Beyond Free Tacos and Beer--the Cool Factor

The South by Southwest festival draws tens of thousands of people, from investors to early adopters, hoping to find the next big thing. As a result, big brands clamor to be a part of it, hoping to boost their cool factor and draw new customers.

The Fortune 500 brands at "South By," as it's called by influencers, know that they have to do more than just slap their name on a party with free tacos and beer. To really get in good with the South By Southwest crowd, they have to showcase their product and brand in a way that sparks conversation and could go viral.

The big tech names are here, looking to remind bloggers and entrepreneurs about their services. Yahoo is showcasing its Flickr photo-sharing service with a wall of photos and a photo booth. And it's drawing attention to its original videos with "watch parties."

Samsung Galaxy Sound Stage At SXSW 2013
Getty Images
Samsung Galaxy Sound Stage At SXSW 2013

Samsung is offering a concierge service that solves a persistent problem for the smart phone-obsessed attendees here-- it will deliver fresh smart-phone batteries to attendees who tweet #TheNextBigThing. It's also printing Instagram photos with a print station.

Microsoft is showcasing its blind comparison to Google, encouraging people to take the "Bing It On Challenge" by giving points that can be redeemed for swag or even a free massage. Those points can be accumulated on a bracelet with wireless technology the company is handing out. It's also offering free rides to the "Bing Recharge Lounge" in a fleet of Bing-branded SUVs.

Microsoft's Yammer is hosting events for its clients as well as start-ups, looking to show entrepreneurs that its social-enterprise tools are valuable for companies big and small. "You've got this cross-pollination between digital and film and music. It's sort of multi-disciplinary with the creative arts and so there's kind of a cool energy to it."

And non-tech brands are out in force here. American Express, looking to draw new small-business customers, is hosting a start-up competition. "I think SXSW is the conference where digital, social, and mobile technologies are being showcased," AmEx Ventures Harshul Sanghi said. "This is where the future happens first. We need to be in the middle of it. That's where our customers are, that's where we need to be."

Chevrolet, looking to raise the profile of its new cars, is offering free rides to attendees looking to get around the conference, and the option of a free test drive as well. It's also sponsoring a free lounge in the convention center for people to recharge their batteries.

American Airlines, another sponsor of the event is also paying for a lounge nearby. It's partnering with AT&T to host a hackathon, for developers to create a new mobile app.

There may not be an easy way to measure the impact of the millions of corporate dollars here. But if a product draws attention on Twitter and it goes viral, the marketing value can be priceless.