For four decades, the Country Music Assn. Music Festival has attracted fans annually to Nashville with the promise of an overload of music and the chance to interact one-on-one with the artists who make it.
In turn, the CMA's biggest attraction to potential sponsors is now the opportunity to interact one-on-one - not with the artists, but with the fans.
During the CMA festival, set for June 7-10, some 20 brands will market through the event for the first time, including such companies as Pepsi, Jelly Belly, Hunt Brothers Pizza and Emerald Coast Vacations.
The glue is the artist lineup: Jason Aldean, Zac Brown Band, Miranda Lambert, Scotty McCreery, Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts are just a handful of the more than 100 acts slated for a variety of stages in the downtown area. Those artists have all built fan bases with significant numbers of college students and teenagers-in addition to country's traditional 25-54 demographic - and with 65,000-plus people present each day in one spot, it's an ideal setting for corporate partners to engage potential customers.
"It's one of the legs of the [marketing] stool," says Denise Conroy-Galley, senior VP of marketing and creative services for Scripps Networks Interactive Home Category. She is bringing HGTV, DIY Network and the Travel Channel to the festival with the HGTV Lodge.
"We do a lot of traditional advertising, we do a lot of sponsorships, but this is really getting in touch with consumers, getting to speak with them," she says. "It's different. It gives you a deeper understanding."
Just attending the festival isn't enough. Concentrated in a 14-block section of downtown Nashville and in the city's football stadium across the Cumberland River, the site already has numerous built-in attractions, including restaurants, tattoo parlors, clothing stores and a plethora of Lower Broadway bars. The festival adds nine performance sites, a host of fan-club parties, several benefit concerts with surprise guests and an exhibit hall where fans can obtain photos and autographs from the stars.
In addition, the CMA is introducing a BMI Tailgate Party outside LP Field that provides music from a mix of new acts, songwriters and ace musicians, including Kristen Kelly, Chuck Mead, guitarists Kenny Vaughan and Al Anderson and songwriters Dallas Davidson, Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip. The BMI party, slipped into a previously sparse time slot, guarantees there's something to occupy a festival-goer every waking minute.
With all that activity, the marketing partners must have compelling reasons for fans to spend time with them.
"We do ask the brands to come in and create something that feels organic and natural to a fan so that it doesn't feel like we're putting on a trade show where there are people sampling for sampling's sake," CMA senior VP of marketing and communications Sheri Warnke says. "It's creating some kind of environment."
Thus, at least two of the new partners are using one of the intrinsic, natural features of the event - summer heat - to their advantage. Nashville's average temperature at the time of the festival will be 84-85 degrees, but the thermostat has gone as high as 99 degrees in that period. The HGTV Lodge offers an escape from the sun with music at an indoor stage and an appearance by Vanilla Ice, who hosts the DIY Network home makeover show "The Vanilla Ice Project." Scripps will serve cups of ice and a variety of beverages, and the rapper is expected to perform, possibly with hick-hop artist Cowboy Troy.
Odd as it may seem to have Vanilla Ice at a CMA festival, plenty of country fans who are now 40 - right in the center of his show's target audience - count "Ice Ice Baby" as part of their childhood.
"Country music's really evolved over the last couple decades," Scripps' Conroy-Galley says. "It's much more expansive and broader than it used to be, so even if you're a die-hard country fan, everybody knows who Vanilla Ice is."
BIC Soleil will likewise turn the heat into a positive with the introduction of the Soleil Bella Beach. The CMA is importing sand to turn Hall of Fame Park into a temporary resort with lounge chairs, cabanas, picnic tables, misting tents and a volleyball court. The site will target females ages 18-34 (potential users of the BIC Soleil razor) and host performances.
The CMA festival is one of at least seven music gatherings that BIC will attend this year. The event dovetails with traditional advertising campaigns and represents one of numerous stops for the company's Sunshine Squad, a promotional team that travels in a yellow convertible and looks for unusual ways to engage potential consumers.
"The festival gives us an opportunity to really have an immersive experience for consumers," BIC Shavers senior brand manager Linda Palladino says. "They're not just hearing about us on the radio [or] seeing an ad in a magazine - they're able to actually come and feel the brand."
The Soleil stage offers a mix of newcomers and veterans - Bucky Covington, Eric Paslay, Miss Willie Brown, Jaida Dreyer, Gene Watson and Mockingbird Sun, among them - all of whom will be aiming to make a connection with the audience.
And marketers will attempt to make their own connection, while enhancing an event that annually generates more than $20 million for the city's economy, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"The format is hot," Warnke says. "Whether people hear country music on a country radio station or see it on 'Good Morning America' or watch Blake Shelton on 'The Voice,' it's hot, and brands want to engage those fans."