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Austin Duality: The Search for Innovation at SXSW Interactive
Where day one gave me a sense of excitement and optimism – South By and Austin has the ingredients of the right people and the right environment to stir creativity and drive innovation – day two left me less enthusiastic. I spent the best part of the day at the conference center in downtown Austin, taking in the core of SXSW where the majority of the conference sessions and attendees spend their day. Like any given conference center, the Austin Convention Center is a cold, monotonous place. The SXSW staff are incredibly efficiently, and it feels like it's staffed by hundreds, as you roll you through the well-guided registration maze. A girl who looked like she was 13 checked me in. Beyond your conference badge, tote bag, and conference guide, you receive a Miller Lite Drink Ticket, valid for one Miller Lite each day of the event in the "Registrants Lounge". Once outside registration, with Miller Lite Drink Ticket in tow, I begin to experience just how large this conference is, and why. Sure, over 300,000 attendees from all over the world visit Austin for SXSW over the course of it's 10 days, but some of the biggest brands in the world are here too and they're doing everything they can to get your attention.
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Right outside registration is an activation from Pepsi. They want you to sound off on the future of music festivals. It’s not really clear why, but cute promo girls in blue Pepsi uniforms encourage you in to take part in the video exposé. Outside, the giant retail signage for Samsung Studios looks down from the second floor restaurant across the street. A line up forms out the door as attendees clamour to experience 4K televisions and a chance at a free tshirt. Beside Samsung is National Geographic, asking “Do you have what it takes?” to “Escape the Cold” as a taxidermy wolf stands frozen in time on fake snow behind a steel crowd control barrier. Brands accost you everywhere you go here. There's a giant, branded train car turned into a sun patio for Philips. There’s posters with app promotions for start-ups like the Hater app (the #selfie poster with a picture of Justin Bieber caught my eye) and ditty, which I can only assume is some kind of music app, there’s nothing but a logo and a date. A&E has recreated the Bates Motel, and buses wrapped in Hulu and Showtime transfer guests from place to place. The giant esurance tent right off of Sixth Street is made more interesting by the homeless man out front with a scrawled sign on a cardboard box that reads “So Thirsty I’m Farting DUST!” And Marlboro fills a side street with an ominous black tent declaring MARLBORO BLACK TENT in all caps Helvetica Condensed. There's nothing inside the tent but a podium and promo girls with clipboards. Pedicabs are everywhere, which makes sense, they’re the best way to get around to the different SXSW venues, but assume you’ll be part of a brand experience if you hire one. HBO seems to own this approach with pedicabs featuring the throne from Game of Thrones, and even the hilarious Pied Piper logo from the fictitious start-up of Silicon Valley.
All of these take away from the SXSW that I’m looking for. None of these experiences are helping to drive any real, smart creative discourse. And certainly there’s no hint of innovation happening here.
The one bright spot was 3M. This is a science and manufacturing company that has literally used Innovation as its trademark for over a hundred years. A maker of over 55,000 different products, 3M is the perfect embodiment of innovation, and they didn’t disappoint at SXSW. The 3M space encouraged a real creative experience. There were sewing machines that you could use, a medical testing station, and a Post-It Note wall asking you to post your innovation ideas in collaboration with others. This was housed inside a unique 3D printed structure of triangle shapes and ceiling light hues of purple, green, pink and blue that brought a serene, creative vibe to the all white booth interior. What 3M did better than any other brand I saw at SXSW was an understanding that the people at SXSW aren’t passive brand participants; they don’t want to be promoted to. The people at SXSW are smart, creative makers, who want to affect the world around them. Not everything 3M did helped support this. The DJ, open bar, and street teams in bright orange back-packs and #LifeWith3M placards cheapened the experience. I guess it is SXSW after all.
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