Independent music and film festivals like South by Southwest and the Sundance Film Festival are unique engagement platforms with a seemingly unstoppable trajectory for growth. They attract an eclectic mix of A-list and emerging artists musicians filmmakers and actors. They provide hip and unconventional backdrops for media coverage. And they lure trendsetting consumers VIPs and industry insiders with the passion connections and disposable incomes to travel great distances just to be a part of it all. What brand wouldn’t want a piece of the action?
Trouble is the edgy rebellious spirit of the indie festival also attracts a rebellious crowd of independent event marketers and brands that don’t want to or can’t afford to pay for a formal sponsorship deal. As a result many are setting up their own fringe activations renting local galleries homes and shops and throwing lavish parties and events that are outside of the festival’s official program.
The practice of ambush or parasitic marketing is creating quite the prickly relationship between brands and festival organizers. With their sponsorship lifelines and trademarks at stake festival execs are responding by seeking legal action revoking festival badges and having non-sanctioned parties shut down. At its 2007 event SXSW organizers were successful in closing down nine unofficial events sending non-sponsors who had invested thousands home empty-handed.
Sundance maintains a year-round Brand Protection Team whose sole mission is to track down and address non-sanctioned activities. The strong stance organizers say isn’t just because brands are behaving badly. It’s because unsanctioned activities erode the attendee base.
“We’ve reacted to this phenomenon because we ultimately believe this could cause the collapse of our event ” says Roland Swenson managing director at SXSW. “People that come down and don’t register and who will go to only fringe events—is that going to put us out of business this year? No. Five years from now? Could be.”
But chasing down offenders isn’t the only way festivals are fighting outsiders. They are also educating brands. “Nine times out of 10 they had no idea they weren’t officially related to Sundance because they had been sold a sponsorship by an event planner and they thought they were buying into the festival ” says Sarah Pearce director of festival operations at the Sundance Film Festival. Sometimes the calls result in the brand pulling out or signing on as a bonafide sponsor.
Festivals are also taking the unsanctioned activities to heart and retooling their sponsor packages to meet the needs of brand marketers who are increasingly asking for more real estate to create a more dedicated brand presence.
When SXSW started 23 years ago it created all of the event’s assets. Now all of its sponsorships involve some sort of unique activation for the brands. “That is a fundamental change that we’ve had to take in our approach ” says Swenson.
At Sundance this year the festival for the first time worked with a long-time ambush event planner to turn his venue into an official festival attraction. The festival shut down a portion of Main Street and set up upscale tents with hardwood floors to create a press junket space called The Lift where talent could go and get all of their interviews done and where sponsors could activate in an exclusive area. “It was something we were resistant to before but is something we realize now actually benefits our sponsors ” Pearce says. “If our sponsors are happy that means that we can put on a better festival because we have more money.”
Last January Honda activated its first-ever sponsorship of Sundance as a presenting sponsor and official automobile of the event. The automaker activated at The Lift and used the space to hand out screening tickets to sold-out screenings (one of its official sponsor perks) and to showcase its environmentally friendly cars. The brand defends its decision to buy into an official sponsorship because of the credibility it affords the company with the film community.
“If there weren’t sponsors [tickets] would be $60 and all the wonderful films wouldn’t be accessible to a very large audience ” says Christina Ra assistant manager-Honda public relations who managed the program. “So a lot of it was the alignment of the idea of the independent spirit and independent artists that need this platform of the festival and need the support of the sponsors to really bring everything to life. It’s a large part of why we did it.”
Besides ticket prices unsanctioned activities can affect the bottom line for festivals in other ways. Rogue event marketers often get into bidding wars with festival organizers over public event spaces and often force festivals out of their regular venues. Pearce says five years ago she could rent a gallery space on Main Street in Park City UT (home of Sundance) for $15 000. Last year prices jumped to $100 000. “It affects my budget for the festival ” she says.
If most marketers understand the value of protecting a brand’s assets why do so many still go the rebellious route? Sunglasses brand Carrera activated at SXSW for the first time this year and eschewed a formal sponsorship agreement instead opting to create its own branded space called the Carrera Café a three-day VIP and media lounge created at a downtown Austin restaurant (BMF Media New York City handled) where celebs and artists could nosh on snacks conduct interviews and try on Carrera shades. Part of the company’s strategy is to support emerging artists so it activates at other indie festivals like Coachella and Sundance. But it also buys into gifting lounges at mainstream properties like the Oscars and the Grammies.
The brand says strategy plays a big part in deciding which route to take. “When you do your own thing you really create your own flavor if you will. You can create the brand’s environment ” says Robin Scheer Ettinger vp-marketing at Sàfilo USA which manufactures the Carrera brand. “When you’re signing on as an official sponsor it’s really their brand and you’re secondary to that. Given that we are relaunching the brand we wanted to create our own point of view. We really wanted it to be about the brand Carrera and not Carrera at SXSW.”
The other factor of course is cost. Despite their independence Sundance and SXSW are not underdog properties anymore. Both festivals are mature platforms with a roster of major partners including American Express HP Delta Air Lines and Pepsi and sponsorship packages ranging in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “If you want to get a lot of bang you have to spend a lot of money ” says Scheer Ettinger explaining why Carrera went its own way.
Festival organizers and ambush marketers may not find a lot of common ground these days but the feud is generating a steady stream of strategic changes on both sides that may ultimately make for better festival programs smarter sponsorship packages and richer attendee experiences.