South by Southwest is known for being the place brands go when they have a great piece of experiential marketing to show off—whether that’s Hulu’s Handmaids Tale being creepy and sending hoards of women dressed in red cloaks around the city of Austin, or HBO building an immersive activation at this year’s festival to promote the upcoming season of Westworld.
And yet, as the festival continues to grow in size (421,900 people directly participated in the event last year, with nearly 71,000 people attending the conference) there’s increasing speculation around whether SXSW is still relevant and whether or not it’s really worthwhile to shell out money on major activations, when they’re competing with so many other brands for attention.
A handful of brands that attendees may remember from previous years are either cutting back their presence on the ground or simply not attending at all. Spotify, for example, has hosted its Spotify House—filled with top notch artists and live music—in previous years, but this year will simply have representatives attending the festival for meetings and will create some playlists around the event, according to a rep.
Then there are companies like American Greetings. The brand created a massively successful, analog-driven activation among a tech-heavy festival in 2016, but will be sitting on the sidelines in 2018.
That’s not necessarily because the brand doesn’t find the experience valuable though.
“Relevance is a big part of the American Greetings brand,” explained American Greetings CMO Alex Ho. “If we just showed up year after year as a conventional sponsor to get a logo on a wall, we would be doing our brand a disservice because that’s just spending money and not very relevant. If we can’t find a meaningful and relevant reason to participate in SXSW or any other experiential venue, then we won’t do it.”
“SXSW has always presented a great opportunity and high value for brands, and that hasn’t changed. While our base is primarily industry and media attendees, we also have a large consumer audience, both of which provide an appealing demographic of early adopters and engaged customers. Participation changes from year to year and we’ve seen a shift towards more intimate, creative, and personal activations. We’re also seeing brands partner with some interesting up-and-coming agencies who are incorporating technology in innovative ways,” Brad Spies, director of special projects for SXSW, said of the festival.
Increasingly it appears that marketing execs and experiential agencies stress that any activation at an event as large as SXSW needs to have careful thought and consideration put behind it. Otherwise it’s probably not worth the time and money.
“SXSW is a crowded space where everyone is already fighting to break through the clutter. Brands need to show up in a way that is true to their DNA and create an environment that amplifies their brand voice through authentic and memorable experiences. If not, they will get lost in the mix,” Vanessa Fontanez, general manager, experiential and conferences for Vox Media, said.
Vox Media will have a presence at SXSW this year, hosting what it’s calling The Deep End for the first time. It will have everything from panels to podcasts to immersive experiences. While Vox Media’s platform (including Eater, The Verge and Recode) are all attached to the The Deep End in different ways, Vox Media also has a handful of brand sponsors for their space, including Nest, Twix and Tempur-Pedic.
Partnering with a media company or another preexisting SXSW event seems to be an increasingly popular way for brands to gain exposure at major events, without being on the hook for building their own experience.
“There is great value in working with a partner who can provide a vision, talent, audience curation and quality content. Brands are looking for trusted partners to collaborate with, who can deliver turnkey solutions and experiences without having to start from scratch,” added Fontanez.
The Participation Agency does something similar with brands, where it creates a space for brands to partner and reach musicians and bands heading to SXSW, without having the full burden of creating an activation. The agency created what it calls Outpost and Basecamp. Outpost was created to be a “sophisticated rest stop” for artists that are on tour, while Basecamp provides homes that sleep six for touring artists and bands.
How does SXSW and brand activation play into all of this? The Participation Agency has a swath of brands that it has partnered with over the years to help support Basecamp and Outpost, ranging from Swell, Jenga, Brandless, Cora, Justin’s and more.
“For the brands, all the artists that they would be paying an exorbitant amount of money for they are going to come through our location and they are actually going to touch and use our products and they are going to do it in a really authentic way,” Jessica Resler, co-founder and cco of The Participation Agency, said.
At the end of the day though, brands that have the time and money will find activating at SXSW is probably still worthwhile.
“I’ve been a regular at SXSW over the years and each time around, I gain a unique perspective. What I find valuable is that unlike other shows, SXSW is really about consumer-centric experiences. CES is about the technology and Mobile World Congress is about the upcoming infrastructure and hardware, but SXSW is truly set apart by the branded experiences,” Tom Edwards, chief digital and innovation officer at Epsilon, argued.