7/27/2013

the burning man CORE strategy

2013 CORE placement locations
The placement within the event site for the 24 art projects selected to participate in this years Circle Of Regional Effigies (C.O.R.E) at the annual burning man festival was recently released. Among certain areas of the burning man section of the internet people were abuzz with the news, discussing which other regions they were placed near, and seeming generally pleased about the whole thing.

The participants of the 2013 edition of what the burning man organizers sometimes refer to as The CORE Project were announced in late March. The announcement was, inexplicably, published (among other places) on the news aggregation website The Huffington Post where it was greeted with a whopping 13 comments, mostly arguing about whether or not there are in fact hippies at burning man.

The CORE Project came about in 2011 and is a continuation of the carefully guided effort to spread the burning man brand outside of the confines of San Francisco and northern Nevada. The effort, which was already active in previous years as part of what was called the regional program, was expanded in the year 2004 by the organizers of burning man, which include festival founder Larry Harvey.  As is explained by organizers this effort, which is now referred to as the Burning Man Regional Network, has a very specific purpose:
"The Burning Man Regional Network is the year-round embodiment of the Burning Man experience, supporting it as a global cultural movement. In cities around the world, the Burning Man Project has established Regional Contacts whose role is to help local Burners connect with each other, while bringing Burning Man principles and culture into their local communities."
While one might be able to debate whether or not this festival, and its network of regional contacts, truly represent a global cultural movement one thing seems clear: it works in spreading the brand. With smaller organizer approved burning man inspired regional festivals happening all over the world more people are being exposed to the brand. Here is a slightly lengthy part of what Larry Harvey had to say about the growth of the brand at a New York City speech in 2002:
"I'll give you an example of how we are growing. A group of New Yorkers came to our event last year. Burning Man occurs over Labor Day, so that [...] means that when [they returned home] in 2001 they encountered the events of September 11th. They had seen their bonding world become a bridging world at Burning Man, and so they responded to this public trauma in a unique way. They began to craft burn barrels. These are oil barrels [which] [...] look like jack o'lanterns — and serve as fireplaces that protect the desert surface. They put the word out among their friends and acquaintances — because they understood about forming social networks — and soon they were joined by other people — many of whom they hadn't known — and all of them began to create designs, and they donated several of these beautiful pieces to the New York City Police Department. [...] There is a picture on [the groups'] website: two burly policemen flanking a barrel. They are grinning like jack o'lanterns, and there's a Burning Man logo on it! And this is only one example. As I say, gift giving networks can produce massive amounts of social capital, and the rate of return on social capital is a lot better than the rate of return on normal capital investment in the market world."
While, ostensibly, a collection of art projects CORE, in the world of the burning man regional network, seemingly represents a way to, as Larry once described it, produce massive amounts of social capital. The organizers of burning man are able to profit off of this social capital as the CORE projects (which serve as part of the many attractions at the event) are not funded by burning man itself, but by those selected to do the projects. The selected participants, who are uncompensated, seem overjoyed to be granted the opportunity to create work on a stage that they highly regard, resulting in a positive image for the burning man brand among themselves and their friends or loved ones who get to see the joy brought about by the creative process, thus building the social capital that the burning man organizers sought out. This year, as has been the case recently, crowd-funding has been important in raising funds for many burning man art projects in general, but also with the CORE projects, where 22 of the 24 are using a crowd-funding website to make ends meet. These crowd-funded efforts bring in many supporters who are not directly involved in the project but feel as if they are participating in it through opening up their wallet, again, building up more social capital for the brand.

This means that the only resources that the burning man organizers have to expend on expanding the brand, resulting in profit, is to offer a stage for uncompensated participants to make something, which the participants themselves must pay for. These newly engaged participants, who were selected for the task among many others, spread brand awareness and goodwill from their excitement and involvement in the projects that they build. Not only do these projects help the organizers in the sense of a regional brand awareness program, but they also provide yet more spectacle for ticket buying festival goers from all over the world as all 24 of the CORE projects are burned simultaneously midway through the event.

a 2011 CORE project
What this all boils down to, when one removes all of the sales jargon, is that the burning man regional network is essentially what the music industry refers to as a Street Team. This is how the venerable wikipedia describes a street team:
"a term used in marketing to describe a group of people who 'hit the streets' promoting an event or a product. 'Street Teams' are promotional tools that have been adopted industry wide as a standard line item in marketing budgets by entertainment companies, record labels, the tech industry, corporate brand marketers, new media companies and direct marketers."

"It was a modern version of a credible "cool" field marketer working for you with the ability to create hype for your artist (brand) through credible peer-to-peer interactions and viral word-of-mouth influence marketing."

"an influential teen referred to as a neighborhood "tastemaker" was sought out or pinpointed by a record label to be used as a conduit to their respective neighborhood, due to their stronger influence over other teens that looked to them for "what's hot""
What the organizers of burning man have done is basically rebranded the idea of a Street Team in the form of a Regional Network with Regional Contacts. As mentioned in the Letter of Understanding (see: contract) that Regional Contacts must sign when agreeing to do the work a bit of a carrot is dangled, in much the same way as it is in the world of street teams. Here is a bit from the letter of understanding:
"Although You will primarily function as a Regional Contact for Your Region, there may also be opportunities to work jointly with Burning Man in other ways, such as producing events."
This is how whomever wrote the wikipedia page on street teams described a similar scenario in the usage of that marketing tactic in the music industry:
"The position of street team representative was often filled by fans of an artist or young people looking for an introductory position in the music industry."
While there is nothing inherently nefarious in the fact that the organizers of burning man have ripped a few pages out of the Successful Marketing Playbook and ran with them, there certainly seems to be a bit of clever posturing which allows them to sell this tactic as Participation (Participation, one of the so-called 10 principles of the event) and something other than creative marketing which inevitably suits only the bottom line of the business.

Now, the use of this marketing tactic doesn't mean that the projects created under the guise of either the CORE project or the regional network are devalued or unimportant, these projects are obviously created out of the love and genuine interest of those who create them and who expend untold hours getting them completed. But, for a business that espouses the value of communal effort undertaken together as one of their 10 principles it seems awfully disrespectful of them to use this method to spread brand awareness and to get attractive installations for their for-profit festival. When the organizers of burning man use their built up social capital to, seemingly, take advantage of loyal participants for profit while refusing these participants an equal role in the decision making for the event, or the ability to profit off of their own efforts, it seems a lot less like a communal effort undertaken together and more like the organizers of burning man have one only interest, a CORE strategy: their own profit.