Backbeat: Essence Festival Draws Blue Chip Sponsors for Record-Setting 19th Year

Essence Communications president Michelle Ebanks kicks off the 19th annual festival at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans

Now in its 19th year, the Essence Festival has often described as an event “you just need to see to believe.” The three-day conference and concert festival is massive in scale — it’s attracted more than 400,000 people over three days for years now, and this year is on track to log in excess of a record 450,000 attendees who will spend upwards of a combined $20 million that will benefit the city of New Orleans. It has attracted R&B and soul’s biggest names (Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Prince and, this year, Beyonce) as its headliners over the years, with countless acts from the '70s, '80s, '90s and today gracing the festival’s many stages.

A DJ spins Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison” at the Walmart booth

But it also doubles as a mass marketing tentpole for over a dozen blue-chip sponsors — many of whom have been advertising with the festival for at least seven years and often longer. The brands’ presence at the free programming in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is so massive that the venue morphs into a surreal type of mall — one where they set up pop-up shops for free product sampling that double as concert venues. Many African-American women, the festival’s target audience, are spotted throughout the entire weekend toting the sponsors’ free gift bags as if they were new Hermes totes. Artists like Doug E. Fresh and Fantasia played gratis concerts on a stage surrounded by a makeshift McDonald’s storefront. A DJ played new jack swing from a platform built around a mock-up of the Walmart electronics department. Verizon Wireless had extensive product demos and free giveaways, asking fans to tweet pictures with their devices and use branded hashtags. First-time media partner and sponsor MSNBC had on-air talent like Rev. Al Sharpton and Chris Matthews stop by for meet-and-greets with attendees. Both McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble’s My Black Is Beautiful taped events that would be televised for the first time on BET later this month. And just past the entrance, presenting sponsor Coca-Cola had hundreds of men, women and even a few kids dancing to an interactive workout routine, dubbed Move, Groove and Enjoy.

Fantasia (far right) performs hits from her new album Side Effects Of You at the McDonald’s booth Sunday afternoon

Such blatant branding would be instantly ridiculed at a festival like South By Southwest or Coachella, similarly gigantic music festivals where branding is still met with a degree of skepticism. But not Essence. It’s the type of event that is not only a top priority for senior marketers’ full-year plans, but their personal social calendars too. Many marketers who spoke with Backbeat said they were staying through the whole weekend to see performers like Charlie Wilson and Beyonce.

Lauventria Robinson, VP of multicultural marketing at Coca-Cola, has been coming to Essence for the past five years, while Coke has been involved since the festival’s inception in 1994. Though she was excited for Coke’s many health and wellness initiatives, which were focused around the portfolio’s lower-calorie beverages like Fuze and Coke Zero, she couldn’t wait to see Jill Scott Friday night. “I usually see her in small venues, so I’m anxious to see her vibe in a big venue,” she said.

Ditto Shawn Thompson, multicultural marketing manager for Ford Motor Company, Essence’s exclusive automotive sponsor since 2008. “Sunday is my first wedding anniversary, so her song ‘So In Love’ was my first dance and will have special meaning to me. I’ll pretend it’s just Jill signing to the two of us.”

The packed show floor on opening day

Though Essence’s concerts at the Super Dome are only three days, the programming around the festival continues to expand. A first-time Family Day on July 4 brought an additional 52,000 people to the festival, with free programming and fireworks all day provided by key sponsors like Coke and Walmart. The latter sponsor has also partnered with the festival for a series of Road To Essence concerts for the past three years — including one this year at the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas that featured performances from Essence acts like Maxwell and Trey Songz.

Essence president Michelle Ebanks (left) and Lauventria Robinson, VP of multicultural marketing at presenting sponsor Coca-Cola

“We’re building brand loyalty with people we know have an affinity for this brand,” said Sharonda L. Britton, director of multicultural marketing for Walmart who noted that store traffic to markets with high African-American population is a key metric when evaluating its Essence sponsorship. “Because we’ve been doing Road to Essence for several years now, we can compare year-over-year and continue to see strong results.”

Coca-Cola’s Swelter Stopper, a traveling bus with A/C set to 30 degrees and free beverages to help festival attendees beat the heat, parked outside across the street from the Convention Center. Free Fuze, Coke Zero and Sprite Zero beverages were also being handed out at various stops within a mile radius of the convention

And look for an even bigger spectacle in 2014, when Essence turns 20. “We are working with our marketing partners and with the mayor [of New Orleans] and the state of Louisiana to create what will be a festival celebration appropriate of the anniversary,” Ebanks said, noting that artist negotiations have also begun as well.