The Big Winners At South By Southwest

By Perks |

SXSW Interactive 2011 logo

Damien and Lauren recently got back from SXSW with some major takeaways at what was big down there. GroupMe, Foursquare, Gowalla, Pepsi, Fast Company, CNN, Chevy and Apple all came out on top as they all had physical presences. Yes, the big technology to come out of SXSW this was advertising.

It’s true that the group texting was the actual technology that shined at SXSW this year. Overall, the companies that made a big impression were the ones that were always in your face with advertising and a physical presence. The brands that made an impact were the ones that actually did something.

GroupMe took over a grill in front of the Convention Center, called it the GroupMe Grill, and gave out free grilled cheese and beer between 12 and 2 to people that could prove they had GroupMe on their phone. They won for best placement as you always saw them considering they were opposite the front of the Convention Center. Ultimately they also came out on top of all of the Group Texting apps as well. Coincidence? Probably not.

Foursquare partnered with Pepsi for the Pepsi Max Lot, which had an actual foursquare court to play foursquare with Foursquare, a bar, a ping pong table, a photo booth, tables with outlets, a couch lounge area and free Pepsi Max. Foursquare also partnered with Big Boi and Pepsi to release 2,000 Golden Tickets that were randomly unlocked as you checked in all over Austin during SXSW Interactive. If you unlocked the Foursquare badge you showed it at the Pepsi Max Lot for a physical ticket to a show with The Sounds and Big Boi. They also partnered with American Express to tie a limited amount of retailers into their social rewards program. If you tied your AmEx to Foursquare and paid at one of their retailers you unlocked a special Foursquare badge.

Gowalla had their classic Airstream trailer where they were giving you physical Gowalla Passports that you could put stickers of the places you checked into on Gowalla. This was a great representation of their service, as their app has a digital passport that you get digital stickers of the places you go. Their “there” was everywhere. After collecting 5 stickers you went back to the Airstream to get a bracelet for VIP access to their party headlined by Matt & Kim. After collecting 15 stickers you got a premium quality Gowalla t-shirt. While Gowalla’s physical footprint was smaller their takeaway was larger. To have a physical version of what you’re digitally doing really hits home their message of what they’re trying to do.

Pepsi also had their usual Pepsi stage area, which focused on the sustainability of brands you may not know that PepsiCo owns, like Sun Chips and Sabra. This year they launched an augmented reality game that was just like how Kinect for X-Box functions. A camera captures your movements as you are the controller that moves a shopping cart through an obstacle course collecting PepsiCo products. Our own Damien Basile launched this product and went up against Gary Vaynerchuck and Baratunde Thurston, and beat the both of them! In addition to all of this Pepsi had a separate stage in an adjacent room for free alternative programming, where Damien was interviewed about his new app Addieu.

Fast Company took over a restaurant behind the Convention Center where they provided free meals to people who were lucky enough to be on their guest list. They had a table with chargers that was a welcome break from having to sit by your phone and an outlet. In the back of the grill Zazzle had an area set up where you could create and pick up your own custom iPhone 4 cover. They showed off their custom printing abilities by showcasing sneakers, skateboards and other gadget cases.

CNN took over a grill opposite of the Pepsi Lot. They took off the restaurant sign to put up their own rotating CNN sign. It seemed the big thing this year was taking over grills with your own branding and custom offerings. Ironically, the restaurant was called Max’s which was located across from the Pepsi Max Lot. That irony was lost on the fact that CNN changed out the signage 1 day before SXSW officially started.

Not to be outdone, Apple launched the iPad 2 during SXSW on the 11th. Most people were willing to go to the Austin mall to line up, which was about 3 miles away. Apple decided that what they would do is open an iPad popup store in downtown Austin for the duration of SXSW Interactive. The environment was fun and festive, as the employees would dance to exuberant music as you came in and clap as you left. Apple didn’t need to pull a stunt. It’s product and culture of product became the stunt. Business as usual but definitely something to experience as I don’t see Apple doing a popup store in it’s near future again.

Out of all of the brands at SXSW with prominent advertising, Chevy turned out to be the most useful and thoughtful. Free food and swag is great, but at the end of the day all you really wanted was to not be walking anywhere anymore. Chevy took care of that. In addition to their yearly Chevy Volt lounge where you recharge all of your dying devices, Chevy had a pickup area outside of the front of the Convention Center. You could either test drive a Chevy in a closed course around town or Catch A Chevy, which would take you anywhere in the downtown Austin area for free.

To recap: In order to make a huge splash at SXSW now you have to have a big branded engagement that is useful to the festival-goers. SXSW Interactive has become so huge that your presence needs to be huge. The best engagements gave you food, battery power, a place to rest and transportation – the necessities of SXSW. In order to succeed next year at SXSWi think about what your customer would want there and give it to them. Swag is nice but a comfortable experience is nicer.

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