Despite one of the worst summers in living memory, more punters have been pulling on their wellies and heading to music festivals than ever before.
Brands are falling over themselves to claim their cool credentials and connect with the elusive youth market. But in an overcrowded sector, music sponsorship is having to evolve in order to cut through the clutter and deliver something special.
With live music enjoying something of a renaissance, festivals have become brand battlegrounds. "There are 450 UK music festivals and events this summer," Jack Horner, the creative director and joint managing director of Frukt, says. "So, because experiential is still a buzzword, it's not surprising that brands are queuing up to get a piece of the action."
Linking to such ubiquitous events could be seen as the lazy option, but marketers say the rewards are there for those who get it right.
"Nowadays, there isn't clutter at all, just a lot of stuff that's being ignored by the youth audience," Mark Whelan, the creative director of Cake, says. "But they don't ignore music. It's still their number-one pastime, and they actively seek out things to do with it."
Emma Trant, the head of digital sponsorship at Universal Music UK, agrees that the demand for live music is huge, with even the smaller festivals selling out. "Registrations for Glastonbury were astronomical and, with such a healthy appetite, I think there's still room," she says. As the bigger festivals become more mainstream, so smaller, niche festivals are bringing new targeting opportunities for advertisers, she points out.
Music has a potent appeal to all ages, but a clearly defined strategy is vital before any marketer jumps on to the festival bandwagon. Brands need to add genuine value to the experience if they want to be noticed and remembered in a positive light.
The trick in this arena is to offer something with the right context, Richard Kirstein, the managing director of Leap Music, explains. "It's all about fit, relevance and, particularly in the case of festivals, permissions," he says. "Have you got the right permission to be there in front of the audience? If members of the public have paid £150 to go to a weekend festival, they don't want to have brand messages shoved down their throats."
Traditionally, drinks brands have been aggressive in the sector, and mobile phone networks dominate branded festivals and events. When brand values match those of a festival audience, the fit is clear, but there are also opportunities for less obvious brands when a little creativity and a heavy dose of relevancy are applied.
Covering a stage with banners can be seen as intrusive, but offering something genuinely useful to punters is a good place to start, such as handing out free ponchos at a rain-sodden Glastonbury, or toilet rolls, as Nouvelle did this year.
Of course, if you don't think there is a festival out there to match your brand values, there is always the option to create your own, such as Ben & Jerry's Sundae on the Common and Innocent's Fruitstock.
"For O2, having a presence where you can charge your phone is extremely useful," Kirstein says. "Or Carling, swapping warm cans of beer for cold. Consumers almost certainly wouldn't want to see a bank as a sponsor, but if one could pull off a pre-paid debit card, then there's a great fit."
It works best when brands do something extra, Whelan says. "For example, for this year's warm beer amnesty at the Reading Festival, The Maccabees did a secret gig in the storage unit where they keep the beer, which was then posted on YouTube."
Hugh Robertson, the managing partner at RPM, says that when Strongbow began aligning itself with music nine years ago, he was "laughed out of every meeting". However, since sponsoring music festivals, including the Isle of Wight Festival, the cider has enjoyed a long-term shift in brand perception, he claims, with 23 per cent of those engaged by its sponsorship activity remaining regular Strongbow drinkers six months after an event.
Event sponsorship is an expensive business, but, Robertson says: "If you are contributing to a fantastic experience, then the consumer will have a much more emotional connection to a brand. Money can't buy that sort of opportunity."
Whelan agrees. "After Motorola Red Square - a Scissor Sisters concert in Trafalgar Square - a tracking study found awareness of the handset and the Red initiative had doubled overnight in the South-East," he says. "People have cherished memories of music - we still have evidence of people remembering the Kylie bottle for Evian five years later because she is so iconic."
Motivations for getting involved with music vary. Some brands want an audience for basic sampling and are not trying to align with music in the long term. However, brands with long-term strategies and commitment will always stand out, Horner says. "Those that use festivals or events as part of a wider programme will fare better in the long run," he adds.
This summer, live music reigned, but savvy brands are integrating themselves with the music business in a host of other ways, too, from artist sponsorship to creating new forms of branded content.
Merely aligning with an artist no longer holds much credibility with the public and has limited long-term appeal. "Pepsi spent a fortune on artist endorsements and now has little, if any, residual brand benefit from being associated with music," Horner claims. "Endorsements, by their very nature, tend to be high-value, short-term activities. I guarantee you that in three months' time, no-one will remember which newspaper (The Mail on Sunday) gave away the Prince album, just that it was free."
Artist sponsorship can still work if the fit is right, and there can be something in it for everyone if relationships are managed well. "There's no reason why an insurance company couldn't work with Tom Jones, just as Kylie did with Evian," Whelan asserts.
Understanding artist brands and selecting the right ones for the task is developing into a science, with tools such as Entertainment Media Research's Popscores charting the emotional connection between artists and consumers on a monthly basis.
Even without such numerical evidence, the recent Samsung deal with Girls Aloud would appear to make good sense, Kirstein says, due, in part, to the fact that the act is "clearly not a grassroots rock and roll band".
But there are perils in rushing to back an artist on the basis of high profile alone, he warns, and it is easy to get things wrong and miss your target audience. "It always struck me that Robbie Williams' audience was broader than the teens and twenties audience that mobile operators such as T-Mobile usually target," he says.
There is the danger, too, of potential long-term damage from wayward artists acting off-message. If you want to be seen as a little bit edgy, however, it is a risk worth taking.
"It can be a huge disaster if you're using mainstream celebrities who are caught with their trousers down," Kirstein says. "But if you're getting involved with a rock band, you're doing that because you want some of those associations. A brand would be wholly naive to directly sponsor a band believing they were squeaky clean."
Currently, the rush is on to align with new talent, and brands are eager to put their names to unsigned band competitions and gigs at more intimate venues.
"We're starting to plug brands in to the A&R process so we can work with them from an earlier stage, and they get to work with the artist early on," Trant says. "It's more risky, but with a big label, it's more likely that that artist will be huge."
Brands willing to take that risk can find themselves closer to the heart of the music industry and potentially win the hearts and minds of music fans. "It's not just about generating revenue," Trant adds. "T-Mobile did an album launch party for Mika in London's Berkeley Square. We wouldn't have been able to do it without them and it was hugely positive for fans."
As brand revenues become more important to artists, so artists can only become more dependent on working with brands. "It won't be so easy to negotiate in future unless a brand can really offer something to the artist," Horner says.
Indeed, the relationship between brands and bands is changing. "Brands are traditionally seen as sources of stacks of cash," Horner says. "But this must be readdressed as artists become less dependent on falling revenue from selling music and more reliant on non-traditional streams of income. Brands should be seen as partners, and artists need to figure out how to pick the ones that can deliver some genuinely useful service."
Many companies, including Apple and all the major mobile phone providers, now want brand association and revenues from the sale of music devices and content. Serious brands working in music are no longer spectators, Horner says, but potentially "part of the value chain".
Meanwhile, as traditional sources of revenue from music sales decline, record companies are turning to brands to find new ways of involvement.
Digital opportunities are also widening the scope of initiatives. Universal, for example, is about to launch a major, ad-supported, free-to-use consumer video portal with backstage footage and previously unseen material.
And labels are starting to offer ready-to-air branded programming which can be syndicated on TV, online and mobile, giving brands a chance to own a property rather than just tagging on to an existing format. One of the big advantages of such activity is that digital campaigns are more easily quantifiable than many others.
The rapid growth of brand- supported content for digital platforms is also leading to more brands creating and owning original content, and even manufacturing bands for the purpose of a campaign.
The BBH partner Somethin' Else recently promoted the launch of the new Audi TT by creating a "TT Remastered" website, recruiting new bands to record classic tracks.
"Creating your own content rather than hitching your brand to something else is far more powerful," explains Steve Ackerman, the managing director of Somethin' Else. "You are able to have content that mirrors your own brand values, everything is in your control, and, from a consumer point of view, you are giving something of value."
Such content creation is also cost- effective. A series of five podcasts would cost under £50,000, Ackerman says, with a good website costing a similar amount.
Taking things a step further, some brands have manufactured their own bands. The Saatchi & Saatchi offshoot Gum released a single for Procter & Gamble's Shockwaves hair gel earlier this year. The dubiously titled Style, Attract, Play by Shocka, featuring Honeyshot, made it on to the Radio 1 playlist before it was rumbled and banned by the station.
Even the less-than-funky Specsavers, Halifax and Pipex Broadband have released one-off branded music singles with varying degrees of chart success. Elsewhere, Operation Trident, the unit of the Metropolitan Police that investigates gun crime in London's black communities, scored a hit recently with its hard-to-reach audience by commissioning a track, Badman, from the UK grime collective Roll Deep.
Brands would do well to remember that whatever route they take, ultimately, consumers will decide whether or not they want a particular product to play in their space. Music fans tend to be opinionated, so any strategy needs to be well thought through.
Trant explains: "Music consumers are really savvy and clued up, and can filter out what they think is just corporate bullshit."
A PUNTER'S PERSPECTIVE
Subliminal advertising at Glastonbury used to mean a guy in a black balaclava shouting "black 'ash". Ha ha!
Seriously, though, Q magazine does the daily newspaper at Glastonbury, so when everyone discards it at the end of the day, you see a sea of logos. And you notice everyone walking around with Guardian guides to the festival hanging around their necks.
I reckon Milletts probably did the best out of everyone this year. There were queues out of the door for chairs. They were mobbed; logos were everywhere.
I don't take too much notice of corporate branding, and I didn't think the messages were too strong. I did notice that every single paper cup had the name of either Carlsberg or some cider brand, so it didn't matter what you were actually drinking, you still made that association.
Generally, I don't think branding is intrusive. It can work well if it's relevant. Also, a lot of music couldn't happen without corporate sponsorship, so it can be good.
Will it influence my future purchasing behaviour? Well, I'll probably buy more Carlsberg now.
- Tom Doyle, music journalist, Glastonbury.