After three years of staging the Virgin Mobile Festival at Pimlico Race Course near Baltimore, factors including the tanking economy caused organizers to consider a different sponsorship model. Organizers embraced the bad news realities and offered sponsors opportunities to help people get on their feet. One of the between-stage attractions was the Kyocera-sponsored “Lucky Layoff Lounge,” for example. There was also the “Pink Slip Piñata” contest for a chance to pick up a free Virgin cell phone.
“It was an experiment that we wanted to do,” said Virgin Mobile USA’s Ron Faris, senior director of brand marketing and innovation. “We were all fed up with the bad news. Every time you turn on the TV there’s nothing but bad news. It was the recession, layoffs, swine flu, all this crap that was just sucking the energy out of everybody.”
The Virgin Mobile FreeFest was, of course, free for some 35,000 fans thanks to the support of more than a dozen major sponsors. But it was a success because of the integration of those sponsorships in a way that not only didn’t feel oppressive to concertgoers but gave them a chance to interact.
“It was a challenge,” Faris said. “We had a person dedicated on our team whose sole responsibility was to make sure that all our partnerships were organic, so nothing really stuck out like a sore logo. We made sure we helped those sponsors integrate their experiences seamlessly with the vibe. A lot of press has reported that there were a lot of sponsors but there weren’t a lot of complaints of those sponsors there.”
“Some types of experiences can become like these branded-logo festivals and it’s really not endemic of the venue or what we’re trying to do. When you get to the reality of how to do this event, it’s easy for people to think ‘Oh, Richard (Branson) cut a check.’ But he didn’t cut a check. This is a Virgin Mobile initiative. He’s always been a bit of a spiritual leader for us, for lack of a better word, but at the end of the day it’s always been Virgin Mobile and their sponsors that really brought this experience.”
Getting real. Sponsors and sponsees who get real about helping people solve or assuage the difficulties of dire times, rather than glossing over them, will win hearts and minds. (Not to mention media mentions).