The organizers and sponsors behind the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and festivals have been “keeping Austin weird” since the annual event was established in 1987. And from March 11-20 after a three-year hiatus—the Texas-based event was canceled in 2020 and went all-digital in 2021—professionals from the tech, film, music and media industries gathered in person for the tentpole Q1 affair.
In addition to taking place as usual in downtown Austin, a virtual edition of SXSW 2022 was offered to expand the globally-recognized event’s reach. The hybrid format included a mix of networking opportunities, film screenings, music and comedy performances, and exhibitions. But the IRL sponsor activations that took place across the event were designed to be just as captivating as South By’s core offerings, so we rounded up the biggest and boldest. From the art installations, to the touchless tech, to the entertainment to the oh so many opportunities to get a tattoo, here’s a breakdown of how top brands cowboyed up in ATX.
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In collaboration with DC, WarnerMedia and Milestone Media, Ally Financial recently unveiled year-long programming designed to celebrate, elevate and support Black and diverse creators across art, entertainment and fashion. At SXSW, the brand and its partners highlighted their “Milestone Initiative Talent Development Program” effort with the launch of a first-of-its-kind Snapchat AR experience called the Milestone ARchives.
The experience allowed SXSW 2022 festivalgoers to virtually meet and interact with superheroes Static, Hardware and those from “Icon & Rocket” through a multi-level augmented reality activation in which users traveled between “floors” and learned the superheroes’ backstories within DC’s Milestone universe. There were also Snapchat lenses that let attendees digitally step into the shoes of the featured superheroes and share the content on social, and interactive superhero games.
And with much of Ally’s current programming focused on the creator economy, the brand launched another collaboration with UnitedMasters at SXSW centered on musicians and artists, which came to life through an #earnyourmasters pop-up offering entertainment performances and panel discussions. (Agency: R/GA)
AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
Amazon Prime Video activated a double-sided fan experience—Superheroes and Superstars—for festivalgoers to celebrate the brand’s returning Emmy-nominated superhero series “The Boys” and upcoming reality competition, “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls.” Superhero fans entered a replica world of “The Boys” featuring a VoughtLand installation that allowed visitors to walk inside the fictional castle and find character Queen Maeve’s Inclusive Kingdom. They could enjoy a bite to eat at the signature Vought A Burger stand, relax and enjoy cocktails and other drinks at Homelander’s Red, White and Booze Bar, and even take a carousel ride on Starlight’s Carousel of Dreams.
Meanwhile, superstar-seeking fans reveled in Lizzo’s upcoming reality competition “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” at a pop-up salon offering “glow-up” makeovers. A positive affirmation tunnel, choreography instructions, complimentary swag and Lizzo-inspired cocktails and other drinks served at a supersized Juicebox bar rounded out the experience. (Agencies: Live Nation, Catalina Productions, AgenC)
After many years of unapologetically turning consumers’ hands orange, Cheetos eventually named the cheesy dust left on one’s fingertips after consuming its products: Cheetle. The brand even went so far as to commission Cheetle-infused art at Art Basel Miami last December. And at SXSW 2022, the substance was again fuel for an out-of-box experiential program. Enter: the Hands-Free House. In true Cheetos form, and with an appropriate theme, the brand designed its activation around the question, “Did Cheetle inspire hands-free technology?” Pointing to items like robotic vacuums and self-driving cars, the brand ran with the idea that its fans developed today’s top tech to ensure they could still complete daily tasks with Cheetle on their fingers.
Each room in the house was curated to showcase how technology can be used to power activities that typically require the use of your hands. Touchpoints on-site included tech-enabled entry, smudge-free TV remotes and voice-controlled experiences activated with the help of Amazon’s Alexa. After touring the house, attendees could head to the backyard for more hands-free fun, from Cheetos-inspired cuisine to a hands-free vending machine.
Beginning March 28, consumers can visit amazon.com/CheetosHandsFreeHouse to explore a digital version of the space with a 360-degree view, and find tips and tricks to create their own hands-free home so they can “live their best hands-free lives.”
In an installation-rich environment with share-worthy moments, immersive activations as well as a compelling lineup of content and—of course—live music, Austin-based Dell Technologies celebrated SXSW’s return to in-person with its long running #DellExperience lounge. The theme of the experience was “Creativity Brings us Together,” which came to life through stories surrounding sustainability, startups and new technologies helping entrepreneurs and artists “redefine what’s possible.” Read more here.
Dr. Martens returned to Austin March 16-18 with a takeover of Container Bar on historic Rainey St. and a lineup of music performances from Dawn Richard, MUNA, Surfbort, The Black Angels, Faux Real, We Were Promised Jetpacks, MELTS and others. Attendees who arrived early enough could also get free tattoos from The Bearded Gentleman, contribute to an interactive mural designed by illustrator Mollie Tuggle and enter to win a pair of Dr. Martens customized by local artists Elaine Alanzo and Alannah Tiller. (Agencies: Collide Agency, Create Entertainment)
Photo credit: Cam Hunter for Collide Agency
Ahead of the highly anticipated return of FX Networks’ unconventional comedy series “Atlanta,” the brand hosted a trippy two-day SXSW 2022 activation designed to highlight season three’s European narrative. From March 12-13, attendees were invited to “The Trip: An Atlanta Café,” a multi-floor experience inspired by the coffee shops typical of Amsterdam that offered a psychedelic journey through surrealistic and eccentric touchpoints, like tables and chairs slanted at unnatural angles, and a dj spinning tracks from the top of a pipe organ. There were also “elevated” environmental elements incorporated into the space at 4:20 p.m. daily (wink, wink). And, of course, a variety of coffee drinks featuring foam art were available, each slung from behind a stylish branded counterspace. The real brand name of the brew being served: Dope Coffee. Naturally.
But the trip didn’t stop there. FX also honed in on a single frame from the season three trailer in which a harness-clad Dalmatian figure is revealed. For the activation, a brand ambassador was dressed in a replica costume from head to toe, including a black leather chest harness, and moved through the café space as if they were a surrealist piece of art, intermittently striking strange poses, which fans were only too happy to capture for social media. (Agency: BMF)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a brand that has created more enthralling sponsor activations at SXSW over the last few years than HBO. From its “Bleed for the Throne” campaign in which consumers literally donated their blood, to its award-winning takeover of a real-life ghost town for “SXSWestworld,” the brand has earned its status as a SXSW legend.
This year, HBO Max delivered another buzz-worthy strategy to promote its original limited series “DMZ,” set in Manhattan during a civil war. More than 1,700 people RSVP’d to the invite-only, New York City subway station-themed event, which celebrated art, music and community. Upon arriving, attendees walked through a classic subway station entrance (graffiti and all) that led to a venue where they could enjoy live performances, from sets by DJ Premier and DJ Orange Calderon, to a spoken word performance by Lemon Andersen. There was also vibrant street art by NYC-based artist TOOFLY to check out, and, for the braver souls, an opportunity to get inked on-site by tattoo artist Karina Figueroa. Premium merch from retailer TIER rounded out the touchpoints. (Agency: MTW Agency, multicultural marketing strategy)
INC. FOUNDERS HOUSE
Inc. Magazine returned to the festival this year with its Inc. Founders House, a founders-only hub for innovators who are launching, managing and growing businesses. Positioned nearby the Austin Convention Center, the experience offered attendees a place to relax, enjoy snacks, appetizers and cocktails, and connect with star bartenders and fellow entrepreneurs.
Attendees across the entrepreneurial spectrum enjoyed conversation and discovered information, resources and services to support their business goals and challenges. Sponsored by Capital One Business, Velocity Global, Vari and the Charles Koch Foundation, the program also featured happy hours and talks including “How to Manage the Stress of Entrepreneurship” and “Preventing Employee Burnout: Setting Boundaries in a Hybrid Workplace.”
Facebook parent company Meta activated a virtual reality experience, “Surviving 9/11: 27 Hours Under the Rubble,” for consumers to take a raw look into the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City. The cinematic documentary commemorates the 20th anniversary with a recount of the tragedy through the lens of Genelle Guzman-McMillan, a woman who survived 27 hours trapped under the wreckage and was the last person rescued from ground Zero. Archival photographs and never-seen-before panoramas from the World Trade Center highlight the plaza, observatory deck and New York skyline.
If you’ve ever visited SXSW in the flesh, you know that after traversing the massive event for a few hours, your hooves are seriously hurtin’. So to offer attendees relief while promoting a new music reality show, NBC pedaled around Austin with a fleet of 20 branded pedicabs from March 16-18, during the music festival portion of the event. The new show, “American Song Contest,” which debuted March 21, is modeled after the popular annual European songwriting competition, Eurovision Song Contest. To give attendees a taste of the U.S. program, which features talent from all U.S. states, territories and Washington, D.C., NBC offered free pedicab rides manned by drivers donning t-shirts modeled after classic concert tees, with a list of 56 contestants on the back styled to look like tour dates. Each ride included a music broadcast played through a Bluetooth speaker featuring a voice actor who played sample music from all of the show’s participants, giving riders the sense that they were listening to “American Song Contest Radio.” (Agency: Cartwheel & Co.)
When 400 drones illuminated the sky above SXSW, local residents got excited. The 300-foot-tall by 600-foot-wide activation was created for the new Paramount+ series “Halo,” an American military science fiction story based off the video game franchise of the same name.
A performance of light formations illustrating the Paramount+ logo, show titles and characters was followed by an oversized, scannable QR code that led viewers to the show’s website where they could watch an official “Halo” trailer. (Agency: Giant Spoon)
The Peacock Playground, or a pop-up lounge hosted by NBC’s Peacock steaming service at SXSW 2022, invited consumers to discover the brand’s new shows. A basketball challenge sparked competition around the new drama series “Bel-Air” (a remake of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”), while an Instagram-worthy “Girls5eva” music video maker featured a neon light-filled space and chance to shoot your own music video just like the 1990s pop stars in the show. And a “Bust Down” Merry-Go-Round ride was offered in honor of the show of the same name.
“Tiger King” fans discovered a “Joe vs. Carole” seesaw with brand ambassadors waiting to hop on one end and snap a photo or video moment. After taking a ride, they continued the adventure in an adjoining interactive maze. Between activities, attendees could relax in an outdoor open bar and lounge area featuring miniature games, interactive displays, an oversized chess board and custom t-shirt station. (Agency: Civic Entertainment Group)
For Porsche, the design of its iconic sports cars is as important as the performance. And so, at SXSW, the brand leaned into the creative process behind the making of its vehicles with the Porsche Unseen experience, located in downtown Austin a few blocks from the convention center.
Inside, the space featured a larger-than-life replica of a designer’s desk, “complete with oversized pencils, papers and desk clutter.” Throughout, attendees explored an interactive exhibition featuring “once-secret” design sketches and models from the Porsche design team.
Attendees also got a sneak peek of sketches of a special project Porsche has commenced surrounding Sally Carrera and the upcoming 20th anniversary of Disney and Pixar’s film franchise “Cars.” “Work has been underway for several months to create a unique car,” the brand wrote in a release. The car will be auctioned with the proceeds benefitting two organizations, the USA for UNHCR, a UN refugee agency, and Girls Inc.
The program at SXSW also included an exploration of topics from the in-car sound experience to “the potential of NFT-funded racing,” and an Unseen Music lineup featured performances by artists like King Princess and Paris Jackson, as well as Cimafunk and Yendry. Other guests included music composer Boris Salchow and sneakerhead Sean Wotherspoon (Agency: Czarnowski).
SAMSUNG X BILLBOARD
Samsung partnered with Billboard for its activation this year, taking over the downtown Austin venue Smash ATX from March 17-19 to host the Samsung Galaxy x Billboard House. The setup included creator-focused activations that highlighted the key features of Samsung’s latest phone, and a robust lineup of programming ranging from panels to fireside chats.
Activations included “Peaks and Performance,” which allowed attendees to interact with five product displays that were integrated into colorful photo ops highlighting the bright display and speed of the Galaxy S22 smartphone, and “Shoot in the Stars,” which featured a dreamy environment where festivalgoers could not only grab refreshments and take a break from the larger SXSW 2022 scene, but also participate in curated photo ops that showcased advancements in the Galaxy S22’s “Nightography” feature. Panel programming included everything from a “Feminism in Rock” panel to a Yoruba Tech Soul 101 Masterclass to a “superstar” panel in which singer-songwriter Sebastian Yatra spoke about his recent successes, including his performance of “Dos Oruguitas” an Oscar-nominated track from Disney’s “Encanto.”
Outside of the Samsung Galaxy x Billboard House, Samsung offered an outdoor patio experience dubbed Taste the Galaxy. Festivalgoers making the trek to and from the Austin Convention Center could stop by the brand’s contemporary popsicle stand to cool down, partake in a photo moment and snag frozen pops with flavors that mirrored the colors of the new phone. Taste the Galaxy additionally traveled to a handful of other SXSW showcases as a pop-up activation for attendees to enjoy in multiple locations throughout the day. (Agency: NVE)
Photo credit, including featured photo: Kirby Gladstein
The Schweppe’s Ginger Ale House, open to the public at the SXSW Outdoor Stages from March 17-19, provided a lush escape that transported attendees from the park at Austin’s Lady Bird Lake to a greenhouse-style environment meant to evoke the brand’s “refreshingly sophisticated” hero product. Adorned with vines and a green overhead canopy, the Ginger Ale House served up tabletop games inside and cornhole on the front lawn, shade from the elements and, naturally, plenty of Schweppe’s Ginger Ale (the brand’s tonic and diet tonic waters were also available). To boot, the space featured performances by Sammy Hagar and the Circle, Houndmouth, Mt Joy and other notable musicians. All told, Schweppe’s hosted an estimated 7,100 attendees. (Agency: BMF)
Immersive audio brand Spatial activated the Spatial Holodeck experience that attracted 2,200 attendees over four days. The brand demonstrated its sound software through guided demos, interactive installations and “behind the curtain,” hands-on opportunities to explore spatial technology.
Panel programming with industry experts focused on design, wellness, immersive entertainment and the future of work. Another highlight was Spatial’s collaboration with Meow Wolf arts and entertainment company. The interactive experience prompted visitors to scan QR codes and learn the stories behind various light and sound-embedded art installations powered by Spatial technology. (Agency: Pink Sparrow.)
Commencing a three-year sponsorship with SXSW, Volkswagen revealed its new ID. Buzz, an electric vehicle inspired by the classic VW Microbus, with a “Buzz Stop” activation in Austin. Passersby were able to view the new vehicle and engage in conversation about the brand’s electrification efforts and features, as well as its climate-neutral mobility messaging. (Agencies: Gail & Rice, experiential; George P. Johnson, ID. Buzz Stop)
Photo credit: Roger Kisby/Getty Images for Volkswagen of America