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Staying Authentic: The Story Behind Lollapalooza’s Very First Brand Sponsor

In 1996, skate shoe manufacturer Airwalk was the leader of its pack, but was confined to the shelves of skateboarding stores. What it wanted was a foothold in mainstream retail.

“The brand had a real growth problem at the time,” says Steve Knill (NYC), GMR’s Executive Vice President of Music and Entertainment. “This was before the boom of niche lifestyle retailers like PacSun, so crossing that gap to meet the masses meant being a little more inventive.”

So Knill and team met with the founders of Lollapalooza, a then-five-year old touring festival, with a suggestion that raised eyebrows: bring Airwalk on as Lollapalooza’s first ever brand sponsor.


To not "sell out," find common ground

“Perry was worried,” Knill remembers of Perry Farrell, founder of Lollapalooza and front man of Jane's Addiction. “The festival had never worked with a brand before and, more than anything, he was concerned that doing so would upset their artists and make them sell-outs."

But as organizers noted, “in shoe-speak, Airwalk and Lollapalooza '96 are a good fit.” Their audiences overlapped perfectly, and in the end, Farrell agreed.

Airwalk paid a sponsorship fee and promoted the tour in local markets, both in their stores and through radio buys. At the festival itself, the brand set up a merch tent and a skate ramp, held festival-friendly contests (e.g. who could sit longest in a tub of ice), and brought in pro riders for exhibition and autographs—which fans embraced as a cool addition to the festival activities.

The relationship helped both partners plug into their dream audience. Before long, Airwalk was a staple in Footlocker, and Lolla was solidified as a cornerstone among modern music festivals.

Genesis of a vertical: music festival sponsorship

Thus began one of the most profitable verticals in music—one that IEG projects will total $1.34 billion this year in North America alone.

The festival scene is also one of few consistent climbers in a decade marked by an otherwise fluctuating music industry, which makes it a smart place for brands to invest.

Fast forward to 2013, when Lollapalooza hosted a record 300,000 fans in Chicago’s grant park. 2014 Lolla passes sold out before the lineup was even announced. And Glastonbury—the massive music festival held on a plot of farmland in England’s Somerset region—sold its 135,000 tickets for 2014 in a record 1 hour 27 minutes.

[How] do brands fit in?

While the numbers are huge, the aim of sponsoring a festival has evolved beyond exposure alone. Brands have to understand and respect just how protective attendees are of their festival culture.

“Music festivals crowds are a second family for a lot of people. When you’re there it’s not just about a common love of music, but an appreciation for the like-minded people around you,” says Knill. “Brands are essentially stepping into a home away from home. So in order to be well received, they really have to convey that they live in the same world as consumers."

One of the most effective ways to achieve that? Easy, enjoyable value exchanges.

“The most successful festival activations establish a shared purpose between brand and consumer,” he adds. “Understanding what distinguishes the festival experience is the first piece, and determining how to deliver something that makes festival life easier on fans, and deliver a better experience overall, is the second.”


4 brands who've done it right:

There are plenty of good examples out there, but here are a few we especially like:

• Back in 2007 Wrangler built a pop-up laundromat at the ever-muddy Lowlands Music festival in the Netherlands. People could drop off their dirty denim in exchange for a clean change of clothes, and receive a text when their pants were ready for pick-up.

• Argentinian mobile company Personal is another, debuting synchronized portapotties at their annual music festival, Personal Fest, last year. The seven “rhythmical potties” were hacked, wired and painted, each lighting up and playing a different choreographed track when occupied.

• Esurance has embraced the tech/music interplay unique to SXSW and identified a pain point (getting lost in the shuffle). So the brand has been using technology to make the experience better by providing personalized itineraries and hooking attendees up with VIP concert experiences.

• We’re also big fans of the Glad personal tent/trash bag, which offered festival-goers protection from the elements at night and convenient campsite cleanup the next morning.

These three campaigns elevate the strength of the brands by focusing on the here-and-now needs and experience of their audience. And they’re great modern examples of the way both brands and festivals have built on the early start—adding a skate ramp to a music festival—that Airwalk and Lollapalooza pioneered almost 20 years ago.

“It’s never been about just showing up at the party," Knill concludes. "You have to come to be part of the fun.”

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