Where do we draw the line between best practices and death by uniformity?
After a dozen years covering exhibits and events, I've noticed that every industry has its own norms. Whether a certain sector draws largely from a specific color palette, uses particular materials and finishes, or employs a number of high-tech trappings, each has a unique and distinct flavor. For example, EuroShop, held every three years in Dusseldorf, Germany, is known for conceptual designs, trendsetting finishes, and minimal graphics. Meanwhile, the National Stationery Show is littered with do-it-yourself booths boasting crafty embellishments.
It's for this reason that I often encourage exhibit managers to scout new shows before buying booth space – or at least scour the internet for photos – to extract some of the event's DNA and figure out how to infuse it into their own marketing efforts. For instance, noting what competitors' exhibits look like, how large they are, what kinds of traffic-building promotions they employ, and even how formally or informally attendees are dressed can help marketers make decisions on everything from how big of a booth space they need to what kind of uniforms staffers should wear.
But lately, as I see how homogenous exhibit halls have become, I wonder whether I've been giving the wrong advice for far too long. As I hoof it from booth to booth at trade shows across the United States and around the globe, I often find events full of exhibits that have far too much in common, making it difficult, if not impossible, for any of them to compete for attention – and rendering the show-floor experience monotonous and mundane, which is a liability for marketers hoping for steady traffic and packed aisles. In other words, has the attempt to conform to industry norms rendered most exhibits unremarkable at best, or indistinguishable from competitors at worst?
I recently took photos of well-known brands' booths at shows I've attended in the past year, blurred out the companies' logos, and asked friends and colleagues if they could identify the exhibitor based solely on each exhibit's aesthetics. And while most could decipher the industry being served, the vast majority couldn't distinguish between, for instance,
exhibits from Samsung and Panasonic.
If your booth could, for all intents and purposes, be mistaken for a rival's, then you've ceded one of your most powerful trade show tools, diminishing any branding- or awareness-related returns you may hope to see from your exhibit-marketing investment. Differentiation is the name of the game in both marketing and sales. But if face-to-face marketers put too much effort into following the unwritten rules of their industry's exhibiting peers, we end up with aisles of stands that blend in but don't stand out.
Having said that, there's obviously something to be said for fitting in. After all, exhibiting in a rustic, reclaimed-wood stand might be inappropriate at a health-care show full of sleek and oftentimes sterile exhibitry. And a no-frills, low-tech booth might be bad idea at an event like the International Consumer Electronics Show. But where do we draw the line between best practices and death by uniformity?
Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all response to my rhetorical query. Some risk-averse companies would never green light an out-of-the-box booth design, while others may step so far outside the box that they alienate attendees. So I'm revising my attend-first, exhibit-later advice. Rather than walking an event's exhibit hall to see how you can fit in, simply take note of the industry norms. Then determine which you'll adopt, which you'll adapt, and which you'll completely ignore in an attempt to zig where others zag. Because while there may be no "right" answer regarding how dissimilar your design should be, this approach will ensure that you're making an informed decision rather than an uninspired one.