South by Southwest (SXSW) is an annual conglomerate of film, interactive media and music conferences that take place in Austin, Texas. With increasing attendance and new attention-grabbing tech displays each year, brands struggle to get noticed at SXSW. How can your brand bring a unique experience to SXSW that translates into something unforgettable? It’s increasingly difficult to get noticed when every consumer-facing company gives out free swag, throws parties with free beer, and shows off the latest technology.
SXSW is known for helping to launch Foursquare and Twitter, and the conference regularly screens excellent films and television shows, many of which go on to great acclaim. Marketing at SXSW is an increasingly complicated endeavor, as getting noticed above all the buzz is difficult enough. Brands struggle to tie in product releases, navigate consumer trends, and figure out how to draw attendees to their events.
While every SXSW is different, last year some successful brand activations made their mark on attendees and marketers. Creating SXSW marketing that stands out sometimes means doing something a little different than what everyone else is doing (or what you think they’re going to do).
Each of these SXSW brand activations highlights a unique aspect of their product and communicates that to the audience—something every brand needs to do. While you may be successful by just following the current marketing trends– whether that’s virtual reality, make-your-own soda, or just giving out free stuff—doing something that conveys your signature SXSW brand image will likely be more successful.
It might seem odd for a greeting card company to even come to SXSW, let alone do a brand activation. But American Greetings wanted to disrupt the mold of disruptive digital technology by bringing in the analog. Their three-day 2016 promotion was entitled #Analog and allowed festivalgoers to do DIY printmaking and pop-up cards. They could learn letter-making techniques from an American Greetings artist, fill in a coloring book mural, and even get a selfie stitched with thread. American Greetings’ message is not to say that digital communication is not important or analog can replace digital communication, but rather that they’re complementary. Many people don’t slow down to send paper cards, and American Greetings’ SXSW marketing message is that analog still matters, and we should slow down to appreciate it.
Another unique brand activation at SXSW 2016 was Suicide Squad’s tattoo salon. Although the movie didn’t come out until Summer 2016, Warner Brothers started promoted it early through this special Harley Quinn-inspired experiential marketing. Instead of just doing a sneak peek of the film, Warner Bros transformed Affinity Tattoo and Body Piercing into Harley Quinn’s Tattoo Parlor—and offered free real (and temporary) tattoos. This brand activation got people excited about the film, created a unique SXSW marketing angle, and involved artists and fans in an innovative way, without using virtual reality or alternate reality to do so.
Mr. Robot, a techie show that launched at the 2015 SXSW festival and won the SXSW Audience Award, wanted to come back in 2016 and make a splash. The show’s marketing team figured there was no better way to do way to do that than to bring their iconic “Wonder Wheel” Ferris wheel to Austin. In one of the largest SXSW brand activations to date, USA Network designed the Ferris wheel to look like the Coney Island Wheel in the show, complete with nearby carnival games. The Mr. Robot cast and crew even visited SXSW to pay homage to the success the festival helped them garner—and of course, see the Wonder Wheel in real life. By creating SXSW branding that directly references the television show and allows the audience to experience a piece of their world—Mr. Robot succeeded in their SXSW marketing.
If you have a smartphone, you’ve probably heard of Mophie. They make external batteries and cases to charge your favorite devices. As you can imagine, at SXSW, battery life gets eaten up pretty quickly. Between all the tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming, and interactive brand activations and events, your smartphone may be dead before the day is half over. But Mophie is here to rescue you—with adorable St. Bernards. At 2016’s SXSW, Mophie partnered with the National St. Bernard Foundation, Glympse, and a motorcycle company to bring you a fresh phone battery when festivalgoers needed it. If someone tweeted using the hashtag #mophieRescue, the company would send one of its fleet of St. Bernards straight to them with a Mophie battery pack to charge up. This cute SXSW brand marketing makes Mophie look good, helps people out, and helps a good cause—dog rescues.
SXSW is a brand marketing war. There are hundreds, if not thousands of different companies competing for attention from festivalgoers and consumers. Many companies try using the tried and true techniques of giving out free swag, throwing parties, and utilizing the latest technology trends. But these aren’t enough to truly make your product or company memorable. Take note of the uniqueness of the SXSW branding campaigns mentioned in this article—they all did something that was integral to their brand identity and helped their core audience in some way. If you can harness this mentality for your SXSW marketing, you can succeed in the crowded marketplace.
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