Each spring, the famously “weird” city of Austin gets just a little bit weirder thanks to creatives from around the globe who descend on Texas for the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals (this year, March 9-18). For two weeks, visitors line up to get a glimpse of the latest innovations in film, tech and music. But over the last few years, brand activations have often captivated attendees just as much as the event’s array of seminars and live performances—a fact not lost on SXSW organizers who this year launched the Creative Experience Arrow Awards. To get an idea of how this year’s experiences played out, we caught up with a variety of brands, from finance companies to television networks. Here’s a look at how they engaged attendees in the Lone Star State.
Emergen-C Pedals for Probiotics
Think of Emergen-C and you might picture orange-flavored powder dissolving in a glass of water to stave off the common cold. But to expand consumers’ perceptions of the brand, that it’s a wellness brand that supports immune systems and helps you recover electrolytes lost after a good workout, the brand put the pedal to the metal in the heart of downtown Austin. Street teams hopped aboard a group bicycle bar-style contraption transformed into the Emergen-C Mobile Revitalization Station. Consumers could grab a sample and taste the many flavors and lines of the brand as well as sample the newest product, Probiotics+, a powder that supports immune and gut health, which will be available in stores and on Amazon in April.
“Being at SXSW this year helped us solidify our position as a leading wellness lifestyle brand, and truly showcase the breadth of Emergen-C offerings that can be incorporated daily throughout the year to support consumers’ overall wellness routines,” says Akosua Asamoah, senior brand manager, Emergen-C. Agency: Edelman, New York City.
High Brew’s Roadie Lounge Offers a Respite ‘For Those Who Do’
Operating under its “For those who do” adage, High Brew skipped over the influencer and creator audiences who attend SXSW and instead celebrated the hard-working and often underappreciated laborers behind the annual event—roadies. Inside its “Roadie Lounge,” the cold brew brand gave the festival’s stagehands, lighting operators, tour managers, instrument techs and other behind-the-scenes workers a chance to relax and recharge.
Created in partnership with New York City music venue Brooklyn Bowl, the Roadie Lounge gave roadies a chance to temporarily escape the pressures of SXSW and refuel with complimentary cans of High Brew’s coffee products. Lounge partners were also on hand to engage with the roadies and allow them to demo new audio gear.
The brand additionally co-produced a screening experience to celebrate “Lovey: King of the Roadies,” a documentary about the original roadie and long-time Willie Nelson friend, Ben Dorcy III. In between live music performances, Willie’s daughter, Amy Nelson, and Brooklyn Bowl founder Peter Shapiro, narrated 15-minute musical vignettes from the film featuring the many musicians Dorcy toured with. A silent auction to benefit Dorcy’s charity capped off the experience, with auction items including instruments autographed by legendary musicians like Jerry Garcia. Agency: In house.
Hulu Starts ‘Resistance’ Fires in Austin
Last year, Hulu brought the surreal futuristic society of Gilead in the series “The Handmaid’s Tale” to life at SXSW with a stunt involving groups of in-character “handmaids” dressed in their signature red cloaks and white caps, walking silently all around Austin. This year, the streaming service took the experience to a new level to support season two, premiering in April, by drawing from a key scene in the new season. Handmaid costumes were set fire in seven art installations scattered throughout downtown Austin, including the Driskill Hotel, Moonshine Grill and Hotel Van Zandt. Brand ambassadors positioned at all the installations engaged passersby to join the movement by posting their “messages of hope and resistance” on social media with “I resist _____” and hashtag #ResistSister. Agency: LeadDog Marketing Group, New York City.
Inside The Dell Experience: Interactive Demos and Live Broadcasts
Dell Technologies’ audiences and solutions run the gamut, from IT clients and consumers to servers and storage, and beyond. For its six-day event program at SXSW in Austin, March 10-15, the brand focused on its creative audience with a program that aligned with each phase of the festivals, including film, music, technology and innovation, and gaming. The Experience by Dell Technologies took place in an 8,000-square-foot space at The Sunset Room, across the street from the Austin Convention Center. It marked the second year that Dell has activated The Experience, offering interactive demos, performances, chill spaces and a rotating lineup of events and speakers with content broadcasted live. Agency: Lacy Maxwell Experiential, San Francisco.
Scenes From The Experience by Dell Technologies:
Take a Tour of the 8,000-Square-Foot Space:
Prudential Invites Millennials to Look 50 Years Into The Future
With its sights set on aging millennials, Prudential Financial leveraged its SXSW presence to bring its latest white paper, “The 80-Year-Old Millennial,” to life to help the demographic visualize the future of work, tech, money and health. The brand also teamed up with the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of successful young business owners, to host a networking lounge. The space offered YEC members and prospects a place to connect with YEC mentors and set up one-on-one meetings with fellow entrepreneurs. The organizations also co-produced a futurist panel that touched on key content from the white paper. And, wrapping up the panel program, was a series of interactive engagements tied to the study, like a digital aptitude test and related 3D printing experience.
“Creating an experience enabled us to spark that thought in the minds of millennials in a much more impactful way than simply handing them the results of our study,” says Niharika Shah, vp and head of brand marketing and advertising at Prudential Financial. “And what better place to do this than at one of the most well known interactive media festivals?” Agency: MediaMonks, Hilversum, Netherlands (activation).
Uber Wines and Dines Power Uses
Uber’s double-decker Ride and Dine bus that drove through New York City in the fall for the launch of the Uber Visa card rolled into Austin for the festivals. Parked in an activation footprint with seating, chalkboard signage and overhead party lights, the brand served up local neighborhood-inspired tasting menus from Chef Nic Yanes of Austin’s Uchi and Juniper, like Thai, Japanese and Chinese flavors in North Austin, Tex-Mex of East Austin and contemporary Italian in Downtown Austin. Agency: Manifold, San Francisco.
See the activation design here:
HBO Resurrects the Wild, Wild West(World)
Delivering the most talked about activation at this year’s festival, HBO went all in on its sci-fi series, “Westworld,” with a large-scale recreation of Sweetwater, the show’s fictional setting. Swapping the congested streets of downtown Austin for a real-life ghost town 20 minutes away, HBO transformed two acres of land into the Westworld: Live Without Limits Weekend experience (March 9-11), bringing to life the show’s artificial intelligence theme park and other key locations from the program, including the infamous Mariposa Saloon.
SXSW badge holders over the age of 21 could sign up online to participate in the activation. The experience kicked off at Austin’s EastSide Tavern, where participants gathered and boarded one of eight luxurious Delos Shuttles (a nod to the fictional corporation that runs the theme park in the show) that transported them to the park. Those who couldn’t register to participate online could also follow @Lyft on Twitter for a chance to receive a special code that unlocked a free Lyft ride to the park in a co-branded vehicle.
On-site, guests were assigned a black or white cowboy hat based on the results of a personality test conducted during the reservation process, and gifted a custom-printed letter. Once inside the park, participants were free to explore, uncover hidden clues about the show’s upcoming second season, get a taste of western-themed food and beverages, and interact with “hosts” (the AI robots from the series). What’s more, thanks to a 444-page script written for the activation, nearly every attendee interaction was different, adding an element of personalization to the experience.
Of course, an activation of this scale took some serious blood, sweat and tears. HBO’s in-house marketing team started working with marketing agency Giant Spoon in November to begin the planning stages. It then took five weeks for a 40-person crew to build the park on-site in Texas. Throughout the production process, 58 vendors played a role, from scenic design and construction to catering, landscaping and electrical. And, bringing it all together for the live experience—a cast of 60 actors, six stunt people, five area bands and six local horses. Agency: Giant Spoon, Los Angeles.
Check out the Live Without Limits Weekend Experience:
Swisse Wellness Offers a Healthy Dose of Shareable Engagements
Australian multivitamin brand Swisse Wellness turned heads at the first-ever SXSW Wellness Expo with an Instagrammable booth that offered an exploration of the key ingredients in the brand’s nutritional supplements. In addition to offering plenty of places to sit and relax amid the chaos of the expo, the two-day experience gave attendees a chance to receive complimentary consultations from registered dietician and author Erin Palinski-Wade, who also live-streamed her nutritional tips throughout the event.
Attendees could also dive into the Cape Cod “cranberry bog” ball pit, strike a pose in a replica Sicilian blood orange orchard, enjoy a photo moment in the Spanish artichoke garden and snag a tote bag filled with Swisse product. And giving the entire program a boost was actress Jamie Chung, who stopped by the booth to show her support and introduce her social followers to the brand.
Scenes From the Instagram-Worthy Activation:
Footage From the Show Floor:
Herbalife Nutrition Saves Attendees From Junk Food and Booze
If you’ve ever attended the SXSW Conference & Festivals, you’ve probably experienced scurrying between endless panels and parties without eating a proper meal. So to help festivalgoers trade a few of those breakfast tacos and beers for more nutritious options, Herbalife Nutrition leveraged its SXSW debut to activate a Fit + Fuel Station. The brand’s independent distributors were on-site each day answering questions, educating attendees on the brand’s mission and offering personalized product suggestions to help guide them through the Herbalife platform.
Attendees could also order free, full-sized protein shakes, teas or aloe drinks; snag a quick energy boost at a grab-and-go station; and juice up their devices while taking advantage of free Wi-Fi in a seated charging area. Shareable moments were also a key element of the experience, and included a Cristiano Ronaldo photo op (the soccer star is a brand partner), a chalkboard that read, “Our Purpose is to Make The World Healthier & Happier. What’s Yours?” where attendees could write inspirational messages, and a Boomerang photo op inside a branded ball pit.
“We’ve been hearing, ‘Oh yeah, I had a fried chicken sandwich for breakfast and I’m running low on energy and hydration,’” says Erin Richards-Kunkel, director of social media at Herbalife Nutrition. “So we thought what a great opportunity to provide such a wonderful value—this is actually servicing a need for people.” Agency: Track Marketing, New York City.
Take a Spin Through the Fit + Fuel Station:
HP and Intel Engage Creatives With Digital Art Experiences
In a one-day engagement blitz, HP and Intel on March 13 set out to convert the creatives attending the interactive festival at SXSW into users of the Z suite of HP products, powered by Intel technology, with the Digital Artistry House experience. The brands took over Austin restaurant Icenhauer, transforming the century-old building on Rainey Street with an illustration by French artist and HP collaborator Moon that enveloped the exterior façade of the 3,500-square-foot venue.
Outside, there were product vignettes and tables in a patio space for attendees to relax in. Brand ambassadors in hip jean jackets with branded HP and Intel pins welcomed attendees and directed them around the event. Inside, they could grab a cocktail, explore and interact with the different products, including a Digital Art Competition inspired by the new ZBook marketing campaign. The space was manned by digital artist Android Jones and Keith Gilbert, an Adobe expert trainer, who both offered advice and tutorials. Over in an AI by Moon activation, attendees created art by taking their image at a photo capture station and with “advanced neural network AI” the image was transformed into artist Moon’s artistic style.
On top of demos, the brands recruited a program of brand, industry and creative speakers who presented on a stage within the space throughout the day. Overall, the event earned nearly two million impressions and attracted 5,237 attendees. The brands recorded an average 38-minute dwell time. Agency: Infinity Marketing Team, Culver City, CA.
Take a Tour of the Digital Artistry House:
ABC’s Nostalgic “Roseanne” Activation Entices Superfans
As consumers awaited the return of one of television’s most beloved families—the Conners—ABC fanned the flames with a nostalgia-filled experience at SXSW that touted the reboot of “Roseanne.” The network’s shareable activation featured recreated sets from the series, branded Pedicab rides and a trivia event with cast members.
The attendee journey began at the replica Lanford Lunch Box diner, where brand ambassadors donned chicken-themed apparel and festivalgoers could feast on loose meat sandwiches, pies, coffee and Canoga root beer, a fictional beverage from the show. Then it was on to the Conner household, where attendees could take a photo on the show’s iconic couch, snag a screen-printed tee or tote and kick back in the garage where clips from the program were on rotation.
A trivia event for attendees hosted by “Roseanne” cast members Michael Fishman, Lecy Goranson and Emma Kenney kept the nostalgia coming, along with a meet-and-greet with the actors. And rounding it all out, branded Pedicabs designed to look like the couch from the series that transported festivalgoers to the activation from all over downtown Austin.