In our post on Jägermeister’s “Jägerhaus” we touched on the idea of brands profiling festival properties like people when scoping the market for activation opportunities. While the global festival season is in full swing, we take the down period in China as an opportunity to take our own advice and profile some of the key festival properties that exist here. Before looking at the individual properties, let’s think about the lifecycle of a festival, from a branding perspective.
Years 0-3 Formative Years
A festival develops along the same lines as a brand, a business, or even a person. The first and second years are marked by periods of intense hustling; there are a lot of moving pieces, and many unknowns. Despite early attempts to settle on a look, a concept, and a series of principles (both artistic and commercial) which will guide the trajectory of its development, other interests will always play a role in shaping the end result. Partnering with a new property could be advantageous for this very reason; a brand that wants to embed itself deeply into a new cultural phenomenon would do well to actually shape it from the outset, in a clever way. This could be done through a special addition to the festival’s programming, or the backing of a niche stage.
Years 4-6 Rapid Growth – Maturity
Once an initial ceiling is pierced, rapid growth follows, necessitating some degree of transformation. The conflict between staying true to one’s roots versus adapting to the changing needs of people (and shareholders once scale is achieved) plays out. This period marks the ‘join the bandwagon’ period where numerous brands with different agendas will attempt to get in on the action, knowing that the audience is cultivated and that the event is relatively ‘happening’ in their eyes. It’s critical to keep innovative and to mix things up year-on-year, as the interest and participation of fans can wane towards year 5 as new events pop up. The festival may play with programming, throwing in curveball headliners and new side activities. Nevertheless, a core audience should preserve the festival’s essence – they are ambassadors, and likely to be those who are the most critical of a brand’s presence.
Years 7-10 Death – Transcendence
The final stage is a sort of do-or-die phase, i.e. do something radically different or become irrelevant. It’s only natural that a festival’s core audience will grow up; their needs will change, new obligations toward their careers and families will take precedence, and many will find themselves at odds with the energy and ideals that belied the festival’s founding. With the exception of events which have taken on a greater cultural significance such as Glastonbury, or events like Live Aid which align with a broader human dream, a festival must at this point choose whether on not to move on and cast itself in a new light, or wind down and regenerate itself into something that once again connects with a younger audience.
Style: Rock with Chinese characteristics / Metal
Apparel brand: Converse / Vans / H&M
Alcohol: Tiger Beer / Jagermeister
Personality: Anything from geeky shoegazer to pure metal head. The music takes centre stage, and people who can keep it real, authentic and raw are idolised.
As the longest surviving festival platform in China, MIDI occupies a pretty unique position. It has grown up with a very specific following, and then had to transition as the first gen of MIDI-goers have matured. In this way, MIDI fans are a fairly mixed bunch ranging from young rock fans to families who have been pulled by headline artists, which often consist of reputable local rock acts alongside big name international rock/metal bands (Killswitch Engage headlined the last edition). If MIDI were a person, it might be someone who’s been chipping away at their career for a couple of years and is starting to question his/her own identity. They’ve stopped going out to livehouses as much as they used to when they were fresh out of Uni, and on the other hand the nightlife scene has never been that attractive to them. While buckling down to prepare for the next stage of life is top of mind, MIDI offers a brief escape, with a hint of nostalgia for the 2004-2009 high of Chinese rock.
The newly spun off property is a sign that MIDI is acknowledging its own age. There are two ways this could play out: MIDI could wind down knowing its best days are over, re-launching as a new property ‘by the makers of’, or as it is doing, it could draw on the reputable brand to spin off new properties, employing new ambassadors with a younger energy to prolong its lifespan.
Strawberry / Modern Sky
Style: Edgy electro pop, indie bands with credibility and style plus commercial features.
Apparel brand: Asos / Diesel / Dr. Martens
Alcohol: Tuborg / Bacardi
Personality: Style-conscious rockers, fashionistas and fun loving students who aren’t averse to a little commercialism. Lifestyle plays a larger role in their music tastes.
Strawberry and Modern Sky festival are known for targeting a much hipper crowd. This is reflected in the lineup, which usually features a couple of high profile indie acts (the last edition of Strawberry in Shanghai had Dinosaur Jr. as a highlight, alongside somewhat awkward bedfellow Carly Rae Jepson). The messaging around Strawberry also comes across as a little more self-centred, in a post-90’s sort of way. Earlier editions of MIDI would focus on a cause such as the environment (2012 focused on “PM2.5” i.e. large airborne particles of pollutants which are having an adverse effect on our health). Strawberry seems to focus in more on personal attitudes and identity (“Freaky is Good” was 2015’s motif). It is a late teen / young adult looking for a place to vent. Midi is the cool dad, Strawberry is the upstart son.
Strawberry has been scaling dramatically in China, while Modern Sky Festival migrates to new pastures (New York, Seattle and Finland of late). During this period of intense growth it is unlikely the formula will change much. The most interesting developments will come from how the property balances its commercial obligations with the spirit and vitality of its distinctive personality.
Style: Jazz, world and some commercial elements
Apparel brand: Muji, Zara, Clarks, Gap
Alcohol: Guinness, Bacardi (Perrier)
Personality: Grown-ups and music aficionados alike are mobilized, with the promise of sun and smiles. Professionals will meet up and unwind to some new noises, while mums and dads boogie like they used to.
JZ has secured a niche, sidestepping the need to go head on with another property. JZ fans skew older and are less concerned with being something, or exhibitionism. They are looking for an escape, but are quite content being in their own skin and not diverging much from the norm. Composure is broken to indulge in a little dance but for the most part, JZ is about watching, listening and wondering without a personal outcome in mind.
JZ too has been growing steadily in popularity, and the organizers have continued to draw big name artists. As more commercial acts come on board, it might become more difficult for the festival to focus on its core originating passion point – jazz, and the lifestyle of the music aficionado. Too many outsiders could spoil the mix causing an identity crisis.
Apparel brand: Adidas, Lacoste, Michael Kors
Personality: Affluent party kids, global citizens with friends in Europe and America from their various travels. There are empowered, discerning young men/woman who are looking to make the most of their early years of relative freedom.
We all have those friends who are able to make their lives look like something from a hip-hop MV. Every other day they are out in some cool locations hanging out, partying and looking flash in the latest trendy wear (and of course they share this with the world via carefully curated social media profiles). Storm is the unabashed socialite, always seeking to bring the party and to be at the center of the action. EDM is now a global phenomenon, and Storm is the conduit for its passing into China. There is an overt sense of commercialization, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Young kids want to spend on experience; they have bucket lists and dreams that they want to pursue, and these often go hand in hand with material acquisition, fleeting love, and high octane experiences.
Storm knows what it is and is set on expanding rapidly in China. It is running with the EDM baton and going for scale now that its essence is set.
Apparel brand: H&M, Crocs, Uniqlo
Alcohol: Craft beer
Personality: Fun loving arty kids who like to get their hands messy. Self-expression is realized through making things rather than exhibiting oneself; there is no right or wrong way, everyone is just enjoying himself or herself freely.
Simple Life has arguably been impinging on JZ’s audience, with high profile pop artists drawing away those who aren’t as interested in the more cerebral side of JZ’s lineup. The festival is a safe place with more of a DIY ethos at heart, as represented in the market and creative booths dotted around the site. In a sense there is less pressure here, the experience is more centered on having a good time. Fans don’t need to align with a specific style of music or sub-culture, it’s a casual fun day out. The last thing kids want is to go from the home – where they are constantly being judged by their parents – to a festival where their peers will judge them on their appearance and willingness to go wild. Taking a hint from the international scene, you might say Simple Life leans towards “normcore”, attracting kids who care a lot about expressing their individuality and having fun without going over the top. Simplicity is built into the property, making it important for brand partners to think cleverly regarding how to get attention and engagement without depending on flashy in-your-face setups.
Simple Life originated in Taiwan; its export to China may come at the price of some alienation, but the Chinese audience also has an opportunity to make it their own. The festival may work harder to draw market share from JZ, and this will probably be done by focusing on the lineup and lifestyle elements more than anything. For now it is fairly stable.
JUE | Music + Art Festival
Style: Urban Arts & Music
Apparel brand: Levi’s, J. Crew
Alcohol: Craft beer
Personality: Creative genre benders who like to play with their identities and share freely with others. JUE is like the curious ethnographer who wants to participate in everything, hear from people of all ages and walks of life, and avoid being boxed in.
Being a multidisciplinary event that sprawls out across Beijing and Shanghai, JUE is sort of like the guy or girl who somehow manages against the odds, to bring the punk rockers, the art school kids and the electro heads together in a single room. It’s genre agnostic, and intent on strengthening the bonds that hold us together. This itself is why it is a success – being a less commercially-driven event, people are more giving and willing to get involved for the sake of art itself.
Over 7 years JUE has opened itself up to so much that it’s slowly realized it needs to focus in more on core strengths – like a grad student facing the pressure of making a career choice. JUE helped to bring the creative communities together and create cohesion among independent creative circles, but to go forward, it needs to adapt to the new environment it has helped to bring in.
Where Do You Sit?
These rough profiles of the major festivals in China should help you to understand where your brand sits, not just from an identity perspective, but also existentially. There are some very smart plays that can be made here depending on your approach, and what your short / long-term objectives are. A well-established global brand might not work so well at an upstart property, as the fans are going to be particularly sensitive to anything that doesn’t already sit within their world. Likewise, a niche brand might get obscured at a larger property where there are likely to be established relationships in place and impressive lineups which will hold the crowd away from the smaller side activities.
Why not see how it happens from day 1? Split Works has just announced the founding of a new festival property called Echo Park! This September 19-20th, Echo Park will make the best use of the sprawling grasslands of the Shanghai Rugby Club by curating a lifestyle experience that features sports, gaming, family activities, F&B and more.
There are a limited number of sponsorship opportunities available for brands across each of the festival zones. For the chance to get grounded amongst a highly connected, youthful and fun-loving crowd, please get in contact: firstname.lastname@example.org