Can struggling brands make a comeback with experiences?

Toys 'R' Us is launching an immersive pop-up exhibit this fall

Earlier this year, beloved retailer Toys ‘R’ Us announced that it’s closing all 800 stores in the U.S. But now the brand is aiming for a little comeback with an immersive pop-up experience for the holiday season in two cities.

The activation, called Toys ‘R’ Us Adventure, will live in Chicago and Atlanta and will look to tantalize all five senses.

For Campaign’s Question of the Week, we decided to dig into these types of pop-ups.

Could physical experiences or experiential activations help struggling brands make a comeback - or are they a waste of money? 

Mira Kaddoura, Founder/ECD, Red & Co. 
Without having seen what Toys R Us has done, in general physical experiences or experiential activations are an execution. They could benefit a brand if – and only if – a brand is really clear on who they are/why they exist (North Star), what they are saying to consumers (key idea) and how they are saying it (voice). If it’s just a new immersive pop-up that does amazing things with technology but doesn’t marry that with the above, there’s a good chance it could fall short without adding real value for the brand. 

Elizabeth Hall, Managing Director, Iris Worldwide
Experiential is a perfect option for a brand like Toys R Us that needs brand reintroduction. Experiential tactics are ideal in this case because they engage customers in the space of play. A key distinguishing factor Toys R Us has always had is the ability to generate in-store discovery and play with customers as a storefront wholly focused on toys. And that’s something that price-based competition like Amazon can’t bring to the table.

Given the public nature of Toys R Us closures, re-introducing the brand in buzzworthy, shareable events can lead to re-engagement with past customers and attraction of new customers for the future. Who doesn’t fondly remember being a Toys R Us kid?

But to validate the investment, interactive events should be the first of a new engagement strategy. Retail brands need to have sustainable methods to earn the visit with real connections or offerings; if not, customers may choose the easier route. Any "one and done" event could offer necessary momentary buzz, but a great company plan is creating a retail environment where the magic lives on. 

Margaret Morici Schmidt, Director Experiential Production, Giant Spoon
Experiential marketing is a fantastic option for brands making a comeback.

Consumers are craving experiences. Brands can lean into that fact by giving consumers memorable (and shareable) experiences that will forever be tied to their brand. The opportunity to create an emotional response increases greatly when you can play with all the senses. When else can you give your brand a catchy soundtrack, an awe-inspiring form, a scent, a look and feel, and translate it into joy-inducing activities? No other form of marketing gives you such control and opportunity for engagement.

The current trend of nostalgia marketing also tells us that consumers are craving the familiar, giving brands like Toys R Us the perfect opportunity to leverage their 60+ year history. Nothing resonates with people more than what they already know.

Toys R Us is perfectly primed to tap into experiential - the brand is inherently interactive and their products are tactile and fun, creating limitless possibilities for experiences. I would personally love to see a brand like this using experiential tactics in their retail stores as well, setting their in-store experience apart from competitors by engaging their true customers (kids!). 

Maarten L. Albarda, SVP, Flock Associates
It is undoubtedly true that an immersive, engaging and entertaining in-store experience is important for certain stores and certain product categories. Toys is probably such a category. But a magic bullet it is is not. No matter how immersive, engaging or entertaining the environment is, consumers must first understand the reason they are going to go to that store in the first place. Can I get everything I need at that location? Is it convenient to get to? Are the price points attractive? Do I trust the business? Walmart doesn’t do anything "immersive" but is a successful retailer, also in toys. So job 1 for Toys R Us is to explain to consumers why going to their stores is an attractive option vs alternatives like WalMart (also a physical store) or Amazon (online). 

Chris Kooluris, executive creative director, Weber Shandwick
Physical experiences to help a struggling brand make a comeback would only make sense if consumers actually want that brand back.Toys R’ Us is a great example of a brand nobody wanted to see die; so if these new pop-ups can restore the toy store magic, then they absolutely will be a good investment. Shopping for toys online could never deliver the joy of a toy aisle, but the experience needs to have some magic or customers will choose convenience.

Brad Simms, CEO at GALE
Brands today are built through addressable marketing - and that is not just digital, but also physical. Brands need to win and build momentum in critical markets. Smaller pop-up stores allows brand to curate the physical experience to the local market, making it a more tailored and ultimately an addressable experience. Toys R Us already has awareness. The question is can they create a real connection and drive consideration? Being relevant and addressable at a local level is a great way to do that. A+ move.

Michele Sileo, Managing Director & Partner, Eleven
Pop-ups are certainly a way to begin changing perceptions of your brand for those that attend, but those numbers are limited to the audience that get to experience the pop-up. What can really begin to change consumer perception and capture large audiences is when brands are able to get recognition beyond the excitement of the pop-up because the idea resonates with culture in a meaningful way. Intersect by Lexus and the Taco Bell Hotel are two instances that come to mind here. Toys-R-Us is in the unique position of already containing that cultural element - there were memes with Geoffrey and there was a bit of a nostalgic movement surrounding the brand when they initially closed. If they can capitalize on this and effectively scale their temporary presence and start a conversation or have their idea last in the minds of consumers beyond the holiday, they may be able to resuscitate the brand as something more modern than their old big-box store model.

Simon Hill, North America President of FutureBrand
Pop-up activations are a good start, but they are only a small piece of what is needed to resurrect this brand - or any brand. For Toys R Us to survive in this new iteration, it needs to clearly establish what the brand’s purpose is, if and how it differs from before and how it can stand apart from the myriad of other ways that we currently buy toys. What is its reason for being, what makes it different and how can it deliver that through consistent brand experiences across all touch points, whatever those end up being – through product, in-store, online, customer service, to its employees, etc.

Yadira Harrison, Co-Founder, Verb
Producing experiences can definitely help struggling brands make a comeback, and develop other revenue streams, by exposing the brand to new consumers in a fresh way. However, it would be a waste of money and effort if Toys R Us (or any brand) were to produce a stale activation that doesn’t showcase them in a new light.

For any struggling brand, it is important that they take a chance and do something out-of-the-box that can capture hearts and imaginations. Another IG pop-up may not cut it. Struggling brands really need to think about niche audiences, innovative technologies and differentiators that can drive new types of brand interactions. Amazing experiences go further than just relying on social currency; it is about evoking emotion that relates back to the brand in an authentic way. 

Toygar Bazarkaya, Global CCO, Optimist Inc. 
I wholeheartedly believe that Toys R Us can make a come back, and brand experience work is a great avenue for the brand to achieve that. The toy industry lends itself to experiential work through the act of play - one can tell how well a toy store is doing by how much they inspire not only a child, but the inner child in all of us. Toys are not going to go away. The act of playing will not go away. When I enter a toy store, I get as inspired as my kids do if the physical experience is done right.

With that being said, brands can not take a one-size-fits-all approach to brand experience work. For example, car showrooms have the potential to be amazing experiences, because the automotive industry is a passion point for consumers and cars are big investments. Obviously the physical activation would look and feel very different to a toy brand. At the end of the day, the goal is to create an emotional connection to the consumer and to bring the brand to life. The means to achieve that connection just differs by both brand and industry. 

Andrew Carlson, Chief Experience Officer at Organic
Physical experiences can be effective as part of a larger strategy used as an activation to drive awareness and overcome customer fear of buying a product they haven’t seen in person, such as unfamiliar brands or style-driven physical products like sunglasses. 

Digitally-native brands find success by combining inventive tech with retail experiences, but it’s in place of traditional activations like TV.  

Nick Miaritis, EVP, VaynerMedia
I couldn’t be more excited to see Toys R Us make a comeback. There is a ton of love and nostalgia around the brand (including one of the best jingles of all time – "I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R Us Kid...") and the integration with b8ta will definitely deliver a more sophisticated approach to the in-store experience.  I’m a big fan of rebooting brands with these types of activations.  Providing a unique way for people to interact with your brand in the real world is a great first step to rebuilding equity and relevance in culture. I also love these types of activations because they can generate an insane amount of content and earned media for the brand. Failing to see the activation as a media opportunity is the biggest mistake I see brands make in this space. 

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