FEATURE1 November 2011

Ready to rock n’ roll


Brands are keen to associate themselves with music festivals. But what makes a featival ‘cool’? Joeri Van den Bergh and Annelies Verhaeghe of InSites Consulting report on a visual ethnography study at Belgium’s Rock Werchter.


Many brands that target the youth market have a presence at music festivals. Events like these can make a powerful contribution to an emotional branding strategy because they connect with young people in a social setting. They give brands an opportunity to showcase their strengths in a festive and emotionally charged atmosphere. Events have been known to increase emotional attachment to the brand and that’s why many youth brands engage in them. The enjoyment that young people get from festivals can create a bond with the brand. Experiential and emotional marketing creates brand advocacy and drives word-of-mouth communication.

One brand that wanted to find out more about youngsters who attend festivals was Studio Brussel, one of the main radio stations run by Belgium’s Flemish-language national broadcaster VRT. Studio Brussel is positioned as a young and alternative station and one of the focal points in its brand strategy is its expertise in music festivals. It broadcasts live coverage of the summer music festivals and runs promotional campaigns throughout the period.

The first part of this research project was a large quantitative survey with 2,552 youngsters reporting their festival habits, covering drinking, spending money, favourite acts and music, sex and relationships and hygiene. The second part consisted of a multimedia ethnography study to discover what youngsters find ‘cool’ during festivals. The objective was not only to understand what is perceived as cool
but to learn why. We wanted to discover the rules of cool.

“People come together at festivals not just to experience the music but also the ambience around the it. It’s about the weird people, freaky hairdos, underpants with strange slogans on them and exclusive goodies”

What a feeling
We had learned from the quantitative part of the research that the majority of Gen Y-ers go to a festival for the ambience, so we knew that researching emotions and experiences on the spot was going to be key to getting valuable findings and insights. But a music festival isn’t a great place to organise discussion groups or in-depth interviews, so we opted instead for the visual ethnography approach. The festival we studied was Rock Werchter, one of Europe’s biggest music festivals, held near Leuven every summer since 1974 and attended this year by more than 100,000 people over four days.

Fifty people aged 15 to 30 were asked to take pictures of everything at Rock Werchter that stood out as being ‘cool’ or ‘uncool’. After the festival they were asked to upload their pictures via a personal blog where they could give more detailed explanations.

In order to stimulate recall after the festival, participants could also text reminders during the festival which were automatically uploaded to their blog. In total 1,240 pictures were uploaded by the research participants over the four days of Rock Werchter. The results were analysed by qualitative researchers, youth experts and the crowd, and revealed five key rules.

1. Create memories and surprises

People come together at festivals not just to experience the music but also the ambience around it. It’s about the weird people, freaky hairdos, underpants with strange slogans and boards held aloft in the crowd with funny messages scrawled on them. It’s also about the exclusive goodies that are only available at Rock Werchter which you can reminisce about afterwards.

The pop singer Pink created several memorable moments in her appearance at Werchter last year. Rather than just walking out on to the stage, she flew down from a box suspended by a crane above it. Later in the concert she rolled over the audience in a huge transparent ball. Whether they were fans of her music or not, everyone was taken by surprise. People go to festivals so they can be there when things like this happen.

2. Look after each other

The festival-goers also shared photos of earplugs, ugly tattoos (commenting that it’s a pity it’s so difficult to have them removed) and litter left behind in the festival arena once everyone had left. Today’s youth have respect for the human body, for their environment, and they think more and more about the future.

Luxury is no longer a dirty word at festivals. How about refrigerators for your food at the festival arena? Or power points where you can recharge your mobile phone and other electrical appliances? Or the option to drink Jupiler beer in proper glasses rather than plastic cups at the bar? You’d never find a campsite where you couldn’t charge a mobile phone, and that home comfort should be available at festivals too. For the last three years there has been an upmarket camping option for Rock Werchter called Rockvillage, featuring 200 wooden chalets with real beds, hot showers, Jacuzzis, daily newspapers and breakfast provided. And every year it sells out.

3. Be ‘authentic’

The Pyramid Marquee, where fans can discover smaller bands playing intimate sets, was mentioned by a number of participants as providing some of the festival’s coolest moments. By now the Marquee is probably the most important symbol of Rock Werchter. Certain Werchter traditions were also present in festival-goers’ picture reports, including the DJ sets between gigs in Discobar Galaxie and the fireworks at the end of the festival. In a world flooded by events and products, youngsters often choose things that seem authentic and honest. Among the photos shared by festival-goers were (fake) tattoos of Gnome Wesley, a cult comic strip character whose blunt, boisterous nature seems to epitomise this authenticity.

4. Let people express themselves

Authenticity means giving festival-goers a chance at self-expression and self-fulfilment. Every activity or action that gave people the opportunity to express their identity was seen as cool in our research. But this individualism also has communal benefits. At Rock Werchter you will often see groups of eccentrically-dressed young people in and around the festival arena. Dressing up helps them stand out from the huge crowd but it also adds to the event’s ambience.

Meanwhile, Rock Werchter has a long list of celebrity visitors. People such as Prince Laurent (the son of the Belgian King) or Piet Huysentruyt, a local TV chef, can be spotted in the crowd alongside everybody else. Last year Green Day invited some youngsters on stage to sing along with them. Werchter is a great leveller – allowing you to rub shoulders with celebrities and share in the same experience.

5. Start conversations

Youngsters at festivals are keen to meet other youngsters, and anything that gives them an excuse to talk to people they don’t know is a good thing. The number of T-shirts bearing amusing slogans is impossible to count at an event like Werchter, and the blank signs provided by Belgian newspaper De Morgen for festival-goers to write personal messages on and hold up to the band, the TV cameras or their friends are a good example of a brand facilitating conversations.

Brands who keep these five rules of cool in mind will be remembered as part of the fun at festivals.

Joeri Van den Bergh is a co-founder of InSites Consulting and author of How Cool Brands Stay Hot: Branding to Generation Y

Annelies Verhaeghe is division manager of InSites Consulting Romania and senior manager of the company’s research and development lab, ForwaR&D