Burning Man, the brand: The experience (Part 2)

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Should every experience be branded?

Siegel+Gale’s experience guru, Thomas Mueller, defines a compelling brand experience as “that truly delightful moment when you realize a brand delivers on its promise repeatedly and consistently, because of an impeccable and invisible orchestration of people, interactions, and technology.

Interestingly, much of this statement applies perfectly to my first Burning Man festival, which I just attended—and survived. Were there truly delightful and memorable moments? Was there a beautiful, invisible orchestration at play? Did it involve people, interactions and technology (in the form of mind-boggling lights, mechanics and engineering)? The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic YES.


The White Rabbit art car

But inherent in Thomas’s articulation, as in our standard definition of a brand promise, is the notion of delivering on a pre-conceived expectation. And for me, the pure magic of Burning Man isn’t in the expected. It’s actually the lack of expectation, or rather the discovery of the unexpected and unknown, that makes the real Burning Man experience so profound and irreplaceable.

Which begs the dubious question, can a brand promise ever rest on the notion that you never know what you’re getting?

To add to the branding issue, there are also some unfortunate developments to report this year that were truly dilutive to, and perhaps a symptom of, something that was never meant to be branded. A widespread ring of bike thefts (including mine), unheard of in years past. A noticeable population of attendees, clearly paying top-dollar to stay at controversial “turnkey” camps, who looked laughably out of place riding their Segways across the Playa in full-length, real-fur coats. A state trooper presence so intense that the police now hide in fake art cars and view parties from afar with night vision goggles.


The ritual burning of Burning Man

Make no mistake: The Burning Man brand is at a crossroads, and the founding spirit of the event is in jeopardy. But to be fair, has there ever actually been a Burning Man brand? Or rather, is the unwitting “branding” of the event (i.e., growing popularity leading to widespread, formalized expectations) really the cause of these distasteful developments?

Because at its core, Burning Man is also defined by some pretty fundamental tensions. Is the principle of self-reliance diametrically opposed to a culture of gifting? Can walking around naked really be considered creative self-expression?

And here’s the big one… Can a festival that prides itself on universal inclusion legitimately exclude people who choose to observe from the distance of their luxury camps like tourists, instead of interacting with, contributing to and learning from the experience?

 It comes down to this: If additional restrictions aren’t put in place, Burning Man will become something it’s not (although clearly that’s been happening ever since a couple of guys burned that first effigy on a San Francisco beach in 1986). Yet implementing those restrictions would also be going against much of what the festival stands for.

If this all sounds remarkably familiar, it’s the dilemma that virtually every successful brand goes through at some point in its lifecycle. The difference, of course, is that Burning Man enjoys the benefit of not having to compromise to commercialism.

So my advice for the festival is to consider these tensions as just another set of variables that adds to the one-of-a-kind intrigue that has always defined the event. The only thing Burning Man can do is stay true to who it is, and the more it adheres to this principle, the more I believe expectations will remain beautifully and consistently undefined.

In other words, perhaps some experiences are best left un-branded. As for me, I’m already looking forward to not knowing what to expect next year…

Andreas Ruggie is an associate strategist for Siegel+Gale’s New York office.

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