Sephora's Coachella Tent Rendering

Just as the Emmys signal the official start of awards season in Hollywood, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival marks the beginning of festival season around the world. That equals spring and summertime marketing bonanzas for many brands, whether apparel, accessories, beauty, lifestyle or any tangential category.

Weekend One of the 2018 event, which kicks off on Friday at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif. — along with adjacent off-site events in Palm Springs and surrounding towns – has already been teased and hyped in all manner of social media posts, direct-to-consumer e-mails and other online marketing, not to mention eagerly awaited party invitations that have arrived in the inboxes a lucky few thousand celebrities, influencers and media in the last week.

The events themselves are the physical culmination of weeks of Internet campaigning — and in some cases, years of planning — for “best activation.” The word describing the pool party/dance party/brunch/photo op a brand produces at the festival has become one of the most overused terms of the season, along with engagement. Together they represent the golden goose of marketing, one that hopefully impacts a brand’s bottom line and overall awareness.

Among the companies “activating” at this year’s festival are official sponsor Sephora, as well as adjacent brands — read: not on festival grounds or signage — ranging from Levi’s, Lucky Brand, Moschino, Puma, Onitsuka Tiger, Revolve and The Zoe Report. Even Dior is getting into the adjacent game with its Dior Sauvage men’s fragrance event tonight, held in nearby Pioneertown, Calif. Those are just some the fashion names headlining events — in smaller print on the invites, there are a slew of other well-known companies in the style space participating with a smaller buy-in, such as Keds, Amazon, OPI, SK-II, Urban Decay, Drybar and Bebe.

The cost of pay-to-play can start in the tens of thousands to participate in an event and veer into mid-six-figures and up for official sponsorships or to produce massive events such as the literal Neon Carnival, constructed from scratch in and around a desert airport hangar.

“Our conversation around festival beauty has only grown over the years. We started to realize it was way more than those two [Coachella] weekends. We can accumulate a stronger market share as people buy tickets months ahead of time or put together a total look for the weekend, or for customers who follow those going to the festival,” said Deborah Yeh, senior vice president of marketing and brand for Sephora, which has been an official festival sponsor for four of the last five years.

In addition to robust social media campaigns with influencers, digital how-to videos, e-commerce drives and in-store displays, Sephora has a 40-by-40-foot tent within the festival grounds where attendees can avail themselves of free, first-come-first-serve five-minute hair and makeup services (think holographic hair buns or metallic makeup) using Sephora Collection products as well as partner brands Bumble and bumble, IGK, Amika and Hush. They can also take pictures in a selfie playground alongside giant compacts and hairdryers.

“The looks and trends may change, but the opportunity to indulge in beauty, music and fashion, I don’t think that’s going away,” she said. “Our customers are after experiences.”

For a heritage brand like Levi’s, the looks don’t exactly change much — the 501 denim is a classic for a reason — but the embellishments on the jackets and cut-offs do — this year, it’s fringe — as do the musical collaborators. Last year, Virgil Abloh DJ’d at the brand’s annual Saturday poolside brunch, but this year, he’s moving his family to Paris in preparation for his new gig at Louis Vuitton. This time, Heron Preston and Levi’s loyalist Snoop Dogg will be manning the turntables for guests including Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, Joan Smalls and Romee Strijd. The brand is also the presenting sponsor of Neon Carnival later that night, where Rihanna usually spends her post-festival hours. (While Puma can’t confirm her attendance and its Puma x Fenty pool party that day, one assumes she will stop by on her way to see pal Beyoncé headline the festival.)

Jessica Hart, Poppy Delevingne Levi's hosted brunch, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Palm Springs, USA - 15 Apr 2017

Jessica Hart, Poppy Delevingne and a guest at the Levi’s 2017 brunch.  Katie Jones/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

Rachel Zoe is another designer whose look and brand is constant, and equally authentic to the boho desert, rock-inspired vibe of the festival. “We are a California lifestyle brand, and to not acknowledge Coachella would be a miss for us,” said Zoe, who has presented The Zoe Report Zoeasis for four years running. While the event began as an intimate brunch then evolved into a daytime pool party and now a sunset Moroccan-themed lounge, Zoe said her brand has continued to benefit from the Coachella association, even as it narrows its guest list from 500 to 150. “I met Emily Ratajkowski at our first brunch,” said Zoe, whose guests this year will include returning attendees Paris Hilton, Brooklyn Beckham, Sarah and Erin Foster and Victoria Justice.

“I’m not exactly the typical Coachella attendee, but we noticed a mass exodus with all our team heading to the desert every April, and we always look to our team to keep us in the know of what’s happening in the Millennial world,” said Zoe, whose namesake contemporary line is aimed at the aspirational career-meets-party girl. “My entire spring 2018 collection was based on palm prints and desert flowers, so it’s been perfect dressing people for the festival,” she said. The Box of Style spring edition, also timed to the festival, features all Made in California brands.

“I think it is top-of-mind for so many designers,” she continued. “You’ve seen over the last decade the migration of designers in luxury migrating to L.A.; it’s a huge focus for a lot of people, whether just an inspiration or actually creating events and marketing around it.”

Rachel Zoe Kate Bosworth attend The Zoe Report's ZOEasis on April 15, 2017 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images for the Zoe Report)

Rachel Zoe and Kate Bosworth at The Zoe Report’s 2017 Zoeasis in Palm Springs, Calif.  Courtesy image

Among the Zoeasis partners are Keds, who comes to the desert for the first time to promote its new featherweight footwear, perfect for the endless walking on festival grounds. The company has been curating some of its styles as “Festival Feels” on its e-commerce site, as well as seeding with influencers all season, but a physical event, in which guests can try on the shoes in a vintage blue VW van parked onsite, will create more awareness among the ever-influential celebrity crowd, and valuable digital content for the brand.

“This is our first time going to a music festival, but I used to be at Rebecca Minkoff, so I am very familiar with it. Partnering with The Zoe Report, which is similar to how we view our customer, was the right way to test it,” said Keds’ chief marketing officer Emily Culp, who researched for three years before deciding this was the year for Keds. “Rachel was a strategic partner and she loved the brand, and you need some of that magic,” she said.

For products that one can’t necessarily wear, such as Amazon’s Echo Look voice-activated hands-free camera and styling device, Zoeasis was a necessary bridge to the physical world in order to demonstrate how it works. Zoe plans to use Echo Look as her “styling assistant” as she dresses influencers Sheryl Luke, Brittany Xavier and Natalie Lim Suarez at her event. The device uses algorithms determined by Amazon’s in-house team of fashion experts to compare and suggest looks that are most flattering to the wearer. While some of Alexa’s suggestions are linked to products available for purchase on Amazon, it’s not exactly voice-activated, hands-free shopping from a photo just yet. (Users still have to make purchases via mobile or a computer the “old-fashioned” way.)

Bebe's Surplice Utility Romper

Bebe’s Surplice Utility Romper, from its festival capsule 

Still, the virtual shopping world is omnipresent, especially at the festival, where people can see and shop fashion and beauty inspiration on their phones at every turn. For Bebe, the L.A.-based brand, which transitioned from vertical retailer to almost exclusively online player under new owner Global Brands Group (a single New York flagship opened on March 15), the festival represents a way to get in front of customers in the real world.

A 17-piece capsule collection featuring a $159 denim romper will be the star of Bebe’s activation at “Mirage,” an influencer house within walking distance of the festival and the site of a Friday afternoon party presented by 3-D avatar app Genies and influencer agencies Vampped and No Ties.

Influencers Kylie Rae, Aspen Mansfield, Teala Dunn, Vale Genta will be sporting the romper as an artist offers hand-painted customizations and all will be captured in front the now de rigeur hedge-wall-with-logo backdrop. The final piece to the effort: the capsule will go on sale on on April 19, just in time for Coachella Weekend 2.

Amazon Echo Look Style Check

Amazon’s Echo Look Style Check feature. 

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