Attracting more than 300,000 people, South by Southwest (SXSW) – the three-week long festival that’s launched music careers, Twitter and guerilla marketing for big brands – held its music phase in Austin, TX, in mid-March. Now in its 28th year, SXSW has evolved from a small, eclectic conference for the indie music scene to one where Fortune 500 companies like AT&T, Samsung, Nordstrom, Sprint and Miller use the massive event as a springboard to build their brands and attract the holy grail of consumers – those between the ages of 20 and 40 years old who span two lucrative demographics, Gen X and Millennials.
Living up to both its official and unofficial slogans – the “Live Music Capital of the World” and “Keep Austin Weird,” the idiosyncratic city welcomed over 2,200 regional, national and international bands on more than 100 stages over the course of the five-day music portion of the festival, attracting an estimated crowd of 325,000. And, almost as prevalent as the music, promotional products were all over Austin during the festival.
In fact, the promotions on-hand showed a clear shift in how companies are connecting with customers today. If SXSW showed one thing when it comes to promotional products, it proved that musicians, marketers and promoters are shifting how they keep and excite audiences in a digital, fast-paced, online world.
Promotional products are used heavily and are really well-received at an event like SXSW, both with on-the-street promotional giveaways and more select items given to fans to attend exclusive events. Items like stickers, T-shirts and bags were ubiquitous at SXSW, but also stress relievers in the shape of a microphone being handed out to promote the DVD release of Anchorman 2, earbuds, USB drive wristbands and business cards given out en masse containing info on downloadable apps.
Particularly ingenious promotions came from HBO, which rented the electric cab fleet in Austin and overhauled them to look like Game of Thrones chariots, a Samsung promo where you could get a new, fully charged battery for your phone, and Nordstrom-sponsored Pedicab rides.
And then there was Hotels.com, which – if you tweeted about them – offered the service of having someone decked out in branded T-shirts and hats wait in line at music venues for 30 minutes on your behalf – a very valuable commodity given the long waits at most places.
“The use of promotional products has shifted,” says Brad White, vice president of sales for Boundless Network (asi/143717), who is based in Austin and attends the festival every year. “In the past, products were used to ‘talk’ to your audience, then they evolved as a way to ‘engage’ your audience to participate. Now, the coveted action is to encourage your audience to ‘share’ your message, to openly and publicly endorse your brand to their audience.
“Nowhere is that more evident than at SXSW, which is filled with modern companies that use innovative promotional approaches, speaking to the coveted 20-40 demographic. It struck me during the event that promotional companies should find ways to position their products as vehicles for brands to inspire their audience to do the talking for them.”
A Marketer’s Paradise
In addition to the thousands of bands, promoters and music marketing companies, major corporations come to SXSW every year to engage with an influential group of potential customers. And they come with plenty of promotional products in tow. Subway was handing out water bottles; AT&T used specially designed lockers that allowed attendees to charge their phones safely, and Molson decided to connect with people in a highly unique way.
The Canadian beer brand set up a huge promotional fridge that could only be opened by swiping a Canadian passport through a slot. In its rented bar, the company was also giving away cowboy hats, baseball caps, can coolers and earplugs – all emblazoned with the Molson logo. “People love this stuff, because everybody taking it is Canadian and I feel like they’re just super proud to be Canadian,” said Erin, an Austin local hired by Molson to rep the company during SXSW. “I feel like they’re really going to hang on to this stuff for a long time.”
The heart of the promotions going on during SXSW, though, are by the bands who are either trying to make a name for themselves or expand their already loyal audience. Zac Little, the lead singer for a band named Saintseneca, believes the more creative bands can be with their promotions, the more successful they’ll be at attracting audiences. “I’m into things that are artistic, so stuff has to be attractive,” Little said. “I’m excited to be part of the promotions and poster work when it’s designed well. I’ve always been into screen printing and different kinds of print work.”
Little cited another band, Level Up, that he thinks does particularly good work with its promotions. “They make really great art in everything they do to promote themselves,” he said. “That’s the kind of stuff I’m attracted to. They’re like art students, so everything they do is just spot-on and looks really great.”
The Industry View
Of course, while SXSW draws attendees from across the world, it also attracts some industry distributors and suppliers who are looking to capitalize on the scene. Rich Stein of Digitize Your Brand spent five days at SXSW this year, exhibiting within a trade show to promote the company’s products and services. “What an amazing event this has been,” Stein said. “From music to interactive to movies and film, it’s just an amazing gathering of creative people.”
The key for Stein is that SXSW’s progressive audience is receptive to the promotions that his company runs – interactive and digital-based. “We create materials that drive digital engagement, so what better place to showcase new technology than at SXSW?” Stein said. “We had a lot of great meetings about how this merchandise can benefit brands.”
Stein showed off a trackable bracelet that had a Near Field Communication device – which allows companies to drive engagement with audiences at concerts, events, retail outlets and more. “These are the future of promotions,” Stein said. “If you get this bracelet at an event, you could literally tap this bracelet against various devices from sponsors or performers at the event itself. As I tap that bracelet against the different areas of the event, I’m personalizing my event experience. As much as digital is taking over, there’s still a physical environment that many brands and companies are interacting with. This merchandise really provides that.”
And Boundless Network’s White believes that’s the key to marketing – not just at SXSW, but at all events and for all brands moving forward. “These are modern companies here at SXSW that are trying to engage their audience, and they’re doing it with promotional products that are unique and interactive,” he said. “We need to keep pushing the limits of creativity with products and engagement so that we can make our clients happy and better marketers.”