Trade shows, the original social media?

The trade-show exhibit is an opportunity for a brand to be ‘managed’ in a multi-sensory capacity. Perhaps the original ‘social media’, the mediation of time and space as a communication channel allows physical experience to become a fully inhabitable promotional tool.

Brand management has been described as ‘putting public communication to work under managed forms‘ (2006). A lofty phrase perhaps but it succinctly captures the notion of creating a four-dimensional message system around a given product or service.

To be successful in this exercise a brand must first be true to the needs of its consumer. This establishes the context of consumption; in this instance an experience that an audience finds agreeable. This will in turn attach a perception of value to the product or service being sold. Like any marketing communication an exhibit’s intention is to guide the consumer to this end result. Everything employed in pursuit of this aim – colourways, typeface, imagery, production values et al will have a bearing on whether the messages broadcast are accepted.

Devising a Physical Language

As the trade show format has developed a system has evolved to govern the function of a singular exhibit regardless of scale or budget. Whilst the results can take a number of forms ( in the same show one company may opt for a simple table and poster whilst another might go for a multi-storey architectural extravaganza) it is possible to break down the process of engagement into a three step process that is hard-wired into the architecture of the stand:

The Attraction:

In a crowded exhibition hall a vast array of different messages compete for attention. To create stand out in its simplest form a pleasing architecture and complimentary graphic scheme will always work well but as experiential savvy increases the playing field levels and so the use of ‘attractors’ becomes necessary. These can range from exciting ways to present a logo (laser-writing, projection on vapour), audio/visual presentations writ large on big screens to promotional mechanics and hospitality schemes such as participatory competitions or fully functional cafe bars.

The Welcome

If the attractor has done its job correctly a stand will experience a good level of footfall. A good spatial layout to control the flow of visitors then becomes crucial. Once on a stand it can be initially confusing. Key messaging graphics will always be important but arguably more so is the first point of contact for a visitor. A well signalled reception area may seem small beer in comparison to state-of-the-art video walls but greet the delegates well and the stand’s retention levels will look after themselves.

The Sell

Once a guest is on the stand and has been directed to the relevant contact the final consideration must be if there is a need for demonstration areas to allow for direct engagement with the product or service. These could be simple plain desktops and printed collateral or some sort of IT capacity or an actual physical product for handling. These may be situated in the open environment of the floorspace but equally the nature of discussions likely to be held may create a need for private demonstration areas away from the crowds.

But why bother?

The intent behind all of the above combination of the above is to combat the short attention span of visitors. By creating immediate appeal an exhibit becomes an effective continuation of a company’s corporate identity as exhibited throughout their other corporate collateral (Pegler, 2001;Lloyd Morgan, 1997, Conway Morgan, 1997). In physical space perhaps more than any other marketing channel it is true to say that this final result will be read as a direct reflection of how well a business is functioning. Therefore the intent should be to always achieve the best practical outcome for the financial investment made.

With a final solution that is as polished as possible the impression of success may well be transmitted but effective brand management is more than just gloss. Creating a brand expression that is engaging and thus effective will always be a matter of creating unity between the message communicated and it’s recipient. Crucially this is not a hypodermic process. A message is not broadcast to a field of passive receptors but rather it is a mutually beneficial process. A brand needs the consumer to define their approach and the consumer needs the brand to fulfill their desired requirements. It can therefore be said that a brand has a subjective social and cultural element for its consumers, its ultimate value resting on its ability to meet these needs.

A Truly Social Medium?

In a changing commercial environment, dominated by sociability of a virtual kind, the trade-show exhibit can also be read as a microcosmic practical demonstration of how brand and consumer are actually intrinsically linked in a self-propagating cycle. A commercial exhibit differs to other kinds of ‘brand fests,’ (such as retail spaces, sponsored events et al) in that the footfall will not be from the general public (Pegler, 2001). Trade show delegates are verified members of a given industry who have undergone a registration process before obtaining entry. They might be shop owners, professional buyers, journalists or most interestingly, representatives of other brands. In the open marketplace brands are in perpetual competition with one another but in the trade show there is this added frisson that a brand can, and will, be consumed freely by its competitors.

It would be easy to squander this open display of ones core values and productivity to an audience of like-minded industry professionals but the trade show hall offers an opportunity for real interaction, co-operation and learning between brands. In the commercial world it is easy to fall into self-satisfied one-upmanship but this would be at a brands peril. Like with all social media perhaps the trade -show exhibit can provide us with an opportunity to reconsider our whole system of commercial production and consumption?

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Arvidsson, A. (2006) Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture.
Abingdon: Routledge

Lloyd Morgan, C. (1997) Expo – Trade Fair Stand Design.
Crans-Pres-Celigny: Rotovision SA

Pegler, Martin M. (2001) Contemporary Exhibit Design.
New York: Visual Reference Publication

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