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An ad executive explains how Burning Man is really a massive marketing festival

FullSizeRenderJon BondBurning Man

If you want an example of how to build a brand today, there’s no better place to look than Burning Man, the festival that takes place annually in the heart of the Nevada dessert. Anyone involved with Burning Man would swear that it is completely devoid of ‘marketing,’ and that is precisely what makes it brilliant marketing, circa 2017.

My first clue that these folks know what they are doing came at the entrance to the festival where a sign proclaimed the 10 principles of Burning Man.

The brand blueprint was right there for everyone to see, reading like a brand manifesto or well crafted brand strategy you’d see at any good brand agency. Check box number one.

Burning rulesJon BondThe 10 principles of Burning Man

Everything that is done (or disallowed) at Burning Man comes straight out of this list of ‘ brand ‘ principles, the most famous being ‘ leave no trace,’ meaning no evidence at all that a city of 70,000 people were living here. They take this principle more seriously than any of the others, going so far as to monitor the cleanup effort of each campsite and impose penalties for those who are not strident enough.

There’s even a Burning Man name for refuge inadvertently left on the premises, material out of place , or “Moop’ as Burners call it. This secret burner language is another crucial element that creates community, makes participants feel ‘ special’ and binds these people to the brand — no different than the way Starbucks has renamed medium sized coffee as ‘Grande ‘ and large as ‘venti.’ Language is a key pillar of culture.

OK , so what is Burning Man, and what’s the attraction? In short, it’s a vacation. Except, instead of just going to a different place, you are living in a different universe with different codes of behaviour than you’d experience anywhere else. It’s a break from your corporate job where you have to dress a certain way, and where people are too focused and busy to stop and chat, or too self interested to help you succeed .

At the Burn, everyone cares. Or at least they seem to for that one week per year. Whatever I have is yours too.

It’s kinda like the Free Store in Haight Ashbury during the summer of love (1967) where you could take whatever you needed for free. Thirsty ? Here’s a drink. Hungry? Grab some of our food. Or a piece of jewellery I made just for the burners.

I don’t know what they are like during the other 51 weeks of the year, but at least for this one week, everyone seemed to be following the Burning Man list of core principles to the letter.

Of course, some sacrifices must be made in order to adhere to these principles. Here is a partial list: sleep is optional, quiet below 90 decibels at any time, day or night is strictly forbidden. Sex of any kind with anyone anywhere is fine, but warning for those who like to smoke afterwards, make sure you don’t drop your cigarette butt in the playa.

And regarding music, it’s pretty much all techno all the time. So lyrics are another feature that must apparently be sacrificed for the greater good.

FullSizeRender copy 2Jon BondBurning Man fashions

Rituals are big too. Very big. A brand like Corona may (if they are lucky) have a single ritual like squeezing a lime into the bottle, but Burning Man has rituals galore. First the costumes, which are a combination of Halloween and the village people. And for quite a few, the ‘costume ‘ is well , how do I say this, the outfit you were born in (which no one other than me appeared to notice).

Another ritual is hugs. It’s a part of the burner spirit of giving. How many hugs? Just imagine how many times a day you say please or thank you. At the Burn, every one of those is a hugging moment.

This utopian contrast to the real world inspires many to rethink their lives at home. I met one woman who literally quit her job this week by mailing her boss a Burning Man postcard; I’m sure that’s a first. Then there are the famous art cars.

Incredibly elaborate vehicles that range from 70 foot yachts with wheels to portable dance clubs holding 50-100 people. Then there is the dust. It’s inescapable, so the sooner you stop fighting it the better. I got here in the evening, and the next day when I woke up, I couldn’t find my black shoes.

Burning guyJon BondThe costumes are a big part of Burning Man

That’s because they were so dusty they looked like white shoes and I didn’t recognise them. When you enter the confines of the event, first-timers are made to lie down in the ever-present dust to begin the process of submission. It’s supposed to be a part of the experience, but I don’t think anyone is missing the dust when they get home. After a couple days, I stopped noticing it, but never got to the point of enjoying it like real burners are supposed to.

What is the pure commercial appeal to attendees ? Basically, it’s the old hippie formula from the 1960 of higher purpose plus lots of sex, drugs and music (all techno all the time). You know the famous photos of Woodstock on the days it rained ? Just replace mud with dust and you got it.

The pinnacle of all rituals of course is the Burning Man himself. Meant to symbolise the importance of living in the moment (visual symbolism and iconography is another cornerstone of great branding) and appreciating what you have because ‘nothing is permanent.’

The Man is a huge, elaborate wooden sculpture that could be its own one piece exhibit back in the real world. All the art cars and most of the people gather round for the ceremony.

Burning placeJon BondThe scope of Burning Man is impressive

The scale is incredible. Imagine 100 foot high flames fireworks, music, fire dancers, a ring of 100 or more art cars, and 70,000 people. If the Mayans could have pulled off this kind of experience , they wouldn’t have bothered with mere human sacrifice.

What would any brand be today with a content strategy?

Not to be left out, Burning Man offers a full schedule of ‘educational’ seminars during the day (when most burners are sleeping or trying to find someplace to rest out of the 100 degree heat). A typical day’s curriculum would go something like this: sex, drugs, sex and drugs, fashion, sex, sex and fashion, spirituality, sex, sexual spirituality, repeat.

Logistically, the festival is divided into camps ranging from 20 people to over 100. Some have themes. Some sponsor art cars that give them a tribal identity and prestige (translation: more sex ).

Some are known for their food (which of course is open to everyone), or their own little piece of Burning Man lore.

Jon BondBurning Man is like another society

This system of breaking down into smaller tribes increases the stickiness of the community to the brand the way military veterans relate deeply to their branch of service and even individual unit. In marketing, its called basic segmentation.

Perhaps the most powerful achievement of Burning Man is the commitment that these burners make to the festival. The cost and effort to create and deconstruct an entire city is mindblowing. The recruitment and customer journey to Burning Man super fan is totally organic.

It shows you can’t buy love. People buy into the higher purpose, and that’s the backbone of the community. It’s Harley Davidson on acid. Most Brands could learn a lot about earned media, loyalty, and community building from Burning Man.

Interestingly, my hosts this week were the founders of a new floating community: itsafloat.com.

The idea is to refit mid sized cruise ships and sell berths like condos, then to sail continuously around the world exploring different cultures and experiences. They intend to use much of the lessons of Burning Man as a template.

The ships will sail slowly around the globe using less fuel than traditional ships. They will offer members continuous learning and exploration, participation in local cultures rather than just observing .

FlamesJon BondThings burn at Burning Man

Rather than a passive tourist, the members will become ‘global citizens’ open to new cultures, and taking some responsibility to help protect these cultures through institutionalized donations of time and money. These are the seeds of the principles, rituals, language, and tribes that will be developed. They could do worse than using Burning Man as their inspiration.

The key lesson from Burning Man is that the best kind of marketing today is the kind that is used to build religions, nations, cultural movements, and communities. The kind that is for most of us completely unrecognizable as marketing.

Jon Bond is the co-chairman and Chief Tomorroist at The Shipyard, a digital marketing firm based on Columbus, Ohio. Bond previously served as CEO of the social ad firm Big Fuel and helped found the ad agency Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners

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