SXSW: Big Business Hones In On Indie Spotlight

The annual South by Southwest conference has always been viewed as a place for independent artists and startups to shine. Musicians, filmmakers and new tech companies all compete for awareness among the show's influential show goers (who often act as evangelists for what they like when they return home).

SXSW Festival 2011
SXSW Festival 2011

With the surge of growth in SXSW, though, large companies have invaded the show, looking to capitalize on that same audience, to build awareness for their new products or try to woo some of those evangelists to sing their praises when they return home.

Some, though, just want to cash in on the crowd.

It's easy to accuse Apple of that last offense, but it's pretty hard to blame the company, too. Since there are no Apple stores near the Austin Convention Center (the nearest is an expensive cab ride away), the company decided to take over a local building and create a 'pop-up' store, expected to be open just two weeks. Through that, the tech movers and shakers who typically are part of the early adopter crowd were able to buy an iPad 2 the moment the tablet computer went on sale.

The plan worked. Some people waited for more than seven hours to get their hands on the device, with the line stretching for well over a city block on Friday, March 11. The lines have reappeared – and been nearly as long - every day since.

If Apple was looking to make a splash, though, it succeeded masterfully. Walking around with an iPad 2 is the ultimate status symbol at SXSW.

Microsoft , meanwhile, is using the event as the springboard for its latest version of Internet Explorer. The company hosted a lavish launch party Monday night with a trio of bands at the filming location for the Austin City Limits television program. The company also has an army of foot soldiers keeping conference-goers (and sightseers around the convention hall) hydrated with a caffeine-fueled drink it's cleverly calling HTML-5.

Chevrolet, is one of the biggest sponsors of SXSW, ferrying show-goers around the city in a fleet of Chevy Cruze's (anyone with a badge can flag down an empty car and be driven wherever they want to go). The company is also giving the hipsters who flock to the show a chance to drive the environmentally-friendly Volt.

And in its third year as a sponsor, Pepsi is pulling out all the stops at the show. Non-attendees can watch live streams of the keynotes and select panels, while those in Austin are seeing the company's logo all over the place. For instance, an entire corner of the convention center's first floor is dedicated to the marketing of PepsiCo brands, including Lipton and SunChips.

Across the street from the convention center, meanwhile, the company's SoBe brand has a tented lounge offering tastings. A block away, a PepsiMax branded stage features up-and-coming musical acts with room for nearly 1,000 people.

Additionally, Mountain Dew is promoting its own digital music label and Lipton will introduce a new line of flavors at the show.

Not all the big companies at SXSW are taking such an in-your-face approach to marketing. AOL has a lounge where people can rest their feet for a bit and perhaps listen in on a TechCrunch interview being filmed. And Miller Lite is being poured at several taps around the show, but it's usually the company hosting those free beers that's preening for the spotlight.

As for those start-ups at risk of being shoved to the side? Don't worry too much about them. They're nothing, if not wily.

Those Microsoft HTML drinks? They're being poured by people wearing mini-keg backpacks. More than a few of those backpacks now have logo stickers covertly stuck on them.

And those people were standing in line waiting for their iPads are prime targets for the flyer brigade around Austin, who are walking up and down the line making sure everyone knows about their company and what it's doing at SXSW.