Jim Carless of Space: why festival season 2021 still matters to brands

You’ve got one of those big Yorkshire puddings with the whole meal inside – it’s utter filth, but that’s all right. Someone on stilts hobbles through the mud, almost tripping over the limp, near-catatonic A-level graduates who thought mixing their drinks while jumping around to Foo Fighters was a good idea.

Remember that? Festivals. The ultimate expression of freedom and community, in which thousands of people congregate to booze the weekend away and sing their hearts out. The government’s recent roadmap to recovery poured lighter fuel on the pent-up, smouldering desires of the British public to get back to ‘normal, and festivals were no different.

Organisers were quick to announce shows were back. Sharply crafted video montages emblazoned with ‘LET’S GO!” supers assured us the summer of 2021 was going to be the summer of our lives. Because, besides the bands, festivals offer brands unique opportunities – there’s so much scope for trial and awareness building, amongst an audience with money to burn.

So, despite the uncertainty, is it time for brands to return to the fields of Reading, Leeds and the like? “Data not dates” is the latest government slogan, and while it’s conceivable that 21st June becomes July 26th, the roadmap does allow brands to calculate the risk and plan accordingly. Essentially, a flip-reverse of last year, where we might see a tactical switch into festivals fairly last-minute depending on the circumstances, particularly by brands who’re integrating festivals as an additional strand to their wider campaigns.

The conundrum comes when festival sponsors – often booze brands – are taking a more strategic approach to planning their campaigns, from the festival-out rather than the shelf or pub-in. In these instances, their activations are more embedded into the overall festival, and as such planning requires a longer runway, with earlier commitment to resources including workload and financials.

And it’s here where bravery can win out. Brave marketers who want to surf on a storm tide of optimism will heavily lean into a return to normality, and commit to IRL festival experience. Yes, there is a risk associated with this, but the potential rewards from a unique set of circumstances this summer far exceed it. If the festival community is successful in its lobbying of the government to underwrite cancellation costs, and if this can extend to the costs incurred by sponsors, then there is no reason why brands shouldn’t take a considered leap of faith and start planning how to allocate their tickets amongst an inbox full of requests.

Because socially distanced events, drive-through experiences and online gigs are to some extent backwards steps for the brand experience industry, formed out of necessity where human connection was an increasingly valuable currency. They make do with what they have, but they can never replace what we’ve lost.

Rather than rely on a virtual future, this is where brands can further take advantage of the really good stuff that’s risen out of the ashes of a cancelled 2020. Augmented festival experiences that leverage readily available mobile technology will enable deeper immersion into physical brand worlds onsite. Brands can broadcast their festival activations to remote audiences, working with promoters to increase reach. With millions of people now used to hybrid experiences, why not take this a step further and hybridise the physical festival experience?

When these opportunities are integrated into a wider plan, then brands can really flex their partnership investments and see favourable returns on their investment. Baking social, mobile, AR and more into the heart of any festival activation seems like a no-brainer – there’s so much opportunity for rich content that can fill the wellies of any self-respecting community management team for months to come.

Best case scenario, come summer, we could all be in fields shouting ‘No, I am Spartacus!’ and getting stuck into brand experiences worth remembering. Call me naive, but you can’t lose hope. Nothing is certain and everything is possible.

Jim Carless is head of brand experience, Space

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