Can McDonald's Successfully Pull Off a SXSW Sponsorship?

Past efforts to reach millennials don't bode well for the brand

McDonald's tries to make its mark in Austin with an official sponsorship.

In its ongoing bid to win over millennials, McDonald's is making its first official debut at this year's South by Southwest Interactive. The fast food giant's activations have all the makings of a traditional festival sponsor—a food truck, an interactive lounge and a party—but if the brand's previous attempts are any indication, McDonald's is in for a challenge.

To make up for slumping sales the past year, McDonald's has tested mobile payments and introduced multiple new advertising campaigns meant to refresh its image, particularly with younger diners. Those efforts have gotten mixed reviews, so it's unclear how this week's festival activations will fare with SXSW, which tends to draw in a lot of millennials.

"Our presence at SXSW will highlight our commitment to digital innovation and enhance the onsite experience for attendees," said Becca Hary, a rep for McDonald's. "McDonald's has never been involved with SXSW in an official capacity, making this an even more exciting time for our brand."

A food truck set up on the corner of 4th and Red River streets in downtown Austin will have a charging area (dubbed Fry-Fi stations), street performances and live music. The truck will serve breakfast and lunch—including French fries and Shamrock Shakes on St. Patrick's Day, followed by all-day breakfast on March 18 for those who had a bit too much fun the night before.

The burger slinger will also sponsor a lounge at the conference, which is equipped with Wi-Fi, charging stations and TVs that stream coverage from panels. As Quartz reports, McDonald's will also host three pitch sessions in the lounge where startups will come up with new restaurant, delivery and digital ideas.

Then on Saturday night, McDonald's is hosting a private party with cocktails (an email invitation promises maple-bacon-bourbon Old Fashioneds) and performances from DJ Slaptop and Meg Mac.

Still, McDonald's has an uphill battle when it comes to standing out at Texas' biggest arts and entertainment festival.

Last week, the brand came under fire when indie band Ex Cops posted on Facebook that the brand asked them to play at the festival for free. In lieu of money, the band was promised to "be featured on screens throughout the event" and possibly recognized on McDonald's social media accounts.

This year's SXSW Music event is scheduled to bring in 2,200 regional, national and international acts. So does McDonald's understand the size and scale of its SXSW involvement?

Ex Cops singer Amalie Bruun summed it up by telling Rolling Stone last week, "If we're not going to get paid for our live shows, what are we going to get paid for?"

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