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Do the Roo: Creative Marketing Insights From a Music Festival

As long as events have brought masses of people to a common space, brands have used such happenings as golden opportunities to self-promote with creative marketing tactics. Over two millennia ago — long before the dawn of creative marketing agencies — the elite competed to sponsor gladiator fights and chariot races at the Colosseum to garner praise and build a reputation. Painted advertisements decorated the Colosseum’s walls, and small stores selling trinkets and souvenirs surrounded the ancient pavilion.

That was just the beginning of event-based marketing, and it’s been growing ever since. I was in the throes of it myself just a few weeks ago, when I blissfully endured 96 hours of heat and sensory overload at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.

Related: Sometimes it pays to get a little weird with your marketing tactics.

If I told you the reason I got tickets had anything to do with blog research, I’d be a liar. But when I returned to the real world, I realized I’d brought back with me not only some gnarly tan lines and a sun-scorched CamelBak, but also a handful of creative marketing insights — many of which pertain to what I do here every day as a managing editor.

Where the Brands Are as Important as the Bands

Is your brand a rock star? At a festival, it might as well be jamming on a Stratocaster.

Brand messages are everywhere. Murals and drapery covered in logos and taglines surround the stages where tens of thousands gather; and in between shows, people line up to spend a few moments in an air-conditioned hut, snatch useful swag, or grab some free munchies — all courtesy of sponsors.

With a sea of festivalgoers secluded on a 700-acre farm, creative marketing tactics come a dime a dozen. The key to standing out is understanding what your audience needs.

Here are a few creative marketing highlights from this year’s fest:

  • Subway: The third-largest fast-food chain in the world offered a cozy setup with couches, a DJ, free 4-inch sandwiches, and Gatorade. And, if you tweeted or Instagrammed a picture of yourself in front of its iconic logo, you got a free bandanna. Who would pass that up in the sweltering, dusty grounds of Bonnaroo?
  • State Farm: Inside the company’s small kiosk, people could charge their phones and get branded sun block, lip balm, sunglasses, a battery-powered fan, or a fanny pack. You’d be surprised how many people I saw sporting this swag.
  • Kohler: With 100,000 people camping in close quarters over four days, you’re either going to want to take a shower, or someone will kindly request that you take a shower. Kohler was up to the challenge, providing more than 400 showers across the campsites where festivalgoers tested out their new shower heads.
  • Fatboy: As the days wore on, I saw more and more people relaxing in what could easily be mistaken for inflatable canoes. Fatboy set up shop with the other vendors, but its Lamzac, a wind-inflated mattress, was a definite hit among the audience.

Where You Can Literally Reach Out and Touch Your Audience

Today, we no longer need to swallow swords or jump through flaming hoops to get noticed, because the greatest attention-grabber of all rests in the pocket of nearly every attendee: a smartphone.

More than 100,000 people attend Bonnaroo annually. While that might not be as many as, say, the 3 million-plus who watch Stephen Colbert on a nightly basis, any agency will tell you the number of people you reach isn’t necessarily as important as whom you reach.

And here’s another thing about that: Colbert watchers likely tune out during commercials. And you know what they’re doing during that break? Checking their smartphones.

This is something festivals like Bonnaroo have leveraged to their advantage. A 2015 Harris Poll conducted for Ticketfly revealed that 31 percent of millennials admit to spending at least half of their time at live events using their smartphones, and music festivals across the globe have reaped the benefits of this by creating their own mobile apps.

During those four days in Manchester, the Bonnaroo app served as my compass and my map, plus it sent me updates on changes to show times and pinged me when an event I was interested in was about to begin.

With the eyes of a majority of festivalgoers upon this app (more than 18 percent say that’s what they use their cell phone for most at Bonnaroo), brands made sure to cash in, too. Through the app’s push notifications, I was informed when Ray-Ban had a giveaway, the band Portugal. The Man previewed their new album, Jeep had an in-app scavenger hunt, and more.

Not Just Any Old Festival

One of the scariest things a brand can do is sponsor an utter failure. A company never wants its brand associated with an event that becomes a punch line, which is why it’s important to do your due diligence when it comes to vetting whatever it is you might slap your logo on.

Fortunately, well-established music festivals (read: those not organized by Ja Rule) have become a safe bet for creative marketers.

We’ve come a long way since the beautiful mess of Woodstock and, compared to the mud-drenched days of yore, many of today’s music festivals are as organized as a Kardashian closet and as packed with creative marketing opportunities as the busiest corner in Times Square. And Bonnaroo, despite an easygoing vibe, is well-aware of its unique position as a powerful brand itself.

Those attending a festival like Bonnaroo are active participants who, in a sense, hold a stake in its success. And it’s easier to engage an audience that’s not only invested in the experience, but having an unforgettably good time.

For more creative marketing tips, visit our blog, and be sure to stay in touch via our social channels: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.