If the Super Bowl is the thing to watch for the best TV commercials, then the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, is the place to be for top so-called experiential marketing.
With so much online these days, brands often struggle to turn their innovations into real-world concepts people can understand. Experiential marketing, or a brand-sponsored event, takes far-fetched ideas and makes them tactile or turns a cool stunt into a way to introduce a company to the public.
Here are some of the pop-up brand "houses" that stood out at the SXSW Interactive Festival this year.
The McDonald's Loft was not just a place to make your own custom burgers and sundaes courtesy of the brand. It arguably had the most buzzed about virtual reality experience of the festival.
The five-minute long interactive experience, created by VR company Groove Jones, transported the VR goggles wearer inside a Happy Meal box. Then using two plastic tools that you were handed, the user could paint inside the box using a paintball gun, laser paint ray or paintbrush. The experience was in 3-D, so you could walk around your artwork and construct your dream image.
Afterward, people were given a GIF of their VR experience, which usually looked like someone stumbling around waving their hands in the air as well as a picture of your artwork.
Temperatures reached 90 degrees during the interactive portion of the festival. To create an oasis from the heat, Austin-based digital marketing company Spredfast created the Spredfast Suite, an invite-only lounge where attendees could get some rest.
"We (in Austin) have the premiere interactive marketing event of the year," said Josh Rickel, vice president of entertainment and media at Spredfast. "So many different brands and media companies come together and are sharing knowledge and thinking about the year ahead, talking about how they are innovating. To be a part of that, and invite them into our headquarters and to facilitate those conversations is probably the most valuable four days of our year."
On top of several stations serving unlimited food and alcohol throughout the day, 15-minute massages, hair appointments and pedicures were available to anyone who wanted to use them. A large digital screen showed off Spredfast's digital analysis software, which included the top worldwide digital trends and then specifically the top trends at SXSW this year.
The company also sectioned off a quiet area for business meetings, and hosted a speaker series that included rival agencies discussing challenges facing the advertising industry today off the record to social media companies like Facebook showing off the marketing potential of VR.
To cap things off and show off its hometown, Spredfast joined forces with Viacom to present Chromeo at Austin City Limits, the city's premiere concert venue.
Lydia Daly, vice president of Viacom Velocity, said it was important to Viacom to create an entertaining event where its clients and partners could sit back and relax. It also was using the opportunity to hint at future social analytics capabilities that it would unveil later during its upfront presentation for advertisers.
"There's so many different partners and clients who are here so whether it's Facebook or Tumblr or Spredfast or Pepsi, we want to make sure we are positioning ourselves as innovative and forward thinking for all of these things," said Daly.
How does a physical greeting card company make its presence known at a digital conference? American Greetings created #analog, a space that took many digital things we do today and turned them into real-world experiences.
"When you use analog forms of communication, you can elevate digital things. ... The idea is to say that analog and digital aren't at war with each other," said Alex Ho, executive director of marketing at American Greetings.
Ho said because there were so many brands trying to create an event at SXSW, American Greetings wanted to be distinctive and add value to attendees' experiences.
Instead of taking selfies, an artist at the "stichie" station was using a sewing machine to stich needle and thread portraits of attendees. The person would stand there for four to five minutes, while the artist rapidly sewed an image of their face.
Across from him, American Greetings copyrighters and lettering artists were helping attendees create custom greeting cards for whomever they wanted. There was also a station dedicated to taking Polariods of digital images, so that the physical picture could be sent in a greeting card to a loved one.
To create a physical GIF, American Greetings wired a typewriter's keys so that it could understand a computer program to record a video. Then, each three to five second video was printed out as 24 separate pictures. People then pasted each picture onto a piece of cardboard, creating a flipbook-like book. A nearby station allowed them to flip through their creations, while recording the moving picture on their phone.
Plus, with so many free, bespoke things to take home, Ho said it helped bring people in the doors.
"Liking getting free stuff is multigenerational," he said laughing.
In order to show off what it could offer, Spotify continued its annual tradition of throwing a multiday house party. This year's "house" was bigger than ever before and featured acts like Willie Nelson, Chvrches and Miguel. It also held SoulCycle sessions with DJs like Chromeo spinning tracks while people completed the intensive spin class.
"It's appreciation for artists and the fans that makes Spotify," said Seth Farbman, chief marketing officer at Spotify. "We consider Spotify a meritocracy. Artists make amazing music, and fans are there to hear it. When you get them together and you discover new artists this magical thing happens. There's something special about doing that in a physical space."
For those less active, there were daily video game tournaments as well as a jukebox that could "read" your band shirt and play music from that artist after it completed its scan.
"The intersection of digital and music is how this whole thing (SXSW) began," Farbman said. "That is Spotify."
Gatorade transported SXSW attendees inside its Gatorade Fuel Lab, a real facility in Barrington, Illinois, where athletes and Gatorade scientists work together to create the ideal sports drink formula. People were invited to custom make their own Gatorade using "sports fuel" pods that just need to be added to water.
"Gatorade is an innovation company and we wanted to make a huge statement," Xavi Cortadellas, senior director of innovation and design at Gatorade. "The whole idea is delivering sports fuel personalization."
Gatorade hopes that eventually consumers can go online and find which "sports fuel" fits them best. Then choose the formula based on the type of activity they do and the weather they are experiencing. The pods are also easier to ship than bottles of Gatorade, which fits today's digital consumer-led lifestyle.
"Consumers want personalization and technology in everything they are doing," said Cortadellas.
The Visa Everywhere lounge showed off the future of digital payments and commerce. In order to get some free food and drinks, visitors paid at the biometric bar which used fingerprint or retina scanners or facial recognition technology instead of swiping a credit card.
At another station, people could try on Olympics gear virtually using Visa's digital shopping experience. Visitors stood in front of a TV and Kinect and virtually "grabbed" clothes from the side of the screen to try on. They could even change the background to see what it was like to be on the beaches of Brazil.
Outside, Visa's connected car showed off some digital innovations, including a feature that allowed drivers to find and pay for parking or even the nearest gas station, as well as pulls up a menu of the snacks it sells. The car's computer connects digitally with gas stations to pay for the gas and snacks without leaving the car. (You'd still have to physically pump your gas and pick up your snacks however.)
The Deloitte Digital Interplay Lab turned every person into a musician. Instead of traditional instruments, it created digital tools that allowed everyone to make music. The Arc (pictured above) had several stations that allowed attendees to roll a ball to control tempo or pull tubes to play with tones. Everything from the speed and size of the crowd to people swinging on the swing set outside controlled the music and the experience.
Alicia Hatch, Deloitte Digital's chief marketing officer, said the company wanted to show how the digital experience can be used in different ways than what people saw on their mobile phones or on their computers. She added that she could see this event changing the concert-going experience to be more interactive. Deloitte Digital was approached by several art galleries to recreate the event, something she said it is considering.
"South By is a mecca of the greatest thinkers and all innovation that is happening in our industry and across so many industries," Hatch said. "This is the genesis of where so many things start. It's important for us not only to be here but to be part of the conversation. It's important for us to be inspiring new things but moving the world forward."