A Marketer’s Guide to SXSW

Brands try to keep Austin wired

For 20 years, South by Southwest Interactive—which started, humbly enough, as SXSW Film & Multimedia—has evolved into a massive marketing extravaganza, last year playing host to 31,000 tech practitioners and enthusiasts, up from 11,000 in 2009. How can a brand hope to break through all that clutter? While it has become old hat for the Twitterati to snipe about the idea of traveling to Texas every year for such a big, noisy event, everybody still shows up. And once they hit town, they’ll be sure to weigh in on activations by AT&T, Samsung, HBO, Subway, American Express and scores of other brands, vendors and agencies. Heading into this year’s festival, Adweek previews five activations vying for attention amid the controlled chaos of Austin.

When Pigs Fly
Focusing on what it does best, Gogo is bringing technology to consumers’ fingertips at 30,000 feet. On March 7 and 8, the in-flight WiFi provider will invite folks to a one-hour ride in the nine-seat plane it regularly uses as a test lab. But here’s the real draw: The cabin will be outfitted as a food truck, serving local favorite Keith’s BBQ during the flights. “We’re going to feed them some of the best barbecue in the country and give them the chance to experience our new products,” says Ash ElDifrawi, Gogo’s chief commercial officer. The private plane is typically employed by the Itasca, Ill.-based firm to tweak its in-flight WiFi service. And to ElDifrawi’s point, it’s where Gogo developed a Web-based text-and-talk service that’s being launched at SXSW, so jet-setting participants will get a sneak peek into how they can soon communicate with land-bound friends. Hey, how often can you say you had cloud-based ribs and brisket? 

Illustration: Matthew Billington

Wearables for Road Warriors
Undertone has been readying an RV dubbed Future Proof Labs at West Coast Customs (of MTV’s Pimp My Ride fame) in Corona, Calif., featuring wearable devices and other digital technology. Next week, the firm plans to wow SXSW attendees with near field communication-enabled watches, rings and bracelets. Several interactive stations around and inside the motor home (located on the corner of 5th and Colorado) will demonstrate how wearables can impact consumers’ digital lives. “There’s never really been an ad tech company that’s been the talk of the show,” says Eric Franchi, Undertone’s co-founder. “We’ve sent people in the past, but this is a drastically different level of investment. We’re going to help people experience mobile and wearables and hopefully make a big splash.”

Bread Co. Seeks Mainland Dough
King’s Hawaiian, which has been making bread since the ’50s, will work the festival’s interactive and film programs as a springboard for its emergence as a national advertising player, via TV spots from Energy BBDO. For Austin, the brand built its first food truck, featuring a huge HD screen reporting all the SXSW social buzz. Nearby photo booths let attendees share pics in their social streams along with King’s tagline #GoPupule (Hawaiian for “go crazy”). The company is buying Promoted Tweets around relevant keywords for the festival to promote the hashtag. And talk about meta: King’s truck will be stationed outside the March 7 premiere of Chef, an indie film about a food truck starring Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr., for which King’s Hawaiian bought a product placement. “We want the South-by experience to be as interactive as possible while kick-starting the larger campaign, which launches around Easter,” explains Erick Dickens, marketing vp.

A Cure for Hospitality Headaches
Razorfish is reprising last year’s much-buzzed-about #UseMeLeaveMe effort, equipping 20 bicycles with GPS and allowing attendees to take a spin around the festival while their wheels auto-tweet weather details and random hellos, comment on whether the rider is acting like a fool and other fun messages. The digital shop has expanded the initiative this time around, however, with a push it has dubbed “Buds for Beds,” offering South-by attendees the chance to lodge during the packed event for free. Attendees can register at UseMeLeaveMe.com, then encourage their friends to vote for them. The winner, along with four pals, will get the use of a house on a huge lot along West 4th Street. Recruiting sessions, hackathons and music performances will take place there over the course of SXSW. “With Buds for Beds, we want to help solve the housing problem that is endemic to the South-by experience,” explains Chris Bowler, Razorfish’s social media lead.

Where the Weird Things Live
Tech vendors Umbel, AdColony and Vox Media are co-sponsoring an event March 7 in one of the Texas capital’s most-famous music venues, Moody Theater, home to PBS’ acclaimed Austin City Limits. It’s going to be strange. Indie “psych-folk” band Local Natives will take the stage, while street teams dressed as astronauts work the front of the venue and Mexican wrestler “El Umbel” takes selfies with guests. “It’s hard to be weird here, but we are going to give it our best shot,” declares PR rep Lana McGilvray. Inside the Moody, large screens will showcase Umbel’s data services as branded welcome messages are zapped to attendees’ smartphones. “The mascot unlocks conversation after conversation,” says Umbel CEO H.O. Maycotte. “It’s fun to have a little something playful in the business-to-business space.” For those braving the South-by crowds, be prepared for a little something weird. That’s just part of the deal, friendo.