Once upon a time, a celebrity could roll into Park City, Utah, trawl a plethora of gifting suites and leave armed with a brand new wardrobe that included everything from shoes to sunglasses, jeans to jewelry.
Nowadays, that’s all changed. Thanks to a crackdown on the part of both the festival and the city, it’s become all but impossible for brands to host the kind of swag bacchanals of the past. Marketing has changed, too, responding to social media and the way millennials — the chief target audience — respond to advertising.
The change has been a long time coming, says Eileen Colavita, a branding specialist who’s managed gifting suites at Sundance for the past 15 years. “It started back in 2002,” Colavita says. “The major brands — like Hugo Boss, Fred Segal, Seven, Levi’s, Ugg and NorthFace — weren’t just going out there, they were taking over. It was more about the branded content and the parties than the films. As a result, the festival came in and took over.”
The Park City government and festival instituted tighter regulations concerning doing business in town and stricter licensing laws. With that came increased costs.
“It’s become really expensive to produce a suite at Sundance,” says Chris Ryan, owner of experiential marketing firm Oceanside Entertainment, and the gatekeeper to every VIP event at Sundance. “It used to be you could rent a space, pay a business tax and signage fee, and you’re done.” Now, costs have rocketed from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.
However, not all the changes were caused by the crackdown. “Eight years ago, a photo of a celebrity holding a bottle of shampoo would be picked up by every weekly magazine. Now, it doesn’t sell,” says Ryan.
“18- to 35-year-old millennials know when they’re being advertised at, and you can’t capture their interest with a photo of a celebrity holding a pair of shoes they got for free,” says Colavita.
Besides, they’re spending most of their time online. “Everything’s going digital,” says Colavita, who says it’s more important to have celebrities post their own photos on Pinterest and Instagram than pose with free products in front of a step-and-repeat.
This requires brands to create more experiential types of activations, says Ryan. “It’s less about holding up a product, and more about climbing a wall or wearing a jacket.”
One of the first, and most successful, to capitalize on this new trend was sports gear manufacturer Oakley. “We started the ‘learn to ride’ activation about eight years ago,” says Jeremy McCassy, entertainment marketing consultant for Oakley, about the learn to snowboard initiative at the festival. “The first year, it was jerry-rigged!” But hugely successful. “We’ve had everyone from Orlando Bloom to Jessica Biel come snowboard with us for the day.”
And yes, they got to keep the product. But the real value to Oakley — in addition to earned visibility via video content and photos — is time spent with the stars.
“There’s nothing passionate or authentic about giving your beautiful, expensive product away for free — unless really authentic relationships are forged,” says McCassy.
So, while fashion’s presence at Sundance has dwindled — Colavita estimates it represents only about 20% of the business now — it certainly hasn’t died.
“If you do it right, Sundance works really well,” says Ryan.
This year, brands including Eddie Bauer, Columbia Sportswear, Members Only, Merrell shoes, Vuarnet sunglasses, Botkier handbags and Rafaello & Co. are counting on it. is festival newcomer Funn Networks, an online competitor to YouTube.
“We’re launching WhoHasIt,” says Colavita of a new fashion app that allows users click on a picture of a celebrity, or a clip from their movie, and go right to the retail site and buy the item.
Will there still be gifting?
“Sure,” says Colavita. “But more so as an interactive model, where celebrities can come in to the WhoHasIt closet for a Sundance style makeover” — photos of which they can duly post on Instagram.