Festival Fever

Festival Fever
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The Sydney Festival is a brand on the move. While most brands rely on consistency of messaging to build brand strength, the relevance and fortitude of Sydney’s premiere cultural event turns on dynamic marketing which changes constantly. 

While the average brand might refresh or rebadge once a decade, (if that), the Festival rethinks its look, feel and direction every few years with the arrival of each new Festival director.

This year is one such year of change. European-born Lieven Bertels has taken the reins from director of three years, Lindy Hume, bringing with him a distinctly divergent creative aesthetic and marketing approach to Sydney’s premier cultural event.

But this year it’s not just the brand which is on the move. Stalwart marketing director, Jill Colvin, is also moving on after a grand 12 years. The 2013 summer Festival will be her last hurrah. 

“It’s very mixed feelings,” says Colvin. “I’ve learnt so much here and have had such great opportunities. It really is the job of a lifetime because you get to work with amazing artists and get such autonomy to be able to do creative work.”

Colvin, who heads up the modest marketing team of four (including two contractors), has been working beside Bertels over the last six months to transform Hume’s whimsical branding into something bold and sharp, substituting bright colour and imaginative imagery for black and white word play.

“Under Lindy Hume the brand became quite feminine and whimsical… Leven, being European and masculine has a different approach and he’s vey interested in language. The aim was to really simplify the look and feel to make it very simple and clean, so we got rid of anything that seemed extraneous to the actual words.”

The brand’s tagline of six years – “This is our city in summer” – still features this year but includes a myriad of alternatives like “This is our city in wonder” and “This is our city in jubilation”.  “We’ll be doing lots of fun things with words and involving the community and getting them engaged with different ways of seeing the festival through language,” says Colvin.

Aside from the triennial rebrands, it’s the brand’s digital transformation which excites her the most. Her enthusiasm for social and mobile is palpable – reflected in the scope of initiatives trialled and installed over the course of her tenure. 

In addition to the YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter handles, this year sees the introduction of a mobile site, a new  iPad app and major redesign of the website which utilises a more dynamic and socially-motivated Pinterest-style “pinning approach”.

From January, the site will feature most recent event snaps, tips for what’s on today, and daily weather reports. “It’s all about people trying to connect with their friends, tell their friends what they’re seeing and making all of that really front facing,” she says. 

Last year, the marketing team flirted with gamification with sponsor, Intel. Through the mobile app the team built a series of Festival challenges, the completion of which would unlock digital badges. But Colvin has cut gaming from this year’s program. 

“That was a little bit of a bandwagon to jump on,” she concedes. “I think where we missed the boat on it was getting it out a little late. It probably didn’t get enough promotion to push it hard enough.

“But we are always interested in trying these things and seeing how they go. The great thing is that we have built something of a reputation for being quite experimental and curious about what you can do through the space.”

This reputation has piqued the interest of major sponsors who are increasingly keen to leverage and build on the Festival’s pervasive online presence. This year, ANZ is creating a “complementary digital campaign” – something Colvin can’t elaborate on except to say it is “extremely exciting”.

Social media is perhaps the most fundamental part of the Festival’s marketing, and it’s not hard to understand why. “It’s very different to being a corporate entity. We have a bunch of people who love us and feel really passionately about the Festival. It’s a very social event so it’s natural that that is reflected in social networking… There’s just a really natural alignment,” she says.

Social media has come under the microscope this year following a series of online attacks on celebrities, media personalities and political figures. The Advertising Standards Bureau’s decision to make brands responsible for comments left by fans on their pages has also sparked talk of wider regulation of the channel – a topic Colvin avoids.

“I’d probably prefer not to comment on that. I really do see things from within our prism. I don’t actually think you can regulate it. I think it’s beyond that,” she says.

The Festival’s own policy is to leave all negative comments on the Facebook page unless they are racist or defamatory, letting the marketplace of ideas do the bulk of the moderation. “We find if someone writes something negative, nine times out of ten someone will come in and bat in the positive direction, so we tend to let the community manage itself,” she says.

She also tributes digital channels with propelling the Festival from obscurity to global fame. In the last few years Sydney has consistently been named one of the top festival cities of the world by the International Festivals and Events Association (IFEA). “I think the Sydney Festival is a large part of that entry,” says Colvin.

“The world of social and digital has helped us amplify our messaging in a way which doesn’t necessarily cost us a large amount of cash. Ten years ago we were much of a Sydney facing festival, now I think we are positioned much better as a national and international event largely through developments in digital and social”.

Colvin’s office down at Festival headquarters in The Rocks is almost entirely wallpapered with photos of beaming, frolicking toddlers, prompting questions about her family. “Yes, I do obviously have children,” she laughs. “Two of them – it looks like I have a hundred. That’s one of the reasons for deciding it’s time to go. I really would like a summer with my kids.”

Further than some surf and sun, though, the future is wide open. “I’m not sure what’s next yet,” she smiles, clearly tickled by the prospect of some career mystery. “I’ve got a very open view on what that might be and seeing where the universe takes me.”    

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