How Brands Saved Houston's Flood-Ridden Free Press Summer Festival

Calvin Harris
Julian Bajsel/Free Press Summer Festival 

At first, the extensive flooding of Houston, Texas on May 26 (where homes and major highways were enveloped by as much as 11 inches of rain) seemed likely to derail plans for the seventh annual Free Press Festival, set to take place in Houston June 6 and 7.

Originally scheduled for Eleanor Tinsley Park, which was severely impacted by the floods, the festival had just 10 days, 75 bands and over 35,000 paying ticketholders a day -- to relocate. Headliners include Skrillex, R. Kelly and Weezer, with additional showcase performances from the likes of Steve Angello, Major Lazer, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, St. Vincent, The Decemberists, Flume, Belle and Sebastian, Mastodon, Chance the Rapper, Tears for Fears, Band of Horses and Welcome to Houston featuring Bun B throughout the weekend.

But on May 29, shortly after the concrete NRG Park (adjacent to the city’s famed Astrodome) came onboard as the festival’s new venue, all 15 of the festival’s sponsor brands followed (as well as four partner companies), including blue-chip companies like Verizon Wireless, Anheuser-Busch, Taco Bell, Ford, Monster Energy, PlayStation, Xfinity, Kroger and Reliant, whose parent company NRG happens to have naming rights of NRG Stadium. Not only did the companies maintain their spend (cumulatively valued in the mid-seven figures), Anheuser Busch, Verizon and booking company The Windish Agency all confirmed plans to contribute to a charitable fund to aid families affected by the Houston floods. 

“We always talk about sponsorship being a two-way street, and it’s moments and situations like this that test that to the limit,” says Matt Ringel, managing partner of New Era Marketing at Red Light Management, whose festival production arm Starr Hill Presents is one of the festival’s three main producers. “Having to make that call and say, ‘Listen, we’ve been dealt a hand here by Mother Nature and we need to do something drastic. And you spent months working on it, and now we’re asking you to join us and turn on a dime and change it all up, now we need you to say yes.’ It’s amazing that companies, as big as they are, can turn around and do things like that.”

Sicily Dickenson, chief marketing officer for NRG Energy, says the last-minute switch wasn’t a huge inconvenience for the NRG Stadium, which didn’t have another event on the calendar this weekend. “It worked out perfectly, and we saw it as a great experiential branding opportunity. This is not a hard-sell for us, because selling invisible electrons is not the sexiest business, but if you think about how charging our phones and electronics extends into our everyday lives now, it helps start a conversation around the kinds of solutions people look to us for.”

Having an enhanced experiential push also appealed to Krista Bourne, president of Verizon’s Houston/Gulf Coast region, who will monitor activity via the brand's hashtag "#FPSFMoments" throughout the weekend on social media. “The number one priority in any event like this is to make sure people have a reliable connection, and we’ll have our network team monitoring the site to make sure connections are healthy and the capacity stays up to our standards,” she says. “We’re also securing dollars for the city’s fund right now, it’s just another way for us to be a good citizen and partner as the community is trying to heal itself.”