Selling the Summerfest Brands

There’s no escaping advertising campaigns at the Big Gig.

As thick fog rolled in off Lake Michigan just before the Jennifer Lopez concert this week at Summerfest, an eerie sensation crept over the festival grounds.

Was it the chill in the air? Was it the unsettling blend of random thumping drums and thundering bass colliding with screeching guitar solos escaping from an assortment of unseen stages? Or was it because I felt like I was about to star as a debonair detective in a foggy film noir movie, where I’d have to rescue a 50-year-old singer and dancer from the Bronx who goes by the name of Jenny from the Block, about to fall into a sinister plot involving a Lake Michigan freighter loaded with bootlegged cases of Spotted Cow beer set to a soundtrack involving lots of seagulls and a lonely foghorn. (I wish!)

Then, I realized what had me off balance. The all-encompassing advertising blitz at Summerfest had been swallowed up by the mysterious mist. The soup-like fog had enveloped the signs promoting everything from Harley-Davidson motorcycles to U.S. Cellular phones, from Klement’s sausages to American Family Insurance.

The thousands of signs promoting Miller Lite and Coors Light were nowhere in sight.

It was disconcerting. But it also was liberating

Summerfest, long known for its music and beer, is a marketing powerhouse. You can’t escape advertising, which permeates every inch of the 75 acres of Summerfest. Well, perhaps the bathrooms are off limits. Anyone who has seen the soggy floors and clogged toilets after 10 p.m., realizes no sponsor would want to be associated with that mess.

Wait. Now that I think about it, I do remember reading an ad from a toilet manufacturer one night at one of the fancier Summerfest urinals about how innovative that particular water-saving device is.

No escape, I tell you.

Three years ago, I did a little research for a marketing study on Summerfest. I counted 235 Miller Lite signs around the Miller Lite stage. And that was just at one stage. And those were just the signs. It didn’t include the thousands of Miller Lite cans, T-shirts, and other marketing paraphernalia.

Summerfest is without a doubt a tremendous marketing opportunity. One economic study said Summerfest contributes $225 million to Milwaukee’s economy each year.

And it does give the opportunity for local corporations like Harley-Davidson and Briggs & Stratton to earn some love back from the community. And nobody does that better than beer companies. Obviously, the Miller Coors folks still put a lot of marketing muscle into Summerfest. And at $9 for a can of beer, they get a lot of profitable love in return.

The bands also take notice of the mass marketing. When I did that earlier study, the New Pornographers, amid complaining about the noise from a nearby stage where Paris Hilton was disc jockeying, also noted the beer marketing. “Is it impossible to avoid Miller Lite signs here?” asked lead singer and main songwriter A.C. Newman. As he looked up at the large Miller Lite Can backdrop, the crowd cheered and jeered. “I feel like I’m speaking sacrilege here.”

At this year’s concert by The National at the Miller Lite Oasis, band leader Matt Berninger also went into a rage over all the Miller Lite signs, mistakenly claiming he was seeing them flying in the air (the Skyglider is home to a different sponsor). He then blamed extraterrestrials for making Miller Lite. “Don’t drink it,” he said, spewing vulgarities against corporate beer.

While less easy to measure sans beer sales, other sponsors also supposedly get a sizeable return on investment — American Family perhaps sells more insurance, Harley sells more motorcycles, the Gruber law firm gets more litigants and defendants, and Uline sells more of whatever it is that company sells.

As a longtime former journalist in Wisconsin, I somehow over the years convinced my editors to let me attend several opening days on the newspapers’ dimes to write about Summerfest. So, I’ve sat through many an opening ceremony and listened to countless politicians and Summerfest officials talk about drinking responsibly and having fun. Then they also always thank a seemingly endless stream of corporate and media sponsors.

The list was so long this year, the emcee, Meg McKenzie of WOKY Radio, had to remind people a couple of times where they were in the alphabet. “We’re at the U’s, so almost done.”

Finally, after several officials, including a top corporate official from Miller, teased the crowd they would have a toast, beers were passed out — but only to the dignitaries on stage. One year, I remember they actually passed out cans of Miller Lite to the commoners in the crowd who suffered through the long opening ceremonies in tremendous heat. That was fun — until my kids almost got trampled by middle-aged women pushing past them to get a free can of beer.

While politicians like Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers toasted on stage, the crowd slinked out of their own seats rather dejected. They got free Summerfest weekday tickets earlier, but there’s nothing like a free beer. It would definitely have helped the crowd forget about the incessant bombardment of marketing all day long at Summerfest.

If only a thick fog had rolled in to obscure the free beer going to the privileged few.

Well, at least the kids were safe.

Kris Kodrich is a journalism professor at Colorado State University. Having grown up in Milwaukee, Kris has been attending Summerfest since the beginning – 1968, to be exact, when his mom took him as a kid to what eventually became the world’s largest music festival. Kris has been hooked ever since and finds a way to return each summer, now with his own kids.