Brand empowerment is Cohen's Cornerstone

It's March 15, the first day of the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, and the Levi's Dry Goods Store is buzzing.

It's March 15, the first day of the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, and the Levi's Dry Goods Store is buzzing.

Levi's has been setting up shop for seven years at the festival - and has spent the past couple of years in the same location - so SXSW pros and newcomers alike know where to go for daytime concerts at a gathering that has historically focused on the night.

Jon Cohen, cofounder and co-president of Cornerstone Promotion, is also buzzing, as he oversees the brisk activity at the store, which features bands, free beer and water, and symbolically represents what Cornerstone has accomplished in its 10-year history.

In a phone interview before the event, Cohen deemed the agency's presence at SXSW an "enormous undertaking."

In a decade, the agency has grown from two cofounders to 85 full-time employees with offices in LA, Chicago, and New York. Its clients include Boost Mobile, Nike, and Coca-Cola. The firm helped Apple launch iTunes. It also does marketing for feature and independent films.

"Cornerstone is a relatively small independent company that can be nimble," Cohen says. "We can always think about what's next."

This year, Levi's - which Cohen dubs the "ultimate rock 'n' roll, iconic brand" - set up shop for four days at the dry goods store, where artists, consumers, and industry suits could drink Red Stripe (another client) and watch up-and-coming bands perform.

Cornerstone has positioned itself as a den mother of sorts - albeit a cool one - to road-weary bands, replete with such motherly functions as clothes washing, as well as free Wi-Fi and food.

Another sponsor of the Levi's event is Fader, a music and culture magazine owned by Cornerstone. But Cohen notes that the two rarely interact because the company has an overzealous separation of editorial and promotion to the point where he says, "It has ended up costing us business."

Such losses have not stemmed the momentum of the firm or Cohen's drive, however.

"Jon knows all the places where a brand needs to be and who it needs to be aligned with," says Rob Stone, Cornerstone's other founder and president.

Cohen and Stone are childhood friends who both ascended the music chain before Stone started Cornerstone in 1996 and Cohen joined in 1997.

Cohen worked as a college rep, where he learned to do street marketing and landed a job at SBK, which pumped out acts like Vanilla Ice, Wilson Phillips, and Arrested Development.

While the roster may represent the nadir of cool, Cohen nevertheless fondly recalls how exhilarating it was to witness Vanilla Ice coming out of nowhere to sell 11 million albums in eight months.

Equally exciting was the acquisition of Sprite as Cornerstone's first corporate client. Stone signed the company after he read an article about how the brand was gaining market share by navigating the hip-hop marketplace.

"We know how to listen to a brand, what its goals are, and what it wants to achieve," says Cohen. "[At the same time, we] also listen to the music space."

Authenticity is a difficult concept for corporations to achieve, and Cohen will tell you it does not come easily. With its network of influencers and ties to Fader, Cornerstone wields a lot of power. Cohen realizes, however, that power is only as permanent as Cornerstone's close guarding of it.

"We're working with brands that allow us to do our jobs," Cohen says. "We would misrepresent the brand [and ourselves] if [bands and fans] felt this was just a big corporation writing a check."

Cohen takes pride in Cornerstone's long-term relationships with clients. It has worked with Xbox for more than five years and has built its relationship with Diageo from one brand to six.

"We don't believe in 'sponsorship' here; we believe in integration," Cohen stresses. "We look at Levi's and Red Stripe as true partners. But we want to [be the ones] doing the legwork."

Jon Cohen

Cofounder and co-president, Cornerstone Promotion and Fader magazine

Head of alternative promotion and marketing, Sony

From assistant to head of video promotion and head of alternative promotion, SBK

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