Experiential Marketing Lessons From SXSW 2017

People flock to South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin every March for any number of reasons: to learn from industry experts, network with potential business leads, check out interesting new entertainment and technology, and of course, stuff as many breakfast tacos in their mouths as humanly possible.

In this way, the 2017 conference was no different than years past. Fortunately, working in experiential marketing, there are always new activations to take part in to learn how the industry is working with brands to engage an audience.

Here are some of the best activations we saw and some lessons we learned from them.

Animal Kingdom

The best concepts marry digital and analog.

With so much of our lives dictated by technology, some of the best activations were the ones that provided a visceral experience. In particular, Turner’s set up (above) to promote the show Animal Kingdom took full advantage of this, building an honest-to-goodness surfing installation to create the show’s California vibe.

The Pinterest House also deserves high marks for their activation, which did a terrific job of giving people a sense of how their new Lens feature works (I had not really tried it out before, it is very cool) while also providing a wide variety of interesting activities, from making socially-shareable sweets to taking 180-degree photos. All of the design elements played well together, plus they served Salt Lick BBQ, so yeah, it was a good experience.

Los Pollos HermanosFans of the show Better Call Saul (or Breaking Bad) could step inside a real-life version of the infamous chicken chain. (credit: Imgur)

Take people to a place they can’t otherwise go.

To promote the return of Better Call Saul (and in particular, the return of one of TV’s most memorable villains, Gus Frings), AMC installed a life-size working replica of a Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant. For a show with such a devoted following, it was a really cool chance for fans to place themselves directly within the world of the show.

Several VR activations looked to capitalize on this notion as well, to differing results. As we discussed in our recap of VRDayATL, compelling storytelling is still the biggest factor in creating a memorable VR experience.

WHAT is going on here.

Create a sense of intrigue.

SXSW has literally hundreds of activations vying for your time and attention. It’s impossible to see them all without cloning yourself several times over (perhaps something to look forward to at SXSW 2018). Therefore it’s imperative for brands to find ways to draw you in organically.

Hulu’s upcoming remake of the Margaret Atwood classic The Handmaid’s Tale did a fantastic job illustrating how to draw attention, and did so without having to spend beaucoup bucks to boot. They flooded a portion of the SXSW footprint with dozens of women dressed as handmaids and with very specific character traits. They sat down in silent circles, or walked slowly and morosely in pairings, all without making a sound. If you approached them or took a picture, they would hand you a small card and say quietly (but with determination) “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Let’s just say I had many questions that went unanswered, but now I am definitely aware of the upcoming series.



SXSW is not just about brand marketing – it’s also a great place to take in directly or through osmosis insights on where technology and culture are heading. Here are a couple additional themes I found consistently throughout the conference. 

Wearable tech is making progress.

For the consumer, the concepts of the Internet of Things and wearable technology can often sound like futuristic buzzwords with no real tangential meaning to them. Levi’s Outpost, a showcase for the partnership between Levi’s and Google, was a huge step in the direction of showing people how close at hand some of these trends really are.

Using a conductive fabric developed at Google as part of something called Project Jacquard, the two companies have partnered to create a wearable denim jacket that pairs with bluetooth to allow direct touch control of your device. At the activation you got a chance to try on the jacket (It fits nicely!) and also chat with their tech people to learn more about how the fabric works.

Bots are on the way.

There were several sessions about the increasing usefulness of bots, those artificial-intelligence-driven messengers that allow people to ask questions or interact without the need of a human on the other end. SXSW had its own bot within the official app, Abby, who could give you information about panels, parties, and directions.

Giorgio Armani’s activation asked you to watch a collection of short films, then used a Facebook messenger bot-led trivia quiz that asked you questions about them for a chance to win prizes.

While there is still plenty of room for the AI to improve (and it will as more people interact with them), it seems clear that this is a direction many are going in to help provide real-time interaction, feedback and customer service.

The key with bots, as with any new technology, is to make sure you have a specific purpose for their usage, and are not just using them for the sake of using them.

What were some of your favorite experiences at this year’s festival?

Micah Hart is the Director of Content and Strategy for IMG LIVE.