Family in airport

3 secrets to draw kids to live experiences

Creativity, boldness and innovation are the keys to successful live events—but do they translate into actually getting this tech-enabled generation to show up?
July 30, 2019

Gone are the days when TV jingles and character endorsements were enough to motivate kids to try new cereals and toys.

Immersive, live events and experiences are now driving brand trial and affinity. In fact, according to Expedia, 74% of Americans prioritize experiences over products these days, and 65% of brands say that live events and experiential programs are directly related to sales.

Across categories, marketers are using physical space to reshape family leisure, build brand narratives and spur emotional connections. Real-life, immersive experiences create compelling moments that can deepen engagement and strengthen brand affinity and loyalty. There is no shortage of opportunities for kids and families to see, touch and interact with their favorite brands in new ways this summer.

Both Hasbro and Mattel are launching multi-branded theme parks as they lean into experiential family entertainment strategies in bids to stay relevant and competitive. Next spring, Toronto will be the first site of Mattel’s 25,000-square-foot indoor theme park geared to four- to 10-year-olds. Hasbro, meanwhile, recently hired someone to be its first chief consumer experience officer, and the toyco plans to launch a 20-acre indoor water park and family resort in Malaysia in 2022. And the toy manufacturers aren’t alone: Cirque Du Soleil, Hello Kitty prodco Sanrio, WB, MGM and other content creators have all deepened their experiential pushes in recent months.

Even smaller brands are getting in on the experience action. New York’s CAMP opened a family store in December 2018 that blurs the lines between entertainment and retail. In addition to the toys, games, books and apparel integrated throughout the 10,000-square-foot space, families can take part in a revolving schedule of free events, such as cooking classes, arts and crafts sessions and gardening lessons.

But how can companies stand out in an increasingly crowded market?

From hotels and amusement parks to reimagined retail space, brands are bonding with kids by creating unique, memorable—and shareable—real-life moments.

Amplify the senses

Kicking off summer with a splat is Nickelodeon’s Slime City pop-up that opened its doors in Atlanta, Georgia on June 15. The network brought its iconic slime to life in a one-of-a-kind experience where kids can see, feel and get doused in the infamous green goo. Throughout the pop-up, kids can watch slime flow through giant bottles, jump on a beanbag-style slime area or imprint themselves on a slime wall, while employees actively encourage visitors to take pictures and videos. With 66% of six- to eight-year-olds and 57% of tweens ages nine to 12 already loving Nickelodeon, according to Brand Love tracking data, branded activations like these are sure to draw them in further.

From a marketing perspective, Nickelodeon and slime just go together. And, let’s be frank, kids continue to love goop in all forms: Slime toys pulled in more than US$21.6 billion in the past year, according to NPD data. But it’s the physical interaction (and inherently Instagrammable nature of that slime play) that makes this a uniquely appropriate activation that strengthens kids’ emotional connections to the network.

Be social

It’s not only today’s Millennial parents who love to share every experience—their kids do as well. More than 70% of Snapchat and Instagram users ages six to 12 are using the social media sharing apps at least daily.

As a result, successful branded experiences must be inherently shareable. Take Bixbee, a backpack and lunchbox maker that announced a new pop-up shop called Imagination Station. Designed for Instagram photos, the new space invites kids in with life-sized mystical creatures, special lighting, sounds and backdrops filled with glitter and shimmer.

Television doesn’t offer this kind of photo-taking opportunity. Bixbee is providing a setting for visitors to create shareable moments that drive newsfeed envy and engaging buzz for brands—a social currency that is only made possible through a live, experiential component.

Bring parents in on the action

Cartoon Network is planting its flag, too. According to Brand Love, its 830 Kidfinity score in 2018 marks a six-year high. The network’s popularity is on the rise, and it is currently boys’ 15th favorite brand overall.

Leveraging this passion, Cartoon Network is opening its first hotel this summer. Situated in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (next to the Dutch Wonderland Amusement Park), the hotel will feature employees dressed as cartoon characters, an outdoor amphitheater, lawn games, themed arcades, an interactive lobby and more. Guest rooms can be customized around kids’ favorite shows. Jake from Adventure Time will serve breakfast while Gunter the Penguin lifeguards at the pool. Outdoor screenings will premiere never-before-seen animated productions. And parents will be able to veg out in the themed coffee lounge or wine bar.

While catering to every member of the family is often challenging, engaging parents—the decision-makers and controllers of the purse strings—is key to experiential success.

Engagement 501

Branded experiences lead the way to kids’ hearts. If you’re just starting your live experience planning process, remember, to win with the youngest generation of consumers, marketers and developers should explore the creation of events and environments that amplify sensory stimulation and evoke lasting emotional responses. These real-world brand exposures work when you encourage creative photo opps and socially shareable moments to build buzz, and offer entertaining ways for parents to engage with the brand. Creativity, boldness and innovation are the keys to success for brands as they expand into the world of experiential marketing.

Mara Singer is an insights brainiac at Smarty Pants, a youth and family research and consulting firm. For more information contact Meredith Franck at 914-939-1897 or visit

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