First, they turned lessons into learnings. Then, talking became surfacing. Now, activities are activations.

The Super Bowl is accompanied by 10 days of sophisticated event marketing and promotions. But marketers don’t call it that.

To them, that zipline over the Mississippi, the stuff happening on Nicollet Mall and even the volunteers in the skyways are not activities or booths or people — but activations.

“It’s a marketing term. It’s my life,” says Jill Madison, brand experience manager for Minneapolis-based Sleep Number. “I work in experiential marketing, so everything I work on is consumer-facing activations.”

The Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee has an executive in charge of activations. Rolling out its mobile app earlier this week, the committee bragged that “photos and videos from different activations will be delivered to the fan via e-mail.”

Old Spice alerted reporters to watch for “sampling activations with sports fans on the ground in Minneapolis.” Xcel Energy announced it is teaming up with Vestas, which provides turbines for its big wind farms, “for an activation at Super Bowl Live” to educate and engage the public.

After the 9/11 attacks, the word “activation” got twisted up in descriptions of terrorist training. Marketers seized it after mobile gadgets and social networks came along, though they don’t exactly agree about its meaning. Some say activation refers to activating a brand, or they use it in place of the word promotion. Others say it’s about causing customers to act or creating interaction with them.

“The way we define it is it’s marketing that builds a company’s image and drives a specific consumer action,” said Mike Kaufman, senior vice president of the brand activation group of the Association of National Advertisers, which puts on an annual brand activation conference. “It basically covers all areas of marketing other than advertising,” he said.

Marketers are taking advantage of the greater word-of-mouth power that consumers now possess with their digital gadgets. More and more, they craft experiences for people to record and share.

“They’re trying to come up with bigger and bolder ideas that create social marketing and buzz,” says Dave Hopkins, marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “We’re getting to see it up close this week.”

Marketers are using the word to describe big and small events around the Super Bowl, and even interactions inside events.

U.S. Bank, working with Visa, will showcase new services in a lounge off Nicollet Mall during the Super Bowl Live event over the next week. Its marketers drew up a “guest flow” plan with 10 potential activations for visitors, ranging from testing a new payment app to having a photo taken to getting a cup of coffee.

One of the ways Cub Foods and Target activated their brands was by helping to cover costs of the host committee’s 10,000-person volunteer group. The payoff for them: Their logos are on volunteers’ uniforms, with each sighting an activation.

Schwan’s describes several activations at its “truck tower” along Nicollet Mall. Visitors can get food samples, participate in a trivia game and make virtual bobbleheads that can be shared on social networks. “We’re looking forward to giving a memorable experience and expanding our customer base,” says Kelly Hilgert Spronk, Schwan’s marketing director. “What we would love is lead generation, capturing e-mail addresses and getting people to download our app.”

Activations sometimes spawn other activations.

Red Bull, the energy drink company, in 2001 started the Crashed Ice races in cities that now include St. Paul and attracted such big crowds that other companies added events that surround the races. “They could just put dasher [sign] boards on the side of the track,” says Bob Molhoek, chief marketing officer at SixSpeed, a Minneapolis marketing agency that helps Red Bull put on the St. Paul event. “But they create an activation to engage people.”

To Dennis Larson, who for 22 years has managed licensing of the companies that participate in the Minnesota State Fair, the hoopla over activation is just that. “It may be an oversimplification, but I think of activation as another way of saying exposure,” he said.

But among marketers, an activation pecking order appears to be taking shape. And some events may challenge the Super Bowl as the top place for activating, or activationing. One marketing blogger wrote last summer, “In the rise of social media and influencer marketing, Coachella has made its name as the ‘Super Bowl’ of marketing activations targeted at millennials.”

“Yeah, it’s a thing,” Sleep Number’s Madison said with a laugh to a reporter who was curious about the term. “Use it in a sentence today. See how it feels.”

 

Staff writers Jackie Crosby and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.