Who Did It Better? The Best and Worst Experiential Marketing Events at SXSW

SXSW Interactive is more branded today than it has ever been in the past. As a marketer, I was like a kid in a candy shop last month as I wandered the streets of Austin, Texas, trying to absorb all the marketing around me. It seemed as though everything at SXSW was branded in some form or fashion, and, while much of this branding came in the form of typical guerilla marketing or free swag, there were a few brands that had stepped up their game and took their SXSW marketing to a whole new level.

Samsung_Studio_LoungeBrands took over restaurants, bars and event spaces around the convention center, and some even built temporary structures for the week. The brands completely transformed these venues into immersive experiences for SXSW Interactive attendees with everything from product showcases to cocktail bars and buffets to lounges with stunning views of the Austin skyline. The brands did everything from repainting the interiors and exteriors to replacing the existing furniture and walls with their own. Most even replaced the name on the side of the building with their own logos and names. Marketers did all of this to facilitate innovative and memorable experiences for SXSWi attendees and to engage thought leaders in a live, experiential ways.

After visiting many of these, I could clearly see which were truly engaging with the attendees and creative positive associations between the consumers and the brand and which were missing the target. It all came down to whether the brand stayed true to itself and how well its execution aligned with the event. The two best examples were IBM and Samsung.

The IBM Cognitive Studio


  • Venue
    • Trendy restaurant one block from the convention center, completely transformed for IBM and SXSW
  • Major offerings
    • Cognitive cocktail bar and taco bar with Watson (IBM’s artificial intelligence) using survey information collected from guests upon entry to make custom drinks and tacos
    • Smart devices with the Chef Watson app for users to try
    • Softbank’s robot Pepper, which used IBM’s Watson technology to interact with guests
    • A Watson-powered robot that challenged guests to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors
  • Branding
    • Original signs removed from venue, replaced with IBM’s own
    • Interior walls painted IBM blue along with IBM custom murals
    • Chef Watson signage over bar and throughout venue

IBM delivered the perfect balance of innovation and technology for guests to experience firsthand, as well as free food and drinks in a casual atmosphere, all tied together through IBM’s Watson which resulted in successful experiential marketing.

The Samsung Studio


  • Venue
    • Stylish two-story restaurant and bar next to the convention center, completely transformed for Samsung at SXSW
  • Major offerings
    • Samsung’s virtual reality technology
    • Samsung store with their newest devices, including the new water-resistant phones which guests pulled out from behind a waterfall to access
    • Second story lounge with great view of downtown, food and drinks and wireless chargers for Samsung device owners to use
    • Concerts featuring major artists including The Strokes, Lil’ Wayne and Sia that were only accessible to Samsung Galaxy phone owners
  • Branding
    • Original signs removed from venue, replaced with Samsung’s own
    • Exterior completely repainted to black – to match Samsung’s color scheme
    • Every electronic device was Samsung brand – TVs, speakers, wireless chargers, etc.

Samsung achieved a spectacular mix of giving the SXSWi attendees what they wanted (i.e. free food/drinks, new technologies to experience firsthand and live music), all while keeping the focus on the Samsung brand. Most notably, many portions of the Samsung experience were exclusively for existing Samsung users, a smart way to improve brand loyalty among thought leaders at SXSW.

Then, there were the misses, like McDonald’s McLoft.

The McLoft

  • Venue
    • Swanky loft next to the convention center with a dark color scheme and low lighting
  • Major offerings
    • Virtual reality in which users played a game inside a McDonalds Happy Meal box
    • Custom burgers made to order served with McDonalds’ famous fries – accessible only with a special VIP invitation
    • Free ice cream and canned soft drinks
  • Branding
    • One inconspicuous wooden panel sign with the arches logo (colored brown to match the wood paneling) outside the venue
    • The Happy Meal box in the virtual reality game
    • McDonald’s fries served in VIP area

Despite aligning with SXSW Interactive and offering attendees interesting high-tech experiences, the McLoft seemed completely irrelevant and contradictory to the brand itself. McDonalds is an inexpensive, casual, bright and colorful restaurant that almost everyone in the world can experience. By making the McLoft feel exclusive, swanky and high-end, it missed the mark in creating a realistic, positive brand association.

To recap, it is important to remember two things when considering experiential marketing for your brand: stay true to your brand and make sure your marketing aligns with the event. Without both, you risk wasting resources and leaving customers with a bad taste in their mouths.

Laurin is a part of the digital campaigns team at MCC and helps implement, analyze and optimize digital media programs for clients. Prior to MCC, Laurin graduated from Baylor with a bachelor of business administration in marketing. Although born in Houston, Laurin moved to Dallas as fast as she could. She enjoys being outside, watching Baylor sports and attending live music shows.

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