At South by Southwest, the Excitement Is Back

25 March 2022



Deep In The Heart of Texas, Brand Experiences Are Big and Bright

By Wes Morton, Marketing Director, Rogers & Cowan PMK

After two years of seeming isolation, thousands of marketers, brands, artists, and media professionals descended on the 10-day South by Southwest festival. Undaunted by high hotel prices or lingering concern of new COVID-19 variants, SXSW was the first major festival to take place with masks optional since pandemic lockdowns began two years ago. Around 350,000 visitors flocked to Austin, Texas, with many attendees shelling out $1,625 for 10-day all-access badges.

Brands large and small came to meet them with custom pop-ups, major activations, and experiential takeovers. The massive concerts, packed houses and hordes of attendees across three tracks (interactive, film and music) prove that consumers are hungry to return to a new normal.

SXSW was a spoil of riches, spanning roughly 30 city blocks in the center of Austin along with a host of film premiers and concerts. At a festival like SXSW, sponsorship is not enough to move people to consideration. Rather, creativity, uniqueness, and value are of the utmost importance. There were about five activations or panels each hour of every day. Other activations included the likes of TikTok, Twitch, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Samsung, several NFT projects, hundreds of film premiers and concerts.

The latest episode of the Collective Intelligence podcast, in which CI talks to thought leaders from Huge, IPG Health, and R&CPMK about their SXSW experience and the trends that are emerging where technology and culture meet, will be posted soon. Be sure to check back.

Here’s what we learned:


Streaming Entertainment Brands Had the Biggest Experiential Exhibits

Streaming entertainment brands are poised to make big investments this year and next. Massive investments from WarnerMedia, Paramount, Amazon, NBC and Disney during SXSW tell us that there are big budgets in entertainment and tech. The streaming competition will mean major opportunities for agencies with fresh ways to get consumers to stream.

The only major streaming brand without a major presence was Netflix. Drawn to live consumer crowds that gravitate toward the creative arts, streamers bet big that their activations would be big awareness drivers among eligible consumers.

A main artery, Rainey Street, had the most foot traffic due to the high concentration of bars and venues taking part in the festival. CNN+ and Peacock both had interactive houses here, custom built during the first half of the event. Each featured large branding facing the street with free food, drink, and sitting areas inside.

WarnerMedia built its own activation in central downtown that featured customizable merchandise from its various show properties that attendees could redeem with tickets. Disney took over an outdoor park and put on Disney movies all week for those looking for a more relaxed, viewing experience.

Paramount+ took to the skies with a drone show over downtown Austin to promote its Halo Series premiering March 24. The interactive show featured a giant, floating QR code that viewers could scan and direct you to the Paramount+ app to download.


Tech Companies Liked to Lounge at SXSW

Experiential tech activations were heavy on getting consumers to sit. An interesting tactic to give people space to relax, when so much festival is going on.

WeTransfer, Slack, and DELL, a Texas native company chose to set up passive experiences for consumers to stop by and chill. An alternative to the high energy streaming houses, these tech experiential activations offered attendees respite from the mass of trendy crowds.

Slack stole the show by taking over a parking lot and setting up an outdoor, multi-colored location to, well, slack off. While Dell and WeTransfer offered the same food, coffee, and comfortable seating, the central location, outdoor ambience, and branding made Slack my go-to “free coffee and breakfast” spot.

Dell’s space was not unimpressive as their downtown warehouse takeover displayed their Alienware consumer line, featured a number of panels and offered networking seating over coffee and breakfast tacos as well as an upstairs lounge. In a more casual twist, Microsoft’s Founders House offered free tacos, BBQ, drinks, and live music with their takeover of Augustine House on Rainey Street.


Consumer Goods Companies Opt for Trials in Their Experiences

CPG brands are all about consumer trials. Their specific activations demonstrate that a key objective for consumer brands remains consumer tastings in order to spark consideration.

Cheetos won for the most creative pop-up, a completely hands-free experience that highlighted new, handless tech that allows you to munch Cheetos without getting cheesy dust all over the place. The building takeover, although east of the main festival and across the highway, featured over 1 and a half hour waits to score some free Cheeto encrusted selfies.

C4 Pop-up Energy Drink Stands sprung up all around the festival offering cold, plant-based energy to hungover attendees around downtown Austin throughout the day.

As a title sponsor of SXSW, White Claw was the inescapable hard seltzer across hundreds of official SXSW sponsored happy hours. In many cases, the gluten sensitive crowds opted for a Claw, as the only other free options were local Texas beers and wine.

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Collective Intelligence works closely with strategists, planners, creatives, media and engagement professionals, delivering research and thought leadership that helps IPG and its agency partners put creativity and human connections at the center of their work.

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