Burning Man has sage marketing advice for brands

For the past 33 years, Burning Man has gone from a bonfire on the beach to one of the world’s most fascinating counter-cultural events. For many attendees, Burning Man is less of a destination and more of a philosophy – for some, it is even a part of their year-round identity.

We have to admit – we’ve never experienced the phenomenon for ourselves, but we were curious. What we found, at least on paper, was more than we expected. While costumes and a love for Palo Santo was a given, the festival’s 10 founding principles struck a brand strategy chord. The founders’ prescient concepts from decades ago speak directly to the consumer climate of today, and they clearly articulate many consumer priorities that brands seek to address.

Take it from a megabrand founded on the radical notion of “brandless branding” – principals are powerful.

The Ten Principals of Burning Man – and What Brands Can Learn from Them

“We don’t use the trademark to market anything. It’s our identity.” – Larry Harvey, Burning Man co-founder

For anyone unfamiliar with the annual event, Burning Man is a lot of things, but most notably, it’s an experiment. At the end of every summer, more than 65,000 people – known as “Burners” – gather from all over the world. Their destination: a 7-square-mile “pop-up” in the Nevada desert known as Black Rock City. It is “an annual art event and temporary community based on radical self-expression and self-reliance.” And the phenomenon could never be complete without elaborate costumes, uninhibited dancing, eclectic music, sandstorms, art installations, generosity, and of course, the ritual burning of a large wooden effigy, known as “The Man.”

But while the event is all about the experience, it is the ideals that Burning Man upholds that define it. Larry Harvey, one of the co-founders, published “The Ten Principals” in which he detailed the culture and ethos that Burning Man has organically evolved since its inception.

Here are those principles, along with takeaways that demonstrate why Burning Man has tapped into a relevant and effective marketing approach that modern brands can learn from.

1. Radical Inclusion

“Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

The importance of inclusion is undeniable. When it comes to Burning Man, all are welcome to partake. When it comes to brand marketing, taking a one-size-fits-all approach is an oversimplification. Now, more than ever, we can all agree on at least one thing: people are very different from one another. And while brands don’t need to be everything to everyone, they should embrace differences and seek to illuminate commonalities.

A 2018 report from Accenture found that 70% of millennials are more likely to choose one brand over another if that brand demonstrates inclusion and diversity in its promotions and offers. Brands are wise to tap into this expectation both to appease consumers’ need for diversity, but also their desire for personalization.

2. Gifting

“Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.”

Brands that offer value beyond their core proposition are often amply rewarded. Quite simply, do good for your consumers, just for goodness’ sake. According to research, “62 percent of customers don’t feel like the brands they’re loyal to do enough in return.” A transactional relationship doesn’t cut it anymore. Although consumers may love your brand and product or service, they expect more.

Brands can utilize a myriad of methods and resources to provide consumers with added value on a consistent basis. Loyalty programs, contests and giveaways, gamification, customer surveys, and a seamless UX are all examples of ways to add value and, by extension, increase loyalty.

3. Decommodification

“In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.”

Considering the professed 4,000 marketing messages the average consumer is exposed to on a daily basis, brands should respect the fact that people are tired of it all. They know when they are being “sold” or marketed to. It’s important to aim for that sweet spot of remaining relevant without hitting people over the head with your brand messaging.

Rather than design ad campaigns, consider approaching brand communications as consumer interactions. Be intentional and purposeful, from email to experiential. Rather than self-promote, offer value to the brand-consumer conversation. Seek to build a community, not a consumer base.

4. Radical Self-Reliance

“Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”

A brand is only as good as the team behind it. Strong company culture coupled with fulfilled, empowered employees is one of the greatest marketing tools that a company can possess. Employee growth, creativity, innovation, and productivity thrive in the right environment – and they are stifled in the wrong one.

Companies that lead in their space often promote autonomy and individuality, a.k.a radical self-reliance. This kind of entrepreneurial approach not only encourages accountability and better-quality work, it results in brand advocates on the inside of the building. So, follow some age-old advice: don’t be a manager, be a leader.

5. Radical Self-Expression

“Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.”

Brands, like people, have an identity. They have a specific purpose, personality, and perspective. Sometimes brands exist as a simple way to bring good into the world (think TED, whose purpose is to “spread ideas.”). Other brands take a more aspirational approach, like Microsoft, whose mission is “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

The best-positioned and thriving companies are those who identify with and embody their brand’s ethos. And when it comes to radical self-expression, “radical” does not need to be controversial. It just needs to be transparent, authentic, and reinforced throughout all aspects of the company. A company that seeks to further environmental sustainability, for example, cannot have a wasteful supply chain. Rather than state your purpose, truly live it.

Stay tuned! Next week we will explore principles 6 through 10 and what they mean for brand strategy, in part 2 of our series on Burning Man. In the meantime, if you want to chat, drop us a line!