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September 17, 2008

FESTIVAL FEVER:Is this the year the bubble finally burst?

As we usher in the first signs of autumn, Pete Roythorne picks over the bones of the festival scene and ask some tricky questions of this 'fashionable' medium.

This summer has seen the largest ever number of festivals take place in the UK; and that’s inspite of the weather. But with festival organisers now getting wise to the importance many brands are placing on this medium, the cost of buying space is being getting pushed up further and further. So has the festival bubble finally burst and are companies really ever going to see a return on investment from the levels of money they are having to pay out?

Experiential agency RPM is a festival veteran and no stranger to this sort of scaremongering, as managing partner Hugh Robertson explains: “We’ve been involved in music festivals for over 10 years, and every year people predict a burst in the festival bubble.”

Festival Stalwart: Strongbow's Bowtime bar has become an
institution and continues to be a success on the festival circuit


Robertson believes that Strongbow, and the Bowtime Bar, which RPM has run for the past decade, have become an integral part of the festival season.

“The key to effectiveness of festival experiential activity is brand relevance. Not only do alcohol brands ‘fit’ with outdoor music events - ensuring acceptance from an increasingly marketing savvy public,” he says, “but offerings like the Bowtime Bar provide an exciting music programme and atmosphere. Experiential activity like this creates powerful engagement and affinity with a brand, whereas brands less relevant to the festival market may not achieve such strong consumer connectivity.”

Competition from abroad
However, Alison Berkani, head of event production – experiential at exposure, disagrees. “The festival market is getting very saturated, not just in terms of the number of festivals, but also the numbers of brands involved,” she says. “There are also a lot of international festivals, and there is a growing trend for consumers to go to the latter. They are perceived as new, you can count on the weather and can tag it onto a holiday – and all of this has an effect on the UK festival market.”

Although festivals are an important media for some brands, certain organisers are now taking liberties with the people that are essentially keeping them them in business.

“There is no denying that for some brands, activation within the festival environment is extremely rewarding. However, over the past few years, commercialisation at festivals has meant that the cost to brands has increased dramatically and the service provided to them on behalf of the festival organisers has stayed the same – or in some cases become much worse,” says Claire Stokes, managing director of the Circle Agency.

“The site space cost is one of the most expensive in our industry, and yet we are often left with poor site positioning and very little support on the day. We are made to use inadequate security and get absolutely no feedback regarding attendance figures and additional post-event analysis. When things go wrong on site, it is our experience that generally, it is everyone for themselves.”

Sadly she is not alone in feeling this. Jonathan Emmins, managing director of Amplify, has an equally sorry tale.

“On behalf of one of our clients we were recently negotiating a festival presence. During the process we were told by the festival owner's representative on his behalf, that what he ‘essentially wants is to get as much money for as little space as possible’. Needless to say both the client and ourselves declined to take the negotiations any further.”

Adding to the experience
But it’s not all doom and gloom; there are some amazing festivals that see the investment brands can bring as adding to the experience not just purely lining their coffers.

“We've just come fresh from creating and managing Red Bull's Hellfire Club built into the trees and wood at the boutique Scottish Festival Connect,” adds Emmins. “For the brand, this generated a huge amount of sales in an environment which was designed to espouse its values and engage on a deep level with between 15,000 to 20,000 target consumers. For the organiser, they had an additional arena that was consistently busy, offered another dimension to their festival that consumers recognised as a key part of the whole experience. Brand and festival complimented one another.”

Probably one of the biggest problems is that a lot of brands are guilty of jumping on the bandwagon, and like anything that becomes 'trendy' or in demand, festival organiser can charge what they want safe in the knowledge that if you don’t want it another brand will take your place. Brands need to be clever and forward thinking about their involvement with festivals, and need to plan strategically and to have a real heritage in music to see maximum benefit.

“Brands need to add value to the festival experience and provide well thought out and executed activity for festival goers, and these activities need to reflect the brand’s values,” says Berkani. “Securing a tangible return on investment can be difficult, and often it’s more about an emotional ROI to do with word of mouth and creating brand advocacy, which can be hard to evaluate.”

Keeping it real
Berkani believes that brands should only look to invest in experiential at festivals if such activity is true to brand values.

“There are an estimated three million people who attend festivals in UK and an estimated 45% of all adults have attended at least one festival,” she says. “It’s a massive, growing market. As long as brands plan activity so that it’s credible and effective and not patronising to consumers, they should continue to invest in this space.”

The truth is that there is no simple answer to the original question. Undeniably, there are festivals out there that are milking brands for everything they can get, but also there are those that are forming strong partnerships that are benefiting the brand, the festival and the consumer.

However, with the costs of staging a festival escalating, organisers should see their relationships with brands as symbiotic, helping them to achieve cut through in a crowded festival market place – where have we heard that before?.

To exploit brand partners by ramping up prices for space is short-termism that will only reflect badly on that festival in the long run. As with any business those that do a good job and get results will do well. Those that are greedy will get rejected.

As Stokes puts it: “As more and more festivals appear on the circuit, organisers will be obliged to work harder to attract brands and keep them. Following in the footsteps of other experiential venues like shopping centres, brands will be looking to see better operational organisation, more choice in terms of site space and integration and better access to post event analysis figures. Of course, more competition should mean better rates as well.”

If there is one conclusion that we can draw from this, it is that festivals are going to be forced to grow up and wise up if they are to continue to benefit from the investment that brand experience activities bring to them. And that maybe something that comes hard to large sections of the music industry!


Next week EVENTS:review looks at whether consumers have becomes immune to brands at festivals and what brands should do if they want to continue their festival involvement and maximise their impact.

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