Case Study: What Can Marketers Learn From the Fyre Festival Fallout?
February 14, 2019
Put simply, the much-documented Fyre Festival was a very bold marketing campaign, and a logistical and PR disaster. Whilst there are some obvious conclusions regarding influencers, authenticity and delivery, there are other lessons to be learnt from a marketing perspective.
- Influencer marketing
- Product launch
- Buyer personas
- Planning and alignment
- Online reviews
- Content strategy
- Social responsibility
The concept was a brand new festival on a Bahamian island – think Coachella in the Caribbean. Targeted at rich, social and celebrity-obsessed millennials, the festival was the brainchild of ‘serial entrepreneur’ Billy McFarland, along with his sidekick, rapper Ja Rule. McFarland had zero experience with organising festivals, but was great at social hype and tapping into his demographic. He promised the luxury experience of a lifetime, and delivered an unforgettable experience; for all the wrong reasons.
McFarland and Ja Rule had the profile (and wallets, thanks to investors), to start things with an influencer marketing campaign to rival anything Instagram has ever seen: A stellar lineup including Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Emily Ratajowski, and 400 other influencers recruited to share a branded Instagram post. The reach was huge, and the reaction instant.
A cool website and app plus the promise of an idyllic setting, ‘VIP-dream-like experience’, luxury accommodation, big artists, and A-list celebrities saw 5,000 tickets – at up to $4,000, plus accommodation and other add-ons – sold basically overnight. But things soon started to unravel.
Logistically, the Fyre team were out of their depth. Things go from laughable, to concerning, ridiculous, and shocking, culminating in a nightmare the day before the festival. Half-built tents on a derelict building site. An absence of basic amenities. The infamous cheese sandwich. Throw a tropical storm into the mix. Cue anarchy.
The fallout, in short, led to McFarland’s imprisonment for six years, and forfeiting $26 million following a guilty plea to two counts of fraud. And, just as the dust was settling, Hulu and Netflix released their no-holds-barred documentaries covering the events. Fyre is a case study in how not to run a project.
Cool sells. But authenticity and quality matters. And alignment of sales, marketing, and delivery is key, as is an experienced team who believe in the concept. So, what are the takeaways for marketers?
Obviously, most brands would not have this budget for their campaigns (Kendall Jenner topped the list with a $250K fee; every other influencer was paid no less than $20,000), but it worked. The brand went from unknown to everywhere overnight. But this was a flawed campaign.
The main issue was authenticity. It’s usually fairly obvious when a celebrity is giving a plug, but there are ways of conducting influencer marketing that make it feel authentic, and it’s clear the influencers were not engaged with the brand. Getting paid a huge sum to post an orange square on Instagram, or spend a week on a yacht in the Caribbean is one thing. But actually engaging with a brand or product in a more wholesome way is really the key to unlocking the potential of influencer marketing.
Sometimes, micro-influencers are more powerful (and cheaper) to spread the word and drive engagement. When things started to go awry with Fyre, the celebrities could not distance themselves quickly enough from the brand. Micro-influencers are much more likely to buy into a campaign, and also engage with their followers in comments and messages, which helps build authenticity and trust.
This is subjective, but many feel that Fyre got it right with how they launched the festival online. The influencer posts were evocative, giving just enough information, whilst leaving the audience wanting more. A social post, video ad, or billboard doesn’t have to tell the whole story. It can be more powerful to be suggestive – to intrigue but not inform.
Whilst McFarland and his team had many flaws, they knew their audience. The dream that they sold was aligned with narcissistic millennials – the wannabe Kardashians who had the wallets to dip their toes in this lifestyle. The Fyre brand was cool, the product – on the face of it – was luxury. And McFarland knew how to wring every penny possible from the market.
With experience from his previous enterprises such as Spling, an online advertising platform, and Magnesis, a social ‘black card’ for status-obsessed millennials, McFarland had big ideas to drive added revenue. Pre-loaded Fyre credit cards were sold months before the event. Extravagant accommodation upgrades were offered and snapped up. Yacht experiences, celebrity meet-and-greets, fine dining. Fyre knew its audience and sold the dream.
Best case planning
This is an extremely unique case study in failure. However, when planning a marketing campaign, we should always ask ourselves ‘what if this campaign actually works?’ It sounds obvious, but preparing for the best-case scenario is often overlooked. Alignment between sales, marketing and delivery departments is vital.
With Fyre, the delivery was shambolic. But in many businesses, even a competent team can be ruined if alignment isn’t smart. Is there enough product to meet demand? Are there enough people to manufacture or deliver the product? Is the supply chain agile enough to cope with changes in demand? Has the website been tested for spikes in traffic? These are all valid questions when thinking about a launch. If not, a campaign that starts well could unravel into a PR disaster.
But the PR disaster materialises. Then what do you do? Brands should certainly have a plan for how they communicate during times of difficulty. And, unsurprisingly, Fyre got this all wrong. Fundamentally, this is because they didn’t have a leg to stand on. When things started to unravel, their crisis management plan was to bury their heads in the Bahamian sand, when they should have come clean, and engaged with their customers on the very networks that had worked so well previously.
Online reviews have become a modern phenomenon, and can strengthen or ruin brands depending how they are managed. There are many examples of how brands have actually leveraged a challenging situation into a positive, through excellent PR management, engaging with negative online reviews in a truthful, authentic way. Unanswered questions build suspicion and ruin trust.
Alongside the growing hostility due to unanswered questions, a lack of fresh content also built suspicion. The same images and messages were being repeated over and over. Fyre had nothing new or positive to say. Content is key, and there’s so many different ways you can build authenticity through a basic content strategy.
They could have been sharing updates from the island, dropped content from the artists, given previews of the ‘VIP experience’ and luxury accommodation. But, as with the rest of the Fyre approach, a robust content strategy was overlooked. This added to the lack of authenticity of the brand, making it look amateurish.
This is quite often an afterthought. Frankly it wasn’t thought of at all by Fyre. Thousands of people descending on a primitive island with no sewage or waste management, and no planning with the local community? What could go wrong?
From an environmental point of view, whilst the impacts of pollution, emissions and other issues were reduced through the festival not actually going ahead, they were clearly not considered, and would have been catastrophic. The social impact, however, was disastrous, and the scars have not healed. Local labourers and business owners are still owed thousands of dollars, and the local government $300,000. In communities where money is not abundant, the festival has ruined lives.
Whilst brands are clearly revenue-driven, there has to be a consideration of how their activities impact people and the environment. Some brands talk openly about their initiatives, from sustainable products, ethical supply chains or socially-driven campaigns to charity giving and community engagement. 51% of Gen X now consider a company’s values as part of their buying decision, and whilst this is no substitute for a quality product, it is something brands need to be thinking about.