At SXSW, Brands Are Playing Games With Your Health (in the Good Way)

Jockeying to be the next big names in digitally fueled wellness

The melding of tech and health is everywhere these days, but nowhere is the trend more visible than right now at South by Southwest.

By combining technology, wellness and exercise, brands who are activating experiences at SXSW in Austin, Texas, are using gamification to get people to take care of themselves. The goal is partly to give conference attendees a healthy break, but obviously the larger aim is to help turn emerging fitness trends into full-on phenomena.  

One workout that's already at or over that tipping point is SoulCycle, which will have a visible role at SXSW.

"Before SoulCycle, working out was something you needed to check off the list, something you would suffer through," SoulCycle vp of marketing Spencer Rice said. "I dreaded going to the gym. The purpose of SoulCycle is to invite people, to make people feel great and to feel good making people work out."

If you haven't heard of SoulCycle, it's a 45-minute spin class that allows indoor cyclists to compete with themselves while being fueled by motivational instructors and bombastic music. SoulCycle is hosting sessions Monday through Wednesday at SXSW's Spotify House to introduce itself to the tech and music crowds, as well as herald its upcoming app.

NBC Universal's digital fitness video program Radius believes in the gamification of health, as well. From casting entertaining personalities as instructors to awarding digital badges for reaching goals to constantly adding new workout routines every few weeks, NBCU's president of digital, Nick Lehman, said that making fitness a game helps keep monthly consumers subscribing to its product. At SXSW, it's hosting in-person fitness classes on the NBC Sports Lawn from March 13 through 15 to get people to try out the programs.

"Being an entertainment company, we come at this from a different perspective," he explained. "We blend fitness and entertainment together. It makes fitness fun, and more sustainable, which aligns our business incentives with consumer incentives."

Even Phillips Healthcare is getting in on the action. It's conducting a Connect to Health social experiment during SXSW, where it will fit 1,000 attendees with health trackers. Then, using mapping technology, it will allow participants to compete with each other using their health stats throughout the festival.

Blake Cahill, global head of digital and social marketing for Philips, says the gamificiation of health tech is part of a larger trend to make health more personal and meaningful to the patient and more purposeful to the health practitioner.

"The advent of wearables, connected health and new ways of addressing patient monitoring, through preventative health, diagnosis, treatment, recovery, and home care—along the entire health continuum—presents an enormous opportunity for any company seeking to tap into the exciting world of digital health," he said via email.  "It's no secret that when consumers and patients are more involved in their own health tracking and proactive personal health management, the outcomes are far more successful."

Meanwhile, startup Muse is a wearable headband that literally turns meditation into a game. People put on the device, which measures brainwaves, and then attempt to calm themselves through certain relaxation exercises. It will be demoing the app around the city for those in need of a mental break.

"Gamification is just a tool helping people improve vitality, and we're seeing some amazing stuff happen,"  said Trevor Coleman, chief product officer of Interaxon, which produces Muse. 

It's not just combining tech and health: Brands are convincing other marketers to work with them, like the SoulCycle/Spotify activation. Spotify VP of global marketing and partnerships Erin Clift said it was a perfect partnership with them because SoulCycle is well known for how it uses music in its classes.

"There's such an intersection of health and technology happening," Clift said. "Music makes exercise and fitness more fun. At Spotify, we're focused on making a world where cultures combine through music."

Meanwhile, Radius is working with Under Armour. Its fitness instructors are garbed head to toe in sponsor gear, and in a few weeks, the platform will allow you to buy the looks. Radius is also roaming the streets of SXSW to get people to take a jump rope challenge, and the three people who can sustain the activity the longest will score a bag of goodies from Under Armour. After SXSW, it will release a co-produce video series with the athletic brand that showcases how to be a better athlete through cross training, featuring some of Under Armour's sports stars.

"We're looking for ways to bring in partners organically," Lehman said.