News Analysis: Dancing to a branded tune

Summer is nigh, and with it will come a host of festivals backed by big brand partners. Gemma Charles reports.

Over the occasionally cold, and often wet, British summer, the muddy fields of music festivals have become a battleground for marketers targeting the all-important youth market.

Once the preserve of the alternative high-on-life (and other substances) scene, festivals have morphed into multimillion-pound, brand-led events.

With the notable exception of Glastonbury, branded events are among the biggest in the UK festival calendar (see box). Mobile operators Virgin Mobile and O2 lead the pack in the telecoms sector, while Tennent's and Carling are the standard-bearers for the beer industry.

The fit with these brands is clear; mobile phones have evolved into mini-entertainment centres intrinsically linked with music, while most festival-goers are partial to a few pints while they check out their favourite bands.

Virgin Mobile head of sponsorship Stephen Rogan says the V Festival, held annually at two locations in England over one weekend in August, is 'hugely important' for the brand. 'In terms of marketing it offers something unique,' he says. 'It doesn't offer as much reach as advertising but it affects people differently. People are very passionate about music, so it can have a powerful impact.'

He backs this up by citing research which shows that customers of Virgin Mobile who are aware of the festival are four times more likely to recommend the network to their friends.

David Andrews, audience development director at Virgin Radio, which runs the VIP area at V, says the combination of the latest wave of rock bands such as Arctic Monkeys and The Killers and renewed interest in classic acts has created a 'real appetite' for festivals.

Tapping into live music is not a new exercise for marketers. Nigel Currie, chairman of the European Sponsorship Association, recalls that brands used to flock to back tours, but have now shifted their focus to festivals. He credits T in the Park, which launched in 1994, with making brands realise their potential.

'What festivals offer is similar to a major sporting event. You get people into an area in big numbers and have them for a period where they have time on their hands,' he says.

But festivals are not a marketing panacea. Innocent Drinks has ditched its free Fruitstock festival after it became a victim of its own success. 'It went from 20,000 people in the first year to 140,000 in three years. It became so big it couldn't be contained' says Ian Irving, marketing director of Sledge, which handles Innocent's experiential work. Innocent plans to run a series of village fetes instead.

In 2005 Capital FM's Party in the Park, held in London, was jettisoned to make way for Bob Geldof's Live8 gig and has failed to return. Marketing director Nick Button admits that while the tone of the event was right for the 90s, it was in need of 'contemporising'.

He adds that there is still a desire at the radio station to run a big multi-artist event. However, a shift in its music policy to more 'authentic' artists means a reincarnation of the teeny-bopper extravaganza is not on the cards.

Brands involved in event sponsorship routinely face accusations of corporate meddling, and the passion surrounding music only amplifies this displeasure. It is perhaps a sensitivity to this that has led the Eavis family, who founded Glastonbury, to resist any title sponsorship.

The O2 Wireless Festival sits in stark contrast to Glastonbury. Its features include a bubble-shaped arena, to mirror its brand icon, which is reserved solely for its customers, and roving 'O2 Angels', who give festival-goers the opportunity to upload tracks and ringtones to their mobiles.

Jeremy King, editor of creative events magazine RSVP, labels O2's brand-laden event as 'bizarre'. 'It's interesting that it's the one that never sells out,' he says.

Sledge's Irving, whose agency is also involved in the O2 event, defends the property. 'It gives consumers an immersive, memorable experience that will make them stay with the brand.' He concedes, however, that the festival scene is on its way to saturation, highlighting comedy as the next brand investment.

Festivals undoubtedly provide a useful way to communicate with consumers, but just as their campsites have steadily filled up over the past few years, so the market for branded music events is rapidly becoming overcrowded.

DATA FILE - FESTIVALS

Festival: O2 Wireless
Date: 14-17 June
Venue: London and Leeds
Sponsors: O2, London Lite, Xfm, HMV, nme.com, Channel Four, Tuborg

Festival: T in the Park
Date: 6-9 July
Venue: Perth and Kinross
Sponsors: Tennent's, NME, Bacardi, Duracell

Festival: V 2007
Date: 18-19 August
Venue: Chelmsford and Weston-under-Lizard
Sponsors: Virgin Mobile, Virgin Radio, Carling, Bacardi, Strongbow,
Sloggi

Festival: Carling Weekend
Date: 24-26 August
Venue: Reading and Leeds
Sponsors: Carling, Radio 1, NME, HMV

Festival: Metro Weekender
Date: 25-26 August
Venue: London and Cardiff
Sponsors: Metro, Volvic, WKD, Merrydown

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