Just showing up is not enough at SXSW

My head hurts! On Sunday, the rain finally cleared and it turned into an incredible day here in Austin, TX. I don't think that I am alone in saying that I tried my darnedest to make up for lost time over the past 24 hours and experience the outdoor craziness that is SXSW.

My head hurts! On Sunday, the rain finally cleared and it turned into an incredible day here in Austin, TX. I don't think that I am alone in saying that I tried my darnedest to make up for lost time over the past 24 hours and experience the outdoor craziness that is SXSW.

At one point in the evening, I was actually kidnapped by some very lovely people in the Bongo Party Bus, whose ultimate destination was Cedar Street Courtyard for the Foursquare party. It all gets a bit hazy after that, although I am pretty sure that a pedi-cab ride took place!

So please forgive me if my SXSW closing thoughts are a bit incoherent. I am doing my best to make some sense of the past four days. 

Why every brand should be here
Each year, there is a lot of internal debate amongst our clients if they should or should not participate in SXSW. The most common reason brands cite for not participating is the glut of brands already present. The common thinking is that it is just too difficult to rise above all of the white noise, so why bother doing anything at all?

After finally attending SXSW myself, I have come to see that this rationale is short sighted and incorrect. Technology is no longer a vertical. It pervades every industry and every element of our lives. As such, all companies are in some way, shape, or form technology companies, and we are all technologists. Technology and modern living pervade every element of SXSW. It isn't a trade show in the classic sense, which is inherently spectatorial. It is truly a participatory experience where technology is front and center. It is the only place where you never have to be “ashamed” if you like to meticulously take pictures of your food to post online (I had the most amazing fried milk desert at Uchiko last night), or take a moment to “check in” at each and every stop of your day (I am the proud recipient of the 4sq Crawl badge), because everyone you meet here feels exactly the same way!

It is true that there are an overwhelming number of brands present, and I am sure that I completely missed many of them. But that doesn't mean that thousands of other people missed them, too. Just seeing brand signage around was interesting to me. I was unable to attend Evite's party, but I saw the sign outside. I didn't go into Ask.com's space, but I saw it from the street. I appreciated that they were present and accounted for even if I personally didn't get to experience them directly. Simply put, if you are a brand and aren't here, then you don't feel relevant to today's technology consumer.

The big marketing winners
In my opinion, the big marketing winners this year were American Express*, Chevrolet, and CNN. Granted, each of these brands spent significant time and resources, but I believe that it really paid off for all them.

The American Express brand was ubiquitous throughout the week with a whole host of relevant programs, including a partnership with Twitter, an expanded Foursquare integration (it also co-sponsored the Foursquare party), as well as tonight's Amex Sync Show Presenting Jay-Z. Two thousand lucky winners received free tickets to tonight's intimate show at Austin City Limits. All they had to do was have a SXSW badge, sync their American Express cards, and show up at a pre-determined place and time to pick up their tickets. I personally got so caught up in it all that I rushed over there to get my ticket, not realizing that I am leaving this afternoon. So if anyone wants my ticket, please let me know ASAP!

Equally present was Chevrolet. Specially marked vehicles provided free rides to SXSW events and venues. I personally used the benefit one morning when I was racing over to catch a 9:30 am panel. In addition, Chevrolet sponsored the Volt Recharge Lounge at the Convention Center - the Chevy Volt is an electric car and the lounge was a place to charge your electric devices — clever, right? It also sponsored the Chevrolet Sound Garage on E. 6th Street, creating a lounge by day and music venue by night. Chevrolet also showcased its Chevy Sonic Boom concept car and facilitated test-drives for its Chevy Corvette Grand Sport Coupe and its Chevy Volt.

For the second year in a row, CNN created the CNN Grill at Max's Wine Dive.  The restaurant became a working studio, when CNN broadcast Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien live from the Grill on Friday morning, as well as a clever marketing vehicle. “Influencers” were invited to use the grill as place to relax, work, and network throughout the day, and a place to party at night, with live musical acts, cocktail receptions, and provocative salons. While there were many other media properties in attendance, I believe that CNN most closely aligned itself with SXSW and made me feel like it understood its audience. 

Not all brand experiences worked
With the above brands really raising the bar, contrary to my earlier point, just being here isn't enough if you really want to stand out. It isn't enough to wrap a food truck up and pass out free food, although I must admit that I did like Today's “Munchie Mobile” concept because it makes sense for a morning show to give out free breakfast. Rather, the brand experience has to be unique, memorable, and authentic. 

For me, the least effective brand experience I saw came from FedEx. Sorry guys, just calling it as I see it. It transformed a FedEx truck into a food truck “delivering” lunches in mock FedEx boxes. In addition, they had a woman dressed up as FedEx employee. People could plug their devices into her specially created uniform to get a quick charge. I am sure people appreciated the charge, despite it being very weird to plug your device into someone in broad daylight, and the food, but since you never had to go very far to find either - it seems like no one has to pay for food or drink at SXSW - I didn't feel like the FedEx experience was that unique, memorable or true to the brand. I would have loved to see FedEx create a pop-up FedEx Office that provided on-the-fly business services and let people ship back all of the free swag they received free of charge. Now that would have been bold, and necessary, as my suitcase is bulging with all the stuff everyone has been giving out.

And here is an idea for someone next year: Instead of just providing charging stations, can someone provide UV stations to sanitize mobile devices? When attending SXSW, you inevitably bring your smart phones, tablets, and PDAs into some sticky situations! I couldn't believe how dirty and smudgy my iPhone got just after a few days. I guess that just comes with the territory of being attached to it non-stop. 

A good idea delivered poorly is a poor idea
While I am being critical, let me just share one more gripe. I was completely underwhelmed by almost all of the “brand ambassadors” I met this week. In most cases, they were simply “hired hands” working the various food trucks, sampling stations, swag giveaway spots, etc., and quite often they had no idea what they were talking about and they routinely broke “character” during any kind of consumer questioning. I know that there are many firms that specialize in employing and training street teams, etc., but I believe that they really need to up their game at SXSW. It is one thing to pass out samples to mainstream consumers in some busy intersection and it is another to try and engage with hyper-engaged, passionate consumers, like the ones you find at SXSW. I think this was a big faux pas on the part of many brands. If I were hiring a street team for SXSW, I would seriously consider importing them from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or New York.

That's all from me. It's time to go home! 

*Full disclosure: Kwittken & Co. works with a unit of American Express, but was not involved in anything related to SXSW.

Jason Schlossberg is president and partner at Kwittken & Co. The agency won honorable motion for Small Agency of the Year at the 2012 PRWeek Awards. You can follow him on Twitter @JSchlossberg.

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