Have You Heard? Word of Mouth Marketing and How Storytelling Sells

Burning Man is a yearly festival that takes place in the Northern Nevada desert each August. Now in its 26th year, the event has grown considerably from its humble beginnings on Baker Beach and today attracts over 50,000 people annually, with approximately 15,000 of those being air travelers flying in from across the U.S. and 34 different countries.

I first heard about Burning Man as an undergraduate in the 90s when one of my professors at California State University, Chico would talk to me about how truly amazing it was and why I needed to attend. Every year he would spend months organizing art projects for his “camp” in a warehouse off campus along with other dedicated burners. Following graduation, I had a classmate who went on to work for a San Francisco-based financial consulting company who attended every year as part of a “company team building” event.  And when I moved to Reno, I not only witnessed the annual August migration of RVs and bicycle-clad vehicles rolling through town, but I saw grocery store shelves being emptied of basic goods and noticed friends, neighbors and co-workers quietly disappear en masse.  In 2008, while taking an adult gymnastics class for fun, I met and practiced alongside of the fire dancers and aerialists who perform every year at Burning Man. Heck, I even had a doctor (a.k.a stilt walker) fix a dislocated elbow of mine who also happened to get married there. So what is the significance of these stories? They all came to me via word of mouth.

For those who aren’t familiar with what Burning Man is, below is a video that to-date has received nearly 2 million views:

The “Marketing” of Burning Man

Burning Man as an organization does not engage in any traditional marketing tactics like radio, television, or newspaper advertising. You will not see a billboard for Burning Man, a digital pop up ad on your computer, or receive a direct mailer piece. No one will knock at your door trying to sell you on attending Burning Man, and you most certainly will not receive a phone call urging you to buy a ticket. So how does Burning Man “market itself” and sell over 50,000 tickets a year at $390 a pop?

According to Tom Clark who spoke at Tuesday’s Reno-Tahoe American Marketing Association (AMA) luncheon on the topic of Burning Man (on behalf of the organization that puts on the event), the only real “marketing” the organization does is handle crisis communications when news breaks, in addition to facilitating content on blogs, web sites, and social media sites in general. When asked what his top three takeaways were for marketers who were hoping to learn something from the success of Burning Man, he noted the importance of trusting in the client/customer and putting their needs first, seeking out and supporting brand ambassadors, and living up to the brand’s promise. His advice mirrors much of what I’ve written about in previous blog posts and speaks to such current trends in marketing as the need for brands to relinquish control of their messaging to their customers, that a traditional approach to brand strategy is no longer enough, and that marketing needs to be redefined so that organizations are structured around engagement.

Generating Word of Mouth Marketing

There are many wonderful resources on the web with regard to word of mouth marketing including this Word of Mouth Marketing Association infographic and John Moore’s “Talkable Brand Series” on the Brand Autopsy web site. According to Moore, who produced the video series that provides strategies and ideas for growing your business via word of mouth, a brand must be MANY things in order to be “talkable,” including original, artful, social, invisible, cultural, controversial, and remarkable, to name a few attributes. Truly, his videos nail the aspects what it takes to be “talkable” and I highly recommend you check them out.

Other than that, below are my key takeaways from the Reno-Tahoe AMA Burning Man luncheon for how to best generate word of mouth marketing for your business:

  1. Offer a product or service that exceeds expectationsBurning Man offers a unique and uncommon experience for people that, by design, have allowed for Burning Man as a brand to flourish and prosper. For example, Burning Man has donated more than $500,000 to charities since 2003 and non-profit groups such as “Burners Without Borders” have formed due to connections that have been made at the event. The festival has also sparked sustainability competitions at local high Reno high schools, as well as regional and satellite events throughout the year across the globe that work to keep the Burning Man spirit alive.
  2. Sow the seeds of your community by creating and communicating your brand’s identity – In Tom’s talk he noted ten core principles that Burners live by, which include radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. Based on the uniqueness of these core values (one might even say “desired values of the culture“), by providing core operating principles a clear identity is quickly formed around what it means to be a “Burner,” hence making it easier for people to relate, adapt, and conform to group norms that work to strengthen ties to the culture.
  3. Provide opportunities for others to share stories and spread the message about your brand – In a blog post I read today entitled “What stories are your customers making up about your brand?” by Phoenix ad agency owner and sustainable storyteller Park Howell (whose son by no coincidence happens to be the individual who produced the video at the beginning of this post!), everyone loves a good story and the opportunity to share their experience. As a brand manager or marketer, it’s of the utmost importance to facilitate, encourage, and help spread these messages so long as the culture and the quality of the product or service permits it.

Now it’s your turn! How did you first hear about Burning Man? How has Burning Man as a brand been most successful? Is their approach sustainable? Does the way the organization markets itself easily translate to other types of business endeavors? Please share your thoughts.

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