June 1, 2015
Sounding Off on Brands and Bands: How to Electrify Festivalgoers
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Public Relations Tactics

By Erik Deutsch


What’s the best way for an iconic, devoutly mainstream brand to connect with millennial influencers?

For Chevrolet, it’s to stage an anything-but-mainstream tastemaker event in conjunction with the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which takes place over two successive weekends each April in the Mojave Desert, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

Coachella is arguably the most well known among a growing series of destination festivals targeting the young and trendy. From Coachella and Bonnaroo to Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, there are now dozens of large-scale music festivals across the United States.

While attendees come to spend time with friends and experience their favorite bands, DJs and art installations, blue-chip brands come to connect with the coveted, but sometimes difficult to impress, millennial demographic.

Coachella has become a spring ritual for Chevrolet’s West Coast communications team. The company held its first stand-alone event concurrent with the festival in 2012, and has returned each year.

This year, Chevy teamed up with McDonald’s for their second collaboration and worked with LA-based PR agency/event producer The Narrative Group, as well as celebrity magnet The h.wood Group (owner of the uber-trendy Bootsy Bellows nightclub in West Hollywood) to make its event one of Coachella’s most sought-after invitations.

Taking place at a sprawling estate near the festival venue, the #LoveDriveVibe Pool Party featured DJ sets from Devin Lucien and William Lifestyle with Brody Jenner, and live performances by Cody Simpson and 2 ChainZ, with special guest Fergie of The Black Eyed Peas. The roughly 1,000 partygoers included celebrities Katy Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Brown, Aaron Paul, Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton, Florence Welch and Kendall Jenner. These, and other notable guests, held court in poolside cabanas and generated A-list buzz.

It isn’t surprising that the Chevy party has become a marquee event during the star-packed first weekend of Coachella. According to Dave Barthmuss, group manager for GM’s West Coast communications team, many guests travel to the desert just to attend the party, without actually setting foot on the festival grounds.

Creating a brand experience

Barthmuss explained that these types of events don’t succeed when brands like Chevy attempt a hard sell.

“It’s not about pushing our products,” he stressed. “To connect with attendees, we need to create a great experience.”

To accomplish this, his in-house team at GM worked closely with The Narrative Group to build a playground-like atmosphere filled with experiences for guests to share. On-site activities focused on Chevy’s top performance models — the Corvette and Camaro — with fun and visual calls to action.

One of the most popular interactive displays featured a Camaro in a simulated NASCAR winner’s circle, with bottles of champagne for guests to shake, pop and spray. GM built another interactive display around the Corvette Stingray, and featured two massive cooling fans that gave guests sitting behind the wheel the sensation of driving at fast speeds.

Chevy took such experiential marketing a step further at last year’s Coachella party with what it called the “Corvette Stingray Performance Experience.” To introduce the new Corvette, the Chevy team worked with the city of Rancho Mirage to close a stretch of public road and allow party guests to ride with a professional driver. The result was a chance to feel what it’s like to go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds.

These activities, along with the celebrities, cars, big-name musical performances and the overall aesthetics of the event — think Las Vegas-style pool party merriment and excess — generated a lot of photo sharing, which gave the automobile maker another layer of relevance to the millennial generation.

Driving digital

Weber Shandwick, which was responsible for the digital portion of the event, reported that the #LoveDriveVibe hashtag garnered more than 36 million impressions on Twitter and about 22 million on Instagram. The event also generated coverage from high-profile media outlets such as People magazine and CNN. In addition, the agency worked with prominent bloggers to post original content about the event directly on the automaker’s DriveTheDistrict.com website.

“Chevy is a fun brand, and we worked hard to create an environment where party guests would want to express that online,” said account director Alejandro Grau. He also said that following the event, the company tracked metrics beyond social and traditional media, such as requests for product information and discounts.

Going it alone

Unlike official Coachella sponsors such as Heineken, Samsung and American Express, Chevrolet opted to create its own private event. According to Barthmuss, this was to be efficient, exclusive and have the freedom to be creative without restrictions.

By going it alone, the company controlled the guest list (which was invitation-only) and didn’t have to compete with other brands for attention on-site.

“We want to be a memorable part of the Coachella scene, but not get lost amid all the excitement, imagery and great music at the festival itself,” Barthmuss said.

Captivating fans

Barthmuss also offered the following tips for brands that want to engage music festival fans:

  • Understand your brand voice, or personality, and determine if/how it meshes with the specific vibe of the event. Each festival is unique, and not every brand is a good match.
  • Be authentic and don’t pander to your audience. Consumers — especially millennials — want to connect with brands on a human level. How a brand communicates can often be just as important as the message itself.
  • Partner with the right people and be empowered to do your own thing. Chevy collaborated with McDonald’s because the fast-food giant complemented what the automaker brought to the table, and both brands opted to stage their own private event instead of going the official sponsorship route.

Fans at the Chevy party brought these tips to life with the following comments:

“I attended another private Coachella event last night, and nearly fell asleep,” said an aspiring actor named John, who appeared to be in his mid-20s. “It had a super arrogant culture… but this party is the opposite, and that’s what makes it worthwhile.”

Such statements were in line with Chevy’s approach to enhance the music festival experience, rather than overtly push its products.

“Our event was designed from the ground up to be extreme on fun, yet subtle on promotion… and that’s what made it such a hot ticket at Coachella,” Barthmuss said.

Plans are already underway to return next year, and to use Chevy’s Coachella outreach as a model for targeting fans at other major music festivals.