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Fighting the FOMO: Brand Experience Lessons from SXSW

Fighting the FOMO: Brand Experience Lessons from SXSW

Even without heading to Austin, there is still much to learn from the brand takeovers and unique activations at SXSW

Written by: Jessica Fritsche, Content Marketing Manager, Freeman

For the past two years, I was lucky enough to be part of the Freeman team on the ground in Austin, Texas for South by Southwest (SXSW), the two-week festival celebrating everything from marketing and tech to music and film.

But this year, things were a little different for me. While many of my friends, as well as some colleagues, were making the annual pilgrimage down I-35, I was sitting at home scrolling through coverage of the crazy-but-cool chaos on my phone while cuddling my 6-month-old son on my lap.

Was I missing things? Sure, but SXSW is all about the fear of missing out (FOMO), whether you’re there in Austin or across the world. There’s so much to see, you’ll never see it all. So I set out to discover what I could gather from my online observations, as well as stories from friends on the scene.

What I found was that there are plenty of important takeaways from an event that features the best in brand experience — even if you’re experiencing them from your couch. 

Getting people talking through unique experiences

You never really know what you’re going to see at SXSW, and that’s part of the charm (and a main source of the FOMO). Brands rise to the challenge to bring their boldest, most unique ideas to Austin, creating memorable and personalized experiences that will earn them the most important convention currency — social media and word-of-mouth coverage.

To no one’s surprise, big-name brands like Sony and HBO came to play this year. Never one to disappoint at SXSW, HBO’s sold-out “Westworld” experience was one of the hottest commodities during the opening weekend, immersing fans in an incredibly detailed recreation of the fictional town of Sweetwater that serves as the setting of the award-winning hit show.

Attendees were assigned hats (white or black, naturally — it is a Western), rounded up, and bussed to an undisclosed location outside the city where they could explore the town, interact with characters, participate in any number of plot-driven missions, and, of course, knock back a sarsaparilla at the tavern. Anyone who made their way to Sweetwater was plastering it all over social with the hashtag #sxswestworld, which was used nearly 6,000 times over the three-day activation.

Sony’s WOW Studio had attendees breaking an unexpected sweat while they took part in a number of interactive demos, from augmented reality air hockey to Kinect-powered mini-games. An attendee I spoke with talked about how surprising that was compared to Sony’s offering last year, which was interesting but a little too VR-heavy. He said that he left huffing and puffing, but happy.

One particular favorite part of the studio was the super-sharable Hero Generator interactivity, which used 360-degree camera tech to put attendees in the starring role of their own superhero movie trailer that would be delivered to them afterward via email.

Bigger isn’t always better

Size isn’t everything, especially at an event like SXSW that is powered by the volume of the social beat more than the scope of the sponsorship. That’s why despite competing against big activations with blockbuster budgets, smaller activations can be more than successful in generating the right amount of hoped-for brand buzz.

Wisconsin’s cheese-laden suite at the Marriott drew lines of delighted dairy fans — one attendee proclaimed it even better than Westworld! The activation was a love letter to America’s Dairyland, complete with the world’s longest cheese board, an open bar with wine pairings, take-home insulated backpacks (for the cheese swag, of course), and a satellite cheesemonger for people who didn’t have time to brave the wait. And it was all contained in a wooden barn created with digital fabrication tools. Take that, HBO.

Lego proved to be quite popular as well, bringing its interactive playground Lego House to visit the US for the first time. The experience, which debuted in Denmark last year, is a meld of physical and digital, allowing attendees to explore things like the history of the toy, play with physical Legos, or create animated virtual masterpieces in activities like the Fish Designer, which uses Legos and a 2D scanner to fill a virtual fish tank full of fun brick-based creatures.

Embracing Austin with a local flair

SXSW is a true takeover of the city of Austin, seeing popular clubs, bars, and restaurants transformed into brand basecamps for the duration. But the smart activation strategies don’t just take over — they take advantage of Austin’s eclectic culture and make it a part of what they’re putting together, creating a glocal feel that brings a little of the brand to Austin and a little of Austin to the brand.

Starz’ big activation brought their two new shows, “Vida” and “Sweetbitter,” to life with some Texas tastes through a lush sensory experience that allowed attendees to explore the themes of the series.

Custom tapas and sweets were on order to capture the flavors, along with free-flowing custom artisanal cocktails from an Austinite bartender, while a local perfume bar created scents inspired by various characters. Mini manicures were offered by a nearby nail studio, and a local all-female DJ collective spun vinyl for the soundtrack at Starz Sensory House.  

Want to learn about some of the other trends we’re seeing in brand experience? Download our Trend Lab insights today for more.

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