Once in a while you actually do find an overnight success. Take Bonnaroo, the four-day music and arts festival first held in 2002.
Just one year later, the festival made Rolling Stone magazine's list of 50 Moments That Changed Rock & Roll.
This June, Bonnaroo features bands like U2, The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lorde... but Bonnaroo is more than just 150 bands and comedians performing across multiple stages across a 800-acre farm. Most festival-goers don't attend because they want to see a particular band or bands -- they go for the experience.
To find out how Bonnaroo pulls that off -- and how you can apply the Bonnaroo ethos to growing your business and your community -- I talked with Chad Issaq, the EVP of Business Development and Partnerships for Superfly, the live events and marketing firm behind Bonnaroo. (Superfly is more than just an events producer, though: they provide brand strategy, creative, social media, and marketing programs for small businesses and Fortune 500 companies.)
It's hard to imagine how the principles of creating a festival like Bonnaroo can apply to building a small business.
The very same principles apply. In fact, the same principles apply to our work with major brands.
When we launched Bonnarooo, we had a strong sense of who we were as a brand and who our audience was. You can easily apply that to a small business.
For example, where I live in New Jersey there are a bunch of places that serve coffee... and then there is a coffee shop that seems catered just for me me: The music, the decor, the coffee, the staff -- everything. They're much more than a place that just serves coffee. Coffee is just a part of the brand that targets someone like me who wants NY culture to happen in a simple cup of coffee.
With Bonnaroo, the original lineup was Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident, Ben Harper, Trey Anastasio, Galactic... those bands really represented a certain community of fans that were passionate about that music.
That's what the brand stood for in the beginning.
But the brand can't stay static, especially with music. Tastes change.
That's not just true with music. It's critical for the success of any company, large or small, to understand that the tastes of your consumer change over time. The brand doesn't necessarily change, but you have to evolve what the brand stands for.
At its core, Bonnnaroo stand for community: 80,000 people living together on an 800-acre farm for five days. While they're drawn by the music and all the other creative programming, from comedy to film to sustainability initiatives to art installations, what they really want is to connect with people they relate to, that have similar life experiences.
That's what sets us apart as a festival. People come from all 50 states, and even though we sell a lot of tickets in Tennessee, we sell over 1,000 tickets to people from over 25 different states.
That's a really important piece: Understanding who you are and who your community is... and how they evolve.
I could argue that going from featuring, say, a performer like Ben Harper to a band like Metallica would change the entire ethos, though.
Early on it was more like a jam band festival. Then when Radiohead played in 2006, that gave Bonnaroo global recognition and allowed it evolve as a festival and evolve as a brand.
We still maintained that same level of community in terms of why people attended, but now it reflected broader tastes in music.
This will be our 16th year and we've had everybody from Jay-Z to Bonnie Raitt to Radiohead to Tom Petty to Jack White to Metallica to Kanye West to Skrillex to now U2 doing its first ever U.S. festival performance. That's a broad swath of programming.
The point is that while the brand has evolved musically, at its core the brand still knows who it is: A community of people we're celebrating the fact that positivity matters. The core principles that festival goers abide by still exist today, and that code is really important to the people who attend.
If I go to a concert, I go to see the band. You're providing an experience, and music just happens to be part of that experience.
I was 26 when Bonnaroo started and now I'm 42. I'm a graduate, so to speak. I'm still part of that community and I still want to be part of it, because I understand the people that go. I still understand what's important to them in terms of what their expectations are in terms of experience.
When I think about experience overall, over that same span of years we've gone from a material goods-based economy to an experience-based economy, and in the U.S. the festival industry had a lot to do with that. Festivals revolutionized the modern rock festival, it put it on the map, and inspired a number of entrepreneurs to launch their own festivals.
Now that the festival market seems saturated, what happens? We're definitely not going to go backwards. Our audience is not going back to material goods. They expect more unique experiences, more diversity -- they expect things that no one else has done.
We're innovating and incubating ideas all the time. Programmatically, Bonnaroo is much different today than 2002. But in terms of the experience, the things you can do at the event, whether impacted by technology, or comedy playing a bigger role, whether from thought leadership, social good and sustainability, or more broadly with the celebration of art, even the beer festival and culinary we curate... those types of things weren't as important in 2002, but they are now because our community's expectations have continued to evolve.
Whether you're a festival or a Fortune 500 company or a small business, you have to be sensitive to changing expectations and constantly innovate to meet those expectations.
I want to go back to Metallica. I love Metallica, but I wouldn't have imagined them as a fit for Bonnaroo.
Broadening your programming -- broadening your brand -- does a couple of things. When Metallica played Bonnaroo, the goal wasn't to draw Metallica fans. The goal was to introduce Metallica to a new audience, our audience. The Bonnaroo community sees Bonnaroo as a filter for what is cool and interesting and relevant. We are able to bring bands to an existing audience, not the other way around.
That is only possible because we have always put strong lineups together that really celebrate a community of fans. Our community trusts us, and we definitely don't take that trust for granted.
Say I'm a small business owner and I want to build a community, not just sell a product or service. Tips?
Make sure you have a strong sense of who you are.
Everything, and everyone, is a brand. We have the ability through social channels to really have a strong voice, verbally or visually or creatively. All of those things are very important because now more than ever people are very image-conscious.
The experience economy exists because it gives us an opportunity to showcase the things we do across social media. It's a badge. It's cool. So you have to have a strong sense of yourself and think about everything you do. What's the creative on your materials? What is the quality of what you serve? What is your core differentiation? How do you communicate as a brand? What do you stand for?
Even with the smallest business you still need cultural relevance if you want to build a community. People want to associate with things that make them feel feel -- and give them a better sense of who they are. The businesses we buy from, the products we buy... they all make statements about ourselves because we share that so broadly.
That also applies to you, even though you stand in the shadows of your product.
You could say that at Superfly, we produce festivals.
Actually, we don't. We're people build brands and celebrate community... and one of the results of that knowledge is the ability to build world-class festivals. But we aren't just a festival producer, even though we do it at a high level. We're launching a major comedy festival as a joint venture with Comedy Central to celebrate all genres of comedy. We're taking the comedy genre and vertical and building a new experience around it.
So yes, we do put our money where our mouth is.
But we also use those same skills to help Fortune 500 brands navigate culture and make a unique impact in the marketplace. We've worked with Google, Samsung, Bose, Intel... we work with companies to help them think about the health of their brand and how they can stand out culturally.
That's what every company needs to do, small business or global brand. It's one thing to start a business. Data and analytics matter tremendously, but knowing who you are, knowing your customers, and creating a sense of community and relevance among that audience... that's what makes a business successful.