Bands & Brands: Breaking Into the Festival Scene
In a year where over 30 million of us are spending our post-lockdown freedom in sun-drenched festival fields, we sat down with founder and CTO of The Marble Group, Robbie Parry, to get some insider intelligence on the festival machine, its potential as a space for brands to play in and how to sell, sell, sell without becoming a sell-out.
Robbie has been involved in the world of music festivals since 2010: first as a volunteer, before moving into production and finally into organisation. He co-founded electronic music festival Noisily in 2012, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.
Brand and festival partnerships are becoming an increasingly competitive space for both parties involved – and for various reasons.
More and more festivals pop up every year, and because some of the smaller festivals are desperate to get hold of money to keep things afloat, brands can ask for more in return for their sponsorship.
Medium-sized festivals used to have a bit more sway on what they could require of brands, but they’ve lost some of that leverage now. Equally, there are masses of up-and-coming brands keen to get involved with supporting festivals.
It’s been a funny year for the industry. Either people are selling out very quickly or not selling out at all.
I think brands are trying to align with bigger festivals and are looking for some crazy stuff in return. They tend to want festivals of 10,000 pax or more to start seeing a really meaty residual effect or onsite activation.
We’ve never looked for too much sponsorship for Noisily – at around 4000 pax, we’re pretty small – but with some 40,000 pax, a festival like Fringe by the Sea in Scotland relies much more heavily on brand support. Brands quite often wait until the very last minute to see if they can get into the really big festivals, and if not, there’s this big scoop up of money they’ve got to spend.
To get off the ground successfully, firstly it’s all about best fit. Then it’s a game of give and take in terms of the brand presence you’re prepared to accept during the festival or whether you want stock or cash. More and more brands don't want to give festivals cash these days, and prefer to offer retro deals on stock, free food, or the option to create an arena or stand.
Compromise, as ever, is key.
Sponsors always try to make their money wash its face, so you have to be scrutinising. Is it actually a good deal?
A massive headline beer sponsor, for example, might give you £30k in cash and then sell you their stock – which you are committed to buy. However, they will also put the price per barrel up. If you just had them as a headline sponsor with no cash, then you might get a much better deal on the price per barrel. Lots of festivals know this is the case, but they need the money to cash flow their event, so it’s worth doing the cash deal and making less on the bar.
As the bidding can be fairly competitive, most brands dictate their expectations.
Festivals usually have only one key beer sponsor, which might offer some further product that sits under their brand umbrella. Potentially, you'd have a spirit sponsor too.
It goes without saying that you are committed to exclusivity with these brands so you are limited as to what you can sell. We use a local beer, brewed in Leicestershire. The company is really nice. They don't have a big wad of cash but we do get quite a good deal.
Do you look for a mix of established and independent brands for Noisily, and has the nature of the brands you work with changed as the festival has grown?
Brand message as a festival is becoming ever more important.
Noisily typically doesn’t do big brands. We are not a big festival or a huge money making machine. We’re all about local inclusion, sustainability, great products, and really nice people. Insert a Carlsberg or a Carling into that dynamic and it completely contradicts our ethos and message, which would be depressing for us and jarring for the consumer.
Festivals have to be very careful with understanding and valuing who they are.
McDonalds approached us to build a chicken nugget stand in the Noisily car park this year. It was a no, sadly. While the money would be fantastic, an affiliation with McDonald’s goes against everything our festival stands for. Besides, the residual damage would far outweigh the cash injection.
Definitely. It’s about that ‘right fit’ again.
Tobacco brands used to be the easiest pickings for the festival industry. When the ban on tobacco advertising was passed, they started throwing silly money at festivals to erect cigarette stands. Obviously that’s all dried up now and we’re seeing vape kiosks instead, which are equally terrible.
We haven't always got it right at Noisily. We tested the water with Carlsberg seven years ago and actually sold a lot less beer as a result. That was 100% to do with the brand and product.
This year we don’t have a tonne of sponsorships. We’ve had to turn quite a lot down because we couldn’t find the right fit. We had pitches from McDonalds as mentioned, some of the big beer suppliers, and Mini, which offered us electric 4x4 cars, all things that just aren’t what we’re about.
Hopefully next year we’ll see some more interactive brand activations. That said, we do have a lovely Mezcal brand coming, a local beer supplier called Purity, and a local English vodka.
Identifying and respecting their market and audience is key. Take the time to understand the festival you are pitching to and what you are asking of them. Do your research before you reach out; show us you’re invested in our ethos and that you’ve pinpointed what makes us tick.
That said, it goes both ways – there has to be residual value for both sides because, afterall, it is a business transaction, but it’s a case of finding the right fit. When you find the right brand alignment, the rest of the process should be quite easy. But the best brands don't always have the right funds, which is quite often the issue.
When Noisily was approached by McDonalds, for example, it was clear they didn't understand us or our brand. It was as if they’d not looked at anything we’d done in the past and had totally overlooked the tone of the festival.
As it happens, we’ve got a fully vegetarian menu for the crew build and break; they’d have a meltdown if they saw a McNugget stand being erected. Had McDonald’s done their research, they would have clocked the lack of alignment and not bothered wasting a phone call.
Glastonbury makes a concerted effort to maintain exclusivity. Compared with some of the other big festivals they’ve hardly got any branding from sponsors because it’s a family-run, private festival. Leeds and Reading on the other hand, have got sponsors plastered everywhere. It all comes back to how you want your event to look and feel.
I used to go to a festival in Germany called Melt. I went six or seven times in a row. Every year I felt commercialisation encroaching on the atmosphere until the festival was unrecognisable and I didn't want to go anymore. It was extraordinary. What probably started as light touch was suddenly so in your face that the magic was lost and the crowd completely changed.
Commercialise and you’ll probably sell more tickets, but the buyers will be a completely different demographic. We have never compromised on commercialisation with Noisily, which is something I’m really proud of. It’s our 10-year anniversary this year, which says it all really.
Pairing Robbie’s insights with Matter Of Form’s brand-centric thinking, we’ve summarised three key suggestions for brands wanting to break into the festival scene.
As repetitive as it may feel, finding the right fit is fundamental for brands and festivals. Wherever your brand is aiming, do your due diligence. Get to the heart of their ethos, find out what makes them tick and what makes their audience tick. Festivals tend to have really strong values in their organisation and among attendees, invest in them. Don’t be like McDonalds. Don’t waste a call.
Consumers and festival goers alike have a sixth sense when it comes to inauthenticity. Luckily, if you’ve found the right fit and committed to respecting the festival and its audience, an authentic presence should come easily. Being transparent about your values and how they align with the event’s is a simple yet effective way to build trust that survives beyond packing up camp.
For luxury brands especially, festival partnerships can be a fun – perhaps unexpected – creative extension of your brand. These types of events are increasingly offering high end options and capturing your customers in their happiest moments is a foolproof way to create positive associations with your brand. Tying your brand into unforgettable memories? Talk about timeless.
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