Branding at a Trade Show


I just returned from a conference, which had over 100 exhibitors in the exhibit hall. In over 20 years of both attending and displaying at trade shows, I marvel at how badly many companies manage the opportunity to promote their brand. Here are a few tips for more effective branding on the exhibit floor:

1. Make your booth presentation simple and uncluttered. People are drifting past, making decisions in seconds about whether your booth is worth stopping at. A graphically appealing, open, and readily understood booth presentation will tend to draw people forward. A cluttered, boxed-in look, without any clear message about who you are and what you offer, will guarantee lots of walk-bys.

2. Concentrate on one message in the (visual) booth presentation. Tell who you are and what you do – one thing! – in the booth wording and graphic(s). Many companies fall into the trap of creating panels that are essentially static Powerpoint slides – bullet points of everything they do. Remember – you are trying to grab attention in seconds, not provide a written sales pitch. Save the additional words for when someone actually stops.

3. Concentrate on one message in what you say. People will be inundated with multiple messages from dozens of companies during a very compressed time frame. Unless your message is simple, memorable, and focused, you’ll be easily forgotten. And be sure to have several memorable client stories to tell – this will fasten the message in the mind of the attendee. If you don’t know how to accomplish this, work with a marketing consultant who can help you; or, at the very least, read Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick.

4. If you’re going to promote yourself through some sort of giveaway, make it small, and hard to throw away. Small, because attendees often have little room in their luggage (or trade show bag) for big/heavy items. And you want to multiply your brand exposure by putting your logo and/or message on something with a long shelf life. Branded candies, or large cans of popcorn, do not fall into this category! Tile coasters, memory sticks, business card holders, and other such valuable items are better candidates.

5. Above all, differentiate! You are competing for limited time and memory space. Unique colors, striking message delivery methods, booth “uniforms,” cool business cards – all of these are helpful. But the most compelling differentiator is sincere caring, genuine listening, and steady eye contact. Be real, and have real people in your booth. That will end up drawing the most traffic, and getting the best long-term results. Because ultimately, that is what creates valuable business relationships.

(Image credit: Duncan Davidson, Flickr)

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  1. Here, here great advice Steve. Trade shows are great opportunities where you can speak directly to your target market, and since these folks spent good money to attend to discover something they are prime for a positive brand experience.

    If you are a exhibitor also consider renting trees and plants to take the hard edge of your display. Also, what I found to be effective is to take your message outside of the display. Hire actors to play a role at the entrance and drive the attendees back to your space. Find out where choice attendees are staying and pepper that location with your message. Take advantage of any opportunity to put your unique position in front of them. With a little effort you can identify several opportunities for exposure.

    So many shows are fewed as a neccessary evil. But with a little effort they can be made a lot of fun and invigorate your staff. If your staff are not especially looking forward to attending it is probably because the message is uninpiring and you are not saying something different from your competition. Same old, same old.

    Stand back, take at look at the show. How else can you exploit the opportunity? How about renting a semi and hang a billboard on both sides with your unique positioning and have in travel around the exhibit hall at peek times. (or maybe even park it near the entrance to the lot).

    Good timing Steve. Many industries are now planning for fall shows and this post will get them rocking in the right direction.

  2. Wonderful article! Mike Sandy’s book, I’m Finally in Business for Myself…Now What? really helped me decide to start a small business.

  3. Steve,
    Excellent article and great suggestions! I’m actually doing a trade show this week in Atlanta and I’m amazed at how badly some companies do it. I’m by no means perfect and could use some of your suggestions, but there are some people that are really clueless!

  4. Many comapnies do not view trade shows as n opportunity but as a necessary evil. Their competition is there so they must also appear. They put enormous effort into flashy graphics but very little into positioning. The message is often lost, if it is there at all.

    Picture yourself as an attendee walking down your aisle – why should you even care? What is your display saying that would make you stop and inquire. With proper creativity you can appear to be a bigger player and with the proper positoning of message you can make a statement that gets noticed.

    I can’t tell you the number of times clients call me in wanting a cool booth and I have to slow down that thought and force them to focus on the brand message.

  5. Hi Steve,
    Great article and a lot of truths in there! We do franchise exhibitions at both small and large venues and everything you said here rings true, especially the bit about differentiating!

    I also agree with your comments about getting actors in to guide people to your stand…we have the “Homefinder Rollergirls” that we use (see the bottom of this page for their piccie! I cannot tell you how much of a stir they cause whenever we go anywhere with them. Other companies always want them to do promo stuff for them (but we don’t allow it – obviously!) If we go into a town centre – like we did recently in Nottingham we always get a crowd of people wanting their piccies taken with them (and we always encourage folk to post those piccies on the net of course 😉 ) So yes using actors/promo girls is worth while – the only thing I’d say is that you really have to make an impact with them as it can often be quite costly to pay an extra “license” to have staff who are allowed to be “off stand” at an exhibition.
    Another good trick at a franchise exhibition is to encourage one or two of your actual franchisees to man the stand with you wearing an “I’m a homefinder franchisee” tee shirt and get them to give first hand details of their experience as one of your franchisees. You could perhaps try this with one of your customers or supliers if franchisees are not applicable. 🙂

    Keep up the good work Steve though, really informative article, enjoyed it!

  6. Great article! We beat a similar message into our client’s heads on a daily basis, especially the notion of keeping your message simple. It’s amazing how it goes in one ear and out the next as we don’t always create the actual designs; just print the graphics for the displays we offer. The designer hired by the client has no clue on effective graphic design for trade show displays. In the end it just makes the clients efforts a waste of time.
    – Evan
    A Smash Hit! Trade Show Displays

  7. Ed Roach added some outstanding comments, especially this one:
    “So many shows are fewed as a neccessary evil. But with a little effort they can be made a lot of fun and invigorate your staff.”

  8. Ed Roach added some outstanding comments, especially this one:

    “So many shows are (viewed)as a necessary evil. But with a little effort they can be made a lot of fun and invigorate your staff.”

    When shows/exhibits are seen as a necessary evil, it’s no wonder they don’t work, they cost a fortune and they don’t show any ROI. As marketers, it’s out job to get staff excited and show them how to get attendees excited.

    I think I’ve seen Ed’s comments elsewhere, and he’s always got a great brand focus. Now, if all of our clients did too….


  9. Love the flourescent booth bunnies Freya, outstanding!

    Many times when we use actors we do it without permission (guerilla style). Once in Orlando, in promoting a shipping software client when hired an actor dressed like a motorcycle cop who handed out tickets for going “too slow”. It had an amusing reaction when the attendees got it. The ticket was also for a draw back at the booth. (we did this until management told us to stop, but we got in several hours at the peak period)

    The entire display centred around the cop on the motocycle theme and the going too slow penalty. The client really enjoyed the show and the leads were good ones. As Mark says, “…it’s our job to get staff excited and show them how to get attendees excited.”

  10. All,

    Thanks for all the interesting comments on this post – I didn’t actually anticipate this much engagement on the topic. For many years, I’ve really enjoyed cruising the exhibit hall to critique displays and approaches – on rare occasions there is something truly outstanding, but much of what I’ve seen has been awful – really “breaking the rules” of trying to get something memorable across in the span of a few seconds. What are some of the most memorable booths/tactics you’ve seen, and why did they stand out?

  11. At a former job, we had an ingredient that was now available for liquid formulations so I bought one of those hokey water spigot that you see in water purification booths at county fairs. Painted it our colors and put in on one corner of our exhibit.

    It drew loads of attention from people who didn’t know how to operate it…some even wanted to get their picture taken by it.

    When they asked about how it worked, we started qualifying them!

  12. Lol – love it Ed!! That’s fab – but that’s exactly what’s great about good marketing – it’s always the unexpected that works the best!
    Move over “CHiPs” here comes Ed! 🙂

  13. Wonderful tips, I loved #5 and that was a thought I was trying to convey, I linked into this article! Great advice!

  14. Hi Steve,
    Excellent advice. Keep it simple, focus on one message, differentiate… all excellent advice and often repeated but missed I think.
    I liked your last point the best though.
    “…sincere caring, genuine listening, and steady eye contact. Be real, and have real people in your booth…”
    All the fantastic graphics, giveaways, and/or entertainment and buzz won’t make up for the fact that trade shows are a place to interact face-to-face with prospects – and people want to talk to people that treat them like an individual… Further, as you pointed out, one shouldn’t focus on the short term but rather the long term, and look to establish long term relationships.
    If you don’t mind me getting in a relevant plug for my company, having an effective trade show display is important to making one’s trade show exhibit a success. There are so many options these days, but I recommend checking out the many trade show display companies on the internet now where one can save a bundle over buying at a local dealer show room. We are one such company, and all of our trade show displays can be ordered on-line at our e-store. We also have a wealth of customer reviews and testimonials on our site. I see some other display companies that have posted above that one should check out as well.
    Again, well-stated and good advice!
    Thanks for the opportunity to comment and add my “two cents”!

  15. Exhibition Stands says

    Hi Steve,

    Thank you for the advise I think you have covered some very interesting points here. Most of all I agree with #5 as it is extremely important to differentiate yourself from other companies, especially if competing companies are all at the show. Exhibitions are a place where you can promote your brand to a broader audience therefore you need a design which will stand out and grab a potential clients attention. Never underestimate the power of brand awareness!

  16. I definitely agree with these tips Steve. Especially keep it organized and DIFFERENTIATE! Everyone at a convention is trying to attract attention so you can be sure to attract notice if you stand out from the crowd.

    Also, this is the best time to display your brand and gain brand awareness. Be sure your marketing material is consistent!

  17. It’s all about getting them to your trade show booth, but it’s also about getting them to call you later as well. Nice article.

  18. A lot of exhibitors waste a lot of money sometimes at branding in exhibitions BUT if doen right it can work incredibly well. Great write up and I agree with all you say.

    As you say, fouc son one message. I think too many times some companies try to be all things to all people and their message gets lost. Good blog!

  19. we recently had a very good client who spent thousands with us for a dental showcase at the NEC in birmingham – it was the first time a show was held in november and the response was poor. one tip though to keep costs low – use very basic and clean stands – the white goes very well with effective lighting – many of our clients were please they didnt spend an awful lot of stands and other marketing material! – maybe things will pick up next year?

  20. Banner Stands –

    By poor response, did you mean attendance was low? If so, was who did attend at least quality? For me I don’t so much care how many attend an event I’m involved with, but rather the quality of those who took the time to attend. Sometimes it’s a better opportunity.


  21. Hi Steve,
    Your trade show booth design must clearly and impressively communicate who you are, the benefits you deliver, and why you are the best choice to meet your target audience’s needs. You have only a matter of seconds to attract the attention of potential prospects during a show.

    Advances in technology have made it easier and easier to create your own trade show graphics. However, it’s easy to get lost in the technology and lose sight of the basics. When it comes to creating a Trade Show Display, your images and messages should be simple and your layouts clean.


  22. Hi steve

    Although this article is nearly three years old (!), the advise given is still very relevant.

    I certainly agree with point four, all too often we see big items given away at events that the winners are simply unable to carry with them! A bit of common sense should always be used 🙂

  23. Great article. Just wanted to add that you also need to stop the traffic from going past your booth. Regardless of the size of your exhibit, if your staff just sits there, countless opportunities will pass you by. Giveaways and contests are fine, but who are these people signing up? You want real prospects.

    Also, you can have a great looking booth, but that won’t get attendees to stop and interact with you or your reps. You need to stop them first and deliver a concise message in a unique and interactive way.

    For over 30 years, we have been helping our clients attract crowds, deliver a message and qualify attendees BEFORE they get a giveaway and BEFORE they enter the booth to talk to reps.

  24. Thanks for stopping by Bob and gang – leaving your bread crumbs. I hope the other readers are paying close attention to your fine advice. Great information.