Brunch or blood donation? Meditation or roller skating? Vampires or superheroes? With more than 75,000 attendees, South by Southwest becomes prime grounds for brand activations over the 10-day span of the conference and festival that covers the latest in technology innovations, films, music, and art.
In order to generate buzz-building lines at events and encourage social media posts, brands and their creative partners came up with activities and programming that encouraged engagement.
There were fewer non-SXSW-branded events this year. Even SXSW music wristband-holders were able to R.S.V.P. for tickets for the first time. Some major brands were missing (Pandora) or limited their presences (Mashable only hosted its MashBash party, with no Mash House this year, while BuzzFeed attached itself to other brands). However familiar names like HBO, Amazon Prime, and Twitter returned, alongside first-time names like Lululemon, Activision, Atlas Obscura, and Patreon.
HBO’s Game of Thrones #BleedForTheThrone
Comparatively smaller than last year’s Westworld activation, HBO promoted Game of Thrones by recreating the castle and war campgrounds from the mega-hit fantasy series. The theme was blood, and the American Red Cross was on hand for donations (though donations weren’t necessary to enter the activation). The immersive setup, created with Giant Spoon, included actors playing characters from the show’s kingdoms, scripted with the help of Mycotoo, 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. The pins offered discounts at local restaurants and stores. There was also an auditory tour through character plotlines and a war camp with free burgers from Shake Shack and non-alcoholic beverages. The action was set to a live choir of Austin singers led by Dr. William Kempster, who created an original arrangement for the event.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO ‘Good Omens’ Garden of Earthly Delights
‘Good Omens’ Garden of Earthly Delights
A giant centerpiece tree contained beer and wine taps in its trunk
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video ‘Good Omens’ Nuns
FX’s ‘What We Do In The Shadows’ Vampire Library
Netflix’s ‘The Highwaymen’
Uber Eats brought together food and music with its series of concerts, parties, and dinners with creative agency Optimist Inc. The food delivery company also opened up a temporary walk-up window, produced with Optimist Inc. It served up dishes from an array of participating Austin restaurants, which changed daily.
Photo: Jason Suarez UberEats’s House
There was the potluck dinner curated by chef David Chang prepped in the open kitchen area, and a separate hip-hop party and conversation with chef Roy Choi. There were also concerts paired with UberEats restaurants, like Texas singer-songwriter Khalid with McDonald’s and pop singer Billie Eilish with vegan eatery By Chloe.
Photo: Rennie Solis L’Oréal’s Know Your Skin Activation
Activating at the Fast Company Grill, L’Oréal launched its partnership with biotechnology company uBiome that will research the skin’s bacterial ecosystem. Also there, La Roche-Posay showcased its My Skin Track pH and UV devices, SkinCeuticals created custom serums, and Kiehl’s measured people’s skin hydration and oil levels and offered samples.
Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company Atlas Obscura and Gore-Tex’s Into the Element
StubHub Sound Stage
Starz’s ‘American Gods’ House of the Gods
Starz’s SXSW activation featured rooms and setups dedicated to the television show’s various new and old gods, produced with Unit9 Agency. There was a hologram room with a floating buffalo, a room that featured scenery of natural disasters or surveillance footage based on a switch, a fortune teller machine which printed out quotes, a red satin bed, and more. At the end of the tour, attendees were invited to vote for their favorite gods.
Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Starz House of Patreon
Membership platform Patreon used SXSW to highlight its creators as well as potential members through programming, concerts, and engagement centers. There were videos displaying creator content, like YouTube cooking channel Binging With Babish. People were encouraged to write down how they express their creativity and leave it on a wall with their photos. Outside was a large fill-in-the-blank display with statements about creativity.
Nadia Chaudhury for BizBash Viceland’s Skateland
Along with its usual Vice Bus lounge, the media company erected a retro roller rink in a parking lot near the Austin Convention Center, with custom laces, a DJ, and a disco ball.
Photo: Courtesy of Vice Audible’s ‘The Night Realm’
Audiobook and audio performance company Audible created a medieval tavern in honor of its newest comedy series Heads Will Roll with Civic Entertainment Group. The bar experience was complete with a wall of golden skulls, speaking portraits of the characters, themed food like turkey legs, and a photo opp where participants were placed in stocks labelled with “crimes” described in social media lingo.
Photo: Courtesy of Audible Comcast NBC Universal House
The media conglomerate’s home featured a number of interactive and entertainment opportunities. The space hosted live tapings of Busy Tonight Live with Busy Philipps, as well as the first-ever in-real-life segment of popular mobile quiz show HQ Trivia.
Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Comcast NBCUniversal Comcast NBCUniversal House
Copernicus Project Presented by Land O’ Lakes
Michelob Ultra Pure Gold’s Pure Golden Hour
The beer brand led a sunset meditation with more than 2,000 guests with mass meditation company the Big Quiet, produced with Mosaic. The meditation incorporated musical performances by Miguel, Bishop Briggs, and Cautious Clay.
Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Michelob Ultra Pure Gold Culture Trip’s Soho in Soco
The cable network kept it simple and fresh for its three-day SXSW activation, which took on a different theme each day, produced with Collide. The House of Beats and Streets embraced New York and Chicago with D.I.Y. Chicago-style hot dogs for guests and a live mural painting on stage. The House of Shameless Fun was an entire carnival setup, from the quickdraw photo booth to balloon creatures to games. Each day, the first 100 guests to the space received a gift card to the subscription service. Guests also received free half-hour rides on Austin Cycle bikes that advertised the cable network’s shows.
Photo: Laura June Kirsch/Showtime Luluemon’s Sweatlife House
Activewear company Lululemon offered a space for respite during the festival for its first major SXSW presence, with nods to healthy lifestyles around its Embody digital experiences. A standalone dome held digitally-enhanced meditation sessions, as well as multi-sensory yoga classes, and attendees could try VR experiences. For giveaways, attendees were encouraged to use the Twitter vending machine for Lululemon-branded socks and water bottles. Catering emphasized Austin brands, from Juice Society to acai bowls from Blenders and Bowls.
Photo: Courtesy of Luleumon Luluemon’s Sweatlife House
The space had gender-neutral bathrooms. Door clings inside the restroom had messages such as “Be your badass self,” “My, you look powerful today,” and “Love is love is love is love is love.” A wall decal read, “Everyone is welcome to pee and poop here.”
Photo: Courtesy of Luluemon The Experience by Dell Technologies
The technology company used its SXSW presence to highlight and support small businesses, with programming, a small business brunch, creators market, and more. The space featured booths where people could network or use for reporting or recording purposes to create their own content.
Photo: Courtesy of Dell The Experience by Dell Technologies
The experience highlighted the company’s sustainability efforts. A mural was made with ink created from captured soot from diesel generators in New Delhi.
Photo: Courtesy of Dell Twitter’s #TwitterHouse
Facebook Art House
Social media company Facebook highlighted its artist in residence program, produced with We’re Magnetic. The team held workshops and panels at the Facebook space while also creating installations to showcase their talents. The star was the live-painting of a giant mural outside of the building facing one of the city’s major highways, painted by more than 15 local artists.
Photo: Anna Mazurek Sony Wow Studio
Sony’s theme this year was all about allowing technology help creativity grow. The exhibits included the Cave Without a Light, where groups of people played the drums in a blacked-out room; the Flow Machines, where a computer helped people write music; and the Fragment Shadow, which displayed shadow projections.
Photo: Courtesy of Sony ADP’s Smash the Ceiling
HR software company ADP and Wired magazine allowed people to physically break through workplace barriers. Guests had to answer the question of “What are you #WorkingFor?” with four choices, which led to different scenarios, like breaking the glass ceiling or finding work/life balance. They were suited up in protective gear (jumpsuits, goggles, helmet, gloves, boots), picked their weapon of choice (bats, golf clubs, sledgehammers). The destruction was captured with cameras, resulting in a slow-motion video. Fresh Wata produced the activation.
Photo: Callie Richmond Produce Marketing Association’s Global Street Farm
The health-focused activation from the trade association, produced by Collide, offered attendees freshly made flower bouquets provided by Texas grocery store chain HEB, as well as floral crowns and smoothies displayed in recyclable cartons.
Nadia Chaudhury for BizBash Activision’s Blizzard Media Arcade
Video game publisher Activision created a fun house to highlight its library including video games like Candy Crush and Call of Duty and arcade games like skee ball and air hockey. Out front was its Guitar Hero setup, enticing passersby to watch. N/A Collective produced the activation.
Photo: Courtesy of Activision DC’s #LongLiveTheBat
Comic book publisher DC used Austin’s bat phenomenon (where the winged creatures leave their nests underneath the Congress Avenue bridge every evening in a swarm) to their advantage as part of its 80th anniversary celebrations for Batman. The iconic bat signal was projected onto the river and the character also was depicted in a mural.
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. and DC Comics