Music Festivals - The Church Of The 21st Century?

The past five years has seen the renewed popularity of music festivals across the board. From the proliferation of micro festivals (e.g. novelty camp outs in the UK - Playgroup and themed playgrounds in Australia - Culture Jam) to the galvanised success of old faithfuls (Glastonbury, Fuji Rock, Burning Man and Tomorrowland), there is an event catering to every interest group, no matter how niche. 

As the masses make their annual pilgrimage to these hallowed plains, it is timely to reflect on the religious-like zeal these festivals inspire.

Serving New Age Spirituality

Festivals are a heady proposition for several reasons (refer diagram below). Arguably the most significant of these is how they offer people the chance to simultaneously be a part of something bigger, while retaining their personal identity. Amongst individualistic societies (like the UK, USA and western Europe), the opportunity to enjoy a spiritual experience while retaining one’s autonomy is highly valued - a tension that traditional religions are yet to resolve. Because festivals are the sum of their parts (a collection of place, people, program etc), attendees play an integral role and actively shape the event. Furthermore, due to the depth and breadth of modern day festivals, they serve other individualistic ideals of freedom of choice, personal exploration and independent opinion.

Interestingly, we are witnessing a parallel evolution in branding as the current marketing model shifts from paternalistic to maternalistic. Traditional marketing efforts (top-down, one-size-fits-all messaging) have been superseded by responsive branding that promotes participation and co-creation at the grassroots. Similar to festivals, brands that make a clear declaration of their vision and values but also invite collaboration, attract a loyal fan base that self identifies with the brand and is keen to contribute to shaping its future, thereby helping it to evolve and remain culturally relevant. We have seen the power of this first hand in our work with giffgaff. Through recognising customers as members, they have built a real community centered on the idea of co-creation. Members are invited to develop and promote products for the business, making a self-supporting model that is by the people, for the people.

Incubating Brands at Festivals

Festivals are an obvious platform for brand activations as they attract a neatly defined consumer group, united by shared ideals (a much more meaningful common denominator than demographics). With umpteen festivals to choose between, there is a likeminded community for every brand to join. The more challenging part is designing an activation that seamlessly integrates into the festival and has a true purpose for being there. At Echo we believe that brands become their most relevant and captivating when they demonstrate a healthy dose of meaning, madness and magic. Festivals provide brands with a very real opportunity to perform all three.


1. MEANING – makes brands compelling and culturally relevant

“Lets get intimate”

Festivals pose a rare opportunity for intimate connection between brand and consumer. These events tend to be passion projects - born out of celebration of, or, reaction against, something very close to the heart. As such, marketing needs to be applied with a deft touch. The antiquated model of festival sponsorship (heavy handed logo slapping) is at best clumsy and meaningless, and at worst offensive as it desecrates sacred sites. Through having an empathetic presence and honest, transparent reason for being involved, there exists a chance for a true meeting of minds between brand and individual via value alignment and mutual support.


2. MADNESS – makes brands fearless, surprising and unique

“Branding on the moon”

Festivals do not exist in the ‘real world’. They are portals to a parallel reality that exists for a fleeting window of time. Because festivals operate beyond conventional social binds, patrons are liberated to play outside the box. This makes them potent landscapes for brands to take root in. Disruptive branding is not only encouraged, but expected. Patrons want to see brands break out of category norms and generic marketing speak to reveal their true colours, just as they themselves are. Whilst it can seem risky to defy convention, remember that guests are typically at their most open minded and accepting when in this environment.


3. MAGIC = makes brands crafted, fascinating and desirable

“Remembering how to play”

Festivals are a playground for adults, making them rich territory for brands to come alive in. Patrons come with an appetite for entertainment - seeking delight, surprise and wonderment, which brands can satisfy through engaging activations. By leveraging core assets (functional, emotional and symbolic) to create immersive experiences, guests can be simultaneously entertained and educated in a world created in your vision. Done right, and guests will carry these memories back to the real world where they will grow and spread through word of mouth and glorified retelling on social media. But a word of caution – the name of the game is advocacy. Your offer needs to inspire, not enforce engagement. Create space for the individual to opt in through recognition of shared values and by creating space for co-creation. Self appointed ambassadors are your greatest allies.


Branded Examples

Hendrick’s Gin made a great case for meaning, magic and madness with their appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (the world’s largest art festival) earlier this month. Guests were invited aboard a green double decker bus (that shared a striking resemblance to a cucumber) for a full brand immersion. The bus is an initiative of the Hendrick’s Ministry of Marginally Superior Transport - ‘a bureau working endlessly to help remedy the ills associated with terrible etiquette’ across the UK’s transport system. This observational style of humour, the eccentric aesthetic of the activation and the unconventional venue made for a happy marriage with the Fringe, which is treasured for it’s comedy and quirk. From the Victorian era decor to the complimentary G&T’s with cucumber macaroons, the spectacle honours and exudes Hendrick’s brand DNA and simultaneously contributes to the Festival experience with a charming dose of magic and madness. The next time a customer sips on a G&T (or sights a cucumber for that matter) they will be momentarily transported back to the time they enjoyed Hendrick’s good hospitality and proud eccentricity at the Fringe.

The Guardian achieves similar resonance at Glastonbury - a partnership set to celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. Over these two decades, The Guardian has become an integral part of the festival - helping Glastonbury to define and share its narrative. To quote The 1975’s lead singer Matthew Healy “Glastonbury stands for everything our generation wants - compassion, social responsibility, community, loving each other”. The left leaning newspaper has much in common with these ideals and so participation makes a logical fit. The Guardian champions the mini-guide book and compiles a special festival wrap-up edition each year. These activations enable the Guardian to gain credit for its craft while feeding the hearts and minds of ‘Glasbonbury-ites’ with the rich lore of their favourite festival.

Photo by: Francesco Vicenzi for Rainbow Serpent Festival, Emancipator playing the Market Stage