Secret Events: The cult of mystery

The art of subtlety has returned to brand promotion in the form of 'secret events', thanks largely to the power of social media spreading an initially exclusive experience to a mass audience, writes Katie Deighton.

As the late 1990s turned into the new millennium, coyness was not cool. Underground raves had been replaced by an influx of venues eager for bragging rights over capacity size and queue lengths, the deserted warehouses of east London were gentrified and the internet killed the act of surreptitiously handing out fliers.

Fast-forward to 2014 and an immersive film events company has wowed the public again, putting a movie released in 1985 back into the top ten at the box office. Secret Cinema's latest instalment, Back to the Future, was its most popular to date - despite a delayed opening - all the while ordering its audience to 'tell no one'.

And its success is not an anomaly. Rebel Bingo, a 'mutant form' of the humble game, has grown from a church hall in London to clubs across the US and Europe, while a quick online search of the phrase 'secret venue' produces scores of results. Even the transitory pop-up shop could be placed within this category.


Katie Penfold, managing partner at Because, explains: "Underground pop-up-style events are designed to immerse a select number of key influencers or specific target audiences in an alternative and fleeting experience. Consumers are given limited information - some seeding clues in the build-up to the event to maximise engagement and social chatter."

But the concept does not have to stay selective if the organiser wants a larger audience, Penfold continues. "Social media has made these events commercially viable - brands can capitalise on the secondary reach generated by the primary attendance," she says.

Facebook and Twitter may be the reason for secret events' resurgence in popularity, says Richard Dodgson, creative director at Timebased Events. "In an era when so much of our lives is documented on social media, we still crave mystery, surprise and originality," he explains. "It's fun to seek out and anticipate something we haven't already experienced in the third person online."

Notwithstanding the novelty of being liberally uninformed, basic psychology also plays a part. "It is within our nature to be curious," says Max Fellows, business development manager at TBA. "We get excited and more interested when discovering something new. These feelings of surprise, excitement, discovery and curiosity are what add to the overall event experience."

There is no denying that, like most events, the secret format is just a fresh social currency to be spent. Ironically, its popularity may also be down to the ability to share the experience online. Neil Hooper, creative director at Circle Agency, explains: "Guests are prepared to go to an event that they know little to nothing about because of social kudos - the 'I was there' mentality. People are willing to take risks for rewards today. It's not about following the social calendar, it's about curating it."

Penfold agrees. "Secret events capitalise on consumers' desire to post cool and interesting experiences on their social networks," she says. "The kudos of this is heightened when the experience is rare and temporary or exclusive. This also breeds 'fear of missing out' in those unable to attend, making them more likely to maintain communication with the brand or event so as not to miss out next time."

So, brands that add a secretive element to proceedings not only capitalise on free publicity via social-media hype, but earn cool points too. And Jim Carless, head of client services at Space, argues there are further commercial incentives. "Secret events allow brands to behave in ways they wouldn't in the mainstream," he says. "These events are one-offs or short-lived, targeting a specific audience, allowing brands to mix up their approach. By harnessing influencers, a secret event can reach a new audience."

As for the future, the secret event might hold more weight than other trends, purely because it has always been around in some sort of guise. "This has been happening since the '20s with 'speakeasies', the '60s with Beatles and Stones record-release parties, raves in the '80s and today with Prince's secret warm-up gigs," says Hooper. "It's not a phase. It will evolve to test the limits of the social endurance of attendees - it will only adjust to the appetite of our consumption and need for social currency."

"Like everything, there will be a period when it's going to be more popular, and this is right now," agrees Fellows. "But the element of surprise within events and reveals will never leave completely."


George P Johnson: Samsung Galaxy #winnertakesearth

Last October, a giant football appeared to have fallen from the sky in London, making a crop circle-style formation. Later, a hologram appeared on Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, while Times Square in New York 'malfunctioned' to display the hashtag '#winnertakesearth'.

The mysterious occurrences were part of George P Johnson's campaign to promote the new Samsung Galaxy smartphone, and were the precursor to the unveiling of Galaxy 11 - a team of top footballers, including Lionel Messi, who had been assembled to save the planet in a match against aliens.

The biggest challenge was to keep it all under wraps. "There's no such thing as a secret - everyone will inevitably tell one person. So we kept the team very small for that reason," says the agency's vice-president of sales and marketing, Kevin Jackson.

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