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Getting Phygital: Designing a NY Marathon Experience

WRITTEN BY Paul Wolski


Miller Zell is fortunate to work with a client that’s passionate about corporate sponsorships.

Such is the case with Citizens. The bank wants more from their event marketing than simply placing their logo on a building, a venue or a piece of swag.  Instead, Citizens views sponsorships as opportunities to activate their brand outside of a traditional bank branch, with attractive experiences that are designed to engage people and leave a lasting impression (with potential future customers).

These experiences also serve to demonstrate the strong partnership between Citizens and the  event, team or brand that they are supporting. Together, Miller Zell has helped create memorable Citizens brand activations for the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Giants and New Jersey Devils, to name a few.

Very recently, the renowned New York City Marathon was added to that roster.

The world’s largest marathon would place Citizens on a global stage, so we had to deliver a world-class design with international appeal. 

Over the course of three days, the Citizens marathon activation would be seen by more than 120,000 visitors at a convention center expo where every runner must register prior to Race Day. We knew that nearly two-thirds of attendees were international travelers who may not be fluent in English.

With a 30-foot by 40-foot space as our blank canvas, our experience team focused on developing a design story that could transcend language and offer everyone the chance to share their marathon memories with people around the world.

BLOG-Marathon1_Venn-diagramOur project brief was clear, with three main ideas we needed to express:

  • Community: Highlight the character of all five boroughs that makes up the unique fabric of New York City

  • Connection: Position Citizens as not only a proud sponsor of this illustrious event but also as a proud New York neighbor 

  • Celebration: Champion the runners and their supporters who travel far and wide to be a part of this historic race


Oh, and there was one more request: Digital must play a key role

Projecting Citizens as a digital-centric financial services brand was paramount. Equally important for us as a design team was to ensure digital elements integrated seamlessly into the visitor experience.

More than just spectacle, the digital expression needed to purposefully drive the story, so we challenged ourselves to apply solutions that could bring depth, dimension and delight to the activation space. And we wanted to create a space where people knew they were stepping into a unique destination; something special.

That’s when things got “Phygital.”

Phygital Design: That perfect state of environmental bliss, when physical and digital elements play together to create something immersive, emotive and memorable.


That was our vision for an experience that tied everything together, from floor to ceiling: the race, the city, the runners and the Bank.
BLOG Phygital NYC Marathon Citizens blog

Digital from the ground up, with the sound up

Visitors were invited to step into the space via a 40-foot-long digital crosswalk full of running shoe prints, creating a constant flurry of foot traffic. LED tiles blanketed the remainder of the 30' x 40' activation floor, featuring an aerial map of all five boroughs and the marathon route that passes through all of them — starting in Staten Island and finishing in Manhattan.

Four animated lines trace the digital race route along the floor, representing the real-time progress of each of the marathon's four 1st-place category winners from the previous year. Concealed speakers piped in ambient city sounds to add to the hustle and bustle of New York City life.

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Borough discovery pop-ups with
social tie-in

Sitting atop each borough on the LED floor, hand-illustrated “pop-ups” of each borough created walk-around vignettes for visitors to learn fun facts about each neighborhood. At the center of each pop-up, a large green navigation drop-pin displayed a QR code that allowed visitors to choose an AR filter of any borough (in the same illustrated style) to send a 360-degree selfie or video message via Instagram.

Blog photo ops Phygital NYC Marathon Citizens blog
Photograph by Bluewater

A cinematic branded backdrop

Complementing the digital floor, a 32-foot by 9-foot LED billboard displayed a looping digital art installation of sorts. “Dropping in” from the top, single running shoes would randomly fall to gradually fill the entire LED wall before suddenly emptying out to reveal a striking aerial panoramic video of a New York borough.

Kinetic screen transitions featured a split-flap design reminiscent of Grand Central Station's former destination boards, paired with the recognizable "clacker" sound to convey that sense of New York energy in motion.

Inspired by the scaffold-style arches and fencing used for the marathon itself, we designed a bold branded portal to wrap the LED wall. At the front corners of the space, similar framing created corner stands — all of which helped anchor the entire design and create that sense of immersion.

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… And don’t forget to look up!

Suspended 13 feet above the race route on the floor, an illuminated version of the route hangs as its partner. Stemming from the route are 13 Citizens brand icons, each indicating where a Citizens bank branch is found along the marathon route. This “brand constellation” served as the crowning piece that truly connected Citizens to the marathon.

Blog look up Phygital NYC Marathon Citizens blog

Photograph by Bluewater

In the end, our brand activation went the distance 

Visitors throughout the expo were drawn to the multi-sensory design that incorporated animation, video, illumination, physical set pieces, illustration, augmented reality and sound. Runners and their supporters loved posting and sharing their borough selfies, and they appreciated the storytelling details that held special meaning for this community. Citizens was thrilled to see that people, regardless of their background or country of origin, responded to the invitation to explore the activation and connect with their brand ambassadors. Everyone felt the warm embrace of a New York City welcome to start their marathon weekend on the right foot.

Photography by Paul Wolski