I Survived Burning Man: How This Temporary City is a Marketers Dream
February 02, 2018

I Survived Burning Man: How This Temporary City is a Marketers Dream

I'm not the type to wait in long lines for concert tickets or to pounce at the chance to phone in a Ticketmaster launch. That's not my style. But here I await — with much anticipation — the 2018 Burning Man presale tickets. They go in minutes, so I must act quickly. As I watch the clock tick-tick-tick, my mind wanders to last August when I had my "virgin Burner" experience. Here's my tale from a marketer's perspective…

I learned about Burning Man last year through a documentary. My impression was that it was a naked hippie, drug-induced event in Northern Nevada where you explore art across a vast, empty desert and self-express through fashion and performance. The art aspect intrigued me, and I fell in love with how a giant art festival can attract 70,000 people to the middle of nowhere in the dry, harsh, hot desert. I knew there had to be something to this if Elon Musk never misses it. So, when my artist friend, Etty, asked me if I would join her as a guest of Burning Man's co-founder, Crimson Rose, I immediately obliged. Because of the harsh conditions, it's ill-advised to attend Burning Man alone. I figured it was better to have two, inexperienced female campers surviving the harsh desert. And who would pass up free tickets to meet the founder of this must-attend event?

Crimson Rose at Burning Man in 1991

Crimson Rose in 1991 — She is now known as the fire starter for the Conclave and is responsible for creating the Art Department at Burning Man. (Photo displayed at Nevada Museum of Art)

I couldn't say "no." Travel is an adventure, and with every adventure comes opportunity. People from across the world vie for the chance to score one of only 70,000 tickets sold.


Hot Stuff  Marketing Pro-Tip #1: Putting limits on your product creates desire through exclusivity.

Burning Man has Ten Guiding Principles for safety and survival, and to build a sense of community and order. The State of Nevada even made an arrangement with the Burning Man founders in 1997 to control the population during this one-week period. The solution? A temporary Black Rock City is established during the event in an effort to protect and preserve the land and its environment; not to mention that, through an effort called Matter Out of Place (MOOP), no trace of the event remains afterward.

Original photograph taken by Karen Kuehn of Black Rock City LLC Founders

Original photograph taken by Karen Kuehn of Black Rock City LLC Founders, Will Roger Peterson, Crimson Rose, Michael Mikel, Larry Harvey, Harley K. Dubois and Marian Goodell, 2013. (Photo displayed at Nevada Museum of Art)

Hot Info  Marketing Pro-Tip #2: Always be good environmental stewards — that's good mojo and good publicity.

So, on August 30, Etty and I flew to Reno. Our adventure began after a small squabble with the car rental attendant who provided us a black Lincoln Navigator with California plates. (This would later be a point of contention with our fellow campers). The Lincoln became our home on wheels — the reported 140-mile-an-hour dust storms that frequent the northwestern Great Basin desert at a moment's notice meant a tent was not an option. The easy, two-hour drive became a four-hour wait in a very long car line at the final entry point. There, friendly volunteers welcomed us "home" after we fibbed about our "virgin" status.

Our Lincoln Navigator fit well inside the camp located at 6:45 and Breath.

Our Lincoln Navigator fit well inside the camp located at 6:45 and Breath.

Hot Info Marketing Pro-Tip #3: Always make your customers feel like family.

The temporary city's grid system is mapped like the face of an analog clock. Our specified campsite was located at 6:45 and Breath, challenging to find as we drove back and forth between campsites, distracted by people yelling at our clean car. Eventually, we found our campsite flanked by four large trailers and Winnebago's. Our campers told us days later that their first impressions of two blondes driving a Lincoln Navigator with California plates immediately called our authenticity into question. But, all that changed when we greeted them with boxes of chardonnay.

1996 original grid system city design on the left, and 2017 map on the right

1996 original grid system city design on the left, and 2017 map on the right. (Maps courtesy of Crimson Rose)

Time was running out to enjoy Crimson's party at First Camp. Although First Camp is just like any other working camp, it felt exclusive to be able to attend a gathering with Crimson. So, we stumbled our way through the city until we found it. A handful of bizarrely dressed people warmly welcomed us to the second-story lookout platform atop a system of storage containers. There were only a few chairs and a small table piled high with potluck dishes and large coolers of margaritas and lemonade—made by Crimson herself, we were told. Crimson was a beautiful woman with soulful eyes, full of grace and completely in her element—a true woman of the Playa. I asked her if, when she first became a part of the Burning Man establishment, she ever imagined the event would be as big as it had become. She looked out onto the sunset with a glint in her eye, shook her head and simply said, "No, I never dreamed it!" As we left, I gifted Crimson Rose with a sugar skull necklace I had made, then descended the elevated platform. I couldn't help but think I was leaving the Playa's Royal Palace. It truly was an honor to be a guest at First Camp.


Hot Info Marketing Pro-Tip #4: Pomp and circumstance is not always needed as long as you treat your customers with kindness and attention.

Camp Center is completely constructed and decorated by volunteers.

The oasis in the desert, Camp Center is completely constructed and decorated by volunteers.

Hot Info  Marketing Pro-Tip #5: It's okay to start small, as long as you always dream big.

Next, we ventured on foot to experience the Playa, a 1.5-mile radius from the Camp Center specifically designed for art installations. Knowing we would barely make a dent in what we wanted to see that night (the entire city is approximately the size of San Francisco), we headed out to visit the "Man" effigy at Playa's center, housed in a beautiful wood temple. From there, we walked along the Esplanade and took in the energy of the city's edge, where the action would primarily take place and the more expensive campsites sat. I couldn't help but think that this is what the club scene is like on some distant planet—a gathering of all, where no single alien is judged and all are honored as the stranger, the better. The same applies to the campsites— everything from open-air rollerskating discos to gorgeous tent and tee-pee structures that look like they belong in a Cirque du Soleil performance. The goal is expressionism at its freest, and the more beautiful and bizarre, the better. While money is anathema at Burning Man (everything is "gifted"), big business is done here amid the music, food, drinks and performances.

The Man is burned to the ground Saturday evening at the end of festival.

The Man is burned to the ground Saturday evening at the end of festival. Pictured is Etty Horowitz (L) and myself (R).

Hot Info Marketing Pro-Tip #6: Entertain your prospects through unforgettable experiences. The brand commitment will come more naturally, even if it's later.

It was true, what I'd read—the first day of Burning Man was stimulation overload and sleep was elusive. The city's pulse was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and with a city of people celebrating together, the energy was endless and overwhelming, only slowing slightly after sunrise.

The next morning, after only a couple of hours sleep, we downed iced coffee and headed out for a Discovery adventure of the Playa's very best art, led by our tour guide Maria Partridge, Burning Man's Artist Advocate. While the Honorariums (72 projects) were selected and managed by several other project managers, Maria oversaw around 230 self-funded artists whose art projects were chosen to be installed on the Playa. She blew us away with her intimate art knowledge as she recited the titles of every piece, how each was created and the stories of the artists who oversaw them.


Hot Info Marketing Pro-Tip #7: Know your product, have it memorized and speak about it enthusiastically.

Many sculptures and installations are the cornerstones of the Burning Man Arts program.

Many sculptures and installations are the cornerstones of the Burning Man Arts program, which supports artists through grants, mentorship and art management programs. Many are oversized and interactive, and must withstand the elements of Playa dust, wind and extreme temperatures.

Adding to Burning Man's intrigue, one regular practice by many of the artists is to set their artwork on fire as a final form of expression. This impermanence, while atypical in the art world, follows the cleansing revelry of the final burn of the city's Temple to honor losses and move forward in life. The 2017 Temple, the largest scale art project on the Playa, was built by two architects and one structural engineer, Steven Brummond, Marisha Farnsworth and Mark Sinclair, who were leads on temples designed by world-renowned sculptor David Best.

After nearly three hours of touring the Playa, we returned to camp and borrowed bikes to cover more ground on a city excursion, stopping after our first of several, minor bike crashes to participate in a techno, DJ-driven yoga dance. Run by an edgy, California-based yoga studio, we danced to Sanskrit choreographed yoga, placing "energy" in our seven chakras to help us last the rest of the day.


Hot Info Marketing Pro-Tip #8: Change the status quo and surprise your prospects by combining the unexpected with the sublime, like techno yoga and art that goes up in flames.

Art cars are important for showy, party transportation.

Art cars are important for showy, party transportation and must follow strict design guidelines as provided by the Department of Mutant Vehicles.

Camp Center truly was an oasis in the desert—a communal place to rest and cool off, watch expressive dancers, yogis or artists conduct live painting sessions, listen to poetry readings and philosophical teachings and, most importantly, people-watch. The interactions within the camps were equally as creative and entertaining as those in the Playa. As the sun set, Black Rock City vibrated with everything from jazz clubs, museums and art participation centers to acrobatic performances and poetry creation tents.

The Burning Man experience is about trying new things in a city where the impossible becomes possible; it's about meeting people from every corner of the world and all walks of life. If you've dreamed it, it's probably there, waiting in a corner for you to stumble upon it.

Left: The only money spent at Burning Man is on coffee, tea and ice. Right: My fellow campers and I take a break from the 100-degree weather.

Left: The only money spent at Burning Man is on coffee, tea and ice. Right: My fellow campers and I take a break from the 100-degree weather.

Hot Info Marketing Pro-Tip #9: Always think outside the box with what you deliver, but never forget to give your customers what they came for.

As a marketer, attending Burning Man was a dream come true. It's why some of the most innovative minds and the richest people in the world find a place at Burning Man. Regulars there are famous fashion models and DJs, movie stars and socialites like Paris Hilton, even top CEOs and execs.

At Burning Man, there are no limits. The experience is like Las Vegas. The difference is, this city is built by the residents, and it transforms into a unique place every year because of the magic they bring.

The more than 700 Jewish attendees at Shabbat dinner were delightfully surprised by this dragon mutant car when YHWH was named during prayer.

The more than 700 Jewish attendees at Shabbat dinner were delightfully surprised by this dragon mutant car when YHWH was named during prayer.

Cheers,
Jennifer Henderson
President and Founder of J.O.