ups, as well as £20,000’s worth of sales, per day. With this pop-up, Beauty Pie sought to not only help inform thousands of people about its offering but also leverage far greater brand loyalty amongst a smaller subsection who felt a particular connection to this unique event.  


But there are maintenance challenges to consider with the kind of pop-ups that require the brand’s more experienced staff on-site for long periods, like Beauty Pie’s. “Often for beauty, there's a lot of product knowledge and experience required on-site,” Barnes explains. “If you're working across 15 to 20 products in a pop-up, it's quite hard to impart that kind of information and passion into a promotional member of staff and taking experts out of the business for a long period of time is quite expensive.”

With that in mind, Backlash recommends brands operate these sorts of pop-ups for only 10 to 11 days, as anything after that starts to become operationally difficult. Despite the challenges, Barnes is in no doubt that pop-ups are beneficial, but they must be thoughtful and well-executed. “I can't stress the importance enough that having a highly creative, innovative experience that plays into the emotive requirements of a person is the key to unlocking success,” he adds.


Story arc

This sentiment is also felt by Siu Tang, founder and ECD at The Orangeblowfish. The Shanghai-based creative agency crafted a quite extraordinary, multi-sensory experience for Arc’teryx following the release of the brand’s new System_A casual daily wear range in 2022. With the client initially wanting a pop-up purely to drive sales, Tang convinced Arc’teryx to take a different approach that merged a special experience with maximising sales.

He says, “The issue is that when you go very direct in terms of selling products in pop-up spaces, there's no reason to visit. When we started to research, we saw the more experiential pop-ups are the ones which really drive footfall.”


Image credit: The Orangeblowfish

Named Komorebi, the Japanese word for sunlight filtering through trees, the 2022 Spring Summer collection would be showcased at the Grand Gateway 66 shopping centre in Shanghai. But with The Orangeblowfish’s research also indicating Chinese consumers typically only visit malls in close proximity from where they work and live, the agency knew it had to create something special to arouse interest.

Taking direct inspiration from the Komorebi pattern, the pop-up would attempt to bring nature and outdoor adventure to the city through the use of a large sun sphere which completed a full rotation above the 150 square metre space every 30 minutes. Inside the mysterious black box, guests found themselves immersed amongst glass pillars that mimicked tree trunks, while the patterns of leaves on the ceiling gave the effect of sunlight breaking through a mini forest.

The “magic moment” of the ‘Arc’teryx ReBird’ experience would occur when guests walked past the faux trees and triggered the lidar system, hence revealing clothes from the Komorebi collection inside their trunks. The mirrored columns were also paired with highly reflective walls, making the background space feel even larger and forest-like. With no set path, guests could meander through the space in any direction they chose, enticing brand fans to come back and experience ReBird again.


Image credit: The Orangeblowfish

What’s more, visuals were just one of many elements cleverly woven into the pop-up. A forest scent was diffused through the ‘clouds,’ while the subtle sounds of birds and leaves also helped immerse guests in the natural world. As for touch, a plastic running track material, which had some give to it, was picked out to elicit the feeling of walking on a muddy track. The final stop was a brightly lit, modern retail space that juxtaposed the dark, nature-orientated experience guests had just navigated their way through.

The experience was even designed to be disassembled and reused throughout China. Unfortunately, with Covid-19 restrictions still impacting businesses at the time of launch, planned trips to Chengdu and Beijing never happened. However, the ReBird pop-up was at least able to convey the brand’s core identity of meshing technology and nature to the Shanghainese public.


Image credit: The Orangeblowfish

As the world of retail becomes increasingly digitised, brands simply must find novel ways of connecting with consumers. No longer a mere trend but now a staple of meeting those ends, pop-ups have emerged as a serious way of expressing a brand’s essence, albeit in short stints. As Tang says, “What pop-ups allow us to do is really enhance that storytelling experience.”

But with this transnational growth comes a risk. If more brands adopt pop-ups to tell their story, the likelihood of copying competitors, rehashing the same stories or cliches being formed is increased. As always, the brands which commit to this practice must ensure they make the most of authentic brand design, or else suffer the same fate as traditional retail.


This article was taken from Transform magazine Q2, 2024. You can subscribe to the print edition here.