The Ultimate Roundup of This Year’s SXSW Experiential Marketing Activations

HBO, Casper, Gatorade and more

These are the 10 best activations at SXSW. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Adweek

SXSW Interactive, the first half of the Austin, TX conference dedicated to emerging tech and everything digital, brings out a ton of festival-goers and a ton of brands trying to reach them. From VR experiences and AI robots, to an actual hotel you can book a room at, brands at South by Southwest spared no expense with stunts old and new designed to get passersby tweeting, Instagramming and Snapping about their experiential activations.

Over the past five days, the Adweek staff on the ground in Austin has checked out just about everything brands had to offer at SXSW. These 10 experiences, ranging from simple street teams to an entire fast-food restaurant built from the ground up, are the ones that impressed us the most.

AMC’s Los Pollos Hermanos Restaurant

A pop-up version of the infamous chicken chain, known for the super-shady dealings made within its walls on AMC’s Breaking Bad, heralds the upcoming appearance of the chain’s owner, Gus Fring (played by Giancarlo Esposito), in Season 3 of the prequel series, Better Call Saul. The restaurant was built from scratch in three days and borrows props from the show like gumball machines, the clock and Jimmy’s car. Read the full story here. Alfred Maskeroni

HBO: The Escape

This year’s HBO SXSW activation turned the famous sets of Veep, Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones into intricately detailed escape rooms. The Oval Office from Veep has everything from the president’s desk to perfectly rendered paintings on the wall. The Silicon Valley hacker den is a remarkably chaotic scene filled with take-out containers (many with real food in them), computers, circuit boards and whiteboards. And the Game of Thrones room is a dingy, cold, snowy space inside Castle Black that’s eerily similar to being stuck in a dungeon in Westeros. Read the full story here. —A.M.

Gatorade Combine

Although maybe not as flashy as other brands, Gatorade brought a detailed and popular (there was always a hefty line) experience to SXSW. Gatorade’s Combine showed off the “future of athlete evaluation” by partnering with three leading sports tech companies currently being used by collegiate and professional sports teams to evaluate player potential, increase efficiency and identify and minimize athletes’ exposure to injury.

Gatorade brought interactive exhibits from three sports tech brands to its downtown Austin corner. Kitman Labs uses a Microsoft Kinect to “analyze movement function and biomechanics for potential injury risk.” STRIVR showed off what is essentially a very detailed virtual reality game used for situational training in football. The simulation puts you in the shoes of a quarterback and asks you to decide how to run a certain play based on what the defense is doing. As an avid football fan, I failed miserably in all three of my attempts—being a quarterback is hard.

Lastly, Sparta Science uses “patented force plate data to identify key thresholds for resilience” that can be used to create custom workouts to increase efficiency and reduce risk of injury. Sparta is being used by many college and pro teams and because of its clear and concise data, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of its terms and metrics enter the broader sports audience vernacular when it comes to discussing player ability, like how we do now with 40-yard dash times and vertical jump height.

Gatorade says they don’t currently have any plans to pivot into a full-on sports tech company, similar to Under Armour, but it’s a good look to be involved with brands leading the way in sports science. —Charles Goetz

One Night and Casper Hotel

Casper, the Standard Hotel and Tesla teamed up to create an oasis for frazzled festival-goers. Using the Standard’s One Night app, which lets you book same-night hotel rooms after 3 p.m., SXSW attendees could book a last-minute room at the Austin Motel, a retro chic property, for $99 a night. Attendees could also reserve a 45-minute “refresh room,” a place for napping and recharging your devices. All rooms are equipped with Casper mattresses and milk and cookies. And, if you request it, an on-site “mom” will come and tuck you in and read you a bedtime story. Read the full story here. Christine Birkner

Nat Geo’s Further Base Camp

The activation promoting NatGeo’s new scripted series, “Genius,” puts Einstein’s thought experiments into augmented reality, with holograms of a zooming train and glowing planets appearing around attendees. Then there’s a digital chalkboard operated by an intimidating robotic arm (stand back) that draws people’s faces using Einstein’s mathematical formulas written in his handwriting. Read the full story here. —C.B.

Netflix Lockers

To promote its new original series, “13 Reasons Why” Netflix maximized its exposure by recreating the same activation throughout numerous areas of the festival. It’s a good move as SXSW covers quite a large part of downtown Austin and the surrounding areas, and depending on your interests, it’s quite easy to miss a lot of what’s going on.

The version we visited was by our preferred breakfast taco spot, making it easy for Netflix to get festival attendees drinking their coffee and eating bacon, egg and cheese tacos at the outdoor tables to listen to its pitch for the show.

For this activation the brand brought a group of school lockers belonging to characters on the show filled with props and other ‘teen’ accoutrements. The series is a mystery about a high school girl who commits suicide and then leaves behind 13 cassette tapes containing her ’13 Reasons Why’ for her classmates to decipher. The crux of the activation is letting you choose a locker and then you listen to one of the messages on a real-life portable cassette player. The experience with the tape inspired some fun nostalgia, but mostly just made me thankful for the era of smartphones and Spotify.

It’s a simple activation but was executed well and the dialogue on the tapes actually got you intrigued in the story. The show might not be for everyone, it’s dark and technically a young adult series (Selena Gomez is an executive producer) but the activation could get you interested in the show without doing something flashy to get your attention and then just showing you the trailer you could already see on YouTube. Speaking of … —C.G.

Bravo Stripped

Bravo descended on Austin to promote its new series ‘Stripped’—a social experiment where participants are forced to shed all of their material possessions for 21 days—in a flash-mob style activation. In the pouring rain, 60 locally-based models with #Stripped painted on their bodies undressed down to nude-colored tights and surprised unsuspecting conference attendees in the streets surrounding the Austin Convention Center. Read the full story here. —A.M.

Hulu’s Handmaids

Another street-team, flash mob activation from a brand at SXSW was Hulu with its groups of Handmaids dressed in all red with the white hats. They didn’t do much, other than make everyone rather uncomfortable, but even if you weren’t familiar with the upcoming Hulu series, “A Handmaid’s Tale,” (starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss) their presence was enough to make you ask someone what was going on or take to Twitter to find out yourself. I believe you could go up to them and ask if you should walk by the river, but frankly I was too scared to. 10/10—Would avoid eye-contact and cross the street again. —C.G.

TNT’s Animal Kingdom Surfing Simulator

TNT literally made waves on West Fourth Street and Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, Texas, to promote Season 2 of its show Animal Kingdom. The pop-up activation transported attendees to the show’s Cody Beach, complete with a giant FlowRider ultimate surf simulator, surf lounge, custom sneaker art bar, live street art, beer garden and a Mighty Cone food truck. Read the full story here. —A.M.

Facebook House

Facebook’s activation this year at SXSW highlighted its many advertising-based services. The space looked to amplify Facebook’s message of mobile video in particular, as well as the platform’s ability to help entertainment marketers drive their businesses in terms of selling movie tickets, driving TV or live video tune-in and generally building audiences. Facebook was all-in on B2B at SXSW this year, though they did release an Instagram Stories like feature for Messenger just as SXSW was getting underway. Read the full story here. Chris Heine

Bonus: Starz’ Big White Buffalo

This might not count as ‘experiential’ but it is a ridiculously huge activation and it demanded your attention in this area of the festival. The giant, smoking, red-eye glowing, white buffalo doesn’t tell you much about the new Starz series, “American Gods” (based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman), but it was certainly impossible to miss. —C.G.