Trends Guiding the Road to SXSW 2020

CNN describes SXSW as “a place where some of the most important names shaping our world come together to talk, create, think and, of course, eat BBQ” while NPR says “what we hear at SXSW often serves as a signpost for the year ahead.” SXSW (March 12-22, 2020) is a 10-day annual experience bringing the interactive, film, and music industries together for learning, sharing, networking, and of course, huge bursts of creativity. With over 160,000 musical attendees, more than 72,000 film festival attendees, and 75,000+ conference (interactive, convergence, music, film) attendees in 2018 alone, the event is showing no signs of slowing down.

So how do you make your brand stand out and deliver an unforgettable experience at the Austin, TX event? The answer is simple. Highlight what makes your brand unique in the voice and style that’s signature YOU, while creating an experience that meets the needs of your audience. Here are some suggestions to help your brand stand out and make a splash at SXSW 2020.

Make the Experiential Activation Memorable

Interactive, immersive experiences are a win because they make attendees feel like they’re part of the conversation. Interaction breeds connection. Giving your audience an authentic and personal experience not only helps to facilitate conversation, build brand awareness, and increase social reach, it gets them thinking about your product or offering in a more meaningful (and even emotional) light.

When it comes to creating resonant, immersive experiences, SXSW provides the perfect opportunity for brands to deliver an experiential activation that brings in audiences and most importantly, retains them.

Take Attendees to “Another World”

So, who are some brands that stand out in creating powerful and resonant experiential activations at SXSW? Let’s start with a look at Amazon Prime’s Good Omens Garden of Earthly Delights, promoting its show, Good Omens. Attendees stroll into the main area that depicts a mystical, secret garden with author Neil Gaiman’s source material serving as inspiration. Talk about literally walking into another world. A large centerpiece tree features a beer and wine tap in its trunk.

To really up the “other-worldly” ante, “there [are] apples with written prophecies, a recreation of the show's bookstore with a photo opp, the Hellhound Puppy Pen with adoptable dogs from the Austin Animal Center (all [are] adopted by the end of the activation), and manicures with Butter London nail polish,” notes BizBash.

Another memorable activation? Netflix’s ‘The Highwaymen.’ To celebrate the show’s premiere at SXSW, Netflix constructs an actual speakeasy featuring a bar and a stage. To encourage engagement and interaction, the experience offers a combo of participatory theater, gaming and prizes, and fun interaction with fully in-character actors within the speakeasy.

“Outfitted with RFID bands, visitors can check in at various stations to access different kinds of activation content: photos, messages, points to be earned, contests to be entered, and the like,” notes Curbed Austin. “Points can be redeemed for swag at the activation’s General Store. (It’s possible that, by the end of the experience, guests might feel a little like they’re in old-timey country-music tourist mecca Branson, Missouri—which incidentally, also claims to be the ‘Live Music Capital of the World.’).”

Now, let’s look to Google, which transports attendees into a world that’s not only immersive and interactive, but completely true to the Google brand. Taking part in the Interactive Festival at SXSW, Google gets in on the fun and takes over Rainey Street with its best tech just a few steps from Austin Convention Center. The Google Village SXSW experience consists of four houses packed full of demos, drinks, talks, and of course, live music. Each house—Android House, Google Maps House, Developer House, and Discovery House—showcases the latest and greatest from Google. To celebrate Austin’s live music vibe, Google hosts two days of concerts atop a converted downtown parking garage featuring bands like The Shins, Gossip and the one and only Jimmy Cliff.

Along with music entertainment, the Google Village SXSW hosts bootcamps and hackathons—like the one Google and Lego sponsor at the Google Developers House. The objective is to build a Lego Mindstorm robot to navigate an obstacle course. The course is built during the hackathon so the contestants design toward a moving target. The entire event is streamed live on YouTube with over 1 million viewers.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Google all excel in creating interactive activations that not only bring audiences into the worlds of the respective shows/products they’re promoting, they deliver experiences that are unique to their brand. They’re memorable, emotional, fun, Instagrammable, and you can bet everyone who walks in feels a connection to both the brand and its offerings.

Step Back in Time

Nostalgia marketing is always effective when it comes to creating memorable moments for attendees. Brands that create experiences that take consumers down memory lane evoke warm and fuzzy feelings about memorable days gone by – good vibes courtesy of the brand (check out our full blog post on nostalgia marketing here). Naturally, a great way to ensure your brand’s activation or experience stands out from the pack at SXSW is to give attendees a little blast from the past!

One brand that nails it? Viceland’s SXSW 2019 activation—Skateland. Designing its activation around its premiere for the Vice Studios film “The Beach Bum” and to promote its broadcast news program VICE Live, the brand turns a downtown Austin parking lot into a full-blown roller-skating rink complete with cotton candy, fun swag, drinks, and a Viceland party bus.

“It happened that SXSW is doing this whole kind of ’80s nostalgic hip-hop [theme]… so it kind of meshed perfectly,” Megan Kirsch, Viceland’s SVP of marketing and creative, says to AdWeek. “We want to always just have a really immersive one-on-one experience with the consumer, so we thought, why don’t we do something with roller skating?”

Nostalgia marketing that creates fun individual experiences AND stays true to the brand’s voice and style? A complete win!

Create Personal Moments

Creating personalized experiences for festival attendees is a powerful way to build brand loyalty, foster memorable moments, and promote your product or offering in a way that feels intimate and unique to each person in the room.

A great example of a brand creating individual and personal moments? Membership platform Patreon. The brand takes advantage of SXSW as a place to highlight its creators as well as potential members through engagement centers, performances, and unique programming. The most poignant touch? “People [are] encouraged to write down how they express their creativity and leave it on a wall with their photos,” notes BizBash. “Outside [is] a large fill-in-the-blank display with statements about creativity.”

A meaningful way to get inspired and learn from fellow attendees while also sharing your own personal mantra? Beautiful!

A different kind of personalization? Splash x Kendra Scott. Attendees walking into Kendra Scott’s flagship store have the opportunity to create and design their own personal jewelry (next-level swag is ALWAYS a win) at the Color Bar, enjoy frosé and take in meaningful presentations on community-building and marketing with new friends and colleagues.

“SXSW is all about the experience — so it was fitting to have an event that shared advice for actually creating incredible experiences,” says Splash.

An activation that creates memorable moments and lets attendees walk away with personalized jewelry that will live on long after the festival is over? Fabulous.

Make a Difference

“Cause marketing campaigns are a powerful way to communicate with consumers, and when delivered via experiential, will have a much greater, more memorable impact,” notes Elevate Staffing. And with a larger-than-life platform like that of SXSW, creating an experiential activation that’s less about a product, and more about overall wellness, empowerment, and purpose, is a powerful way to stand out and leaving a lasting impression.

For an immersive, highly visual, AND meaningful activation look no further than HBO’s Game of Thrones: Bleed for the Throne. For the experience, the brand fully recreates the castle and other elements of its hit show Game of Thrones - but the underlying theme is all about giving back.

“In partnership with the American Red Cross, HBO is inviting fans to prove their devotion and Bleed For The Throne–a gesture worthy of one of the biggest shows on television, and one designed to harness the cultural power of Westeros to help end blood shortages in the real world,” notes Medium.

Giving blood isn’t necessary to enjoy the activation but fans who do receive an exclusive “Bleed for the Throne” T-shirt. The interactive and fully immersive experience invites fans to pledge their allegiance to the rightful king.

“Actors playing characters from the show’s kingdoms, scripted with the help of Mycotoo, [take their place] in a scene set at the titular Iron Throne where people were given Hand of the Throne pins after they pledged their allegiance to the king,” notes BizBash.

Taking attendees straight into the world of Game of Thrones and striving to make a difference? A SXSW activation that hits all the right notes and serves as a poignant example of empowering attendees. By incorporating the donation aspect, the brand promotes philanthropy, wellness, and gives attendees the chance to make an important difference in the lives of others.

These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating a lasting brand impact at SXSW. But the main takeaway is to create an experiential activation or experience that is unique, personal to your brand voice, tells a story, and most importantly, creates connections and lasting impressions with your audience.

Take a deeper dive into activations designed and produced by Sparks.

Posted by Dyan Cornacchio | Request as a Speaker

Social media and creative writing connoisseur. Obsessed with my golden retriever, pop culture, and pizza. Nothing makes me happier than being home on LI, relaxing at the beach with my family.