The six-year-old festival didn't start off free. Originally it was a two-day affair that consumers paid for like any other gig. But when the economy
tanked three years ago, the company decided to make a change.
"Three years ago when we made it free, you were either losing your job or getting swine flu. There was so much bad news out there," said Ron Faris,
director of brand marketing at Virgin Mobile USA, who gave me a bear hug as a form of greeting. "We wanted to put a good vibe out there with a smile
and that's what made us do it."
Faris, however, is upfront about the business benefits.
"Of course, there is an element of brand promotion," Faris said. "Everything about the Virgin brand, if you have been following it for the past 40
years, is about not having enough advertising money like our competitors, so we have to break through with doing unique experiences like this."
"We make something free, and we know people will chatter about it," he added.
"I think Richard Branson's probably got a lot of money and he just likes doing things like this," said Jack Steadman, lead singer and guitarist for Bombay Bicycle Club, one of the festival's performers. "He probably gets a kick out of this."
Bombay Bicycle Club, coincidentally, got its start six years ago by winning a battle of the bands contest sponsored by—whom else?—Virgin Mobile.
While most attendees got in for free, Virgin asked people to donate $10 to RE*Generation, the company's initiative to address youth homelessness. And
those that missed out on the free tickets, which disappeared in a matter of minutes, could get in by volunteering time to work at at-risk and youth
organizations across the country. Others could pay $49.50 for entrance. Part of that money went to charity.
In the previous two years, the corporation raised nearly $300,000 and generated more than 55,000 hours of volunteer time, a spokeswoman said.
Whether festival goers saw the event as predominantly a vehicle for brand promotion or charity, no one seemed too bothered by the advertising.
"I don't think the advertising takes away from anything, and I don't think it adds anything," said Kim Zimmerman, who attended the event before it became
free, and doesn't think anything has changed.
That's not to say that marketing wasn't prominent.
Humongous Virgin Mobile signs flanked the sides of all three stages and garnered various attractions which included a Ferris wheel, a miniature skate boarding park, and a family circus, among other things.
Branson himself made a guest bartending appearance alongside Cee Lo, handing out free beers. He worked the crowd like a pro by blowing kisses,
shaking hands, and grinning from ear to ear with his iconic mane bobbing behind the bar. He even vaulted Sarah Carroll, Virgin Mobile's "brand ambassador,"
into his arms for a photo op, leading her to inadvertently flash the crowd. Fortunately the pint sized brandess, who was wearing a short dress, had on
undergarments and avoided a Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan (take your pick) reveal.