COACHELLA, Calif. — “Last night I had a guy who came all the way from Australia for this,” the valet at a private Palm Springs estate said incredulously.
The “this” being the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, delivered in such a way it required no need to state the implied question meant to follow: Why, though?
This spurred further debate among the other valets whether Coachella’s heyday had passed. One suggested it peaked around 2011 when Kanye West headlined.
Their eyes probably would have rolled to the back of their heads had they found out pop stars all the way from China were in town Thursday for a YSL Beauté and Tmall event that live-streamed celebrity performances to the Alibaba-owned shopping site ahead of its Super Brand Day promotions later this month. The fete was a preview of the following day’s event around a redressed gas station, called the YSL Beauty Station.
“It just gets bigger and bigger every single year, but for me it doesn’t really change that much. I never go to the festival,” said Eddie Huang, the celebrity restaurateur who hosted a barbecue for Adidas Friday. “I’ve never gone. I just come to the parties. I hang out at the houses. I usually cook or I host a party. That’s pretty much what I do.”
Rocky Barnes, the fashion blogger and model, has been coming to the festival for the better part of a decade and offered a different view.
“I feel like people definitely cut back because it’s so oversaturated from a few years ago,” said Barnes, who previewed her upcoming collaboration with Express over the weekend. “Is it even worth it to activate because it’s so expensive getting people here? I really think it’s not even beneficial for a brand to activate unless it’s really on-brand for you, because a lot of people activate and I’m like, ‘Your clothes don’t even — no one’s going to wear your clothes. This doesn’t make sense.’ So people are being smarter in the industry in general about collaborations.”
As with anything hot, the stampede for corporations to get a piece of the action and youth culture has been happening for some time now, each brand looking to best one another for metrics — even as many like to evade discussing them when pressed about how they gauge the return on investment in activations. However, at a time when the general public is ever more discerning about the advertising in front of them, getting real — no, not “organic” nor “authentic” — is the hurdle no amount of money, p.r. teams or even influencers have the how-to handbook on, as the industry braces for another reset of what digital and influencer marketing looks like.
A common thread among those players getting it right: those companies are still being run by founders who built their brands, know their consumer and actually make the trek to the Coachella Valley to be on the ground.
“For our demographic, it’s an aspirational festival, so it’s not about necessarily the pre- and post-parties,” said Showpo founder and chief executive officer Jane Lu. “It’s about the festival itself.”
Showpo, which has billed itself as the Forever 21 of Australia, turned up for its third year looking to create content on the festival grounds and meet in person with influencers it has only known through social media. The team that goes is lean and includes Lu and a few others.
“We dress influencers. We have a Coachella range,” Lu said. “They love it and wear it and that is what their post will be about. How hot they look. We don’t have to create activations to try and get content.”
Denim giant Levi’s has been activating at the festival for four years, and uses the scene as a design lab. At the Sands Hotel in Indian Wells, where the brand put up 60 influencers and celebrities, it had an on-site Tailoring Shop, with members of the design team there to observe what guests, who traveled from as far as Korea for the weekend, wanted for their 501s, denim shorts and jean jackets in terms of how they cut, tie-dyed and patched them. “We do festivals all over the world, but this one is the biggest and the best,” said chief marketing officer Jennifer Sey of the return, which includes photos and hashtags, but also design inspiration.
Revolve subscribes to the “more is more” philosophy with after-hours party programming and #RevolveFestival, all attended by cofounder and co-ceo Michael Mente. This year’s fest unveiled new brand Superdown, festival merch for the first time, carousels, performances and food from West Coast cult classic In-N-Out Burger.
Create & Cultivate is also relatively new to the festival circuit, with this being its second year hosting a one-day conference of talks and panels from entrepreneurs across fashion, beauty and fitness. This year’s Desert Pop-Up grew from last year, with RSVPs exceeding the more than 3,000 in 2018. While most are already in town for the festival, 30 percent of the attendees are people coming just for Create & Cultivate.
While founder Jaclyn Johnson said she has talked to Goldenvoice, which puts on the festival, an actual Coachella sponsorship deal just doesn’t make sense for Create & Cultivate. She can still capitalize on the buzz around the music, but do things her way.
“Being on-site on the festival grounds is presumably an entirely different ball game,” she said. “For us, I like to have control of the experience and have it be a true Create & Cultivate experience where we can control the customer experience.”
Rachel Zoe, founder and editor at large of The Zoe Report, held her fifth Zoeasis this past weekend and said she’s always open to anything, including taking on a sponsorship role at the festival. However, for now, her Zoe Report activation off site has been doing just fine.
“This has just really worked for us and it’s been really successful and different from all the other events,” Zoe said of the Zoeasis’ fifth year on the scene. “That’s always the goal because obviously the weekend is so saturated with so many different events and so many different parties.”
She echoed a sentiment held by most that the activations have had to grow up and be less about passing around canapés to a bunch of celebrities and instead opt for more experiential gatherings.
“I don’t think it’s people just come to a party,” Zoe said. “It’s like what do we give to the people who are coming to your event versus the other 15 they were invited to.”
Focus is what that’s boiling down to.
“Just having a huge pop-up like everybody else with a lounge is becoming table stakes and people are becoming so used to it and tired of it,” said Joseph Anthony, ceo of New York digital and media creative agency Hero Group. “You can see that brands that are smaller, more obscure start-ups more endemic to the culture of what these kids like to do are more impactful than some Fortune 100 brands.”
“It has been a while, I will candidly say,” said Patrice Croci, vice president of brand and performance marketing at Express, of the retailer’s last presence around the festival. “We’ve done bits and pieces, but I think for us and I think a lot of brands have such difficulty in how do you show up where it is authentic and you have a brand moment. And you’re just not in a sea of what everyone else is doing.”
She called it an art and science figuring it all out. Much of it is trial and error.
“Our approach has changed slightly,” said ShoeDazzle’s general manager Petra Braun Fukuda. “I do think in the past most brands, including us, felt the need to be present at Coachella, doing the festival and having 24/7 representation there. This year we’re a little bit more pointed and not so drawn out throughout the entire festival.”
The company worked with Nylon to throw a party with “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Erika Girardi (stage name Erika Jayne) DJing. The entertainer’s introduction to the footwear brand was actually at a past Coachella festival, where she stumbled upon ShoeDazzle at an activation. So that was a win, considering it led to one of the company’s more successful shoe collaborations.
How else are brands gauging and justifying to their accounting departments whether these large-scale parties are worthy line items?
“It’s a hard question because at the end of the day, we don’t have hard metrics,” said Christine Sheehan, senior director of the Adidas Originals brand for North America. “We’re not trying to do this many social mentions. It’s more around, did it inspire kids? Did it inspire the people who came to this? Of course, we want them to have a great time, but at the end of the day, did they feel like they were inspired to innovate? Did they feel more creative? Did they feel rejuvenated coming to this and did they feel like Adidas is a brand they might want to partner with to realize their creative ambitions?”
On the other hand, Lucky Brand is into the hard numbers. The company, in its third year activating around Coachella and second at the Arrive hotel in Palm Springs, once again took over the property for its guests and hosted a megawatt pool party Saturday. This year was different in that it partnered with other brands, such as Rolling Stone and Jeep, leveraging all parties’ followers to tap into what Lucky Brand senior vice president of brand marketing and e-commerce Timothy Mack called “transitional Millennials.”
“We’re a denim brand, so in order to be a cool, young denim brand you’ve got to have those 25- to 34-year-olds shopping your brand and now it’s our number-one source of traffic,” Mack said. “It’s our number-one revenue-driver.”
The company uses impressions as a gauge for measuring how well the event did. It has also seen traffic online from its target demographic up in the double digits over the past two years when the company began activating around Coachella in addition to similar types of events.
About 5 miles away from Lucky, Instagram set up camp for the first time at the Pond Estate, where mini tacos were passed around and guests could snack at a French fry bar as performances from SimiHaze and Siobhan Bell, among others, took place.
“This year in particular we’re focusing on some very intentional moments that have a global impact,” said Lauren Schutte, who handles global creative programs for Instagram. “Obviously, Coachella is something that brings people together from all around the world and was a thing we’ve considered in other years, but it felt like the right time and we have the right budget to be able to do it this year.…We try to do this a couple times a year in a couple different ways and this was our big bet for music this year.”
For Tmall, another Coachella first-timer, it was about bringing the festival to consumers in China who only know the event through social media.
“We found out the consumers in China are very globalized, especially for the YSL brand so they get all sorts of information from social media,” said Bo Liu, president of Tmall marketing, through a translator. “One of the key objectives with this kind of activation is to further impact the Chinese consumer, especially the young consumer with a global view.”
The concept of reach is somewhat subjective when these private events cordon off access in a world where just about everything — even the concept of celebrity — has been democratized and unfiltered, making private events, VIP lines and press handlers hovering over conversations or limiting photographer access to certain talent (all nothing new) something that flies in the face of words such as “authentic” and “organic.”
As one young man attempted to have his picture taken with one of the many Rolls-Royces parked for display throughout the Zenyara Estate — Rolls-Royce was one of several brand partners involved in the festivities — a security guard’s shrill bark pierced the air: “Don’t touch that car. Hey! Don’t touch the car.”
The offender raised his right hand, leaving a few inches of air between himself and the car, smiled and hopped off the platform where the Rolls was parked.
Just a few steps away, a woman exclaimed, “Everyone’s an influencer here!” in a general truth that’s now become a standing joke. So if everyone can be an influencer and create a brand, what’s the point of spending money on elaborate brand activations and does influencer marketing even mean anything? Not if you’re using yesterday’s definition.
“My opinion of influence is that there’s only so much out there,” Adidas global vice president of entertainment and influencer marketing Jon Wexler said. “You can’t grow influence as much as redistribute it and so I feel like right now it’s redistributing from these iconic, massive follower count people to more micro. Then, chances are, there will be an equal opposite reaction to that.”