The Fyre Festival Fiasco: how brands go up in flames

May 28, 2019

Putting your brand at risk

Every time you sign an agreement to promote something or partner with someone, ask yourself if you are prepared to fall if they fall, to fail if they fail, to suffer public disgrace if they suffer disgrace. 

In late 2015 a serial con-artist named Billy McFarland used his connection with musician Ja Rule to announce a VIP music festival on a private island in the Bahamas, ambitiously scheduled for spring, 2017.

The festival was meant to promote their entertainment booking company, but the festival itself stole the spotlight. Tickets ranged from US$1,500 to rumoured six figures and included a chartered plane from Miami, gourmet food, luxury accommodations, performances by Major Lazer, Pusha T, and Blink-182, and the promise to mingle with celebrities and supermodels.

It was heavily promoted on Instagram and other social media platforms. The hype went viral when Kendall Jenner posted a photo with palm fronds and the festival’s intriguing square orange logo on her Instagram. However, she failed to disclose she had been paid US$250,000 for the plug.

Everything promised was a lie, including the private island, whose owner reneged on the deal when McFarland broke his agreement not to mention it was once owned by Pablo Escobar.

Indeed, McFarland’s talent for breaking agreements was only matched by his partners and customers gullibility. This seems especially unforgivable for a group of people—marketers, media professionals, and influencers—who are masters of sharing information.

Why did partners keep working when they weren’t paid, when their reputations were at stake? Why did influencers fly down to Miami when they should have known the accommodations were disaster tents, that there wasn’t enough bread and water—let alone gourmet cuisine—and there would be no music?

Fyre Festival’s timeline of disaster


Neglecting Due Diligence

It wasn’t just the Fyre brand at stake. The Fyre Festival was a high profile event. Everyone from media partners to influencers were tying their reputations to the event’s success. Yet it was obvious from the start to anyone who cared to open their eyes that this emperor was butt naked.

Sadly, everyone was taking selfies with closed eyes, believing the dream till their heels sank in the mud of Great Exuma Island.

McFarland himself was not the tech entrepreneur he claimed to be. Prior to Fyre, he created a VIP black credit card, Magnises, which wasn’t even a credit card. He greatly exaggerated the number of members, repeatedly lied to the members he did have, and received many complaints long before the Fyre Festival was announced.

But no one bothered to spend a few hours to do due diligence on McFarland before tying their brands to his outrageous dreams. After all, he was stroking people’s egos, telling narcissists how special they were. Doing what all con-artists do—telling people what they want to believe, offering a priceless experience for a price.  

Having a good brand and being good at what you do is no defence against clever people massaging your dreams, whether they be greater profits, market dominance, or a million views. You have to protect your brand and your bottom line by doing the less glamorous work of due diligence.  

Check out this review of the Fyre Netflix documentary


Greed and hubris will damage your brand

We all know if something is too good to be true it probably is. And yet every week there are stories of people risking their personal brand, and companies risking their corporate brands, on promises that are too good to be true. Just look at our banking industry, or Theranos, or Boeing’s 737 MAX. The latter is a grim reminder that taking shortcuts with your brand can result in more than a few muddy selfie sticks. It can be life and death.

60 Minutes Australia on the 737 MAX


So please think long and hard about your stakeholders. How well do you know them?

Ask yourself if your trust in them is validated by research and experience, and not blind trust, as was the case for those buried in the ashes of the Fyre Festival.

Picture of Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor

MD & Head of Strategy and Research

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