Music festivals: marketing dream or nightmare?

Summer may be winding down but the music-festival season is just getting started.

Music festival
Paul Bernhardt | Getty Images

Companies looking to get in front of the hippest audiences will have opportunities throughout September and October, as music fans flock to festivals across the nation, including "Austin City Limits," featuring Foo Fighters, ASAP Rocky and The Strokes, on the first and second weekends in October and "Voodoo Experience," a multi-day event just outside New Orleans, starting on October 30 with Ozzy Osbourne and Florence + The Machine.

These events can attract 50,000 attendees or more from all over the country. That's a lot of eyeballs for brands like 7-Up, Café Bustelo and Nordstrom.

Of course, selling to these audiences is not as easy as it used to be. Putting a banner behind a stage when you're playing to millennial consumers just won't cut it. These concert-goers have seen it all and expect a unique and totally authentic experience. That's why advertisers need to know to whom they are marketing, and what solution and/or onsite experience their brand is providing for attendees. Just because a festival exists, doesn't mean your brand should have a presence there.

As someone who has spent countless hours walking the grounds of these events, both as a fan and as a marketer, I've been amazed by the number of brands that simply don't belong. Why, for example, would McDonald's and Subway set up shop in foodie cities like Austin during SXSW, where festival goers prefer to sample local fare? Festival sponsorships are pricey, yet these companies got little for their marketing dollars. In fact, their presence was mocked by music fans and the media. Even worse was the much-maligned Doritos stage—a monstrosity that forced musicians to perform in front of a giant vending machine.

It's key to understand what the festivals are, and who attends. While mostly geared towards millennials, these days, event organizers are booking acts that tend to appeal to a broader audience, from the emerging indie bands to older, established acts like Elton John and Metallica. This goes beyond the traditional demographic, but as fans of the music they have shared values and interests. It's a discerning crowd that's repelled by in-your-face messaging.

While not necessarily anti-brand, they are pro-authenticity. A brand can't simply buy its way into a festival and expect people to line up, especially in an environment where they are being barraged all day with different images, sounds and tastes. Companies that want to be remembered need to create an experience that stands out and enhances the enjoyment of the festival fan, whether that's by creating a comfortable lounge for weary concertgoers (Jack Daniels, Fat Boy), or places to plug in and recharge a cell phone (Samsung and Verizon).

Toyota, which will have presence at Voodoo, Nocturnal and Life is Beautiful, is a client of ours and we worked with the car maker on its festival branding. It will have a music tent curated by Spin magazine that includes some of the more sought-after emerging acts and brand placements – as well as a few car models. It is essentially creating an additional branded stage. It's partnering with VH1's "Save the Music" fundraiser and encouraging music fans and musicians to write about what music means to them. For every social post using the hashtag #toyotagiving, it's contributing a dollar to the cause – engaging participants and staying in the conversation outside the festival grounds.

Sponsors at the "Life is Beautiful" festival in Las Vegas in September are getting especially creative and interactive. Dos Equis is setting up a lounge and beer garden complete with mist walkers, aerialist performances, stilt walkers, a drum circle, a photo booth and graffiti art. Nordstrom is hedging its bets by offering three pop-up pods where guests can have personalized messages screened on giveaway tote bags, which they can then fill up with full-sized samples of products like lotions and sunscreens. There will also be a pod with a photo booth and a rest area outside the pods with a DJ and outlets so that attendees can recharge their phones.

These brands know when to go big and when to dip their toes. They understand that if they haven't spent time in the music space, and have no real connection to it, they shouldn't jump in by putting millions into sponsorship.

Music festivals are a great way to reach a key demographic, but doing it wrong is worse than not doing it at all.

Commentary by Alan Sartirana, the CEO of Anthemic, a creative agency whose focus is the cultivation of experiences that inspire people and influence culture. Follow him on Twitter @heyvalet.

Disclosure: Toyota is a client of an Anthemic. Other companies mentioned are not clients.