How Shoe Brands Capitalize On Music Festivals

Coachella Music Festival
Coachella 2015.
Getty Images.

Each summer, festival fever sweeps the nation, drawing giant throngs to empty fields and plazas to see memorable performances by the hottest bands and up-and-coming musical acts.

In recent years, though, music events have become even more prominent, thanks to their obvious shareability via social media and an emerging audience that values communal gatherings.

According to Nielsen, festivals tend to attract a large and youthful audience. Its latest figures estimate that approximately 32 million people attend at least one U.S. music festival each year, with 46 percent of them between the ages of 18 and 34.

And festival numbers should continue to grow, with 11.5 percent of Nielsen’s respondents saying they plan to go and 28.3 percent wanting to go to an event, according to the report.

With the rise of these music-and-culture festivals, brands of all types have jumped at the opportunity to connect with consumers there.

From Coachella and Glastonbury to Bonnaroo and the Governors Ball, footwear brands are tapping into this vibrant world for marketing and consumer outreach, as well as trend-watching.

Bonnaroo Music Festival Bonnaroo 2015. Getty Images.

Alex Machurov, director of new business and partnerships at Superfly Productions — which produces Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn., and Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival in San Francisco — told Footwear News that brand collaborations have become an increasingly important part of the festival business model.

He noted that with so many events to choose from, attendees often buy tickets for a festival for not only the music but the overall experience. At Bonnaroo, for instance, there are four straight days of music, so Machurov said the organizers try to engage visitors in other ways as well. That’s where the many types of brand activations come in.

Getting Plugged In

During this year’s Bonnaroo in June, the Teva and New Balance brands each had a presence over the weekend.

For Teva’s second year at the festival, the brand produced a limited-edition Bonnaroo sandal and DIY kit — available only at the event — that allowed festivalgoers to personalize their sandals. “On the first day, we had 90-minute lines to buy the sandals, and by day four, it seemed like every other person was wearing a pair,” said Lucas Martinez, marketing manager for Teva.

New Balance embarked on its first festival season this year, traveling the country with its Made in the USA Craftsmanship booth. In addition to Bonnaroo, the label visited Boston Calling in Massachusetts, the Manayunk Arts Festival in Pennsylvania and Summerfest in Milwaukee, Wis., to reach new audiences and get feedback from a varied consumer group.

The New Balance booth contained multiple experiences, including loops of MiUSA videos highlighting the brand’s American manufacturing associates, MiUSA product try-outs and iPads that allowed visitors to design and purchase a custom shoe on New Balance’s NB1 digital design platform.

Another brand that has immersed itself in festival culture is BucketFeet. For its second year with Lollapalooza, the Chicago-based sneaker brand partnered with the tour to create a custom slip-on — the Chi-Line sneaker, featuring a graphic design of the Chicago skyline.

“Our brand has a central mission to connect people through art, and music is such a powerful way of connecting people through self-expression,” said Jill Abbott, VP of marketing. “We were looking at Lollapalooza to overlap what we do, but through the world and lens of music.”

Sound Check

To get the most out of a festival marketing initiative, Marc Beckman, CEO of creative agency DMA United, counseled brands to extend the relationship beyond the show.

“Music festivals are a great place for [footwear brands] to activate, but it’s important for them to figure out how to use the partnership in a meaningful way after the show, as well as create a physical presence at the show that invites the consumer and [makes sense in that space],” he said.

That was the case for Teva. It opted to participate in Bonnaroo because it found that the brand shared core values with festival-goers, who generally camp out on the 700-acre grounds for the whole weekend, and a result desire comfort and functionality.

“They’re a free-spirited crowd and seek newness, individuality and freedom,” said Martinez. “Our consumers told us that Teva sandals were the ideal festival footwear — it’s too hot for sneakers and too chaotic for flip-flops. Our sandals were solving a problem for people, so it was a great place for us to focus.”

Another consideration for brands, Beckman said, is that they need to be strategic in how they communicate.

“There’s a ton of downtime. People are curious, and you have a captivated audience, but you also have a smart
and savvy captivated audience,” he said. “If you try selling to them, you’ll end up hurting the brand, but if you enter into a two-way dialogue, giving them a utilitarian benefit, it’s a lot more powerful.”

Machurov of Superfly Productions echoed this sentiment: “Our philosophy is that brands need to be integrated into the fabric of the event. We don’t name our stages and we don’t put logos on stages from different brands. We don’t think in this day and age, especially with millennials, that that resonates positively with our fans.”

He continued, “We tell our brand partners to do something that provides value to our fans and allows them to interact one-on-one.”

That dialogue is exactly what Vans is undertaking on the Warped Tour, which the brand has sponsored for more than 20 years.

Vans Warped Tour 2015 Guitarist Vic Fuentes of Pierce the Veil performs during the Vans Warped Tour 2015. Getty Images.

April Vitkus, director of global brand strategy for Vans, said, “We have a team that meets with consumers one-on-one. Making that direct connection goes back to our grassroots history, and it’s championed by Steve Van Doren, our VP of events and promotions, who leads the team on the ground at the tour.”

For the past three years, Vans has also had a presence in Austin, Texas, during the South By Southwest Music Festival, sponsoring the House of Vans at the Mohawk. “Festivals give us a chance to connect and introduce our unique brand platforms,” like the House of Vans, a cultural hub and international music venue housing more than 96 artists, said Vitkus.

Crowd Surfing

Aside from marketing opportunities, summer festivals are also a prime spot for trend-tracking. With more than 40 stops, the Warped Tour gives Vans a comprehensive snapshot of its consumer on a national scale — to see how many people are wearing its shoes, find out what they’re listening to and what they’re engaged in. Said Vitkus, “The consumer is the center of our brand, so it’s key for us that we spend time on the tour to keep them at the forefront of our minds every summer.”

The Chaco sandal brand also sends out teams to do direct field-testing at events. “We use them for competitive intelligence-gathering about what’s hot, what’s new and what’s working,” said Colin Butts, director of marketing for Chaco. “Our product-development color and print team looks at social and professional photos out of the festivals for inspiration on patterns and webbing.”

But while other labels might scope out the scene at large festivals like Coachella, Chaco prefers to hit up events with a more regional perspective, such as the All Good Music Festival in West Virginia, the Northside Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Free Press Summer Fest in Houston, Electric Forest in Michigan and the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.

Butts noted that Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival was a local mainstay for Chaco prior to its acquisition by Wolverine World Wide, so experiential and event marketing has been part of the line’s DNA from the early days.

Today, Chaco’s brand team continues to view these events as the perfect platform at which to engage and grow its customer base. “Festivals and live events have an important aligned demographic, which is young men and women who are interested in life’s adventure [and who] aren’t necessarily coming from a traditional outdoor experience,” said Butts. “We get to connect with existing consumers and share their stories. It’s a great way to introduce new consumers to Chaco.”