It’s been three years since Museum of Ice Cream — what might be considered the case study for pop-up Instagram havens — opened its sugary doors. Now, co-founders Maryellis Bunn, called “Millennial Walt Disney” by New York Magazine, and Manish Vora are starting an experience development company to build more “experiums” — or experiential museums.
Their new firm Figure8 will house Museum of Ice Cream and any subsequent new brands with the help of $40 million in funding that values the company at $200 million. Elizabeth Street Ventures, Maywic Select Investment and OCV Partners led the investment.
Through Figure8, the co-founders will be able to address the “overwhelming amount of requests” from companies requesting custom-branded experiences. It will also fuel Museum of Ice Cream’s growth, with a new location planned for each quarter, and enable it to build new similar brands.
“Globalization and technology have made the world smaller, yet people are more lonely than ever,” Bunn said in a statement. “I want to inspire people around the world with what I call ‘experiums,’ emotional and transformative moments and spaces for people to reconnect with themselves and those around them.”
Whether human connection is the ultimate goal, however, should be questioned.
Entering Museum of Ice Cream — or any of the dozens of other experience-based “museums” that have capitalized on its success, such as Color Factory, Rosé Mansion, 29Rooms, Happy Place and more — is more like a technicolor photo shoot than a social gathering.
Attendees primarily can be found posing in front of carefully curated backdrops — or waiting in line to do so. If they are socializing, it’s usually with the person they came with or to ask a stranger to snap a picture for them.
Fifty-six percent of attendees of these events agree that they only take part in these experiences for Instagram posts, according to a study from digital media network Fullscreen.
Pressures brought on by social media have shown to negatively affect digital native millennials and members of Gen-Z. With that in mind, it seems that these events may actually be feeding the loneliness they claim to seek to address.
Sixty-eight percent of respondents in a study by marketing agency Hill Holliday reported that social media “sometimes or often makes them feel sad, anxious, or depressed.” Over half of the respondents reported a desire to get away from social media for a while, primarily for wasting time and negativity.
Rising rates of depression and suicide among young people may also be linked to their high usage of social media and smartphones.
More than anything, these experiences appear to act more as opportunities for people to connect with brands; not other people.
Many of these “experiums” feature exhibits created in partnership with brands. Museum of Ice Cream’s first location featured an interactive exhibit from dating app Tinder, complete with a two-person ice cream sandwich swing and a mock dating app for finding with “your true flavor match.”
It’s not just Museum of Ice Cream though. Last year’s run of 29Rooms — an event put on by a brand itself, millennial women-focused digital media company Refinery29 — included “rooms” sponsored by Reebok, Revlon, Pantene, TNT and Plan B contraceptive. Color Factory in New York is sponsored by Maybelline, Gymboree and custom balloon company Anagram.
Fullscreen reported that 82% of attendees take note of brands that sponsor an experience, and nearly three-quarters said that an experience has changed their opinion of a brand for the better.
The success of Museum of Ice Cream has made it a valuable brand in and of itself — a fact cemented by that $200 million valuation. Since Museum of Ice Cream was founded in 2016, its rapid success, fueled by viral attention online, has enabled it to open four locations in major U.S. cities, as well as launch products with major consumer brands, including an array of branded ice creams and a kids’ clothing line at Target, a makeup collection with Sephora, and an American Express Platinum Card.
While “experiums” may provide opportunities for people to interact with brands in more human ways, they do little to truly foster legitimate connection for this reason. Their dependence on social media for growth may ultimately be their double-edged sword.
These companies can’t claim to fight the downfalls of social media while building a business model dependent on consumers paying to fill their Instagram feeds.