It Pays to Get Locked Up! Escape Rooms: The Marketers’ New Playground

One might think that being locked up is a thing of nightmares, well now it’s the new cool. Sweeping en-vogue industry events such as the South By Southwest (SXSW) Conference, the Escape Room is the attraction getting everyone talking. And it’s not just the participants, because this newfangled love of immersive experience is opening a door to innovative marketing opportunities, too.

What exactly is an Escape Room? You may ask. Picture this – you are in a locked room. You have a few random clues and you have no idea how to get out. You might think this is just another plot from one of the Saw film franchises but it is in fact the makings of an Escape Room experience. This ‘craze’ involves a group of up to 12 players – depending on where you book – who have to use physical and mental agility to unlock door after door, moving from room to room frantically figuring out cryptic clues. The catch? You have just 60 minutes to break free.

Of course this is not a new concept but after years of virtual reality parading as the cool big brother in the world of immersive experiences, escape rooms have been confidently working through the experiential ranks to take the title of legitimately ‘wow’. Not surprisingly, sharp marketers have tracked this and are now finding innovative ways to maximize the exposure to the experience. The ‘tie-in’ style of marketing agreement seems to be the ruling formula for this.

Famous examples to date include Disney hosting a pop-up escape experience linked with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The Escape Game in Austin Texas (America’s most popular escape experience) being taken over by FOX in time for the launch of a new series of Prison Break, and HBO setting up a multi-room installation themed around Game of Thrones, Veep, and Silicon Valley. Smart.

Although this style of marketing is also nothing new in itself, what makes it successful is that the products marry perfectly with the experience, and we know that consumers are, more than ever, compelled to spend their money on ‘doing’ rather than through traditional advertising methods, i.e. simply ‘watching’.

This trend can be linked back to the world of video games and eSports. Marketers would launch games then host ‘real world’ experiences: events, competitions and interactions that complimented the gameplay and made it tangible. This is where clever partnering and collaboration comes in. The perfect partnership here would be founded on a mutually beneficial commercial relationship where the escape room company and the IP (or copyright) owners work together to garner maximum exposure and expand the customer base, prompting a ‘win: win’ arrangement.

Escape 60 in Brazil pulled off a blinding example of this in 2015 when they linked up with Ubisoft, the creators of fantasy behemoth Assassin’s Creed, to get ahead of the game and create an escape room orchestrated around the release of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. America’s Escape Game, Marriott Vacations Worldwide and Vistana Signature Experiences also collaborated to bring the worlds of hospitality and entertainment together, which is now a growing trend. Alex Reece, CEO of America’s Escape Game, commented in an interview at the time (October 2016), “We see a very bright future of incorporating escape rooms powered by America’s Escape Game in multiple Vistana locations in the coming months and years. There is no doubt that this powerful alliance will bring the exploding escape room experience to many enthusiasts throughout the world.”

Fast-forward to 2017, and that same love of immersion drives many of the elaborate marketing activations we see today in escape rooms. “I think the immersion allows for it to be more personal and customized,” Joanna Scholl, vice president of marketing at HBO said when quoted in an interview at this year’s SXSW conference. When asked about HBO: The Escape she remarked, “Each person feels like they themselves are part of that experience, and it leaves much more of a memorable note for them.”

Ryan Coan founder of agency Creative Riff, the experiential marketing specialists who were the creators of the Prison Break escape room takeover also commented at the same event: “Experiential marketing is special because it’s an engagement. It’s something fans are choosing to do. Fans are so obsessive over this content, they’re so in love with these characters and their stories, that by allowing them to step inside that story and feel like they’re a part of it – even for a moment – is a really special experience.”

Design and innovation is at the forefront of this shrewd marketing trend as each room may have a different theme or difficulty level where the clues will also be themed around the subject matter of each room. The quality of the room has to be excellent and the immersion factor at the fore. The more the participants feel like they are ‘part of that space’ the more of a lasting impact the experience will have. This means competition is fierce and marketers have to be sharper than ever to find that perfect ‘hook’. That said, it doesn’t look like this marketing method is slowing up, so look out for the next immersive escape room experience leaping off a screen near you soon!

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