The Element of Surprise

April 28, 2016

Late in April, during a stop-and-go afternoon car ride through the Bowery in Manhattan, traffic landed me in front of a block mobbed with twenty-somethings standing in a roped-off line leading to an unmarked storefront. This wouldn’t usually pique my interest (isn’t every street in New York filled with hipsters on a Saturday?), but the unusual thing was most people held what looked like … cat toys? Mice hanging from strings bounced around as the line slowly filtered into the shop. As I inched closer and cars swerved ahead of me, I saw the cause of congestion in front of the store was a parked truck covered in pictures of cats. Turns out, I was witnessing the now infamous pop-up Cat Café.

What’s Poppin’
A pop-up shop is exactly what it sounds like: a store that appears “out of nowhere” then disappears just as quickly. Brands will rent out empty storefronts (or build a temporary stand) for a few hours, one day or a few days with often little fanfare. Customers are enticed with the idea of being part of or buying something that is only around for a limited time … and brag about it on social media.

Although the practice has been around as holiday stores (Halloween costumes, Christmas decorations) and surprise trunk sales, recently, the adoption of “pop-up shops” has become the latest phenomenon in viral marketing.

With this method, the Cat Café brought a new spin to cat adoption, branding and jump-started the pop-up trend. Purina ONE partnered with the shelter, North Shore Animal League America, to create the NYC pop-up in order to raise awareness of and facilitate cat adoptions by offering four days of free “cat-achinos” and petting of adoptable cats freely roaming the store. If there’s one thing Millennials love, it’s cats. So, when news leaked a few days before that there would be a place to just sit, drink free coffee and pet cats (and take one home), the entirety of the NYC cat-loving public showed up. Over four days, reportedly thousands of people stood in line for the chance to spend 30 minutes inside with the cats. Of the 21 adoptable cats, all had new homes by the time the store closed on Sunday (according to Purina).

Not only was this a win for the adopted cats, but also a win for Purina with viral, guerilla marketing. The pop-up event sky-rocketed online and gave Purina ONE and the shelter extreme exposure across social media, from people tweeting in the line (3,000 mentions in the first two hours on Thursday) to those posting Instagram selfies with the cats. A branded hashtag and live stream of the event brought even more exposure and engagement for the brand.

Pop-ups are now popping up all over – a quick Google search shows at least 10 other stores in NYC alone are scheduled this summer from all different kinds of brands getting in on the trend. However, some brands are starting to use “pop-up” a little loosely; some, like a bike company, are using “pop-up” to describe a summer-long residency in another store. On the Girl Scouts of America’s website, they now describe tables set up in front of supermarkets for scouts to sell their cookies as “pop-up cookie stores.”

Whatever the length, using “pop-up” is a sure-fire way to gain attention for a brand in order to sell limited-edition merchandise, broadcast a service or, at the very least, gain a little hype on the Internet. Don’t be surprised if those empty storefronts in your city are suddenly filled this summer, if only temporarily.