WKSU Folk Festival Campaign: It's Not Your Grandfather's Folk

Dave-Mathews-Band

The key to getting college students interested in music that falls, broadly, under the banner of "folk" probably isn't that different than trying to get them into cars called Cadillac. Except instead of a "butts in seats" strategy, it's about "buds in ears."

The WKSU Folk Festival, which is sponsored by Kent State University's NPR affiliate and happens at and around the Ohio campus, has had that very challenge. Organizers hope to build college student interest in music that they probably think of as something their grandparents listen to. A program called "You Don't Know Folk" is one effort to change non-folkie perception of the genre. The marketing campaign, via Cleveland-based Marcus Thomas, is comprised of print, poster, guerrilla and online ads.

The effort makes sense, since the performers headlining this year's annual event from Sept. 21 to 25 in Kent, Ohio -- the Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and The Low Anthem -- could just as easily reside comfortably in the alternative space. The creative positions the acts as a lot more alternative and unpredictable than what one might expect from a folk event.

A poster for the Carolina Chocolate Drops says: "Ever hear a beat boxing jug blower and a banjo picking opera singer bust out a swaggering hip-hop jam?" Art for Low Anthem says: "Think a former NASA technician, two Ivy League graduates and a saw player don't know how to bring the funk?"

Jamie Venorsky, associate partner and CD at the agency, tells Marketing Daily the agency worked with the festival over the past couple of years, but this is a new approach. "The festival is kind of a staple in Kent, and attendance is consistent year-over-year," he says. "There's a core group of folk fans who know about it and attend, but the only way to increase that interest was to look at someone outside the folkie group. This is Kent State, after all; it's right there so we have a nice and concentrated potential audience."

Venorsky says the agency got the idea to reposition the festival when creatives there took a look at the lineup. "We realized it was unfair to just classify these acts as folk," he says. "When you look at the reviews and hear the music, it's just hard to classify it easily. They really represent a mashup of styles, and frankly that just makes them more interesting and relevant to college students."

To pique students interest, the effort includes QR-coded guitar picks (and who, among college students, doesn't play some guitar?) dropped to coffeehouses and bars that links to music videos of the featured acts, and to Festival schedules.

The timing was right for a student pitch, since the fall semester has just started -- meaning that a lot of new students are itching to experience something new, per Vernosky. "For a lot of them it's a new experience that comes with a sense of independence and a desire to try a lot of everything, so the timing was right to target them directly."

It might have seemed the logical thing to just change the name of the festival to, say, WKSU Alternative, but that would not have sat well with the core audience of older folk enthusiasts. "They are still going to be there, and there are still traditional elements to the festival," Venorsky says. The event comprises four venues, one of which is on the Kent State campus. "We didn't want to alienate the current following, but we felt the way it was referred to -- or positioned -- could be a barrier," he adds.

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