SXSW Marketing Round Up: The Good, The Bad, And The “Why Did They Bother?”



Last week marked the 26th annual South by Southwest festival. It’s a multifaceted festival (official streams include Film Interactive, Music, Health, and Comedy, though several events and presentation fall well outside these classifications.) but for marketers, it can be a bit like the Oscars: A celebration of some of the best and brightest in marketing innovation.


Past years have seen truly amazing activations: the “World’s Biggest Game of Foursquare” to launch the eponymous social network comes to mind, as does “Catch a Chevy”: Chevrolet’s fleet of new models, which you can hail free of charge throughout Austin for transport to and from festival venues. Foodspotting’s launch involved a scavenger hunt, culminating in prizes and free food at one of Austin’s famous food truck lots. These activations all leveraged the essence of each brand, and let consumers experience what each brand had to offer organically, which allows a user to become interested in the brand more easily.


Every year, there is an expectation that start-ups, large companies and ad agencies alike will attempt to outdo each other for activations, which make jaded media types swoon. Two years ago, Foursquare partnered with Big Boi to issue Wonkaesque “Golden Tickets” to lucky patrons who checked in at the right place, and the right time. This was an incredibly intricate execution, and it was the high water mark for brand activations.


So, what happened this year? There was a slight shift in the top-shelf sponsors, which this year included Oreo. Did brands generate big noise?


The answer is largely “no.”  The biggest trends this year: budgets were way down, and with them went the creativity and “cool factor” normally associated with the event. Foursquare’s presence was absent, save for one party. American Express, who last year integrated with Foursquare, Twitter and more in an intricate surprise and delight campaign was relegated to their logo on lanyards.


Elsewhere, established brands knocked off activations from years past: Blackberry rented out an entire house/bar on Rainey Street, mimicking Google’s FOUR houses last year (each dedicated to a specific Google product, like Maps or Android.) Other companies rented out famous BBQ eateries the Ironworks and The Salt Lick, but their activations left so little impression, they weren’t remembered by attendees.


Even cornerstones to South by Southwest’s success like Pepsi were all but absent. Last year, they took over the busiest corner of the Convention Centre to host Zeitgeist, an exploration of trends, with an immersive brand experience booth. Pepsi also debuted a “gift a gift” drink machine, which only dispensed drinks to recipients of a special gift code, generated from the same machine. This year, Pepsi gave away some free drinks at lounges, and nothing more.


So, what did break through the monotony?


This year, the best activations came courtesy of production companies and networks. (These seemed to be the only companies with increased budgets, which makes sense, as South by Southwest’s Film track is increasing in size and importance on the entertainment circuit.


Chief among these activations were two organic campaigns that captured the imagination and told the experiencer something fundamental about the show being advertised.


HBO, who always has a huge presence (last year, their GIRLS activations involving ice cream and cute fixie bicycles were a runaway hit) decided to go iconic to promote Game of Thrones, allowing guests to be photographed in the show’s famous Iron Throne. More interesting, and simply more “Austin” was what they did outside the Convention Centre: Iron Throne Pedicabs. Pedicabs are a mainstay of the convention, as they are often the fastest way from one end of downtown to another. These were purpose-built, Game of Thrones-branded pedicabs, which were a surprise and delight to many and often had eager riders seeking them out. A beautifully simple idea to reignite fans.


NBC also did an amazing job promoting a show that ironically they haven’t done a terrific job promoting on television. Using the hashtag slogan #PowerDown, they set up shop steps from the Convention Centre, where they had a camp, of sorts, which closely resembled the ramshackle tents built by the show’s stars, but with a deeply Austin feel (cacti and aloes, mid-century outdoor furniture in sorbet colours.) This was a dedicated place for weary, plugged-in conventioneers to unplug, have a drink, and relax. Additionally, foldable, portable Revolution-branded bikes were available to check out by the day for those who preferred to experience Austin on their own steam. This activation was perfectly on brand, uniquely “Austinified,” and a nice counterpoint to the perpetually wired festivities. It was one of the most photographed activations of the festival.


Two other campaigns stood out for being an organic application of each brand, while empowering visitors to the festival to a better time by reducing inconveniences.


The first was a company called HobNob, which uses technology to combine wifi signals to extend wireless networks. HobNob installed free, open wireless on every shuttle that travelled between convention venues. This allowed the majority of festival goers who had a hard time jumping on the beleaguered AT&T data network to quickly grab some wireless and accomplish tasks between sessions. A bonus of the technology was that anyone standing within a 100 foot radius of the vehicles could also jump on the wireless, which was a welcome change from buggy wireless inside the buildings. This activation blended in seamlessly, but greatly enhanced the experience for attendees and removed a pain point endemic to the event.


Finally, Oreo, a new top sponsor of South by Southwest had several interconnected activation points, which all hovered around the central theme of “Grab & Go” (to promote their Grab & Go six-packs of Oreos.)


The first layer of this campaign was a social media layer, involving a custom-built booth connected to Instagram where participants posed for photographs with the six packs of cookies in front of a randomly generated backdrop of a location in Austin. Participants had 30 seconds to decide which location their photo was in front of to win a gift card to a famous Austin eatery, where they could “Go and Grab” dinner. Unsuccessful guesses were also rewarded with free cookies and a mobile phone booster kit that gives an emergency charge to your phone, but is the size of a USB stick, so even if you’re out of electricity (another common complaint at SXSW,) you can “Grab it and Go.”


The final layer of Oreo’s activation was their sponsored pedicabs. Some distributed cookies while you were being transported (perhaps all were supposed to but they ran out) allowing you to “Grab a ride and snack and Go” to your destination.


Many agencies and brands resist the urge to do something they deem so “on the nose” to a campaign tagline, but it can be extremely beneficial in a place where the noise level is high to keep the concept and execution close to the original idea.


The also-rans: Disappointing campaigns


There were likely hundreds of campaigns that fell flat simply because no one even noticed them in the first place, but a few campaigns stood out for notable fumbles:


3M debuted the “3M girl,” a projection on a woman-shaped plastic sign who talked and was billed as “your virtual guide.” I didn’t see anyone interact with it for much more than 10 seconds, and most people walked straight away. The problem here was a lack of value and proximity to ACTUAL HUMANS with the same information and who had an ability to tailor the message to the end user, and a lack of hard sell. Sorry, 3M, this was an uncanny valley of failure.


More surprising than 3M was Google’s strange display. We visited the Google Play lounge to see what was billed as a “Playland for Grown Ups.” I was impressed by a few of the homes on Rainey Street last year, including the Google Maps lounge. This year’s display seemed like it was designed by a committee. The inside of the lounge was set up with five different areas, which each had a different game theme, but no one was playing a single game. The biggest buzz was around the coffee bar, followed by some activity happening at computers playing a video about Google’s “Talking Shoe” (think: a Furby you can walk on.) The whole scene left me a little cold, and no one looked to be enjoying being there, let alone playing.


I wanted to love the Maker Fair (SXSW Create Space.) Because they promised some amazing home-built inventions mixed in with Makerbot replicators, 3-D scanners, Lytro cameras, and more. The set-up left me wanting to see more, especially more hands-on activities for young people and kids to get into being Makers, but, it needed a bit more going on. I hope the festival team can build on the Create Space next year.


The “just no’s: Save-your-money-for-next-year campaigns


Something which happens every year is that large companies buy lounges to try to capture foot traffic, and magically turn this traffic into customers. In my many years attending this festival, only the Samsung blogger lounge has managed to make this leap. What Samsung does differently than the competition is programming interviews with tech leaders and tastemakers, so there is always something worth seeing when you stop by.


I can say without hesitation that every other lounge I have ever visited at SXSW has been good for a place to sit and a bottle of water, and nothing more.


If your brand is considering sponsoring a lounge, stop, and take the hit on your lost deposit.


Another waste of time and effort you see every year at South by Southwest is constant postering of every surface available. This is an example of “seems good on paper, but is terrible in application.” Posters need to be purpose-built for an event, and have to cut through the noise, which is impossible at this festival. Don’t do it.


Samsung also had a baffling setup to show off their NFC enabled phones. They covered a wall with a 40-foot-tall poster with nine places to “tap your phone” to get free goods, including cupcakes and ice cream. In theory, it was stunning. In practice, when you tapped one of the spots, the first thing that happened was you were asked to download a special app. This is hard to do in a zone with wireless problems, which is exactly where this installation had. Once the app was downloaded, the “just tap and go” experience was buggy at best, and we were never able to get our cupcake. QA is king for expensive activations like this.


Lessons learned


South by Southwest continues to be the premiere destination for digital professionals, agency executives, and in-house marketers alike, and while the number of great activations and general budgets were down, some truly clever campaigns were able to break through and capture the imaginations of world weary tech heads.


The best campaigns continue to have a simple idea, elegantly executed, with a twist. Enabling a more comfortable, seamless experience for stressed-out travellers is always a good choice for marketers


Whenever your brand decides to mount large campaigns among stiff competition and budgets several-fold more rich than yours, you need to plan everything out, and test, test, test to make sure the end user experience has the desired “surprise and delight” effect you intended to deliver.


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