Festivals 101: How to create a successful brand experience

Our summer here at ACA Live was dominated by festivals – professionally at least – and we were blown away by the public’s post-pandemic response to these incredible events. 

The spirit of fun, social, immersive entertainment was back in spades, and we were thrilled to be at the heart of the moment, working with a number of our clients to bring their brand to life in this unique environment. 

So come the autumn we wanted to celebrate the UK festival scene by gathering some of the brightest minds in the events space to discuss exactly how brands can use these moments to fully and powerfully connect with consumers, and what the immediate future looks like for the festivals industry. 

Hosted by our founder Adam Goodman, and moderated brilliantly by Gareth Dimelow, founder and Creative Strategist at LIFTD, we were joined by Paul Samuels, EVP Global Partnerships at AEG, Suzi Sendama, Head of Commercial at The Secret Garden Party, and Caitlin Robertshawe, Senior Brand Manager at Monkey Shoulder, and a lively debate ensued. 

The session is available HERE for you to watch in full but I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight a few key takeaways from the discussion for those of you who are after a speedy overview. 

  1. Defining a ‘good’ activation

This may seem an obvious one to pick on first, but there was a consensus among the panel that knowing your audience, understanding their state of mind and devising an activation that spoke to that knowledge was not always a priority for some brands at festivals. 

Festival-goers are different to any attendee of almost any other event. They have been brought together by a shared love of one thing – usually music – and an intention to have fun, to immerse themselves in the moment, to discover something new and to create some lifelong memories. 

While this attitude is gold dust for brands hoping to make an emotional connection, it also gives tacit approval to do something out of the ordinary. The audience is there to escape the day to day grind, so tap into that and deliver the unexpected. Your activation should be about creating emotional responses and, if done well, will facilitate recall – something that is vital if you want to make your investment work for you. We know that people will spend time with a brand if the experience is compelling enough, so give them the excuse they are looking for. 

But it’s still crucial to tailor your activation to the audience. The energy of a one-day festival goer, for example, will be vastly different to that of a weekend camper who will invariably be adopting a slower pace of life with so much time on-site. Meanwhile working in partnership with the organisers will give you access to a broader social media mix, and give visibility to any event-led feedback, which is so helpful to marketers.

  1. Capturing data – or living for the moment

It’s very tempting to see every visitor to your space as a customer ripe for conversion, but try and resist the temptation to make this an overt sales pitch. Once upon a time brand reps would be gathering data in a sign up sheet, overtly asking people for their contact details before spamming them with direct mail or emails. But times have changed and marketing is more subtle and multifaceted than that now. 

AEG’s Paul Samuels pointed out that our more sustainability-driven approach has also changed what brands can do in a bid to be remembered. He said: “Six or seven years ago you’d see brands walking round festivals with bags of branded freebies but that’s not cool anymore with the focus on zero waste. Now, marketers have to be more creative in how they’re remembered.”

It was agreed there is an element of “pulling back the curtain and revealing that this is an activation” if you push for ways to communicate with audiences. Instead the aim should be to appear to entertain selflessly, without looking like you are in any way benefiting from that interaction. 

So while Adam pointed out it’s important not to bombard festival goers with marketing messages before or after the event, the panel discussed ways in which you can connect with people. 

Sharing personalised content from the day is seen as a win for the consumer, so there immediately exists a value exchange in gathering email addresses. However, more often than not creating a memorable experience and engaging in the moment is enough to resonate with a consumer and dramatically increase the odds of them revisiting your brand at a later date.

  1. Invest in support

We thought twice about including this one as it does rather blow our own trumpet, but one of the key takeaways from the session from the experts was to never underestimate the power of the right support. Paul from AEG said it was always obvious which brands thought they could pull off an activation alone, as there were invariably hiccups and problems along the way, crucially after the event has opened and the customers are flowing through the doors. He said: “We’ve seen it so many times, when a brand turns up on site and there’s so much they’ve not thought of. Just basics like health and safety and security – essential elements that have to be factored in but all to often haven’t.”

Suzi from Secret Garden Party agreed, saying partnering with an events agency was the best investment any brand could make, thanks to their years of experience and ability to foresee any potential problems or hurdles throughout every stage of the process. 

She said: “There’s so much value in bringing an agency along. It’s more people to pay but my goodness does it pay off.”

Collaboration – and partnerships – will almost always be the key to a more successful event and a very valid investment. 

  1. Anticipate success 

While there was mention of accounting for poor footfall, and the impact of the unpredictable British weather, our panel were more keen to talk about the importance of actually anticipating success – which was a nice turn of events! With a post-pandemic spirit to proceedings this year, for many it was a case of running out of products rather than having too much to shift. Some brands had to shut up shop early, while others were able to tap into reserve provisions they had in the wings for a festival the following weekend!

While it is never ideal to have a lot of stock to lug back home, it’s far more fruitful to be optimistic and work on the assumption that interest in your activation will exceed expectations.

  1. Cost of living + festivals = ?

And yet, the next year or two is presenting yet more new challenges. While 2022’s festivals season was a roaring success, we know it was partly down to the unbridled joy at being back in full swing after Covid. Our panel agreed they would expect to see a small tail off next year, with things settling more into a pre-pandemic level, but said they would do what they could to mitigate against the cost of living crisis. 

Monkey Shoulder’s Caitlin Robertshawe said: “Being at a festival is about really adding value to that consumer experience. We’re not there to make money, we’re there to ensure that these people have an amazing time. So could it be that we slashed the price of our drink? Absolutely. We’d be willing to do that to ensure that consumers want to spend time with us and dwell and just have an amazing time.”


And if there’s a comment that sums up the spirit of festival-activations-done-well more perfectly, I’d like to see it. The UK festival scene presents brands with a unique opportunity to reach people in an original way that can connect and engage in a way that no other medium offers on quite the same level. 

Anyone can turn up to a festival and knock up a stand, but those who understand the mindset of the consumer, the nuance of the occasion and the role of brands in that space will be those who take centre stage in the public’s recall of the event.
If you’ve found this overview interesting, do watch back the event in its entirety and hear more tips and advice from our panel of experts. Huge thanks again to everyone who took part in the session – it was a fascinating conversation to host.