Tabitha Fairbairn and Matt Chandler: Powerful brand activations spark emotion, headlines and growth

A beautifully designed dump truck tipping out waste next to Sydney Harbour. Battling through Dropbox folders and a maze game to win some sauce. An enormous, gaping glimpse into Stranger Things’ Upside Down on Bondi Beach. These aren’t things you experience every day.


More and more brands are turning to spectacular activations such as these to reach audiences in a more powerful way. But instead of baking in a robust and brand-relevant earned media strategy, they risk being short lived, without any enduring brand story.

That’s why there’s an increasing need to create work that drives the news agenda, that has strategic PR baked into it, that goes “beyond the media buy” to travel far and wide, that gives a campaign greater dimension and more ways to show up in the world – so brands have the power to move consumers to action, at scale.

In many cases, activations are experienced by a few and seen by many. A considered PR plan can fuel the conversation to drive the messaging further and to broader audiences than just those experiencing it first-hand. It can reach a multitude of audiences around the country, or even around the world.

1800 Tequila’s The Bar Saved From Landfill was made exclusively from waste destined for landfill. The bar, designed by artist and sculptor James Dive, was designed to look as though it was pouring waste destined for the tip in a way that visually communicated the campaign’s key message – every day, 18,000 of these trucks deliver waste into the ground in Australia.

The activation portrays the strategic key message in a compelling, visual way that is ready made for media and therefore audience consumption. This drives talkability and shows up in key consumer touch points.

For a brand activation like this to succeed, it must be layered with cues that align to the media strategy. What is the core angle? What statistics are we using? What brand assets are the most relevant to bring to the forefront? How does this show up editorially? What is the single image that sums up the bold, visual idea, and its intention?

Activations don’t have to be exclusive to the physical world. In 2022, McDonald’s used a digital activation to communicate with its Chicken McNuggets superfans – an audience that lives and breathes digital and social media.

The campaign led fans on a drawn out, painfully long digital journey to get their hands on a limited run of sauces to accompany McNuggets, which traversed both physical and digital environments, including a Spotify song, an Instagram filter, a maze game, and an in-store logo scan.

Sauce Quest was about separating true brand lovers from the rest – creating a path so arduous that only passionate advocates would make it all the way to the end. The point wasn’t to ensure a huge chunk of Macca’s customers engaged with the entire experience. The point was that its biggest fans did, and it generated buzz across earned and social media along the way.

Importantly, experiences like these bring a brand’s story to life in a way that feels immersive, fun, and memorable. Plus, they create both short term impact, and feed into bigger, longer brand building efforts.

By focusing on the intersection of creativity and PR, marketers can influence how audiences think, feel, and act. They can leverage the power of creativity to solve their biggest business problems. And they’ll ensure their brands achieve an unfair share of voice in the market, because they’re creating an emotional connection with people.

Tabitha Fairbairn is managing director at Mango Sydney and Matt Chandler is executive creative director DDB Sydney.

First published via The Australian