The rise and fall of festival marketing

In the age of experience marketing, how are festivals and brands working together to create unforgettable moments for their audiences? Fiona Killackey reports.

This article originally appeared in The Culture Issue, our August/September edition of Marketing magazine »

Experience is being cited as the biggest threat to retail today. As wages remain stagnant, we’re choosing to spend less on products and services, and more on activities that make us feel something, providing us with emotionally charged stories we can relay to others.

One industry reliant on experience for its existence is festivals – whether they be music, comedy, art or film. As one of the few commercial activities that guarantee an emotional response from its audience, a festival has the power to remain in attendees’ minds years after they exit the venue. This ability to connect and convert has seen massive shifts in the way brands work with festivals and in the way festivals themselves market and execute their offering. In an interview with The New York Times in 2016, Alasdhair Willis, creative director of Hunter, stated, “The non-disposable moments at festivals carry so much weight – they are unforgettable, watertight, locked-down emotional memories that, as a brand, you want to access and be associated with.”

Yet, not all festivals manage to walk the line between offering something extraordinary and being seen as little more than an advertising vehicle. In the past five years many of Australia’s most recognised festivals have shut down. Big Day Out – a once permanent fixture on the calendar of music-loving youth – ceased operating in 2014 (after being bought out by US promoter CS Presents) and was quickly followed by Future Music and Soundwave. In the tech space, festivals have come and gone and, in 2016, after 28 years in existence, the Melbourne Art Fair announced it was no longer, although it returns in 2017. So, what has changed and what can festivals do to ensure their survival?

Audiences want more

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 9.33.17 AMGone are the days when a festival’s reputation alone guaranteed sales. Or when people were willing to go without Wi-Fi or a decent night’s rest in return for attending. “People don’t tolerate inefficiencies now,” says Alycia Emmerson, marketing and sponsorship manager for Falls Music and Arts Festival.

“Patrons used to line up at retail outlets for hours to get tickets and they would be OK with the venues not having connectivity, walking a fair distance to get to their campsite or waiting in queues,” she says. “This is not the case now and this forces us to really think about the patron journey in every interaction we have. It has to be simple and quick.”

Advertising is out

The audience’s desire for more also extends to what they’re willing to accept from brands that sponsor or partner with festivals. When Ben Richardson, co-founder of emergent technology festival, Future Assembly, was brainstorming the idea of the festival with friends (following a mediocre experience at another tech festival) one of their top rules was no pitching, and sponsorship only from brands that truly understood the purpose and values of the festival.

“No one is allowed to pitch their product when they’re talking at Future Assembly; they have 25 minutes to inspire the audience with an insight that is unique to their field and that’s it. It’s not a sales expo. No one is allowed to sell their products at the event, it’s all about networking.”

In their first year of operation they turned down sponsor- ship from a large tech company “as they just wanted to have their brand everywhere”. This year, the company has come calling again. “It’s like they see we’re serious and we know what we’re doing,” says Richardson.

Festivals must be social

As Emmerson states, connectivity is imperative at any festival, with patrons wanting to share their experiences instantly and join conversations online about what’s working and what’s not in real-time. Social media also acts as a way of increasing audience participation with companies utilising digital incentives (such as branded Snapchat filters and free product for social promotion) to entice patrons to brand areas.

During his 2016 keynote at Ad:Tech in Sydney, Slade Sherman of Creator Global incorporated a live poll of his performance onscreen, a result of the audience tweeting positive or negative comments using a particular hashtag. For festival owners, marketing through social media enables them to niche down and target people before, during and after their events, as well as review data about what works and what doesn’t. But it can also threaten the reputation of a festival if not monitored.

“The biggest threat to festivals in Australia is public opinion online,” says Emmerson, “You have to be so careful with the culture you create on all platforms and management of these communities. The tide can change very quickly and it’s hard to reverse so you have to plan.”

Positioning for the right audiences

MK0817 culture coverEnsuring user-generated content errs more on the positive side starts with positioning the festival to attract the right audience. Richardson says one of the biggest lessons they learned from running Future Assembly in 2015 and 2016 was the different audiences’ needs. “We listened to the market and this year Friday and Saturday is going to be rebranded to ‘work’ and ‘play’ days and the ticket prices are drastically reduced for the Saturday, which will be hugely accessible and more about play. The Friday will speak to people who are more into networking and we’ll enable more networking experiences to occur.”

Emmerson agrees. “With our Falls events we have four separate shows and they all attract completely different patrons,” she says. “So what we roll out for Lorne is not necessarily going to work in Fremantle. Tailor every-thing you do to those insights and know your audience will continue to change.” For Jean-Francois Ponthieux, founder of Cartell Music, which runs So Frenchy, So Chic (an annual French-themed outdoor festival in Sydney and Melbourne), positioning his music festival as more about the ‘experience’ than the music was key in standing out in a competitive market. “It forced us to look at marketing differently because it wasn’t all based on bands people know. It’s always been about celebrating the ‘joie de vivre’ more so than the headline act. These values have had a long-lasting impact on our audience who make a yearly rendezvous to celebrate, discover and enjoy a slice of French culture with friends and family. Each year we reconsider how to improve this experience to further reinforce our core values.”

Curation is key

Just as products are curated online or in-store to promote conversion, so too must the overall festival experience be curated for optimum enjoyment. “We live by two core philosophies when it comes to Future Assembly,” says Richardson, “First, everything is completely curated for quality – we have stringent checklists – and, second, everyone has to be able to communicate the value their product or company brings to society in a way that a 12-year-old would be able to understand.”

Curating connection is also part of what Richardson says will set successful festivals apart from their competition.

Much of the frustration of festival attendees is the lack of opportunity to really connect and engage with key speakers or acts post festival. This year Future Assembly is working on an online platform that will enable attendees to immediately connect and engage with brands and people they have discovered at the festival. “Instead of them having to Google the brand and then wade through their help desk, they’ll just be able to contact them immediately through the platform.”

The wrap

What is the best possible experience we can give people? While this should be key in any marketer’s mind, nowhere is it more crucial than at festivals, which depend on word of mouth marketing and positive audience sentiments to continue. According to Richardson, large and small festival organisers alike should automate time-consuming tasks like admin or following up on speaker presentations, and devote more time to really monitoring the market and ensuring they are providing what people truly want. “Complacency is the biggest threat to success,” says Richardson. “I think that’s the key undoing of any business, but particularly festivals, where it’s so easy to get complacent and consequently not offer an experience that keeps people coming back.”

Case study: So Frenchy, So Chic

Jean-François Ponthieux has been a fixture in the Australian music industry since he moved to the country from his native France in 2003. After spending time working at Filter Music and Petrol Records, he began his own small boutique festival, So Frenchy, So Chic, in 2011.

“When I started I was doing old school marketing – TV, radio, posters, PR and digital banner ads,” says Ponthieux, “In my second year, I realised this approach was becoming obsolete and I had to pivot to avoid going bust.” Despite being something of a “private person” and having no social media presence personally, Ponthieux realised the importance of utilising these platforms. “I decided to learn everything I could about social. My first comprehensive digital campaign was in 2015; ticket sales increased by 20%”.

Since then Ponthieux has utilised the online space to grow the business. “I now fully embrace digital as it gives me complete ROI reports and creative flexibility, tailored messaging, audience segmentation, a chance to reward fans who spread the word about the festival through affiliate marketing, remarketing, upselling, budget optimisation and a diversity of tools to help me inspire people about the French way of life and, ultimately, the experience they’ll have at the festival.”

Ponthieux began the festival to share the experiences he had as a child in France and it’s this initial vision that he says guides him on which sponsors to work with and how to execute his marketing campaigns. “The whole idea came from my own memories as a child. I grew up in a small village and each summer everyone would come together to celebrate. It was a carefree time, celebrating joy in the fields of France with hay bales, flowers, rustic French food and wines. I had a really clear vision about how I could recreate this experience for the Australian market… I believe that festivals that don’t have a genuine vision and are just operating to generate an income or activate a brand risk imminent failure.”

Understanding the audience and being able to quickly adapt to their needs is key, says Ponthieux. “I’m constantly searching for new information to make sure I don’t fall behind. What was true yesterday may be obsolete today, so people must stay on top of trends, of shifts in technology and of what their audience most wants. Challenge your strategies and tactics and test everything!”

Fiona Killackey is a business and marketing consultant based in Melbourne.

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