Médecins Sans Frontières on summer festival push

In the next of Marketing Week’s shoestring marketing series, Médecins Sans Frontières explains how it took its experience of war zones to festival fields with a low-cost, high impact campaign.


Every day of the year, Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) doctors, nurses and volunteers are out in the field providing life-saving humanitarian aid and medical care to people in more than 70 countries worldwide.

In a bid to generate vital donations for doctors operating in some of the world’s most dangerous environments and raise awareness among a new generation of supporters, MSF UK set up mobile clinics at three UK festivals this summer and invited people to experience what life is really like for refugees.

Latitude, British Summer Time and Camp Bestival were chosen as they meet the MSF supporter profile and are family-friendly events offering a variety of activities beyond music.

“Picture a beautiful sunny afternoon in London and the headline act is not on for several hours,” says head of fundraising James Kliffen, remembering the scene at the British Summer Time festival at London’s Hyde Park in July.

“We’re situated by the entrance and as people stroll through it is possible to have discussions with them as they’re not in a hurry, which is very different from the high street.” With a potential reach of more than 450,000 people across all three events, the activity offered MSF huge opportunity to reach new supporters.

The clinics were constructed with tents that had sheltered patients in war zones and featured a decommissioned Land Cruiser field ambulance that was used during the conflict in Kosovo. Having equipment on-site that had been active in the field helped the crowds relate to doctors’ experiences and lent real authenticity to the message, says Kliffen.

“Festival goers could physically walk up, look at the Land Cruiser and recognise it as something they have seen on the news providing medical care. That is very important to bring the experience to life,” he says.

MSF shoestring marketing
MSF UK had a decommissioned Land Cruiser field ambulance that was used during the conflict in Kosovo on site.

“By the time the festival took place there had been a lot of intense media attention on the conditions of the refugees for months, so there was a sense of familiarity with the issue, but the festival goers were experiencing it in a different way which helped them understand.”

To bring the message into even starker relief, MSF set up virtual reality headsets showing visitors what it really feels like to be a refugee sleeping in the mud under plastic sheeting during the winter. The video was kept to only two minutes to ensure it would retain visitors’ interest.

Content co-creation was another important aspect of the strategy. The charity collaborated with MSF ambassador and British Summer Time headliner Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machines fame) on a video explaining the doctors’ work in war zones and disaster-torn areas, which was broadcast to crowds watching the main stage.

“Essentially this campaign was about closing the gap between Hyde Park and South Sudan.”

James Kliffen, head of fundraising, MSF

Having a mixture of fundraisers, doctors and nurses on the ground who have worked on the frontline is another reason why Kliffen believes the mobile clinic idea worked so well.

“This was enormously important because when the festival goers walk up to us, the team can say ‘three months ago I was in South Sudan’ and immediately it opens up the conversation. You can tell them something about the reality of the situation with real authenticity.”

As festivals are also a great way for MSF to recruit new volunteers for fundraising or work in the field, members of the HR team were on-hand to explain how supporters can get involved.

Across all the three festivals Kliffen noted a real emotional reaction among the festival goers, with the simple addition of the ambulance and mobile clinic providing a direct connection to patients in very remote parts of the world.

“Our brand means a lot to us and it was important that we knew what we were showing was something really important and credible. Essentially, this campaign was about telling the story in a better way than on the printed page and closing the gap between Hyde Park and South Sudan,” he adds.

Although the summer 2016 festival campaign worked really well in terms of awareness and acquiring monthly donors, the charity does not plan to stretch itself by doing too many similar events, as Kliffen acknowledges not every festival will be the right fit.

MSF has, however, been quick to embrace other opportunities in the live music community. Earlier in the year the charity’s fundraisers joined rock band Muse on its European tour, travelling with the band across 16 countries between February and June. The MSF installation invited Muse fans to visit a refugee camp in Dunkirk using 360-degree virtual reality headsets and listen to audio diaries from MSF staff onboard search and rescue boats in the Mediterranean Sea.

Kliffen sees a natural synergy between the music industry, festival community and charity sector. “Supplying food and shelter to 70,000 people at a festival is what happens in a refugee camp,” he acknowledges.

“The operational aspect is mind-blowing. People in the festival sector make things happen and they have to adapt all the time, just as MSF has to in the field.”

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