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On July 26, 2017, Jordan Ferney posted an announcement on her popular blog Oh Happy Day introducing the Color Factory. She waxed exuberant about its fifteen interactive “experiences”—each revolving around a different color—that sprawl across two stories and 12,000 square feet of a former office building near San Francisco’s Union Square. Her fans responded with characteristic punctuation-heavy posts: “I would love, love, LOVE to visit! It looks incredible, and I can only imagine how amazing it would be in person,” wrote one. “This is so exciting!! I’m sad to miss it, but I can’t wait to see all the awesome Instagram photos,” wrote another.

Ferney brought in artist Leah Rosenberg as creative director and designer Erin Jang as art director. With eleven other artists, they amassed a sequence of rooms that offer up to 700 visitors a day the opportunity to cavort amidst various hues, snapping selfies at every technicolor turn. Initially opened on August 1, 2017, the exhibition became a runaway sensation on Instagram for its photogenic sets, which included generous visual yardage for corporate sponsors Alaska Airlines and method home. To date, it’s extended its run twice.

So when I got to visit the space with my eight-year-old daughter when it reopened in January 2018, I was anticipating the bright, bubbly images I had seen, and what reviewers had described as “a perfect storm of bright lighting, cool backdrops and kitsch” and “an Instagrammer’s dream come true.”

Thirty-five minutes later, we were standing on the sidewalk. I was holding the same tiny, free (yes, yellow!) ice-cream cone that had been given to everyone upon exit, and wondering: What had been the point of all this marching around inside of a rainbow? Was it the souvenir pixels, immediately uploaded to every social media channel? Or was it the chance to entice a captive audience to shop for things they don’t need in the gift shop?

These questions stayed with me long after I’d finished my sticky-sweet cone in one gulp.

A colorful striped facade distinguishes the Color Factory from the surrounding buildings in San Francisco (left). DJ May Kwok and dancers performed at a glow-in-the-dark launch party for method’s New York City pop-up launderette, which was open for three days in September 2016. © method

Pop-up books are designed to get a child’s attention. You turn each page with a sense of anticipation, eagerly awaiting what might pop up on the other side. Will it fly at you? Dazzle you with color? Emerge with hidden characters that fold incomprehensively and disappear as the page gets flipped?

When they arose in the early 2000s, retail and culture pop-ups captured that same feeling of childlike surprise and fleeting excitement. There were suddenly new stores, galleries and urban experiences that had to be appreciated before they went poof! Pop-ups appealed to a public that was saturated with repetitive retail, and they became the perfect setting for the naturally curious—or those with incurable FOMO, or fear of missing out. Pop-ups emanate an in-the-know aura because they enable early adopters to continually discover something new and exclusive that very few have yet to experience. The limited-time factor lends urgency to the visit and quickly drives ticket sales, press mentions and social media posts.

Lately, more and more advertisers have been getting into the game. In 2016, method home partnered with on-demand laundry and dry cleaning service Cleanly to engineer its own proprietary pop-up in New York City. The temporary “Wash & Bold” launderette offered to do free laundry for visitors, connecting method with its progressive, sudsy personality. (Because it partially funded the Color Factory, method was able to leave a wall of teardrop-shaped soap dispensers in the exhibition’s prominent confetti room, subtly marketing its cleaning products.)

For the art world, pop-ups provide many of the same benefits, getting eyes on art that might otherwise have languished unseen. The outright acceptance and encouragement of smartphone photography is the new angle on these pop-up attractions. A slew of artsy Instagram-factory pop-ups have been not-so-subtly capitalizing on their attractiveness for social media, harnessing art for commercial opportunity—and selfies.

The Museum of Selfies, which opened in Glendale, California, in January 2018, takes the selfie craze to an extreme. Providing elaborate sets for visitors—duckface smirk and seductive smiles welcome—it also displays some provocative exhibits, like one about the surprising number of deaths from ambitious selfie attempts. The museum website promises that visitors’ perceptions of selfies will be transformed, “whether you love them or hate them.” To see the many who love them, just do a search for #museumoficecream or @wearehappyplace on Instagram. Searching for #colorfactory yields a grid of colorful vignettes of rainbow revelers.

The ice-cream cone sculptures in the Museum of Ice Cream Miami’s FAN-tastic room (left) are actually giant fans. © Katie Gibbs. For three weeks in 2015, Glade welcomed guests to the Museum of Feelings in New York City. The “cloud”-filled Calm room (right) was inspired by the Glade fragrance Lavender & Vanilla.

Yet visitors who had studied the gorgeous, spacious, saturated backgrounds of these Instagram posts before attending the Color Factory would likely have been disappointed if they had taken a moment to pause and observe in between poses. As a physical experience and in-the-flesh phenomenon, the Color Factory left much to be desired, and marketers wishing to emulate the success of the project—and the trend of “art museum” pop-up exhibitions in general—might want to pause before copying its playbook line for line.

In person, the lighting was just short of squinchingly harsh. Gone were traditional spotlights, and in were high-wattage blue-tinted LEDs. “ ...[M]aybe a warmer light would have felt better to be there, but a whiter light looks better on Instagram,” Ferney told WIRED. Most of the individual spaces had been cut off from windows bringing in natural light, and the circulating air had also gone stale, particularly in the room chock-full of blue balloons. Unfortunately, this instant cabin fever, which was sponsored by Alaska Airlines, probably did not do the brand much of a favor. But who notices a patina of dust when you’re hunched over your device, fiddling with filters? (The people not taking grams. While scarce, they still exist and deserve some respect.)

Still, the overwhelming response to the Color Factory was that it made visitors happy. “The real benefit of these immersive, live pop-ups is that they create emotional connections to brands,” says Melanie Shreffler, senior director of insights at Cassandra Report, a New York–based trend forecasting agency.

In this respect, the more art-museum-like experiences like the Color Factory aren’t too much different from retail-driven experiences, she says. A perfect example is the Museum of Feelings, created by home scent company Glade, which popped up in Manhattan in late 2015. Its rooms featured emotionally evocative aromas that served as “branded activations,” Shreffler notes, cementing associations in consumers’ minds between Glade and emotions like optimism, joy and calm.

Such immersive physical experiences with brands are now more commonplace: GE sponsors maker garages; Everlane welcomed shoppers to amble through its New York City “Shoe Parks” in 2016; and in the summer of 2017, visitors could stop by the Cheetos Museum in Times Square to see the most oddly shaped snacks. And it’s not just a coastal cosmopolitan trend. The plant-based meat and dairy product developer Impossible Foods hosted a “meateasy” in Chicago in 2017. The “secret” venue was made up to look like a butcher shop, and the agency behind the stunt, Wieden+Kennedy, even had actors from the fictional Chicago Sausage Guild picketing the illicit meateasy while Chicagoans noshed on Impossible’s veggie patties inside. “Having that memorable, unusual experience has a big effect on the consumer’s consideration of the brand,” Shreffler says.

Color Factory guests received a secret map (left) of seventeen additional color experiences around San Francisco, like Erin Jang’s mural Chinatown Flavor. Experiences in the Color Factory include a blue “balloon bath” (top right), by Jihan Zencirli of Geronimo Balloons with sponsor Alaska Airlines, and a yellow ball pit (bottom right), by Carissa Potter of local printmaking workshop People I’ve Loved. 

Sensory memory is what the Color Factory excelled in. The final room featured a giant pit filled with yellow plastic balls that visitors were encouraged to wade around in. It was a joyous reprieve in the moment, and became famous on social media. My daughter could have spent all afternoon flopping around. But we were promised our final treat of ice cream, which got her scampering out. Unfortunately, to access the yellow minicone, we had to traipse through an overpriced curated shop of yellow objects. Even the discipline of behavioral psychology was never so blatant about inducements and rewards.

To its credit, the true final moment of the Color Factory was the chance to use a specially made neighborhood map. The creative team had partnered with local businesses to entice visitors to keep exploring after they exited the exhibition.

“We always hope to bring heart and generosity into what we do. We wanted to bring color out into the neighborhood and create experiences for everyone to enjoy—not just our visitors,” says Jang, the factory’s art director.

Indeed, the exhibition ended up driving foot traffic to the hard-working small shops nearby, like the nail salon next door that offered a manicure matching the stripes on Color Factory’s facade. Along other stops on the map, visitors could participate in a colorful haiku project at 826 Valencia Tenderloin Center (a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for kids) or purchase a pin made by Carissa Potter of Oakland-based printmaking workshop People I’ve Loved (to benefit Larkin Street Youth Services, which helps homeless kids).

“[Every experience on the map] is either free, benefits local businesses or [its proceeds are] donated to a neighborhood nonprofit we love,” says Jang.

That’s the sentiment that is going to deliver a more meaningful pop-up experience. Dazzle us all you can, and cement your brand in our heads, but then give us something that goes beyond the selfie and points at something more long lasting.

We’ll only see an increase of these spectacles, and their impact will continue to reverberate online. But with some guidelines—staying true to the childlike spirit of the pop-up surprise book and applying an ethical lens to the event’s impact—marketers can create more effective pop-up experiences. ca

Jessica Carew Kraft (writingkraft.com) is an independent print journalist based in San Francisco, specializing in cultural trends and sustainability. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Grist magazine, ARTnews and other publications. Originally from the Midwest, Kraft trained as an anthropologist at Swarthmore College and Yale University, then worked as an art critic, graphic designer and adjunct professor.

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