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Brain pickings on digital and beyond

Last weekend’s Fyre Festival is a shining example of all that is wrong in the “if you can believe it you can achieve it” approach to business. An attempt to create an exclusive music festival on a remote Bahamian island crashed and burned spectacularly in full view of the world’s social media feeds. Now that the laughter has died down and the lawsuits have started, it’s time to see what you can learn about branding and marketing from Fyre Festival’s mistakes.

Fyre Festival made exceptionally effective use of influencer marketing. Through a roster of around 400 influencers on Instagram and Twitter, the organisers were able to convince thousands of well-heeled Americans to pay between $1 500 and $100 000 for a music festival that did not at any point have a fully-confirmed line-up. Many of the influencers who promoted the event were paid in kind, with free trips to and accommodation at the festival. Exact attendance numbers are predictably hard to come by. Flights chartered by the festival suggest provision was made for at least 1 000 people.

It might be tempting to think that 1 000 attendees for a first time festival in a remote location means that the marketing campaign was a success. However, since the festival that was marketed did not in any real sense exist, the most you can say about the campaign was that it was persuasive. In terms of establishing long-term relationships between the business and its customers it was about as effective as a cardboard casserole dish.

The failures of logistics, infrastructure, planning and management which contributed to the highly-entertaining disaster are all banal enough. In an interview with Rolling Stone, founder Billy McFarland explained that:

We started this website and launched this festival marketing campaign. Our festival became a real thing and took [on] a life of its own. Our next step was to book the talent and actually make the music festival.

An insider’s account of the debacle is recounted by talent booker Chloe Gordon in her piece for New York Magazine’s The Cut blog. The fundamental problem can be summed up in the following exchange from that article:

Planners also warned that it would be not be up to the standard they had advertised. [...] A guy from the marketing team said, “Let’s just do it and be legends, man.”

If you’re letting your marketing team overrule the concerns of the people who are actually making your product, something has gone horribly wrong. Once you realise that everything has gone sideways, it is important to act promptly to contain the damage. Whatever they may say, marketing is secondary to actually having a product to market. Without a product that resembles in the most basic way whatever your marketing geniuses have dreamt up, a thousand customers are really just a thousand qualified litigants for the class action lawsuit in your future.

Don't be blinded by the beauty of your marketing team's vision. Make sure you have something to sell before you start selling it.