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Odd partners find marketing magic at festivals

Thousands attend the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee annually, creating a special marketing opportunity for millenials.
Thousands attend the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee annually, creating a special marketing opportunity for millenials. Bonnaroo

Though the industry has become saturated and is poised to contract, niche music festivals provide unique marketing opportunities for clever promotions, members of the American Advertising Federation/Charlotte were told Thursday.

“Have marketing partnerships with strategic brands, but you have to make sure you have the right brands – you just can’t put your name on the stage,” said Jeff Cuellar, vice president of strategic partnerships at AC Entertainment, which operates major festivals including the four-day concert gathering Bonnaroo in the outlands of Tennessee.

Garnier Fructis, a shampoo maker, approached Bonnaroo about a partnership. It was an unlikely but perfect fit, Cuellar said.

“If you’ve been camping in the sun for a few days, and probably haven’t showered, you know that getting your hair washed is almost an orgasmic experience,” Cuellar told Charlotte marketing executives. Now Garnier Fructis hands out free samples at a splash pavilion people used as a shower.

Another unlikely partner for a music festival was State Farm insurance. But the festival, held between Nashville and Chattanooga, is a drive-up affair and State Farm found a marketing opportunity in misfortune – it tended to anyone with dead batteries, flat tires or locked out of their cars.

“You talk about a positive brand experience,” said Cuellar. “It’s about finding those touch points that work in that space.”

Other partnerships at Bonnaroo include Miller Coors, Red Bull, Teva sandals, and BMI, the music licensing agency. Having a relationship with Bonnaroo helps BMI sign artists, and it does a “Road to Bonnaroo” talent competition where the winners get to perform in the BMI show tent.

Bonnaroo, which draws more than 70,000 people to its annual gathering and whose visitors have a median age of 32, will mark its 14th year this June with artists like Billy Joel, Kendrick Lamar, Florence and the Machine, My Morning Jacket and Moon Taxi.

Camping at a concert for days creates interaction with friends and strangers that goes far beyond the typical encounters people have at other large gatherings like sporting events, Cuellar told the advertising club luncheon at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille.

“Music has the ability to touch people in ways nothing else can. Every major life event, there’s music involved. It elicits passions. Music is that sweet spot.”

Cuellar said that the festival industry, which attracts more than 30 million Americans annually, is bloated. He expects many of the events to fall away because they lose money.

AC Entertainment, based in Knoxville, Tenn., manages more than 1,000 events a year and three other major festivals: Forecastle in Louisville, Ky.; Big Ears in Knoxville; and Sloss Music & Arts Festival in Birmingham, Ala.

Later this year, AC will announce the development of AfroPunk, an urban niche festival that will be held in Atlanta and marketed to upscale hip-hop fans. “It’s going to offer a voice typically ignored by advertisers,” Cuellar said.

In each of the areas where its festivals are held, AC looks to make the event more authentic by weaving in the character and history of the cities. At Forecastle in Louisville, for example, AC launched the Bourbon Lodge, a speakeasy atmosphere with 13 brands represented, to cash in on the new-found popularity in the spirit.

“We’re going after the experience – that’s what makes them successful,” he said. “Most people can put a band on a stage. But food and alcohol and arts and music makes it an experience. Lots of professionals come to un-bury themselves, get their noses of out the phone and experience life.”

While a partnership could cost a client $100,000 in fees and samples, there is still a question about whether a festival offers a return on investment.

Cuellar said that metrics are being developed that can offer marketers more insight into their investments. For example, at last year’s Bonnaroo, 111 beacons were located on the grounds to interact with the festival’s mobile app, helping people navigate the terrain but also tracking crowd movements that could tell marketers who and how many people are interacting with their show tents.

Likewise, wristbands are available now that serve as credit cards and the visitor’s pass to events, giving data on how many people visited each venue and their spending habits.

Washburn: 704-358-5007;

Twitter: @WashburnChObs.

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