Fyre Danger

What marketers can learn from the fate of the social media's newest favorite failure.

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The Fyre Festival was this week’s Twitter rabbit hole. The star-crossed event was planned as a “luxury music festival” on a private island in the Bahamas. With some tickets costing more than $12,000 for a four-person package, it lured Millennials to a “better Coachella” that promised live performances by Blink-182, Skepta and Rae Sremmurd, and an abundance of exclusive opportunities to mingle with celebrities and the social media elite.

Unfortunately, when ticket-holders arrived on the island Friday morning they received a good lesson in hucksterism. The luxury glamping accommodations promised in a stream of Instagram promotions turned out to be a sad tent city, a lack of water, and uncooked cheese sandwiches. Insult turned to injury when organizers cancelled the festival out of safety concerns.

The #fyrefestival hashtag was trending Friday night, but not for the reasons you might expect. The Twitterverse piled on to lambast “poor rich kids” stuck on “Survivor” and competing to be Lord of the Flies.

The case of the Fyre Festival reveals three important insights about American culture today. Yes, there are lessons and proof points for marketers.

1. Community is a flame that attracts premium moths

The Fyre Festival is further proof of a runaway festival trend. Festivals have become one of the fastest growing segments of the music industry, with Millennials craving more opportunities to gather together and let loose in a multi-experience setting. Coachella closed last weekend with record-breaking attendance, again. According to the Los Angeles Times, Coachella added 20 acres to the festival site this year and expanded capacity from 99,000 to 125,000 people. South by Southwest and the Glastonbury Festival have also grown significantly, year-over-year.

The communal trend can also be seen in other sectors. Group fitness has become a dominant force that is displacing share from more traditional fitness options. Similarly, group travel is on the rise and isn’t just for graying boomers anymore. Some analysts estimate that up to 1/3 of the group travel segment could soon be comprised of Millennials. And the desire to be part of a group has extended to the workplace, with shared work environments like WeWork growing in popularity and reporting lengthy waiting lists.

But the community desire that drove music lovers to the ill-fated Fyre Festival are not your grandfather’s Woodstock variety. They also place an emphasis on a premium experience. The draw to Fyre was as much about its promised exclusivity and luxury trappings as it was the chance to mix with like-minded cohorts.

2. The Influence of Influencers

The whole thesis of my book Brand Real was that brands have an obligation to deliver experiences that meet or exceed expectations. The Fyre Festival did an awesome of job setting expectations, and a disastrous job at delivering the promised experience. I could write a whole case study on Fyre’s strategic and operational failures, but the more interesting story for marketers indicts the festival’s most culpable accomplices: influencers.

If you ever doubted the power of influencers to part Millennials from their wallets, refer back to this weekend’s story. The Fyre Festival created demand almost entirely through its savvy use of social media, and through some very high profile influencers. Instagram superstars like Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Baldwin, Elsa Hosk, and Rose Bertram all promoted the festival and ramped up its allure and cachet. The next generation’s trust in the Gramerati is so strong that the FTC issued a warning to influencers two weeks ago, advising them to be more transparent in their endorsement activities.

I recently moderated focus groups with 18-25 year-old consumers. In one part of each session I asked participants about celebrities and their social media activity. I was struck by how knowledgable these young people were. I would advise you not to think them gullible. They were very aware of the fake reality most influencer feeds depict. They suspected that the images were staged and created to generate likes and drive sales. But the interesting finding for me was their desire to believe the fantasy. They knew it was fake, but they relished it all the same—imagining themselves in the scene. It’s a new twist on the old concept of willing suspension of disbelief. The Fyre Festival teaches us how that willingness can go horribly awry.

3. Schaudenfreude

Finally, the Fyre Festival casts a spotlight once again on the growing antipathy toward Millennial culture and elitism. Unlike the United Airlines scandal, which generated widespread outrage toward the perpetrators, the Fyre Festival induced a surge of ridicule and scorn toward victims—the “spoiled rich children” who fell for the decadent scam. Indeed, reading the many, many humorous Tweets that flooded Twitter Friday and Saturday was a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Many Americans couldn’t feel sorry for this group of young people who spent hundreds or thousands of dollars for a gathering of the elite in the Bahamas, even when their predicament was potentially dangerous (there was insufficient water, security and shelter). The responses ranged from delicious ribbing to outright shaming. Some asked how it felt to be a refugee, drawing a corollary to the conditions of immigrants wishing to enter the United States. Others reminded the concert-goers that while they waited a day or so for water, Flint, Michigan has been without it for more than a year. The incident proved to be an opportunity to pillory privileged Millennials and make an example of their detachment from the world around them.

While the case of the Fyre Festival may be an extreme example, the sentiment is becoming more pervasive throughout culture, and marketers should be cautious about embracing the lifestyle promised by Fyre too readily. While plush, exclusive gatherings of carefree young people might make for great campaign imagery, it can easily signal to audiences that the brand is tone deaf, as Pepsi discovered earlier in the month. And when today’s culture smells an overtly bourgeois moment you can expect the social media equivalent of Bastille Day.


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