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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 23:16 GMT 00:16 UK
Brands take new ideas underground
By Simon Atkinson
Business reporter, BBC News

Maximo Park perform
Swathed in T-Mobile pink, fans get close to Maximo Park

The room is small, the music is loud and the drinks are flowing.

For the 300 people packed into the stark basement it has all the feel of an intimate private party.

Except that the band playing in the corner is a chart-topper, and both it, and the free beers, are being laid on by a mobile phone company.

Corporations have long attached themselves to large-scale events that attract a youthful audience - most notably music festivals.

But now big brands are creating niche, low-key events that are low on audience but high, they hope, on cool.

They are "breaking the mould" of advertising, believes Professor Leslie de Chernatony, director at the Centre for Research in Brand Marketing at the University of Birmingham.

Covert corporates

As Geordie rock group Maximo Park whip the crowd into a frenzy at what is easily their smallest gig since they made it big, there is nothing obvious to tell you that this is all courtesy of T-Mobile.

Music has become a little bit too corporate
Karen Harrison
T-Mobile brand manager

But while the room has not been adorned with overt corporate badging, there is artwork in the unmistakable pink of the company's logo, on otherwise white walls.

And hang on.

Isn't that on-stage lighting decidedly pink too?

The event is the latest in T-Mobile's series of Street Gigs and the venue - a former vinyl factory in London's Soho - is one of the more conventional.

Others have included a lighthouse, a kebab shop and under a railway bridge featuring acts including The Streets, The Strokes and Dirty Pretty Things.

"We're trying to put bands you wouldn't expect in really surprising venues," says Karen Harrison, brand and communication manager at the firm's UK arm, which has opted for low-key, intimate shows.

"Music has become a little bit too corporate," says Ms Harrison.

"It's not about us ramming T-Mobile down people's throats because there's no need.

"People know who we are."

Professor de Chernatony is intrigued.

"We're living in a post-brand era where all the rules are being rewritten," he says.

"Things are moving towards more one-to-one campaigns and what we're seeing here is the beginnings of that."

'Credible'

T-Mobile believes it is not something that any brand or product could pull off.

"People are looking for spontaneity," says Ms Harrison.

"Intimate events work, as long as you are credible and serious about it. There has got to be a reason for you being there.

Maximo Park's Paul Smith and a fan with his camera phone
All smiles? The pop star, the fan and the sponsor

"You go to a gig and what strikes you is the number of people with a phone in the air taking a picture or ringing a friend or leaving them a voicemail of the show.

"You have to give it context, otherwise it comes across as cynical. We have a role it terms of the network helping people to enjoy music."

What they also want to do, of course, is get more people onto T-Mobile and, in such a high-turnover industry, keep the users they have, which is why most of the crowd are already customers who won a place at the gig.

"What T-Mobile is trying to do is to associate a happy memory with the brand," explains Professor de Chernatony.

"Then, when its time to renew your mobile, you're more likely to stick with them, or sign up with T-Mobile if you're on another network."

'I feel lucky'

Although the Street Gigs typically have only 50 to 500 people, T-Mobile says they still represent good value for the marketing budget.

"We know that people are telling two or three friends about the gigs, so word of mouth is growing hugely," Ms Harrison says.

"The feedback we are getting is people saying they felt like VIP's. They never thought they would see these kinds of bands in such usual kinds of places."

The guests certainly seem impressed.

Our branding is very subtle... that you have to look for it means you have a better recall of the brand and makes it more effective
Bennett Neo, Managing director
Tiger Beer

"It's pretty cool," says Ash Baker, a 26-year-old who has recently moved to London and was invited by a friend.

"There's a couple of free drinks and then a great band. You feel kind of lucky to see them play somewhere so small and intimate."

Another brand creating its own smaller events is pan-Asian brew, Tiger Beer.

Among its unique attractions have been Sixteen Feet Underground - a kick-boxing competition it organised in a disused car park in east London.

All Tiger events feature DJ's and often chefs frying noodles to be washed down with, naturally, Tiger Beer.

Quandary

The firm's managing director Bennett Neo says it pitches its amber nectar to DJs, artists, young lawyers and other professionals, and so low-key events are an important part of its marketing.

In another one-off ploy, it used an abandoned warehouse to host a Korean film festival.

An underground event sponsored by Tiger Beer
Is the writing on the wall for more conventional advertising?

"These people want to be seen to be discrete," Mr Neo says.

"They do not appreciate blatant ads and they appreciate that we do not go for in-your-face advertising.

"Our branding at the events is very subtle. That you have to look for it means you have a better recall of the brand and makes it more effective."

But Tiger Beer is less of a niche drink than it used to be, which poses a quandary for the brewer.

Because it needs to sell more beer, these events can now only be one part of the marketing mix.

"In order to attract more drinkers, we are more mainstream in our distribution and want to be more mainstream in our promotion," Mr Neo says.

"We will still do things that are underground as well as communicating through bigger events, which hopefully won't alienate our core customers."

Even ice-cream firms are getting in on the act, with Ben & Jerry's "Sundae" event - a mixture of music and family entertainment over a weekend on London's Clapham Common.

"We're very anti-brand, so while it's a chance for people to taste all our ice cream flavours, it isn't going to be dominated by Ben & Jerry logos," says spokeswoman Antonia Kaul.

"It's meant to be fun and a way of saying thank you to our customers."

'Potential'

The tactic has the potential to be a very successful marketing tool, believes Professor de Chernatony.

They're trying to grow the number of advocates of the brand
Professor Leslie de Chernatony
University of Birmingham

"Because they're small and intimate events, people really can touch, feel and experience the brand on a one-to-one basis.

"They're trying to grow the number of advocates of the brand and these advocates become almost like part of the marketing department. They think a brand is fantastic and they tell their friends about it."

But ultimately, customers cannot be duped, according to Professor de Chernatony.

"Branding can, and should, be subtle and it's fair to say that nobody likes brands being pushed in their face.

"One thing all companies should count on is that customers know full well when something is going on."


SEE ALSO
Glastonbury: a corporate sell-out?
20 Jun 05 |  Business
Firms target music festival goers
23 May 05 |  Business

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