Burning Man, the brand: The man, the myth, the legend (Part 1)

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It’s that time of year again—the dog days of summer, the last week of August, the calm before the storm. New Yorkers hit the Hamptons, Bostonians migrate to the Cape. All across the country, we seek those final, relaxing days of refuge and solace before Labor Day marks the return to reality.

But for 50,000 brave, adventure-seeking souls, the return to reality might take a little longer. For every year since the mid-‘80s, some of us have chosen to seek that refuge by spending seven days together in the dry, desolate expanse of northwestern Nevada known as Black Rock Desert, with extreme weather conditions and access to nothing other than what we bring in. Camps are built, costumes are worn, unicycles are ridden, art and music are made, stuff is bartered, stuff is gifted, stuff is burned, religion is found, and after a week of magic and mystery, not a single trace is ever left.

This is Burning Man. And with the official 2012 kickoff already in full swing, I’ve decided to check an item off my bucket list and attend for the first time to see for myself what all the rumors are about.

Burning Man

To be honest, I barely know a thing about it beyond what I’ve just described, and have almost no idea what to expect. So as an experiential brand experiment, I’ve vowed to keep it that way. The scant information that I have is based solely on hearsay, most of which ends up sounding something like, “It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there.” According to the official website, Burning Man is simply described as “an annual art event and temporary community based on radical self-expression and self-reliance.”

Sounds intriguing, right?

But equally intriguing for me is the side story that as the festival has grown over the years, so too has the original experience been diluted. Strike up a conversation with a hard-core “burner,” and it’s hard to avoid hearing about how the event has gotten too big, too controlled, too commercial.

The controversy leading up to this year’s event was particularly heightened, as this was the first time that ticketing was shifted from first-come, first-served to an open lottery format. As a result, it is estimated that instead of the roughly 15% newcomers that usually attend, this year will see over 50% first-time faces.

One of which, of course, will be mine. But will it really matter? Can best-kept secrets only last for so long? When the population changes, can the tradition survive? When the insiders-only brand goes mainstream, can the original experience be maintained? Or will restrictions have to be put in place to save the future of the Man?

I’ll be there with an old-timer who can offer me some comparative insights, and I’ll tell you all about the reality (or lack thereof) of the experience next month upon my return (assuming I do return) in Part Two of my series.

Until then, wish me luck!

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

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