Sundance Struggles With Brand Saturation

Film Festival's Official Sponsors Lost Among Marketers' Pursuit of Trendsetters

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LOS ANGELES -- Delta Air Lines has long been the official airline partner of the Sundance Film Festival, but that title may easily have been lost on attendees courted by other marketers throwing lavish parties or sponsoring lodges, lounges and swag-filled gifting suites.
Photo: AP
Park City's Main Street is gearing up for the Sundance Film Festival and the onslaught of brands that are in search of trendsetters.

So what's a sponsor to do? How about spend more money to get noticed.

That's exactly what Delta and other official Sundance partners are doing at this year's event, which takes place Jan. 18-27 in Park City, Utah.

Delta's two-story Sky Lodge

Delta, which has been a Sundance sponsor for nearly a decade, will have its first venue at the festival with the Delta Sky Lodge, a two-story space on Main Street that will show off "key brand elements" of the airline, executives said. Those include the carrier's in-flight entertainment system, all-leather business and first-class seats, as well as cocktails by Rande Gerber, to be launched in the spring, and skin-care products by Lather. The lodge will also serve as a setting to host premiere parties and concerts, as well as the WireImage Portrait Studio.

"We're very happy to have a one-on-one interaction with this community, which we've not done before," said Rachael Seeger, Delta's regional manager of the West and Midwest for sponsorships and brand activation. "Our whole strategy in the past has been to support the community and leverage the partnership and let people know we really do support them. This year, we wanted to take a different approach. We have a lot of really great things to talk about as a company in the midst of our transformation. Sundance provides us with an opportunity to reach a unique audience -- an affluent, well-connected kind of consumer and let them experience Delta. It directly hits the New York and L.A. consumer."

A smaller film competition

The airline hired Gen Art, a New York-based organizer of independent film festivals, fashion shows and other events, to program the lodge's activities. The company also organized "Delta's Fly-In Movies," a short-film competition that launched in December on and on board the airline's planes, in which five filmmakers compete to win a trip to Sundance and have their winning short be shown on flights throughout the first half of 2007. The winner will be announced Jan. 24 at a party, hosted by actor Bobby Cannavale ("Fast Food Nation"), in Delta's lodge at Sundance.

Gen Art, which also works to connect companies such as Acura, American Express, Diageo and Lipton with emerging artists, began working with Delta in September. "They had the general concept of wanting to do something with their in-flight entertainment system," said Ian Gerard, CEO and co-founder of Gen Art. Through that, the short-film competition was born, and Gen Art's involvement grew to booking events for the lodge and organizing a party for the competition. "They were looking to expand upon their position at Sundance and make a much wider audience aware of their alignment with independent film."

Delta's not alone. Volkswagen, Sundance's official auto partner, is also planning to up its efforts this year. Its strategy is to "create a better experience for the filmmakers and all of the movies' fans," said Heidi Korte, Volkswagen of America's brand promotions manager. "We're doing some things that are meaningful."

VW's award for filmmakers

Those include the "Relentless Drive Award," which will run the stories of seven filmmakers in the Sundance Daily Insider. VW owners will vote on the most compelling story, and the winning filmmaker will receive the use of a VW for a year.

The automaker will again have its VW headquarters on Main Street, where filmmakers and talent can hang out, dine on "V&W" alphabet soup and pick up silkscreen commemorative Sundance T-shirts. The company will also reward VW owners with free swag.

In addition to shuttling filmmakers, talent and even film prints to theaters in its various cars and trucks, VW will also offer 30-minute test drives in its Touareg SUV on a snow-covered mountain course. VW will donate money to the Sundance Institute's music lab for every person who takes a ride. It last offered test drives at Sundance in 2004.

Ironically, as more marketers are trying to connect with stars, VW will actually try to steer clear of the celebrity circuit this year, and focus more on the independent filmmakers looking to get noticed by Hollywood.

"This year we decided to focus on creating memorable experiences for filmmakers and festival attendees and not just celebrities," Ms. Korte said. "We wanted to go back to our roots of why we're there to begin with. It's easy to lose sight of what Sundance is all about due to the onslaught of celebrities. For Volkswagen, it was important to take a step back and say this is who our audience is -- people passionate about movies and filmmakers who pour their lifeblood into bringing their films to life."

The sponsors have no choice but to increase their presence in order to compete with all of the other brands that have ambushed the festival without Sundance's stamp of approval. Companies such as Airborne, American Eagle, Bon Appetite magazine, Budweiser Select, DC Shoes, ESPN, Evian, General Motors Corp., Hanes, Heineken, Motorola, MySpace, Neutrogena, T-Mobile and XanGo, among others.

Slapping a logo everywhere

And those brands are everywhere, with high-profile storefronts, lodges or lounges on Main Street or at the Village at the Lift, adding to the confusion of who is an official sponsor and who's not.

The brand proliferation has gotten so bad that the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit group that has organized the festival for the past 23 years, calls the unofficial sponsors "parasite marketers."

"It's painful for us that a lot of brands ride on the coattails of a nonprofit," said Elizabeth Daly, director of strategic development at the Sundance Institute. "We don't want to compromise anyone's free speech, and they're free to market during the festival, so there's not a lot we can do about them."

Institute executives, faced with a growing proliferation of brands, are trying to draw more of a distinction between the unofficial and the official sponsors of the film festival. Those that go the official route pay low to high six figures to do so, signing minimum three-year deals to garner preferential status during the festival and use the Sundance trademarks all year long for contest and consumer outreach. They have access to Sundance venues where films are shown, filmmakers and talent, and tickets for their consumers and vendors.

The festival typically draws 50,000 people to the snowy hamlet for a week and a half of films, parties, live music and VIP experiences.

The institute allows 25 official sponsors, and this year's lineup is in many ways a redo from years past. In addition to Delta and VW, Hewlett-Packard, Adobe, Ray Ban sunglasses, Turning Leaf wine and Absolut vodka are sponsors.

But not everyone feels the need to spend the coin for the official status.

Mike Belcher, director of sponsorships and entertainment marketing for T-Mobile, said the marketer has considered becoming an official sponsor but found during its initial foray into Sundance last year that it wasn't necessary. T-Mobile has a cafe set up at Village at the Lift where it will show off its product line to festival-goers. (Read our interview with Mr. Belcher in this week's People & Players.)

Festival newcomers

But more marketers keep coming. Newcomers this year include ZonePerfect nutrition bars and American Eagle Outfitters, which will host the aerie spa, offering attendees manicures, pedicures and massages, as well as provide VIPs with the company's new line of Aerie dorm-wear clothing. American Eagle will also sponsor the White Out Party on Jan. 20, at a location dubbed the Saturn Outlook (named after the automaker's new crossover) at the Village at the Lift, during which 30 Seconds to Mars will perform.

The retailer, which targets 15- to 25-year-olds, wanted to be at Sundance this year in order to be part of what the company considers a "trendsetting and style-setting event in the cultural vernacular," and to bring the festival to its customers.

"Even if you can't go to Sundance, you will see 30 Seconds to Mars on or clips in stores," said Kathy Savitt, exec VP-chief marketing officer of American Eagle Outfitters. "Movies and consuming media is the No. 1 activity that our customer loves to do in their spare time. Our customer is who helped make 'Napoleon Dynamite' or 'Garden State' hits. [They're] reading the blogs, reading In Style or Teen Vogue or People or Seventeen or Entertainment Weekly. And just because the college kid won't take off classes to go [to Sundance] doesn't mean it's not interesting to them."

Official or not, advertisers have a lot to gain from being at Sundance, marketers say.

Perfect place for experiential marketing

"As brands get more and more interested in nontraditional marketing, it's the perfect place to be laser focused," said Chris Robichaud, president, BNC Marketing and Public Relations, which organizes the brand-themed Village at the Lift. "Brands want the kind of experiential marketing that can be done there."

In an effort to play nice and possibly appease Sundance's organizers, a number of unofficial sponsors have bulked up their pro-social messages at this year's festival. GM's Saturn brand will offer transportation around town with its VUE Green Line Hybrid SUV and plans celebrity readings to local kids and other literacy programs. Philips, as it has in years past, is setting up a lounge at Village at the Lift to show off its interactive gaming and LED lighting, in addition to raising funds for the American Heart Association. Neutrogena, as part of its alliance with the American Cancer Society, is promoting skin cancer prevention awareness and raising money for skin-cancer research.
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