The SXSW conference has a history of being home to some of the most elaborate marketing events imaginable. Whether it’s a chance to stay over at the Bates Motel, visit the restaurant from Breaking Bad, or see Kanye and Jay Z perform (courtesy of Samsung), it’s as much a part of the show as technology talks and movies. But this year a new style of tie-in swept the festival: the escape room.
Disney launched a pop-up escape experience tied to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Fox took over the “Prison Break” room at The Escape Game Austin to promote the new season of, yes, Prison Break. And HBO had a multi-room installation in place to promote Game of Thrones, Veep, and Silicon Valley. After years where one-off VR experiences were the allure du jour, escape rooms seemed to be everywhere — and judging from the turnout and the marketers themselves, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
The idea of bringing properties off the screen and into the real world isn’t exactly new. Disney has arguably been doing it with theme parks since the 1950s, but the marketing trend as we know it today can in many ways be traced back to the alternate reality game. Starting in the early 2000s, experiences like The Beast (for Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) and Year Zero (promoting the Nine Inch Nails album of the same name) used websites and puzzle-solving to engage fans, but those experiences would often pay off with events and interactions that took place in the real world. While they largely remained a niche phenomenon, ARGs emphasized how eager fans could be to engage with their favorite properties in an actual physical way, rather than just through traditional advertising.
Fast forward to 2017, and that same love of immersion drives many of the elaborate marketing activations we see today, particularly the escape rooms. “I think the immersion allows for it to be more personal and customized,” Joanna Scholl, vice president of marketing at HBO tells me outside the company’s SXSW installation, HBO: The Escape. “Each person feels like they themselves are part of that experience, and it leaves much more of a memorable note for them.”
It’s a point that was was echoed by the team at Creative Riff, an agency that specializes in experiential marketing and was behind Prison Break’s escape room takeover. “I think that we’re in a very different time, where there are so many screens,” says agency founder Ryan Coan. “Experiential marketing is special because it’s an engagement. It’s something fans are choosing to do. Fans are so obsessive over this content, they’re so in love with these characters and their stories, that by allowing them to step inside that story and feel like they’re a part of it — even for a moment — is a really special experience.”
It’s marketing sleight of hand, circumventing audience exhaustion over endless advertising by offering up free experiences that many would pay for if given the option. For an agency like Creative Riff, that’s meant everything from recreating the Gotham City skyline for a zipline experience at San Diego Comic-Con, to faking a UFO crash at The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles for the return of The X-Files. And with audiences happy to share their own participation, these real-world marketing experiences form a self-sustaining cycle of hype: fans take part and take photos, which they then share on social media, which inspires more people to come, and the entire thing starts all over again.
ESCAPE THE BRAND
That same loop of posting “I escaped” (or “I failed and was eaten by a zombie”) photos has proven to be effective viral marketing for the explosion of escape rooms, a form of entertainment that was basically unheard of in the United States just four years ago, but has now eclipsed over 1,500 installations across the country. And while the influx of escape experiences at SXSW was notable, it certainly wasn’t the first time a brand or company has capitalized on the phenomenon. Last year Fox launched a special Exorcist-themed escape room in Los Angeles, and just in the past two months we’ve checked out escape rooms tied to The Legend of Zelda and the Resident Evil series.
In many ways, this kind of appropriation serves as a bellwether for consumer interest in a given trend. Once virtual reality became a hot cultural topic, some of the first places it became readily available to the public were through promotional and marketing events looking to capitalize on interest in the technology. For HBO, there was a very specific focus that led them to the use of escape rooms. “It started out with us testing this and trying to reach millennials,” says Scholl, with its trio of rooms originally built for college campuses like the University of Connecticut. “It got such an overwhelming positive response, we wanted to optimize it and bring it here to SXSW, given the audience.”
The HBO installation, which served around 1,000 audience members over its three-day run in Austin, excelled at one thing: bringing the audience into the worlds of the network’s different shows. The puzzles themselves were relatively easy, but whether it was the home offices of Pied Piper or a corner of Castle Black (complete with falling “snow”), the set decoration and design created an environment that immediately evoked the aesthetics and sensibilities of each of the three programs being highlighted. Considering participants had just five minutes to escape from each show’s room, that’s no small feat — but when it comes to the larger trend of immersive entertainment in general, it’s often the most vital component.
Things like escape rooms are part of an ecosystem of interactive experiences that covers everything from haunted houses to theme parks, and in almost all cases transporting the audience to a different world that feels tangible and real is essential — and for the audience, intoxicating. Last year at San Diego Comic-Con a Mr. Robot virtual reality short, directed by series creator Sam Esmail, was part of the promotional landscape. But when I talked to people in line at that event, putting on a headset wasn’t the real allure. Instead, it was the idea of exploring the exhibit’s recreations of the Mr. Robot computer store and lead character Elliot’s bedroom that was drawing people in. It’s the difference between being part of a beloved showed and simply watching a different kind of content from one, and Creative Riff managing partner Michele Di Paolo sees the ability to photograph these real-word experiences as an essential part of their appeal.
“People just really like to share [these experiences]”, Di Paolo explains. “When you’re going through a VR experience, it’s a really cool immersive experience. But then how are you going to share what you’re feeling with somebody else? You take a photo with the goggles on. How many times are you going to share that photo of yourself?”
It all makes the escape room a perfect fit for the wants and needs of a company working to hype a brand. The real-world interaction can provide a memorable social experience worth talking about. Staging and set design can give the audience the feeling that they’re stepping inside their favorite world. And even if the experience itself isn’t all that exciting — the 45-minute Prison Break escape room was the only SXSW activation that featured a true escape room experience with multiple rooms and complex puzzles — the post-escape selfie is always there to spread the word regardless.
THE BRAND-ACTIVATED FUTURE
That doesn’t mean other approaches like VR are dead, however. If anything, agencies are simply looking for ways to integrate new technologies into the frameworks they’ve found are already working, in order to build the next wave of promotional events. “We’ve been looking into how do we take technology and add it to an experience,” Coan says, describing a rock wall activation the group created to promote the animated series Son of Zorn. “While someone is doing the rock climbing, can they wear HoloLens glasses, and can the world of Zorn come into play there? Can characters show up? How do we mix physical and digital?”
It’s an intriguing push, highlighting the fact that since many of these forms of entertainment remain without viable business models in their own right, it’s the unlikely investments from promotional and marketing budgets that are helping move them forward inch by inch. But whatever that next-generation, brand-activated future of physical and digital experiences looks like, one thing is for certain: you’ll be able to find it at SXSW.