Merchant Innovation

Coachella’s Contextual Commerce: The Good, The Bad And The Flower Crown Ugly

Any music festival worth the price of admission can define itself by a certain vibe. Woodstock had Free Love. Lollapalooza had, and still has, mosh pits and crowdsurfing.

Coachella, on the other hand, might not be as much of an experience in countercultural expression as it is, in the words of The New Yorker, “a catwalk of people who have decided that free-spiritedness looks good on them.”

“In other words, it’s a whirlpool of commercial potential.”

Retailers have come to recognize the incredible marketing opportunity presented by the multi-weekend music festival in Southern California. But setting up shop on the edge of the festival and hawking blatantly branded products is a little too gauche for Coachella attendees who want to preserve the festival’s sanctity (whether it ever existed or not), which leads more than a few companies to turn to social media and the tricks of contextual commerce.

Look no further than Sonic’s attempt to capitalize on the overtly millennial vibe of Coachella: a reimagining of the restaurant’s milkshakes into square containers designed specifically to appear appealing when posted to Instagram — a platform thousands of attendees are undoubtedly browsing even though their favorite acts might be, at that very moment, on stage. All a Coachella attendee needs to do is place their order through the Sonic Instagram account, and the Square Shake is delivered straight to their location — within a defined area of the sprawling festival grounds, of course. In fact, Sonic is forgoing the decidedly unhip notion of cash and payments, opting instead to prompt customers to post their milkshakes back to Instagram as a form of compensation. Todd Smith, president and CMO at Sonic, told MarketWatch that this campaign comes from the company’s long experience with the millennial demographic.

“The millennial target isn’t a new target for us, nor is it a customer that’s foreign to us,” Smith said. “We want to make them even bigger superfans of the brand. Coachella is a good way to do that.”

Is it though?

Contextual commerce might be the new vehicle of choice for brands that want to get their customers what they want exactly when they want it, and while there’s no doubt that the type of millennial at Coachella is far from averse to Instagram posts, is a milkshake from a fast food chain, however redesigned it appears, the right fit for that context? A medium classic shake from a run-of-the-mill Sonic in California runs no more than $5, but even if the chain were charging for the Square Shakes, it’s really relying on the “cool factor” of the product to generate sales and buzz.

And when the base price of a general admission ticket costs upwards of $400 and a small beer goes for at least $7, attendees with blood that rich might not be used to such low-rent fast food — let alone the cultural cache it’s trying to create through social media.

It’s a nice try, Sonic, but success in contextual commerce takes a little bit more than throwing darts at a board of millennial tropes.

That’s not to say that Coachella is totally insulated from advertising that manages to push the right product to the right consumers at the right time. Sugar-laden desserts from a fast food chain might be a long shot, but festival-specific fashion is more of a slam dunk. That’s where Postmates and REVOLVE decided to center their attentions with a campaign to deliver on-demand fashion seen before and at Coachella to late-purchasing customers in six locales (L.A., Palm Springs, Orange County, San Francisco, New York and Dallas).

What ones wears to Coachella, it goes without saying, is almost as important as what one sees while there, and REVOLVE CEO Michael Mente knows it.

“This year, the week leading up to Coachella alone was bigger for us than the holiday season,” Mente told Digiday. “We think about it like Black Friday, without the discounts.”

If anything, at Coachella, this is where effective branding and timely marketing interventions come to together in perfect harmony. A 2014 Eventbrite study found that while music festivals are obviously a source of massive social media activity, comparatively little of it occurs while the festivals are going on. Instead, just about half of all social media conversations were triggered by ticket purchases and lineup announcements — both of which happen weeks (or sometimes even months) before the first act walks on stage.

Coachella 2016 has one more weekend before the attendees pack up their camping gear and the road crews take apart the stages, but retailers might have to wait until 2017 to try their hands again at captivating their millennial consumers at the right times and in the right buying contexts.


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