Everyone has heard about the colossal failure of Fyre Festival. It was billed as a “luxury music festival.” It was held on a private island. It was promoted by prominent social media influencers. People paid over $10,000 to attend.
The USA Today reported, based on narratives on Twitter, it was akin to the Lord of the Flies or a refugee crisis. Fyre Festival certainly failed in terms of execution, but they must have done something right. They did get people to fork over thousands of dollars for a music festival.
Marketing Lessons from Fyre Festival
It was a business failure of epic proportions. Even so, the marketing drew in lots of money. Fyre Festival’s over-the-top marketing was successful to a certain extent.
Failures can be the greatest places to learn. Given the magnitude of this catastrophe, there must be some amazing lessons. Let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly of Fyre Festival, and see what we can learn about marketing.
Lesson #1 – You Need More Than Just Influencers
Ja Rule was helping organize the event. They had famous models who are on TV and in films, like Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski. They had supermodels like Alessandra Ambrosio. They had Victoria’s Secret models like Elsa Hosk, Chanel Iman, Gizele Oliveira, and Lais Ribeiro.
They had more models: Rose Bertram, Hayley Bieber, Bella Hadid, and Shanina Shaik. They had some athletes like surfer Anastasia Ashley and football safety Mike Thomas. With that many influencers involved, what could go wrong?
A lot could and did go wrong because influencers are not a panacea. Just because you hire a bunch of famous people doesn’t mean you will end up with a successful venture. Influencers can be a great part of a successful marketing strategy, but they don’t guarantee success.
Lesson #2 – Don’t Ignore Strategy & Planning
The lack of a cohesive strategy is one of the biggest problems with Fyre Festival. Their plan was constantly changing, because of their own mishaps.
For example, they had Kendall Jenner post on Instagram that the event would be held on an island owned by Pablo Escobar. The only problem, the person who leased them the island told them explicitly not to do that.
As a result, they lost access to that island. They continued to fly by the seat of their pants and ran into avoidable problem after problem. Without a good strategy and planning, you are destined for trouble.
This doesn’t mean you should waste tons of time planning every last detail. That can be equally as problematic. You do want to know the broad outlines of what you’ll be doing. And you should avoid sabotaging your own plan. Consider the impact of what you’re doing, and don’t needlessly deviate.
Consider how much experience you have in a given field. If you’re new to something, the more research and planning you should probably do. If things go well, you’ll be more equipped next time to start faster and trust your gut. If things go poorly, you’ll be equipped to update your strategy and modify your plan in real-time.
A good entrepreneur or marketer knows the appropriate level of planning and strategy required to achieve a business goal. Too little or too much can turn into a big problem. Keep your plan in mind at all times, whether you are sticking to it or cognizantly deviating from it.
Lesson #3 – Money Doesn’t Solve Everything
The founder of Fyre Festival, Billy McFarland, had an extraordinary ability to raise additional money when needed. According to the Netflix documentary, FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, he was able to raise large sums of capital from investors.
The documentary also explains how he created creative packages to get even more money from customers before the festival started. Up-sells, down-sells, and cross-sells are all great marketing techniques to maximize the lifetime value of your customers.
The problem was Fyre Festival’s packages were added ad hoc without any consideration on how to fulfill them. They just needed the money. The organizers seemingly had no budget. They operated on the assumption that their customers would always fork over more cash.
This shouldn’t be confused with maximizing the lifetime value of your customers. You can rely on a business plan where your return on investment (ROI) comes much later. You can’t just assume that you can suck more money out of people using marketing gimmicks.
Just like with strategy and planning, you need a budget. It doesn’t have to be a detailed budget, because things will change. But think about ranges and orders of magnitude. Understand ahead of time what your profit margins are.
Do you have a negative profit margin on a product or service, like a loss leader? If so, where will the capital come from to fulfill those products or services? Take the Fyre Festival story to heart. Despite all the money that was raised, none of it could overcome the lack of strategy in terms of budgeting or execution.
Lesson #4 – Buzz Doesn’t Equal Success
Having a great idea is a great start. Generating massive marketing buzz is another big achievement. However, this is not enough. You need to actually have a product or service that lives up to the expectations you set with your marketing.
One of the biggest tips for getting killer media coverage is to never overpromise and underdeliver. If you’re an adept PR marketer, you can probably fool some journalists for a short period of time. But what happens in the long term?
When your buzz and hype don’t pay off, you’ve likely burned all of those bridges. It’s unlikely going to be a spectacular downfall, like Fyre Festival, that is a story in its own right. So the media is just going to be irritated with you. All of those relationships you’ve built up are now tarnished.
The next time you pitch a story, everyone is going to be infinitely more skeptical. Even if you do go down in a blaze of glory, the publicity is going to be bad. If Billy from Fyre Festival tries to launch another festival, the media is going to always lead with his failure.
Marketing buzz is great, but it should always come after, or in concert with, new product development. Starting with buzz and ignoring the process of bringing your product or service to market is a bad business practice. This is especially true if you don’t have lots of cash or your product or service is super complicated.
Lesson #5 – Listen to Constructive Criticism
Internal employees and others tried to voice their reservations during the days leading up to the event. But those voices went unheard or were silenced.
At one point a website, FyreCay.com, popped up. It explained to potential attendees, “The marketing material was awesome, right? It is all very mysterious, but not in a good way.” It then details all of the “fraud” occurring with the festival.
Fyre Festival determined the information on that website was coming from within their company. Their plan was to hunt for the mole and pursue legal action against them. That’s probably a good business practice all other things being equal. Since your employees shouldn’t release sensitive information to the public.
However, in this case, and probably a lot of other cases, management was ignoring salient points raised by many employees. Employees and vendors were trying to raise important things and warn of imminent problems. For example, one adviser recommended being honest and describing the actual accommodations and letting attendees decide for themselves if they wanted to attend.
That is not what Fyre Festival did. Instead of getting ahead of things and taking the criticism to heart, they doubled down. They didn’t want customers to know the truth about their executional failures and sub-par accommodations. They wanted to keep up the allure of a luxury festival alive, despite the impossibility of it ever occurring as described.
When management holds onto a strategy that doesn’t work, they are unable to adapt, or they lack business experience their business often fails. It happened with Fyre Festival, and it can happen with any business. Listen to constructive feedback when you receive it.
Lesson #6 – Know When to Quit or Change Course
In the days before the event was set to take place, it was very clear the festival would not happen. Or at least it would not happen in a way that remotely resembled what originally was promised.
When you run into a situation like this in business, you need to move into crisis management mode. You need to drastically change your plans. This may mean canceling an event or product launch. It can be hard, but you need to do it. If not, you will hurt your brand in the eyes of your customers, and can destroy your brand entirely.
Fyre Festival totally ignored this and forced the event to take place. The result was described by a Washington Post story in the title, “the complete disaster of Fyre Festival played out on social media for all to see.” The story includes social media posts where the event is described as “madness” and an “actual dumpster.”
There are a lot of cliche sayings about quitting. On the one hand, you have “winners never quit” or “never give up.” But then you also have “quit while you’re ahead” or “live to fight another day.” In business, the reality is sometimes you do have to quit. But it can be a good thing.
You don’t have to quit business. You just need to quit the idea that no longer makes sense. Don’t get stuck on any one idea, get stuck on being successful. Sometimes this means changing directions with your idea. Other times it means abandoning an idea entirely.
Don’t be afraid to quit something to limit your losses or to move onto a better idea. Don’t let your ego get too big. Don’t get too stuck on any one idea. Focus on what your business goals are and the bottom line.
Lesson #7 – Bad Business Can Have Dire Consequences
When running your business, it’s not just the perception of your brand that is at stake. If you take things too far and cross ethical and legal boundaries, you can create even bigger problems for yourself. You can end up involved in civil litigation or even imprisoned.
The Fyre Festival is involved in tons of litigation. As reported by Rolling Stone, two attendees won $5-million after being the first to successfully sue Billy McFarland. The LA Times also reported that there was a $100-million class-action lawsuit that was filed against McFarland, Ja Rule, and Fyre Media Inc.
Also, remember that documentary we mentioned earlier? It was produced by the same company that helped market Fyre Festival. That company is Jerry Media. You may know them for their popular FuckJerry social media accounts. According to TMZ, both Jerry Media and Netflix are being sued by festival attendees for copyright infringement.
It’s not just lawsuits either. As you may expect, if you break the law you can end up fined and in prison. According to NBC News, that is exactly what happened to McFarland. He was sentenced to six years in federal prison for fraud and ordered to pay $26 million.
Hopefully, this sort of thing isn’t something you need to worry about with your business. But it is a reminder that entrepreneurs can and do get arrested. Don’t engage in business practices that are sketchy or illegal. If in doubt, don’t risk your business or your freedom; talk to a business attorney.
Marketing Takeaways from Fyre Festival
Good marketing needs to be coupled with other good business practices. It’s bad news when a business has amazing marketing but a questionable product or service.
Remember that marketing is not just promotion or advertising. A good marketing strategy starts with market research and new product development. The promotion aspect of marketing can’t replace these steps.
When heavy promotion is being used to overcome problems with a product or service, it’s a big warning sign. There is no long term potential for success. At worst, it’s a massive deception, like Fyre Festival, or outright fraud or a scam, like a Ponzi scheme.
This is clearly the case with Fyre Festival. Two years after the festival, according to a Billboard article, $14.6 million of the $26 million spent still can’t be accounted for. Millions were spent on marketing, like high-priced social media influencers.
That same article says they kept no financial records! So, they had seemingly no budget, didn’t track their expenses, and relied solely on expensive marketing tactics.
Not even the most eccentric digital marketing guru would suggest this sort of strategy. But this sort of crazy marketing strategy is reminiscent of the growing divide between that sort of marketing and actual marketing.
There is good news with a public failure of this magnitude. That is the lessons it can teach other entrepreneurs. Learning from other businesses’ failures is much better than learning from your own.
What’s your take on the Fyre Festival? Did you learn any other lessons from the documentaries, the social media accounts and the press coverage? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear what you think.