Learning from Black Rock City. Experience Economy City

Despite its rhetorics of self-expression, inclusion and liberty, let’s not forget that Burning Man is a private, for-profit event and tickets cost as much as four hundred dollars. Burning Man is thus an experiment in branding and marketing. It is not like any other festival. Its marketing strategy seems very different and this difference- in our opinion – arises from the fact that it tries and wants to be a temporary city, not just a festival. Thus city marketers* can learn from Burning Man and Black Rock city.

* when we say marketing, we do not mean only attraction of new customers and promotion of the event. With marketing we mean establishment, maintenance and encouragement of long-term successful relationships with visitors, partners, citizens and public bodies.

To fully understand its marketing strategy, we must invoke the concept of the so-called Experience Economy. Burning Man cannot function outside of Experience Economy. Its marketing strategy is in a way a continuation of the mid-20th-century theme park and the entertainment architecture of the 1980s and 1990s. Burning Man and Black Rock City itself managed to literally build consumer experience into the everyday retail transaction – one must experience Burning Man to fully understand it, but also to understand oneself, to be oneself. Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources. Nobody is entitled to nothing – the ticket only gives one the opportunity to enter the city, everything else one needs to provide for himself or is dependent on the society. Since money is explicitly banned, Black Rock City is a “gift economy,” in which people give strangers food, drinks, clothing, massages, all without any expectation of reciprocation. This forces one to  participate, help others… be human. This is the experience that Black Rock City promises.

Razvan_Zamfira_Burning_Man_Believe_SculptureNevertheless, Black Rock City is not a chaos – it has established many rituals that enhance the experience of living in Black Rock City. It has its own lingo (everyone in attendance is a “burner,” and you’re supposed to greet new people with a hearty “Welcome home!”). It’s got its own customs, from the major (the burning of the Man) to the minor (hugging replaces handshakes). It’s got its own shared value system (open-mindedness, celebration, creativity, sustainability). It’s got its own uniforms – not technically, of course, but there is a very distinct Burning Man aesthetic roughly consisting of some combination of dreadlocks, goggles, body paint, wings, cross-dressing, tattoos, fur, glow sticks, and nudity.

It is really interesting how Black Rock City manages to provide “experiences” to so many different groups of people. Even though “citizens” are predominantly white, rather rich, young, American and atheist, one can find there pro-gun libertarians and antiwar socialists, anticapitalist liberals and laissez-faire capitalists, conspiracy theorists and DIY hackers, “fair trade” farmers and Wall Street lawyers. What draws these audiences to Black Rock City, moreover, is that they see themselves as being opposed to the cultural and social mainstream that surrounds them. Brand promise of Black Rock City is the one we have heard already: Be Different.

Because it defines itself negatively, in terms of what it is against, Black Rock City assures participants variety and an element of surprise. It can market itself as an authentic utopian experiment or as a con man’s game (and it has done both). Either way, the brand remains intact. Black Rock City can shrink and expand, appear and disappear-literally. As it gets bigger, so grows the spectacle. If it gets smaller, so grows the illusion of authenticity, and with it, the brand.

The Experience Economy is present also in physical and spatial terms – we might enjoy the photos of art installations, but only by experiencing them we can fully grasp it. In Black Rock City, unlike in conventional art institutions, no security guard prevents you from peering too closely. In fact, some installations invite your participation to “complete” the art — you can taste, smell, manipulate, and alter it in ways prohibited elsewhere. Instead of passively consuming conventional entertainment or relying upon other established art institutions, members learn how to make their own art events. These elaborate stages and massive art installations are all constructed by the festival-goers themselves, without sponsorships of corporations like Heineken and Red Bull as is the case at urban festivals. Here we can see how Black Rock City is not just part of Experience Economy, but also Prosumer Economy as it merges the consumer and producer.

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Black Rock City is also surprising good in another emerging practice of cities – city diplomacy. With the increasing role of cities, city diplomacy has gained increased usage and acceptance in the recent years and aims at encouraging trade and tourism, but also cultural mediation and post-conflict reconciliation. For example… Besides the temporary city itself, Black Rock City has many temporary embassies – several local regional groups with their own activities and smaller cities for example in England and Sweden). There are also Burners Without Borders, taking the Burning Man principles out into the world, through facilitating a variety of coordinated volunteer efforts, from disaster relief (home and abroad) to beach clean-ups to civic actions. Black Rock City also uses the potential of academics. Since 2010, the Burning Nerds group has served as a networking hub for researchers and thinkers in sociology, anthropology, architecture, art, economics, spirituality and many other disciplines.

In marketing terms, Black Rock City is a success – despite its all contradictions, it is loved and adored. It is also a financial success – it is a limited liability company called Black Rock City LLC with an estimated annual operating budget of ten million dollars. Despite its “guerrila” and “leftist” rhetoric, it is a marketing, advertising, consumer research, and corporate socialization mecca. Despite the ban on money, everything – from social organisation to urbanism – serves one goal: monetisation of the common.