Pop-up shops are everywhere — “you can use a pop-up event in nearly any industry that will allow for creativity and has the budget to create a unique experience” according to event planning blogger Christina Green. Strategist Melissa Gonzalez’s book “The Pop-Up Paradigm” echoes this sentiment, spouting statistics that’ll make you want to run out and pitch a secret pop-up event to your favorite brand right away. Brands hosting successful pop-ups experience an average of a 35% increase in sales, with at least half of these being coupled by a 30% increase in social media interactions. From a marketing standpoint, this is a hard win backed by hard facts! How could it possibly be a bad idea?
Allow me to go off on a bit of a tangent here.
When I’m not creating GIFs or blogging about advertising that grinds my gears, I'm attending shows at Chicago's various underground DIY venues. These spaces book and host local musicians and artists their owners deem worthy of an audience - those that slip through the cracks of the bars and venues obligated to book larger acts for the sake of meeting marketing quotas. Most importantly, since the venue doubles as hosts' living spaces, they have no overhead fees to pay — 100% of profits from admission go toward paying performers. Oh yeah, and did I mention this is also mega illegal?
Because unlicensed entertainment venues are against the law (despite doing nothing unethical), hosts take extreme precautions to keep events under the radar while still pulling in a crowd. They don’t publicize their addresses. They don’t hang promotional posters around town. They don’t advertise. On the rare occasion bigger artists perform, they privatize the Facebook events to limit the event’s reach.
And somewhere along the line, the covertness they exercise for the sake of safety has become synonymous with mainstream coolness. What's regarded as “secret” reads as “exclusive" to those on the outside. And brands caught wind of this. Everyone wants a slice of the DIY pie — namely the hosts of branded secret shows and pop-up shops — and often for the wrong reasons.
“RSVP to attend”
Recently, I received an E-mail with an event invite sprinkled with these terms - terms implying that the event was exclusive, and that we were extra special for being lucky enough to get invited. But this event wasn’t illegal — it was paid. It was licensed. it was sponsored by Jack Daniel's and The Fader. None of these brands had anything to gain from such exclusiveness. It was simply an appropriation of the secrecy that DIY venues need to stay alive.
It's not just Jack Daniel's who's guilty of the commodification of secrecy - this is an epidemic common in everything from newly-minted brands to large booking companies and celebrities at Austin's South by Southwest:
What brands get wrong is the core motive of low-key events — DIY venues don’t privatize events to make attendees feel special — they do it to keep their audience, performers and venue safe. But brands, being on the outside of the underground music sphere, see this secrecy as an effort to seem “cool” and “exclusive” while also giving attendees a chance to feel better than the people around them.
Don’t get me wrong — from a marketing perspective, secret pop-up events have the power to bring in a heck of an audience. I attended the Jack Daniel's pop-up event, which boasted fun photo booths and complimentary whiskey cocktails to which I’ll never say no — but I’d be lying if I wasn’t just a little bit disgusted that it’s capitalizing on an exclusivity I wish wasn’t necessary for the underground venues I know and love to survive.
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