Are festivals dead? Opportunities for brands to play the field at Bestival, Glastonbury & Kendal Calling

British Summer Time has officially begun, and festival season is on the horizon, bringing a wealth of opportunity for brands to engage with the heart of their target market. But with recent scaremongering hinting festivals are dead, Steve Smith, managing director of Ear to the Ground, reflects on why it’s still worth it for brands investing in festivals.

Last August bank holiday, around a quarter of a million people attended festivals across the UK. That’s approximately eight times the number who went to one during the whole of 1988. Glastonbury, the biggest of the lot, sold out in just four hours, eight fewer than the year before. Yet to judge by a handful of newspaper articles, you’d think last year’s season had been comprised of little more than tumbleweed blowing across an empty field beneath a huge banner reading... “Are Festivals Dead?”Tell that to the people who snapped up all available tickets to Bestival, Kendal Calling, Secret Garden Party, End of the Road, Parklife and the rest. Tell that to the Chancellor when fans spent £222m on attending festivals and independent festivals pumped £17m into local economies. Tell that to the UK Festival Census 2011, which revealed how 51 percent of festival goers attended more than two events that year.That’s not to say some festivals haven’t struggled in an overcrowded market and against the prevailing winds of economic gloom and increased ticket prices. Festivals have become a victim of their own success. Perhaps some people thought you could pitch up in a field with a stage, book a couple of marquee names and watch the punters roll up. Maybe you could once. But as in any maturing marketplace, customers presented with a huge range of choice learn how to find products that best cater to their tastes and their budget. And with something like 500 to choose from, and headline acts demanding more and more in fees despite the recession, it’s no surprise that not all of them saw out the summer, especially when 40 percent of attendees believe tickets to be overpriced. Increasingly, it’s those adept at creating an experience which are thriving. Bestival, the daddy of the boutique fests, sees the nation’s eccentrics getting into fancy dress and engaging in mass sing-alongs. Parklife in Manchester has graduated to a 60,000 capacity and driven the cool student crowd into a frenzy with its ability to spot the next big thing and keep the price down.Those festivals that create a niche for themselves are doing very well. By tailoring events to specific crowds, the best festivals are able to resonate with their fans and create a very special bond with them. Festivals aren’t going anywhere for one very simple reason – they’re such an obviously good idea. Commercial partners can really benefit from partnering with good festivals. “People are more engaged, more excited,” said Fiona Lovatt, formerly marketing controller at Gaymers cider. “People are escaping from their day to day lives; it gives them a chance to be someone completely different. If you can be part of that amazing, emotional experience and tap into it, then it can really work for your brand,” she added.That emotion is now the stuff of endless tweets and status updates. Photographs posted live from the site and sent around the world. Video clips uploaded to the web to be viewed for eternity. You’re not just buying a plot of land; you’ve got a chance to leverage an audience. So, if the sector is going through a shake down, brands need to be much more careful who they partner with. They need to be associated with success, so demand for tickets is crucial but it’s also audience fit, location, cost and a whole load of other things that need to be considered. Festivals are noisy places and brands need to work hard to be heard. They have an opportunity to create an amazing memorable positive experience that really adds to the festival. Whether it’s singing karaoke in a hot tub to win a luxury holiday with a hotel chain or chilling in a psychedelic orchard with a cider brand, fans want experiences they can talk about. Brands have an opportunity to communicate with people and their senses. It’s experiential marketing in its purest form. It’s about creating a moment that will be remembered long after the sheep have come back into the field.Promoters know their audiences so well they can really help with making sure the experience is right for their festival. “People like Parklife and Ibiza Rocks are leading the way in doing their own event research which is all encompassing,” says Sam Stone of Big Fish, a sponsorship agency that currently works with some of the biggest names on the festival circuit such as V Festival and the Isle of Wight. He adds: “Such research helps brands know they’re reaching the right stage. There’s a better understanding of the audience as a whole, how it interacts with the audience year ’round online, how they produce the site, how they communicate with their consumers.” Having partnered with a successful festival, brands now have the opportunity to see the word spread way beyond the perimeter fence via social networking. Up until recently, the lack of broadcast coverage has limited the reach for sponsors but that’s changing because now everyone is a broadcaster. Everyone has their own channel with a constant stream of content to their friends and followers. Ear to the Ground calls this phenomenon ‘Channel Me’. The agency sees its job as creating great live moments that can easily be packaged into bite sized chunks and replayed by consumers.Here’s where the creativity comes in. Gaymers cider staged a hugely successful activation during 2010, taking their Lost in the Orchard concept, developed in conjunction with Frukt Communications, around some of the most high profile festivals in the country. According to Fiona Lovatt, who oversaw the campaign, with live music at its centre, the Gaymers area drew festival-goers in and gave them something to take away with them.However, Lovatt cautions against brands simply pitching up and expecting cool by association. Festival-goers are often at the sharper end of modern culture, gregarious and outward going, but also aware and media savvy. So it’s important for brands to talk to them, not at them. Fiona explained: “You’ve got the opportunity to add some value to their festival experience by giving them a service or experience that makes them feel very positively about the brand.”This is supported by the 2011 UK Festival Census which revealed that over 31 percent of festival goers felt that branded bars added to the overall experience of the festival. Says Lovatt: “Our brand experience with the Gaymers area was all about trying to bring the brand to life, getting consumers to connect with it emotionally.” She added: “You can’t just turn up and expect people to like you and want to interact; you have to offer them something.” So the message for brands is much the same as it is for the festivals themselves. Now that the novelty of watching music in a field has become embedded in British culture, people are looking for the truly unforgettable experience, the life-enhancing weekend. These are the festivals that will survive and thrive while the herd-them in-and-turn-it-up merchants take a bath. Sure, people might cut back a little and choose more carefully in these straitened times, but festivals aren’t going away, and in a Glastonbury-free year if anything they’re going forwards. Are you going with them? Five Top Tips
  1. Back a winnerThe industry shakedown means that those festivals that don’t know their audience or haven’t found a niche aren’t selling out. Pick one that is established or on the rise.
  2. Know the audienceYou know your target groups. Make sure festival promoters know theirs. Ask for stats, ticket breakdowns and ensure their audience is your audience.
  3. Add to the FestivalMusic festivals are noisy. To be heard, to be noticed, and, more importantly, to be remembered, brands have to add to the festival goer experience.
  4. Own the ExperienceTo really work, live music activation needs to reverberate with the values of the brand and the wider campaign creative. Unpick your communications and find something that you can make larger than life.
  5. Make ‘Live Ads’Design moments that can be captured and broadcast by festival fans on their personal channel, the festival channels and your own brand channels. That’s how you get more for your money.

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