It started as one of the most obscure underground events. You only knew about it in the ’80s if you heard about it from someone who’d been there. Now, almost 30 years after the first Burning Man, more than 60,000 people of all ages and demographics pour into the Nevada High Desert for eight days of hedonism, community, spirituality, sex, drugs, alcohol, acceptance and radically free expression. It’s become synonymous with sin to some, and a true home to others. But what it really is, is a cultural phenomenon, a gathering of people like no other in the world, a temporary community of strangers who are, for a week, family. Unless you’re a brand.
Brands aren’t welcome at Burning Man. In fact, the logos on rental trucks and RVs are often covered to avoid any sense of commercialization. Marketing and sales of any kind aren’t allowed—it’s one of the very few real rules at the Burn. Burners embrace each other on the way in and say, “Welcome home” as people pass through the gates. They call the outside world “the default.” And what they experience during the week on the “playa” (dried lake bed) is considered “reality.” So, why did EM go? Because there are lessons to be learned from the biggest volunteer-run bacchanal of the year where attendees are so passionate that they’d choose to live in one of the most inhospitable climates in the world. They’d rather be there, in truth, than almost anywhere else. What brand doesn’t want fans half that dedicated?
On Labor Day Weekend, we braved the ever-present dust, ate out of tin cans and washed over a bucket to report back on the secret world of burners, and what brands could learn from Burning Man (read more about this reporter’s adventures on pg. 35). Take these lessons to heart and who knows—you might start building a movement instead of a brand.
They want to feel ownership.
One of the secrets of Burning Man’s success is that it’s a community of people who, without a central director, build the third most populous city in Nevada, live in it together under the harshest possible conditions and have the most amazing experiences of their lives. All by working together for no tangible rewards except one: ownership. These people own their experiences and spaces and everything about the Burn, and that makes them passionate about it. Religious-type passion. Patriotism passion. You know the kind. Until people feel that way about you, you’ll never command that kind of loyalty and love.
They don’t like “brands.”
Now, I know you’re going to want to tell yourself that it’s not you, it’s them. You might think it’s just those hippies out in the desert complaining about a corporate conspiracy that don’t like you and your brand. You’re wrong. But let me be clear: they don’t like your “brand” when you come off like a monolithic faceless company. They don’t care what your logo looks like or what your messaging is. They do care about what their friends say about you or what they heard your ceo say about their pet issues. If it’s good stuff, they might be neutral toward you. If it’s negative, they’re likely to choose against you for a long time.
They’re as smart as you are.
Many of the conversations we heard and had in the desert were about marketing strategy and how many times they felt as though they were being talked down to and underestimated by thinly veiled attempts at appearing “green” or charitable. These are doctors, artists, lawyers, teachers and, yes, marketers, by the way. And plenty of hippies. And guess what—they’re hip to your strategy, and they can see through it, so you better be playing with an open hand, because if there’s even a whiff of manipulation or hidden motives, they’ll recognize the stink.
A gift isn’t a gift unless it has value to both parties.
Almost every article about Burning Man touches on its so-called “gift economy,” usually with a bemused “isn’t that cute” condescension. The thing is, it’s not an economy. There’s no “exchange.” It’s supposed to be an expression of caring, and that expression can come in any form, as long as it’s real and valuable. Not monetarily in most cases (it usually costs several thousand dollars per person to be at the Burn, so funds are pretty short for many folks). Some people give away their art and others give away entertainment. Many give away drinks or food or repairs or labor. The only rule is that the “gift come without strings.” That kind of giving without expectation of reciprocation turns strangers into friends, quickly. So, next time you think about handing out a tchotchke only after an attendee fills out your data collection survey, think about what you’re really collecting.
Don’t make it easy.
Living out there on the playa—even for a few days, even in a camper—is hard work. And is therefore a more powerful experience for having had to earn it through sweat equity. So don’t fall into the trap that people won’t participate in your experience unless you make it super easy and super quick and super simple. Because you might be making it super forgettable.
Passion comes from trust.
Don’t lie. One of the 10 guiding principles of Burning Man is radical self-expression, which can only come out of trust that no one is out there to judge you or ridicule you for honestly expressing yourself in whatever way you like (within safety-related limits). The point is: there’s trust. And so Burners are more dedicated to self-expression, and defending everyone’s right to it, than any other group of people outside the ACLU. You need to earn that kind of trust as a brand through transparency and radical, honest self-expression, too. Hang your flag out there, stay consistent and don’t hide from the good or bad consequences and the respect will come.
Give up control.
The organizers of Burning Man put in an astonishing amount of work, from making sure that the event has zero impact on the playa (a breathtaking accomplishment, trust us) to building what little infrastructure there has to be, from managing the fleet of community bicycles to liaising with local and state law enforcement. There are millions of little details they work out and every single step is designed to get out of the way of the individual’s experience, and facilitate it without directing it. You think you want the attendees to proceed through your exhibit in a certain direction so that they get the story you want to tell, but imagine if they were writing the story as they went along. How much longer would they retain its messages?
Get used to unpredictability.
This follows from giving up control. Things change fast. In the desert it goes from clear blue sky to white out dust storm in minutes. And an experience needs to be that fluid, too. People will do unexpected things, ask questions that you weren’t expecting and want more from you than you were ready for. So be ready, and if you’re not, roll with it.
People are people, no matter how rich.
For crying out loud, people do not want to be numbered and catalogued and reduced to consumers, and they know that we’re doing that to them with every metrical analysis, demographical projection and generation nickname. Dehumanizing your desired customers is a very bad way to get them to love you. Imagine if your romantic partners found out you referred to them in your private diary as “potentially available orifices.”
Transactions are not the goal.
This is event marketing, not direct sales. We are in the relationship business, not the sales business, and the line is a bit too blurry sometimes. Sales is, of course, important, but it’s not the marketer’s job. The experiential marketer’s goal is the same as the objective of a performance artist in the middle of an impromptu crowd in the middle of the desert: creating an unforgettable experience. Not one that lasts a few minutes and barely earns a fleeting pinprick of attention, but a life-altering, powerful and motivating experience that makes that person change some aspect of his or her life. Do you make that your goal? Because that’s what it takes to make people consider your brand family. That’s what it would take to make your brand welcome in the desert.
Reporter's Notebook: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Virgin Burner
The dust was insistent in is constancy. Everything was coated with it. I slept with it and ate it (it’s called playa pepper) and rolled on the ground in it once or twice. The physical place of Black Rock City, the dried lake bed, or playa, in the Black Rock Desert Conservancy where Burning Man happens each year at the end of August, is the overbearing truth of the event. I drank more water there than I ever drink, just to barely stave off dehydration. I ate less, despite exercising more than I ever do at home, thanks to the high altitude. I was dirty, frequently in a liquid frame of mind and sleep deprived throughout most of the week I was there, and yet I felt great.
There is a spirit of post-apocalyptic survival that fills the playa and its denizens. We felt like the only people in a world over-run by zombies and it was up to us to preserve the best of human culture long enough to repopulate the species. And there were many, many people working on that problem everywhere you looked. The best currencies were creativity and ingenuity. Artists and engineers were the celebrities, with people packing into shade structures and public camps for a drink, yes, but more often to hear a legendary Burner talk about how she finds spirituality in art and brings that art to the Burn. To burn it. The lifehackers who build the art cars that roam the open desert around the Man and the Temple look like sand yachts (in some cases, literally), sailing across the playa picking up passengers, or press-ganging passersby into service at an oar.
The rumors and the popular story line is that it’s simply anarchy for a week, full of drug abuse, alcohol poisoning, orgies and danger. No one comes but candy ravers, old hippies and young slackers and it only survives because it only lasts a week. All of that is true and none of it is even a majority of the story. There are drugs, plenty of people drink too much, there is danger if that’s what you want to find, the orgies are mostly private and safe sex is more commonly taught in the desert than in San Francisco’s public schools. You will find the ravers (“sparkle ponies” in playa parlance), hippies and slackers, it’s true. But the real lie is that you’ll find anarchy. You won’t. There are very few “laws,” but there is a very strict and commonly enforced set of societal norms, and almost no one breaks them. Because they really and honestly love this place. Even we virgins learn to love it surprisingly quickly. You can’t help it. And if it was possible, I believe that Black Rock City would stand permanently with no changes of governance or infrastructure. The people would provide for themselves what they needed in order to stay and survive. And consider themselves lucky to be able to do it.
A virgin almost never stays one. They come back. There’s something about the freedom that grows out of knowing that your neighbors and fellow citizens will suffer because of your careless actions, and directly benefit from your generosity with your time and muscle and skill that makes you more careful and generous and patriotic. And that becomes a habit. Are there problems? Yes. Nothing is a utopia. But Black Rock City is trying to get close, and that earns my respect. Will I go back? I don’t know (It’s bloody damned expensive). Do I want to? Yes. But even if I don’t, I’ll never forget the experience, and the lessons and the radical sense of life I felt while living in the dust.
I didn’t endure my time there, I lived richly my time there. I can count on less than one hand the number of times I’ve been to a brand event that made me feel the same. And I look forward to feeling it again. I wonder what brand can do as well inspiring those feelings as 60,000 scattered, unrelated people with no central leadership.