Branding is leaving its mark in the desert

Special to The Times

Indio -- It was around 1 Saturday morning and the crowd, designer-denim clad and sporting the latest asymmetrical haircuts, was 500 strong. These revelers had made the cut to get into one of the hottest parties going. Shuttled to a remote spot in the desert near the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, they spent hours dancing to thunderous electronica and drinking free liquor beside an artificial lagoon.

Hosted by Filter magazine with the help of corporate sponsors, including Puma, Glaceau Vitamin Water, Honda and Urban Outfitters, it was the clearest indication that "swag" has taken hold of the "indie" rock festival. The party was, pure and simple, an exercise in branding. Posters announced, "Good music will prevail." But the end game was clearly to win over the hipster intelligentsia in an environment where they are most open to fresh ideas.

In recent years, swag suites -- where luxury goods, spa treatments and booze are handed out gratis to influential celebrities in exchange for their implicit product endorsement -- have begun to spring up around this desert music festival like so many cactus blooms. Although the Sundance Film Festival in Utah may be the unofficial Olympics of swagging, marketers are seizing on a new way to capitalize on the overwhelmingly hormonal, powerfully adolescent energy surrounding America's biggest alternative-music concert.

A cornerstone of the festival's indie identity has been its resistance to corporate sponsorship. And as an unintended side effect, most marketers targeting Coachella go for the easy sell.

"Coachella is not about branding. This is the people's festival," said Moj Mahdara, who coordinated a "gifting house" for DKNY Jeans and Motorola. "To reach the 110,000 people who come here for the festival, it has to be an organic integration. It has to be an enjoyable experience. You have to show people a good time and that your brand makes sense here. And a banner is just not going to cut it."

At DKNY/Motorola's lavish ranch house, a short-term rental less than a mile from the Coachella grounds, celebrities including Nicole Richie and "Underworld's" Scott Speedman were drawn by the promise of free Motorola phones and PDAs and a pricey selection of DKNY watches, sunglasses, bathing suits and of-the-moment "skinny" jeans -- not to mention VIP festival passes event organizers were handing out. Other lucky noncelebs frolicked in the pool, played tennis and bumped and grinded to music from star DJs such as Steve Aoki and Squeak E. Clean. Invitations to the house had been extended to every performer at the festival.

"We've done Coachella for three years now, but we wouldn't necessarily do Bonnaroo," said DKNY's director of public relations, Kristin Kavanagh, mentioning the second-biggest alternative-music gathering in the country, in Tennessee. "It's all about the energy here. Let's face it, it's not everybody who gets in -- it's tastemakers. We're associating ourselves with people who set the trends. They tell the stories we want to tell."

At Frank Sinatra's onetime Palm Springs hideaway, Twin Palms Estate, Anthem magazine hosted a two-day pool party in conjunction with Coachella co-sponsored by Reebok, Amp'd Mobile, Beck's beer and Tequila Herradura, among others.

To draw the right kind of indie-rock early adopters, planners settled upon a "tone appropriate" -- if goofy and staggeringly long-winded -- name for the event: "Anthem Magazine's So Yeah, It's Like a Big [expletive] Pool Party I Guess? Supposedly There's Gonna Be Live Acoustic Sets, DJs, Cocktails, BBQ, People on Rafts, Chicks Doing Cannonballs, All Sorts of Good [expletive], and They're Hosting This Thing at Frank Sinatra's Estate of All Places. Go Figure!"

Late Saturday afternoon, Nicky Hilton and her boyfriend, Kevin Connolly of the HBO series "Entourage," entered the DKNY/Motorola house only to be set upon by a phalanx of photographers. Between swigs of Heineken, Connolly picked out sunglasses and a black windbreaker.

Less than five minutes later, he was seen jogging his swag bag to the car. Overhead, a plane trailing an enormous banner flew laps in the sky above the festival grounds.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World