Brands bet on tech influence at SXSW Interactive

AUSTIN, TX: With thousands in attendance at the annual South by Southwest Interactive festival this week, major brands are seeking to connect with these tech-savvy influencers, from developers to young entrepreneurs.

AUSTIN, TX: With thousands in attendance at the annual South by Southwest Interactive festival this week, major brands are seeking to connect with these tech-savvy influencers, from developers to young entrepreneurs.

Nearly 20,000 participants attended the interactive portion of SXSW last year, and more were expected for the 2012 show, which runs Friday, March 9, through Tuesday, March 13. Thousands more were expected later in the week for the music portion of the festival. 

Marketers here are trying to get in front of as many of the right people as they can during those five days through various methods, including sponsoring the actual event, happy hours and parties, lounges with charging stations, free ponchos or other swag, speaking at panels, and hosting press events.

Chevrolet, for example, had more than 65 cars in Austin for its third year at SXSW. It used them in several promotions, such as “Catch a Chevy,” and “Drive a Chevy.” The car-maker also offered a special suite of Volts to influencers through a partnership with startup RelayRides, which facilitates owner-to-owner car rentals. Attendees were given free rides in various Chevys, or given the opportunity to drive one.

“Our job here is to sell cars, and it's a great place to build our brand,” said Mike Albano, director of communications for Chevrolet. “Every day, we need to reinvent the brand. There's been some damage done over the years… [SXSW] gets us in front of people we might not have.”

The automaker, which also showed off its OnStar technology, brought about 30 people to SXSW. OnStar had planned to host a breakfast for developers on Monday. More events are planned for the music portion, but the bulk of GM's SXSW marcomms is focused on the interactive segment, which also included panels and other content.

GE used SXSW to kick off “GE Garages,” a sort of DIY technology pop-up shop that will remain in Austin until March 18, before traveling the country. Stops are planned in Houston, San Francisco, and Cincinnati. The “garage,” which was open to the public, allowed participants to weld, work with injection molders, and check out high-tech tools, such as laser cutters.


About 1,000 people stopped by on Saturday, March 10, said Beth Comstock, GE SVP and CMO. She called SXSW a “great backdrop” in which to launch Garages.

“The value of pop-ups never gets old,” she added.

Comstock explained that the pop-up allowed GE to “bring to life the power of making things,” an important message for a technology and manufacturing company. 

In its fourth year at SXSW, PepsiCo, a marquee sponsor for the festival as a whole, brought four of its brands to Austin: Brisk, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and for the first time, Doritos. This year marked the company's biggest SXSW “activation so far,” says Josh Karpf, global director of digital and social media.

A special Doritos unveil is expected later this week, but during the interactive portion, PepsiCo set up on the ground floor of the convention center with a “What if? Unconference” that facilitated brainstorming sessions. The PepsiCo Central at the convention center also featured interactive screens, and the PepsiCo Zeitgeist, a ticker of SXSW social media chatter, was a popular brand tactic at the conference.

"We view it as a place with culture breaks, and specifically digital culture breaks…probably 12 to 18 months before they hit consumer consciousness," Karpf said.

Many of Pepsi's brand initiatives, though, appeared more focused on music tie-ins, a longstanding tactic of the food and beverage company.

Media presence
More than 2,500 journalists attended SXSW Interactive last year. A number of them appeared on panels this year as part of the conference's journalism track, which included Conde Nast, Time Inc., Food Network, and Bravo representatives. Some hosted events, such as the Huffington Post journalism party on Saturday, but CNN probably had the largest presence and most comprehensive programming at SXSW Interactive.

For the second year in a row, the news network took over a local diner next to the convention center and turned it into the CNN Grill where invitees ordered free food and drinks, mingled with CNN talent, and listened in on CNN-led panels. Programming centered on a handful of key differentiating attributes for the brand – politics, international, and social media, explained KC Estenson, SVP and GM of CNN Digital.

Asked who the news network wanted to connect with at SXSW, Estenson responded emphatically: “anybody who is under 30.” The media company, though, opted to spend its time at the interactive, rather than the music portion of festival, hoping to connect with its digital savvy crowd.

“It's about taking the brand to unexpected places,” he continued.

CNN also launched a CNN Grill Pinterest board and Tumblr page, and it coordinated a special CNNireport where festival-goers could share photos with the hashtag CNNSXSW and an iReport booth at the convention center. Other initiatives included sessions where start-ups were encouraged to pitch CNNMoney reporters.

CNN had about 75 people on site in Austin, including its technical crews.

Networking opportunities
All around downtown Austin, brands rented out bars for sponsored happy hours, lunches, and dinners. Parking lots were taken over for the construction of mini communities set up by the likes of Bing and Nike.

Google took over several local bars within a one-block radius in what it called the “SXSW Google Village.” The area was broken into four themes designed to show off Google products and services, including the developer house where a Lego robot building contest happened and the Android House where tablets, phones, TVs, and music were on display alongside the ubiquitous taco truck and bar.

The carnival-like environment of SXSW includes plenty of food giveaways and local brew, an environment that marketers have deemed perfect for facilitating mass-scale networking and brand building.

Stead Burwell, CEO of Alliance Health, a six-year-old company with 85 people, visited the SXSW “Startup Village” community at the Downtown Hilton where he was scheduled to speak on a panel about startups.

Alliance Health offers online support communities for those with various conditions, including diabetes, arthritis, and depression, among many others. Users can create a Facebook-like profile and chat with others, as well access information about their condition. Since SXSW added a health and education tract, it has “become relevant” for him, Burwell said, particularly in terms of networking and “positioning.”

B-to-b brands like Xerox also attended. Duane Schulz, VP of brand and social marketing at Xerox, was scheduled to speak on a panel Monday about social media for b-to-b brands.

“We're there to talk about how large enterprises can take advantage of social,” he said. “We're putting a human face on the brand [through social media], which is kind of different than our public persona.”

While the company did not host any special events, it expected to have “eyes and ears on what other people are talking about,” he said.

Many other companies have long used SXSW Interactive to launch new products, particularly in the technology tool category or increasingly apps and web services.

One example was, which chose SXSW to roll out a tool that allows users to create free infographics with Facebook and Twitter data. The company expects to eventually add additional input feeds, as well.

“This is just the beginning of this,” said Lee Sherman, cofounder and chief content officer of

Sherman envisions the tool appealing to PR, marketing, and social and community managers. “The reason for launching at SXSW is that in the first release of the tool we were really focused on social media data and the kinds of stories that you can tell around social,” he added. “We wanted to give attendees to the show a tool to track the kind of things that are going on.”

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