Virgin's AFL Grand Final party kicks off the social silly season

Guess which Melbourne VIP party will feature these eye-popping elements this week? Invitees will step into an "Urban Utopia" featuring a mock Hong Kong supermarket where they can order an alcoholic slushie or get their future told in a subversive fortune cookie booth.

Does this sound like the Virgin Australia AFL Grand Final Party to you? Footy-heads, the best AFL party in town isn't what you expected it to be.

There's a new buzz phrase in the brand biz: 'Brand Reinvention'. Surely, social media has heralded the decade of the brand. People – human beings, without a company – talk about "being on brand," which is actually just another way of saying they want to be true to themselves, but on Instagram.

Brand Ambassador is one the most coveted jobs you can have. And these days, brands aren't scared of changing things up in the name of reinvention – it's what they have to do in order to evolve.

Innovate, invigorate

For Inese Kingsmill from Virgin Australia, the evolution of their AFL Grand Final party makes perfect sense. She's aware that "brands can't stand still. We need to make sure we're constantly innovating."

Virgin isn't the only established brand shaking thing up. 

When the Victoria Racing Club unveiled their latest campaign at the Myer Spring Racing Lunch this month, it was met with gasps of surprise: instead of watching pretty fillies (of both female and horse variety) on the screen, the video opened with skateboarder Adam riding through a train station, telling his friends, "Yeah, I'm in."

He's followed by the bearded (and grey) dandy Marek nodding his head, and a mix of young and old chiming their affirmative RSVPs to the Melbourne Cup Carnival. It's not supposed to appeal to the staid members of old; it's about moving forward.

Tradition gets turned

"I think we have this wonderful luxury in racing of great traditions, but if that's all we are, we become a little bit stale," says Victoria Racing Club's Executive General Manager, Caroline Ralphsmith.


"For the last few years, we've tried to play up the fun side of what we offer, and this year we are dialling it up further, making sure the younger audience sees us as something that's happening for them. Our main message is that the Melbourne Cup Carnival is for everyone – if you're in Melbourne you should absolutely be going, because people from Japan want to be there."

Still, surely a skateboard will alienate some?

"I've been doing this for too many years; you're prepared for someone to hate it. Sometimes you take risks and it doesn't pay off, but you have to take risks or you will be the same forever and ever, and that is not a recipe for success."

Unexpected experiences

MRC's Chief Commercial Officer Peta Webster is almost the poster woman for brand reinvention: when she came into her position less than two years ago, she reinvented Caulfield's Fashions on the Field by turning it into a competition that's judged via photos taken at the Westfield Style Stakes custom-made studios on the front lawn.

This year, she's proud of MRC's collaboration with Los Angeles hot spot E.P. & L.P. Rooftop Bar and Restaurant, whose pop-up will be in the Heath Enclosure at Caulfield.

"We wanted to get the message across that Caulfield isn't the usual, expected experience," says Webster.

"But we still thought we can't go too far; we have to be respectful to our loyal membership."

For her, reinvention is part of the job description: "It's about always improving, and never saying that something is good enough."

The sharing economy

Bruce Keebaugh's The Big Group is event producing the Virgin Australia AFL Grand Final Party, and he says that "we know that parties aren't just parties – they're really marketing activations. We have to understand what their brand is in our approach."

These days, when a brand reinvents itself, social media plays a big part in getting the new message across.

"The sharing feed is terribly important," says Keebaugh.

"This is a party that's destined for guest interaction at the event and also outside of the event. We have 500 people there, but the reach could he hundreds and thousands and even millions if we get it right, if we get the 'shareability' correct. Social media has had an impact on the way we create these experiences, so there are amazing backdrops and quirky things that are also brand appropriate."

Covet factor

But while social media "likes" can partly determine the extent to which brand evolution is successful, Virgin Australia's marketing specialist Tess Moroney prefers to use another touchstone.

"Every year, this [AFL] party is bigger and better and a ticket to it becomes more coveted. A couple of years ago, Usain Bolt turned up completely unannounced – he managed to find out the information and he and his entourage turned up. To have this global superstar want to come to our party goes to show how awesome the event is."

The Virgin Australia AFL Grand Final Party will take place tonight.