The 3 Most Important Decisions Your Brand Needs To Make For SXSW

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The biggest mistake that brands make at SXSW isn’t booking the wrong act for the party. It’s not getting the wrong venue, and it’s not scheduling at the wrong time.

The biggest mistake that brands make at SXSW is thinking that the only way to rise above the noise is to be the loudest. Throw the biggest party. Sponsor the craziest stunt. Buy the coolest schwag.

What we’ve learned in working with dozens of brands over the last few years is that success at SXSW, like every good marketing campaign, is all about creating a campaign that aligns a brand’s objectives with its resource commitment, and does so in a way that is consistent and authentic with the story that brand is trying to tell about itself and the world at large.

Here are some useful ways to think about each of the three most important decisions your brand at SXSW.

1. What are your brand’s objectives?

When your brand thinks about SXSW, its important to get specific about what you’re actually hoping to accomplish.

Here are some common objectives:

Maximize impressions at the event – put differently, get as many people to interact with your brand in some way as possible.
Maximize impressions after the event – some brands are focused on the content they can create during SXSW to tell stories later.
Maximize emotional connection with audience – sometimes, SXSW isn’t about big at all. Sometimes it’s about finding ways to surprise and delight small numbers of people who become champions and evangelists.
Field test a new product – many brands use SXSW to actually test their new products – be it a new beer or a new app.

Each of these objectives has very different implications. Maximizing impressions at the event means doing something so big or crazy that it commands attention. Maximizing impressions after the event means planning what sort of media is going to be created and which outlets are right to publish and promote it. Maximizing emotional connection is all about doing the unexpected – going above and beyond to make people feel deeply committed to your brand.

The first step for SXSW is understanding your brand’s objectives. The trick then becomes, how to make it happen.

2. What resources are you willing to commit?

There are ways to do SXSW at a range of different resource allocations, but the financial, time, and talent capital that your brand is willing to exert can have big implications for which type of objectives you might choose to pursue, and how you do it.

For example, take the goal of maximizing impressions at SXSW. A brand that’s willing to commit large amounts of resources can simply be the biggest and most noticeable. In 2012, for example, Doritos installed a 100 foot tall vending machine where artists from Snoop to Cisco Adler played.

A brand that doesn’t have those sort of resources would have to be much more creative and guerrilla to maximize impressions in the same way. And while that’s not a totally outrageous goal, a smaller overall resource capacity might easily lead a brand towards different objectives.

For example, there could be much lower cost strategies for maximizing emotional connection. Imagine a brand connecting an aspiring filmmaker to their favorite director for a backstage meet’n’greet. Sure, it may not be the loudest campaign, but for that fan, it would be so meaningful that they might become a passionate advocate for that brand. What’s more, the content created around it – the photo or video of that moment of connection, expresses such a universal emotion set that with the right distribution, it could actually lead to significant brand impressions in media later.

3. What campaign is most authentic to your brand’s story?

Brands are not sums of data points; they’re subjective emotional experiences. They are stories that transform products into something more than products – into gateways into a way of seeing and experiencing the world.

There is a temptation for brands to adapt to SXSW rather than understand how to figure out what parts of their story could turn into campaigns that work well at the festival. Just because people at SXSW respond to huge musical mega acts doesn’t mean you need to book someone that no one at your company even really likes. Just because attendees expect schwag doesn’t mean you need to make a T-shirt if that seems stupid to you.

Consumers respond to authenticity and consistency. It made sense for Nike to have an amazing athletic facility to try out their new Fuel Band, and it made sense for Doritos to have a giant vending machine.

What makes sense for your brand ultimately has to be a consideration not just of objectives and resources but who you are, and the story you want to tell. Nail that, and whether big or small, your SXSW campaign will be a success.




  • by Nathaniel Whittemore
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