With music festival attendance expected to be at an all-time high in 2019, it’s no surprise that more brands than ever before are venturing out of their usual urban habitat to cash in on the huge amounts of exposure available to them.
At the same time, crowds have become more apprehensive of advertising during their weekend away. How can a brand manage to stand out in such a rapidly swelling marketplace? And how can they minimise the chance of backlash?
It’s common knowledge in the advertising community that it’s no longer enough to just slap a bunch of logos somewhere and call it a day.
The classic form of advertisement at music festivals were sponsorships. These were popularised in the mid-90s through a kind of symbiosis between brands looking for marketing opportunities and festivals seeking funding. It works similarly to other types of sponsorship: brands pay for prominence and exclusivity during an event, whether that be stage-front branding, the right to be the sole supplier of a beverage, or even naming privileges for the event itself. In return, festival promoters receive extra funding to raise the quality of the line-up or infrastructure. And in some cases, they just use it to avoid going into a loss from the event.
Above: Subway's Green Room, at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, which supplied food and an air conditioned environment for festival goers.
It’s common knowledge in the advertising community that it’s no longer enough to just slap a bunch of logos somewhere and call it a day. Brands need to be savvy in their marketing techniques, else they will drive consumers in the opposite direction, oftentimes purely out of spite. This is doubly true at music festivals, where the major demographic is young and hyper aware of when they’re being advertised to too overtly.
Using music festivals as the medium adds an extra layer of ingenuity to the mix – they are emotionally charged, memorable events which people naturally associate with freedom and fun.
In the last few years many brands have picked up on this and decided to go a step further by dabbling in brand activation. This branch of experiential marketing, where consumers are prompted to engage in a hands-on interaction with a brand in the hopes of forming a lifelong positive association, vary widely in terms of execution and success, and are limited only by creativity (and budget). A couple of memorable examples of festival brand activations are the Subway Green Room [above] and Heineken’s dance-powered house party [below].
Nobody wants to spend their holiday weekend being fed ads from insurance companies, much less so when they’ve already paid a sizeable amount of cash for the ticket in the first place.
Brand activations are an innovation born from self-awareness by marketers who’ve realised that they need to offer something of value to their customers in order to properly gain their trust. Using music festivals as the medium adds an extra layer of ingenuity to the mix – they are emotionally charged, memorable events which people naturally associate with freedom and fun, so to tap into those associations and be cemented in festival-goers’ minds as an integral part of their experience is near priceless for many brands.
Above: Heineken's dance-powered house party.
Culture vs commercialism
From Coachella to Glastonbury, from Bestival to Lollapalooza, festivals are now saturated with brands trying their hand at music festival marketing. This has led some critics to question whether this trend of commercialisation has cost these events more than they’ve benefitted; whether they have diverged too far from the bohemian, countercultural roots of music festival culture. There’s a valid concern from within these communities that the over-representation of brands and sponsorships waters down the festival experience, which ends up becoming less about the music and more about spending money.
It’s almost expected that one sees endemic branding such as food and drink sponsors at any music festival (Red Bull, anyone?).
Of course, there’s merit in these claims – nobody wants to spend their holiday weekend being fed ads from insurance companies, much less so when they’ve already paid a sizeable amount of cash for the ticket in the first place. To add salt to the wound, it’s become common practice in a lot of bigger festivals to add exclusive areas accessible only to those who paid their way in, which in effect creates a class system that affects the atmosphere of an event in a tangibly negative way. To quote the sentiments of a music promoter from a Rolling Stone article, “It’s not so rock & roll… sitting in 90-degree heat and watching some asshole sitting in an air conditioned tent getting a pedicure".
Festivals and brands alike are harmed when there’s a perceived over-saturation of advertising.
Odds are, if you’ve been to a music festival in the last 10 years you’ve seen the effects of commercialisation. What’s clear is that festivals and brands alike are harmed when there’s a perceived over-saturation of advertising. To say that sponsorships and branding are necessary for a festival to exist would be wrong – just look at Germany’s Fusion festival – but to say that they always detract from the experience might be just as untrue.
It’s almost expected that one sees endemic branding such as food and drink sponsors at any music festival (Red Bull, anyone?), and these known brand names can often add a level of comfort and predictability in a foreign environment. What might be the case is that certain sectors - like banking, cars, and insurance - just aren’t cut out for festival sponsorship or activations altogether – although this won’t stop them trying.
Above: Rimmel's stand at UK festival, Bestival.
Big vs small
Another way to look at it is that nowadays there are two distinct and divergent types of music festivals which can’t be classified together. The first is the big name, Triple-A class events featuring festivals such as those mentioned above. These are generally outwardly commercial events that could perhaps be better classed as cultural ‘moments’ rather than music festivals. They are spectacular, flashy, and of course Instagram-worthy events, the kind of events that people buy tickets to based on reputation rather than artist line-up.
There’s a very real chance for an activation to get drowned out in the noise of competing brands, particularly for newcomers to the game.
Branding is to these events what wings are to a plane. Everything down to the details of ‘festival fashion’ and influencer presence is coordinated, thus branding is not just expected – it’s encouraged. It’s possible to stage a very successful brand activation at one of these events because of the sheer scale and visibility. Do it right and it could even become self-replicating or even go viral. However, there’s also a very real chance for an activation to get drowned out in the noise of competing brands, particularly for newcomers to the game.
Above: Oxfam got in on the festival circuit with a pop-up shop at Glastonbury this year.
The other type of music festival is often smaller and caters to a specific niche of music or attendants. These are arguably more traditional events that stick close to the counterculture. Some of these feature sponsorships, though typically only from a handful of endemic brands, and a minority are ideologically opposed to branding altogether. A successful brand activation at this type of event is possible but volatile. If done correctly and with enough research it can provide a brand with highly loyal customers, but if executed poorly fans are liable to punish a brand for ruining their experience.
With so many different festivals out there, the only catch-all advice for brands looking to jump on the band wagon is to do your research, and do it thoroughly.
There are merits to both types of festivals and the role that brands play within them. Brand activations can be a lot of fun – provided you don’t accidentally poison the festival attendants, of course – and can create a connection between brand and consumer that endures well after the festival is finished.
With so many different festivals out there, the only catch-all advice for brands looking to jump on the band wagon is to do your research, and do it thoroughly. Respect the history and ethos of the festivals, respect the attendants, and above all: be creative – you can always do better than handing out branded drink bottles!