CMO Secrets: SXSW Unpacked

Contributions by Jules Staveley, George Morgan and André Shahrdar

More recently (and more frequently), B2B marketers are dipping their toes into B2C cultural moments, riding on the coattails of culture to find relevance with younger audiences. That sentiment can be found at SXSW; one of a handful of festivals offering a channel to reach Millennial and Gen Z audiences on their turf.

“The world comes to Austin for a week cuz’ of how there’s so much fun going on, and 17 years later, that sentiment really hasn’t changed much. If you loosen your expectations and learn to go with the flow, the experience will have a profound influence and expand your horizons in ways you never would have imagined.

SXSW has always had a soft spot for undiscovered artists. Now though, it’s not just musicians that catch their big break in Austin. The festival has grown into a city-wide churn of innovation that cuts across sectors and creative disciplines, and brands are jumping on the bandwagon.

2024 welcomed 300,000 eager delegates – a blend of Gen Z and Millennial generations, and made up of both business and consumer audiences. We noted that the majority of Millennials were there on business – holding badges that gave them fast access to the content sessions and a series of networking events. Gen Z on the other hand, seemed unfazed by ‘life in the fast lane’ badge access, instead patient and willing to queue for their turn to experience it all.

And while there are plenty of badge-only content sessions, many of the brand activations were open to the public, inviting a wider creative community and giving SXSW a consumer-esk edge not typically seen at B2B tentpole events.

The frequency of ‘gram moments’ for example, peppered across Austin, paid homage to younger audiences’ fascination for personal brand building. Attendees could be seen whipping out their phones to capture every moment and leverage the power of association with SXSW on their own channels, too. 

Brands used the opportunity to build serious affinity, strengthened through activations that weren’t selling anything, but inviting the audience to explore and play; come one, come all.

It’s not often that brand marketers have the chance to leapfrog competition into the social zeitgeist; and a captive audience waiting to see just how relevant you can be. 

Though among the big hits, there were some misses. Many of the activations lacked polish and considered guest journeys. At times, the festival was a queuing nightmare (we have some of our own horror stories) and while audiences waited in line outside activations for SWAG, the quality of their experience and lasting perception of the brand dwindled. The best activations had three things in common:

1. Grown Ups Want to Play Too

As an engagement tactic, adult play works brilliantly to create memorable experiences and evoke positive emotions. We’ve seen this strategy play out before (no pun intended) at Stagwell’s Sport Beach where audiences were encouraged to leave their seats and play on the court, shooting hoops and working out together to break down networking barriers. 

The results? Stronger affinity, more natural brand recall, social interaction and genuine conversation between guests.

2. Sell A Product Forge a Relationship 

“Don’t sell to me. Educate me. Inspire me.”

Porsche did this better than anyone. Their activation was beautiful. They mirrored different parts of the ’owning a car’ experience, with dedicated zones for the showroom floor, the carwash, the workshop etc. It was completely unrivalled in terms of quality, finish and production but they were not there to sell cars. 

And of course, no attendee was there to buy a Porsche. This was a brand-building exercise to introduce the luxury premium product to a younger audience by giving them an experience they would never forget. It was inspired and educational and a clever move by Porsche to remove a perception barrier that luxury cars are exclusively for +50.

Source: Porsche, 2024

We noticed some brands missed a trick by ignoring the periphery touch points for audience interactions at SXSW. For example, the long, hot and busy queues outside popular activations presented a really interesting opportunity to connect with captive audiences in the line. Very few brands made use of this, a bold element to overlook that left audiences frustrated and flustered.

If the overarching brand opportunity at SXSW is exposure and PR, but the audience experience is lacking or in some instances, brand diminishing, is there any point activating there at all? 

Source: Photo by Lauren Lindley

Our final thoughts:

SXSW stamps its mark on the event landscape through a USP that no one can quite articulate but every brand needs; an activation landscape to shake off ‘the expected’ and try on a new coat of creative freedom. The festival breeds an enthusiasm for originality that only SXSW can conjure, and a younger marketing audience that isn’t just accepting of the weirdness; they’re looking for it.