How brands can tap into the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in the Swiss Alps
For a small ski town in the Swiss Alps, Davos packs a big punch. Since 1971, it’s been home to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Annual Meeting, an international conference for collaborative, public-private discussions on global challenges. The event (which itself is commonly referred to as “Davos”) has historically drawn an ultra-VIP list of world leaders, heads of civil society, corporate executives and global media to the mountains each January. And now, marketers are in the mix, too.
Ten years ago, a handful of activations peppered the mile-long promenade outside of the Davos Congress Centre where the forum takes place. Flash-forward to 2024, and every square inch of real estate on that strip is occupied by brands—and the marketers behind them.
“Davos is the perfect platform,” says Mike Hesse, ceo at Dorothy. “This is literally where commerce and governance come together. So I see a big opportunity for brands to show up there. I think what we’ve really learned is how to show up.”
On the tails of the 54th Annual Meeting, Jan. 15-19, which drew nearly 3,000 attendees, we bring you eight insights on activating at one of the world’s most heavily gated affairs.
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Leaders Need Buy-in from Brands
A decade ago, Davos was a closed-door, VIP-only experience attended by, and presented by, heads of state and other dignitaries. Since then, an event that most would deem stuffy has progressed to include more representation from brands and the public sector. Why? In order to address, and solve for, global challenges like climate change, the WEF needs all hands on deck.
“Back in the day, Davos always used to be a very stiff, a very formal political kind of conference,” says Hesse. “But over the last 10 years, I think it has really opened itself up because they understood that it can’t happen in a vacuum. If you don’t have buy-in from the big brands, if you don’t get buy-in from the community and from the public and people participating on a broader level, you will not be able to advocate for initiatives against climate change [for example].”
Skip the Convention Center
Top-tier Davos sponsors don’t infiltrate the convention center—inside, it’s all buttoned up and all business. Rather, experiential activity takes place on the promenade below, or at hotels like The Belvedere and the Intercontinental. The setup could be compared to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT, where high-profile panels and film premieres are relegated to rented-out theaters around the city, and experiential activity dominates Main Street, where lounges, chalets and other branded spaces pop up every year.
Activations are Business Opportunities
Whereas a decade back, marketers were hard-pressed to find highly relevant business or networking occasions on-site, Davos is now ripe with opportunities.
“Ten years ago there were very few marketers, and Invisible North would take over the famed Piano Bar on opening night and meet ceos, world leaders and other prominent people who didn’t quite make sense as clients,” says Geoff Renaud, co-founder and ceo at Invisible North. “Now, our team meets tons of great marketers and it’s an excellent new business op for us.”
CEOs Bring their CMOs
Speaking of business opportunities for marketers, corporate ceos, who used to serve as their respective brand’s only c-suite representative, are now ensuring their cmos are also on the ground at Davos. “It was limited to ceos and their comms and public policy teams. Marketing was never really a focus,” Renaud says.
A Cause-first Approach is Critical
If ever there were an event that requires brands to implement a thoughtful, purposeful marketing approach, Davos is it. Cookie-cutter activations that have been deployed at other events—in-your-face tactics and experiences that don’t map back to a meaningful cause—are serious pitfalls.
“I would argue you at least have to have a cause or have something that drives society’s perspective on technology, society’s perspective on sustainability,” says Hesse. “If you are engaged—truly engaged—as an entity, then I think you should go. If you’re not, if you’re just trying to ride a wave, we would advise against it.”
Adds Hesse: “It’s really about authenticity, and understanding your brand’s values, versus trying to sell hard with a marketing stunt or something flashy. I think [it’s about] going there with an opinion and with a value set.”
A prime brand example from this year? LinkedIn. The brand collects valuable data on gender equality in the workforce through its platform, so it took over a space inside The Female Quotient’s Equality Lounge at WEF 2024. The luxurious corner footprint featured a conference table and overhead chandelier, live plants, refreshments and all-important Wi-Fi.
The highlight, however, was a partnership between LinkedIn and The Female Quotient that yielded a “Women & the Future of Work” economic graph. Through motion graphics, the interactive installation, which lined the halls of the entrance to the lounge, told a data story about gender gaps in leadership and critical sectors, and underscored the obstacles women still encounter in STEM-, AI- and sustainability-focused industries. (Agency: Invisible North)
WEF Topics Trickle into Brand Experiences
Brands who address topics within their activations that Davos attendees are already grappling with at the forum have a leg up—so long as the approach is authentic. According to Renaud, Davos is focused on major world issues including the economy, international conflicts, poverty and environmental problems, as well as global initiatives, like the UN’s past Millennium Development Goals project.
Stay in Your Lane
Just because AI is a hot topic at Davos doesn’t mean brands without expertise in the space should offer their two cents. It’s essential to recognize the kind of knowledge you can bring to the table, then stick with it. As Hesse puts it, “Don’t be insensitive,” or you’ll run the risk of generating backlash.
“[Davos attendees] are hyper-experts in specific topics. Stay in your lane. Whatever your specific knowledge is as a brand or a company, try to focus on that,” he says. “If you’re touching on a topic that you don’t know enough about, you might just tap into a trap where people will say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have said that,’ or ‘You shouldn’t have positioned it that way.’”
There’s Room for ‘Softer’ Brand Experiences
These days, Davos typically attracts big tech, publishers and media, financial institutions and consulting firms, who tend to offer branded places to network, observe panels and delve further into WEF topics. But there’s room for other types of relevant brands and experiences, including wellness activations, which have seen a recent uptick at Davos.
“There are a lot of culinary experiences, there are a lot of health and wellness experiences,” says Hesse. “If somebody is strong in their field and authentic about it, and can create entertainment or relaxation—something that is not necessarily technology and political impact; it’s softer—I think you can still show up.”
Photo credit: iStock/montipora; World Economic Forum; Invisible North