Founder Focus: Pop-Up Architect, Melissa Gonzalez

By | 2017-12-20T16:22:55+00:00 February 16th, 2016|Startup Culture|

Melissa_GonzalezHer title may read founder or retail strategist or pop-up architect, but let me just say this: Melissa Gonzalez is THE guru when it comes to pop-up strategy, design and implementation.

Award-winning pop-ups with big brands

If you live in New York City, Austin or Los Angeles (or summer in the Hamptons), you may have experienced one of the “retailing everywhere” experiences Melissa has had a hand in (Melissa and her team have produced over 100 pop-up retail experiences through the company she founded in 2009, The Lion’esque Group, Melissa has worked with a diverse range of brands such as Ford Foundation, Sally Hansen, Food 52, Prince Tennis, Coty, J. Hilburn and Ellen DeGeneres’ Halo Pets Foundation to name just a few, and has been recognized for her work with awards (not just more great client work). Melissa was the recipient of the 2015 Retail Innovator Award for her client Retail Touchpoints, and she received a CLIO Image Award for experiential engagement in 2014.

But hold on, there is more. Melissa co-founded The MARKET (successful pop-up retail environment located in the transformed street-facing space of the Roger Smith Hotel). She is also the author of The Pop-Up Paradigm (how that book lead to a successful publishing business being launched is an interview in itself!) a guide to the role that pop-ups are playing in retail, plus checklists and best practices for executing a winning pop-up. Melissa is also a frequent media commentator on trends and innovations in retail.

Great pop-ups begin with a great strategy

Before launching her own business, Melissa was on Wall Street in institutional sales, which likely explains some of her tenacity and results-driven approach when dealing with clients. When asked when is the right (or wrong) time for a pop-up, Melissa’s response says it all:

If you have zero idea of what your retail strategy is, if you don’t know what customer you’re going after, if you don’t understand what you’re asking a customer to do and what you’re giving back for it, don’t do a pop-up.

Pop-ups are about going to where you customers are – so whether you’re a retail brand or not, you can learn something about connecting more authentically and building deeper relationships with your target audience from Melissa. Here are some of my favorite moments from our interview:

Pop-ups have become a permanent fixture in a brand marketer’s toolkit. Why do you think that is?

At the end of the day, people crave human interactions. They like to discover, they like to be delighted. The ability to deliver this is limited online, so a pop-up store enables brands and retailers to create a unique experience for their existing and new customers.

Why are pop-ups just as important for big brands as for emerging companies?

For emerging brands, pop-up stores tend to be more focused on near term sales, which is a fraction of the benefits you receive from a pop-up. For big brands, pop-ups are an opportunity to announce something new and allow for a concentrated marketing campaign where they can activate and drive existing followers to help amplify their reach. They can also learn more about their customers, what they love about the new product announcement (and perhaps what they don’t)—it’s essentially a massive focus group for them! Both the marketing blitz and focus group data allow big brands to gain insights to help grow sales over the quarters to follow.

What are consumers looking to experience in a pop-up?

Consumers are looking for surprise and delight in a pop-up store experience. They walk in expecting to learn something new, gain exclusive access or get a deal, whether it’s a limited edition product or a special price. Consumers walk into a pop-up with different expectations than a permanent store and brands need to always remember that.

How can companies use the “temporary” retail experience concept to educate their employees and customers on their brand?

Training staff for a pop-up is crucial. Employees become an extension of the experience in a pop-up store. It’s imperative they understand the brand’s voice, style guide (what they should say and not say), talking points and benefits of each product. They need to be prepared to further the in-store experience, not simply “do their job.”

Within the space, customers can be educated by clever signage, interactive areas such as behind-the-scenes stories via VR glasses, and most importantly, through store staff interaction.

What’s a pop-in and when would a brand want to consider this as a retail strategy?

A pop-in is a curated in-store event that is a special, dedicated space within another space. A pop-in makes sense when a brand is not quite ready to take on a full store on their own. When planning a pop-in, a brand must really understand brand alignment. They should focus on ensuring the retail space is aligned with their brand aesthetic and is a complementary fit to their product offering. When well curated, a pop-in can serve as a successful co-marketing event.

What trends do you think we’ll see going forward with brand activations?

Here are the three I’m watching in 2016 as they’ll have a big impact on pop-ups and retail generally:

  • Strategic Partnerships/In-store events
  • Virtual Reality for a deeper brand experience (check out Volvo and augmented reality showrooms)
  • Continuing evolution of mobile payments

What are the 3 things a company or brand should consider before launching a pop-up?

Whether you are an established brand working with PR firms / digital agencies or an emerging designer with a DIY strategy, you have to be able to answer these questions before you embark on planning a pop-up:

  • What are your goals? Sales? Brand activation? New product release? Test a new market? Customer feedback, appreciation or education? Or something else?
  • Who—and where—is your customer? When it comes to who your target customer is, location location location really matters!
  • Do you have the proper budget to secure a location that makes sense for your brand, hire great staff and market the pop-up from an opening press party through closing?

The brand activations you’ve worked on—from Marc Jacobs Daisy Chain to Food 52—have been uniquely creative experiences. How do you approach creative problem solving? Are there tips you can provide?

We always start with asking: What are your goals for the pop-up? What is your brand’s value proposition? and Who is your customer? Everything flows from these three questions.

Ideally every one we work with has a company style guide (if you don’t, invest in one!) and understands their unique voice. Based on the goals, value proposition and target customer, we dive into the story that’s going to be told in the space: one concrete and compelling storyline that weaves through the entire space. Something that is both thought- provoking as well as intangible, as that is going to ignite curiosity, a conversation (on line, in traditional media and in the pop-up) and ultimately, drive sales.

Melissa Gonzalez Pop Up Architect



J. Kelly Hoey is a problem solver who believes that most professional challenges—whether funding, landing a board position or getting a new job—are solved by tapping into networks.Kelly is a popular speaker on networking, community building and investing issues, especially as they relate to women, and has worked with the IEEE, PGA, Bank of America, Apple and countless others. Follow Kelly on Twitter @jkhoey and on Instagram @jkellyhoey.