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Biggest Brands on the SXSW Block – Michael Bergman and Tom Studer

Last week we returned from our initial SXSW experience both informed and inspired by the innovation that’s building the companies, technologies and brands that all of us will be using tomorrow.

From our perspective as global brand builders, the events that occurred inside the Austin Convention Center provided valuable glimpses at what individuals and organizations around the world are working on, including mobile gaming, spreading the electric car movement, and designing for user experiences on every type of digital platform out there. In the blocks of downtown Austin, we found something else interesting — established brands and startups trying to translate their equity into branded experiences for influential, early-adopting SXSW attendees. These experiences match our belief, and a sentiment echoed during the conference, that all touchpoints need to “feel” like the brand; scrolling through our photos, you’ll see that most were able to pull it off.

Here some of our favorite branded experiences and our thoughts on each:

Pee-Wee Herman’s Ice Cream Truck provided free ice cream to hungry convention goers, promoting HBO’s upcoming broadcast of The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway and the “funhouse” brand experience that Pee-Wee has been selling since the 1980s.

The CNN Grill moved into MAX’s Wine Dive, a quick walk from the Austin Convention Center. The grill offered a full menu of food, live entertainment and interviews with SXSW newsmakers and attendees, while broadcasting on televisions outside for passersby and projecting newscasts onto the sides of buildings at night.

Squarespace — a blog, website, portfolio design and hosting service — took over an entire building, much in the same way they’d take over your entire site. Just as their service aims to make your digital life easy for you, they soothed the fear of “Where am I going to eat next?” by providing free meals.

Groupon brought the groups together with an empanada truck, hijacking Austin’s mmmpanadas truck for the week. Just as their brand provides quality deals in cities across the United States, they gave away great food where their customers were — walking home from SXSW parties.

What may just look like a regular FedEx Truck was actually a food truck wrapped in FedEx clothing to help “deliver” 500 free lunches a day. Perhaps one of the most innovative promotions, the FedEx truck delivered the brand experience with high-quality service, for the right price, in a professional manner. The details even carried through to the box that each lunch was served in.

While it might appear that all of our experiences involved free food, we did walk by Chevrolet’s test drive station outside the Austin Convention Center. Attendees at the conference were invited to borrow a brand new Chevy, including the new Volt, to drive around Austin. This promotion felt very true, as Chevy seemed to offer a car for everyone, from the stylish venture capitalist (Corvette), to the environmentalist (Volt), to the startup guy who just got funded (Camaro Convertible).

While it’s debatable as to whether each of these branded experiences lend to either SXSW’s evolution or regression, they are still top of mind, making our first interaction with a Chevy Volt or a Pepsi Max memorable and, therefore, doing the job their marketers desired.

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