DOI: 10.21272/mmi.2023.4-13 ISSN: 2227-6718

An Economic Analysis of the Burning Man Festival's Marketing Evolution

Gordon Rausser, Wadim Strielkowski
  • Pharmacology

This paper focuses on the economic and marketing analysis of the Burning Man event (also known as the “Burning Man festival”). It is doing so by tracing the festival’s evolution from a small bonfire ritual on San Francisco beach in California in 1986 to a globally renowned art festival held for the whole full week before the Labor Day weekend in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The festival has gradually become one of the world’s top “must-see” and “must-attend” attractions (often getting various nicknames by the press and researchers – from the “magic circus in the desert” to the “lucrative circus” or “Silicon Valley playground”). Currently, Burning Man is attracting more than 60,000 participants (who call themselves “Burners”) annually and making over $8 million in tickets and donations (there has been a cap implemented on the maximum number of participants due to the environmental and land protection concerns since the current venue is located in the National Conservation Area). It has also served as an inspiration for a series of similar festivals or smaller events organized in other parts of the world, from Lithuania to Spain (or even Israel), helping to create and sustain the global “Burning Man” worldwide community. Drawing on data from more than 500 surveys conducted at the different Burning Man festivals between 2012 and 2018 by the authors, this paper explores the transformation of the Burning Man event into a high-end event characterized by significant expenditure and participation from upper social echelons. Contrary to popular perception, Burning Man emerges not as a ‘hippie’ Woodstock-type gathering but as an elite networking hub, highlighting the interplay of luxury and ‘radical expression’. The research reveals that average spending per participant ranges from $5,000 to $6,000 (including tickets, travel costs, gear, supplies, and gifts), challenging the festival’s accessibility. Furthermore, despite the allure of the event, the demanding Black Rock desert environment distinguished by the severe temperature changes and alkaline dust storms often happening on a dry lakebed (or “playa”) seems to deter repeat attendance among wealthier participants. Our paper contributes to understanding the dynamics of popular festival marketing and the shifting demographic profile of the Burning Man festival, offering insights into its exclusivity and the economic implications of its ‘radical expression’ ethos.

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