Striking the Right Chord

November 29, 2016

Brands are aligning with music festivals, concerts, and even musicians to elevate their experiential marketing efforts

By Chris Warren


It’s the sort of experience hardcore music fans plan their year around. For four days every summer, tens of thousands of people trek to a 700-acre farm in the small Tennessee town of Manchester for the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Modeled after other iconic multiday concerts like Woodstock and the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, Bonnaroo has become a must-attend event for fans of every music genre, from country and bluegrass to hip-hop and reggae. Last June, the festival attracted 85,000 fans to hear more than 125 bands, including Pearl Jam, Death Cab for Cutie, Jason Mraz, and Zeds Dead. 

Another well-known “group,” but perhaps less expected than any of the performers, also made its presence felt: State Farm Insurance. Bonnaroo was the first stop on the company’s ambitious music festival experiential marketing tour. Since then, State Farm has appeared at Lollapalooza, Faster Horses, Austin City Limits, iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, iHeartRadio Country, and iHeartRadio Fiesta Latina. 

State Farm is by no means the only company to have embraced the experiential marketing opportunities presented by large concerts and festivals. Big brands such as American Express, Mastercard, Heineken, and Toyota have also used concerts, as well as partnerships with musicians, to drive marketing initiatives and create buzz and unique experiences for current and prospective customers. 

“We have identified areas people care deeply about, which we call ‘passion points,’” says Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer at Mastercard. “Music is a huge one.” 

On the surface, the idea of a company like State Farm sponsoring a mega-music festival may seem peculiar. But such events, held over several days, provide the company with an opportunity to get in front of customers and prospects in a fun, clever, and memorable way. 

“Festivals are different from sports events,” says Mandy Laux, marketing sponsorship and experiential manager at State Farm. “As exciting as they are, they’re exhausting for people. It’s often hot, you’re camping for four to five days, and it’s an environment where you can run out of things to do and need some help.” 

Enter State Farm’s “Here to Help” lounge, the centerpiece of the brand’s music festival experiential marketing initiative. The 40-by-40- foot lounge is designed to be an oasis of comfort and convenience for happy, overheated, and exhausted revelers. Fully air-conditioned, the lounge offers free Wi-Fi and phone charging stations; a general store with sunglasses, sunscreen, earplugs, and other necessities; and three large-screen TVs live streaming the action from the festival stages. 

Experiential marketing efforts must deliver genuine and measurable value to a brand."

Outside the lounge is a space with misting fans and swings so people can get off their feet and cool down. There are also free storage lockers to help lighten the load of concertgoers as they wander around the festival. State Farm’s assistance even continues after the music goes silent. 

“At the end of camping for four days, there’s a lot that can go wrong,” Laux says. “Dead batteries and flat tires are two problems, so we sponsored a roadside service [at Bonnaroo] to help campers get on their way safely.” 

Though State Farm’s decision to become a helpful resource at music festivals is a way to reach the important 18- to 34-year-old demographic, Laux says it’s about more than that. “At festivals, specifically, you have this unique chance to demonstrate what it means to be part of a community and what it means to be a good neighbor,” she says. “It also translates into our marketing message. We have a new brand platform that we launched last June called ‘Here to help life go right.’ Festivals allow us to engage with [Millennials] and authentically show that we are here to help with all their life experiences.” 


More than Music

While having a presence at a music festival is important, the experiential marketing effort must also deliver genuine and measurable value to a brand, experts say. Indeed, just as bands at festivals compete for the most coveted time slots and stages to perform on, brands must also compete to stand out.

“I think [brands] should clearly think through what will be the kind of involvement they want to have in music in a way that impacts their business,” Rajamannar says. “Getting to be a sponsor is easy, but what do you do with it? What is it you can do to uniquely differentiate yourself?” (See “From Priceless Ads to Priceless Experiences,” below.) 

For State Farm and American Express, that means translating brand values into marketing initiatives that can logically and genuinely add value to the experience of concertgoers. “A brand should strive to create experiences that are authentic to what they stand for, and they should always seek to add value to both the artists and the attendees,” says Walter Frye, VP of global entertainment and premier events at American Express.

American Express thinks about the “fan journey” around concerts from beginning to end. “The experience starts when you hear that your favorite artist is on tour, then you purchase your ticket and you plan your night out. Then you attend and participate, and later think back and reflect on it,” Frye says.

Experiential marketing opportunities aren’t limited to sponsoring a large festival or concert tour organized by someone else. Many brands work directly with musicians and labels to plan, promote, and execute their own shows.

At each juncture of that fan journey, American Express tries to be what Frye calls a “hero.” For instance, the company has worked with concert promoters and artists, ranging from Drake to Kenny Chesney to the Rolling Stones, to provide opportunities for its card members to purchase tickets before they become available to the general public. American Express also pitches in with pre-concert logistical help. On all stops on Beyoncé’s recent Formation tour, the company partnered with Uber to provide fans with rides to and from the concert, which could be paid for with card reward points.  

At the concerts themselves, American Express aims to make the overall experience more enjoyable. Last summer’s inaugural Panorama Music Festival in New York City combined music and technology, so American Express made it possible for card members to synch their cards to festival apps in order to easily make purchases at the event. 

Even after that festival was over, Amex reminded attendees of how much fun they had — what Frye calls the “reflection” stage of the concert experience. “For all our card members who enrolled in our mobile app integration platform, we surprised them after the festival by sending them foldable cardboard speakers that were a thank you from Amex and the festival,” Frye says. “Increasingly, we are thinking about how to extend the experience at a music event by sending a memento to remember the event and to start thinking about the next one.”


Make Your Own Kind of Music

Experiential marketing opportunities aren’t limited to sponsoring a large festival or concert tour organized by someone else. Many brands work directly with musicians and labels to plan, promote, and execute their own shows. This is a way to control some of the inherent risks of a sponsorship while still delivering a unique brand experience.

Mastercard, for example, hosts what it calls “pocket concerts” around the globe. “They are not organized by someone else,” Rajamannar says. “We put them together. They are very small, intimate concerts with about 40 or 50 people in the audience. Most recently, we did one at the foot of the Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro.”

About a year and a half ago, Marriott International launched a partnership with Universal Music Group (UMG) that involves bringing the label’s artists to the hotel chain’s properties around the world for live performances. “On the UMG side, they have great artists and they want audiences exposed to them,” says Karin Timpone, global marketing officer at Marriott International. “And we have a good demographic of affluent travelers who are socially engaged.”

In particular, Marriott has used private concerts to attract next generation travelers and create memorable experiences for members of the Marriott Rewards program. Some shows, like Ellie Goulding’s performance at Marriott’s St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, are open to the public. Attendance for others, such as a Demi Lovato and DNCE show at L.A. Live in Los Angeles, is limited to loyalty program members. 

“The idea is that you could travel to one of the properties to see a show or, if you already live in the city, enjoy a benefit of membership when you’re not traveling,” says Timpone, who also notes that the partnership with UMG allows Marriott Rewards members to download music from a dedicated microsite. 

While clearly a way to cement the loyalty of its best customers, Timpone admits that the high-profile concerts have big ripple effects in terms of driving brand awareness and rewards program acquisitions. And, because the company works with performers who have large fan bases and are culturally relevant, the events attract widespread media attention.

Social media conversation is as important to Marriott as mainstream media coverage, Timpone says. “What we look for is not just lifting the brand awareness of a property but the engagement of people bringing their friends to the concerts and socially communicating where they are,” she notes. “They’re taking pictures of their life story in our hotels and enjoying their passion for music in our hotels.”

At the Los Angeles event, Marriott invited attendees to share their own stories about their travel and music experiences. Some of the interviews conducted with rewards members will be incorporated into a new campaign with the tag line “You Are Here.” 

“It’s not just about the physical locations of our properties around the world, but about the emotional fulfillment,” Timpone says. “It’s a great way for us to get to know members and engage with them more.”

That’s music to a marketer’s ears. 


How to Avoid Brand-Damaging Situations

As appealing as they are, festivals, concerts, and partnerships with musicians come with plenty of risks and challenges. Not all performers, to put it mildly, behave in a way that makes them natural brand ambassadors: The Who famously destroyed hotel rooms, and Guns N’ Roses front man Axl Rose once jumped into a concert crowd and started throwing punches after he saw a fan with a camera. Which means selecting artists to associate with should not be a hasty decision.

“You make one false move and you get stuck with an ambassador whose behavior can impact your brand,” says Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer at Mastercard, which has a long track record of sponsoring events like the GRAMMYs and working with individual artists such as Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, and Usher to deliver unique experiences to customers. 

Even the most authentic and thoughtfully planned marketing initiative at a concert or festival can be torpedoed if a performer grabs headlines for all the wrong reasons. Avoiding that kind of messy and potentially brand-damaging situation requires patience and communication. “We spend the extra time to ensure that we have shared values with artists,” says Walter Frye, VP of global entertainment and premier events at American Express. 

Part of the conversation with musicians, festival organizers, and promoters involves explaining why their association with a brand is in everybody’s interest, experts say. The growth of free or extremely cheap digital downloads has made it exceptionally hard for musicians and labels to grab the attention of music lovers. Partnering with a brand willing to engage its customer base to both raise awareness about a tour or event and improve the experience of going to a concert has a big upside for musicians. 

“Of course, we are most focused on maximizing the reach and driving awareness of the American Express card member value proposition in the music space,” Frye says. “But we also want to make sure we are creating a marketing vehicle for artists that has true value for them.” 

Still, serious vetting is required. For its part, Mastercard has developed a proprietary algorithm that helps it determine what concerts and artists to work with. The factors examined include an event or an artist’s image or an analysis of their relationship with fans. 

“First and foremost, the individual or the event needs to have a significant connection and resonance with consumers,” Rajamannar says. “Part of the evaluation, if it’s an artist, is how clean their image is and how they carry themselves. We also look at social media — how actively they are engaged with consumers and how popular they are on social media.” 

For American Express, the extra time spent building a relationship with musicians is perhaps the best way to determine whether they’re a good fit as a partner. Frye says it’s essential for companies to be clear on what the expectations and goals are both for the brand and the artist. That dialogue helps both sides decide if they’re natural partners.

— C.W. 


From Priceless Ads to Priceless Experiences

Times were very different when Mastercard’s now iconic Priceless ad first aired in 1997. “There was no social, there was no digital, there was no clutter of communication,” says Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer at Mastercard.

A few years ago, Mastercard evolved Priceless from a traditional advertising campaign to a holistic marketing platform, to make it more relevant and retain its place in the global vernacular. “We want to go from storytelling to story-making, giving consumers experiences that are truly priceless to them,” Rajamannar says. “They can be once-in-a-lifetime experiences or small smile-making experiences, but things that cut through the clutter and get to consumers’ hearts and really have an impact.”

Music is a great tool for creating memorable experiences. For example, Mastercard once flew a fan of Usher from the United Kingdom to Los Angeles under the pretense that she would be interviewed for a documentary about the artist’s most devoted fans. While in California, the fan is filmed watching a performance by street artists, one of whom is Usher in disguise.

“She doesn’t realize it’s him until he takes off his mask, and the reaction she has is absolutely fantastic,” Rajamannar says. “We have given away half a million priceless surprises around the world, not all of them music, and the key thing is to capture that feeling of surprise.” 

Mastercard shares these moments on social media, and Rajamannar says they have played extremely well across the globe. “The metrics we see so far show us that our brand seems to be getting stronger, and the energy and differentiation of our brand and its preference are all going up nicely in the U.S. and around the globe,” he adds.

— C.W. 


Photo credit: Getty Images


This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Activate magazine.

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