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How Brands Get Buzz At South By Southwest

Brands like Nike, GE, Samsung, and Chevy opt for hands-on experiences and utility at SXSW.

"A lot of great products and services have really taken off in Austin," says Ricky Engelberg, an experience designer who helped craft Nike’s Fuelband-centric marketing at SXSW, the annual Austin, Texas technology conference that helped launch brands like Twitter and Foursquare. SXSW is no longer just for scrappy garage startups, as big brands are just as eager to make an impression with tech titans, bloggers, and media. The brands making the biggest splash adopted a "provide utility" strategy, helping participants navigate the crowded tech space with transportation, finding the hottest parties, or getting access to exclusive equipment.

Nike quickly sold out of its exercise-quantifying wristband, The Nike+ Fuelband, after its launch last January. Aiming to let eager Fuelband owners test out their experience publicly at SXSW, the Nike team took a large product supply and created events that would only give access to participants who had racked up a certain number of exercise points throughout the day. "Its been one of the first chances for people outside of New York to purchase it," says Engelberg. New Fuelband owners could test out the product outside Nike’s Austin headquarters, with Nike’s celebrity athletes at a dunk contest or on a morning run.

With incoming data on activity around the conference, Nike publicized a unique data set of the active areas throughout the conference grounds on a massive LED billboard. Inside the SXSW headquarters, Engelberg says that additional motion capture technology can measure movement, and quantify how the audience is responding to different performances. The Nike team hopes the same technology can be used to evaluate the performance of artists any place where a sufficient number of Fuelband-clad audience members have checked in on Foursquare and made their health data available.

Samsung’s North American Chief Marketing Officer, Ralph Santana, too, says the working strategy for SXSW is to "provide utility." On top of the blogger lounge with free wifi and presentations, Samsung has a giant billboard that acts like "a heat meter for all the parties." Pulling in social buzz, the billboard aims to forecast which parties bystanders would want to attend.

Realizing that participants still needed a reliable way to get to the hottest parties and talks around the sprawling conference campus, Chevy offered free rides in their Volt car line (I used the service myself when I was on my way to a meeting).

General Electric took a social impact spin on the "provide utility" strategy, constructing a makeshift DIY engineering lab, the GE Garage. Maker-happy participants could create new toys with 3-D printers, create custom etches on the backs or their iPhones or laptops, or learn welding. In the welding lab, local residents crafted bike racks for what GE hopes will be a resurgence in biking around the city area. "Instead of sponsoring a concert, it says, 'what can we solve?'" says Michael Ventura of Sub Rosa, an experiential/interactive studio working with GE to take the garage around the country to solve local manufacturing problems. In Austin, Ventura hopes GE can create a visually appealing bike-rack standard that the city can scale as more citizens (hopefully) take up biking over driving. As the Garage expands throughout the country, the team hopes to tackle larger infrastructure projects.

What does GE get out of the expensive garage project? First, it earns cache in the local community for helping to solve a backburner issue. Second, as a large employer of engineers, GE is looking to attract young residents who were inspired to help out their local community and who might think of GE as a future career.

Concludes Ventura, "You’re here to represent manufacturing in context."

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1 Comments

  • Anj Obias

    I love GE's almost literal "provide utility" strategy.  Although "literal" isn't always best, this time it satisfies business and target market objectives seamlessly.