Sitting at the edge of culture: How SXSW has moved from tech to brand playground

Viceland's baby goats at SXSW

Viceland’s baby goats at SXSW

How do we know when we have hit peak SXSW? Was it the year grumpy cat stole all the headlines? Was it the hotel-sized vending machine from Doritos? Was it when homeless people were rather uncouthly set up as wifi transmitters?

Or will we look back and think about when baby goats grabbed our attention in 2018? With a solid dose of irony, Viceland went above and beyond to get people to pay its parking lot spot a visit this year, with a pit full of real-life “kids” available for petting. How else are you going to spend your time in between hopping from keynote sessions to tacos and barbecue. after all?

Jokes aside, that move represents quite a significant shift that’s happened over the past five-plus years at the Austin-based festival. At one point the Interactive portion of the show, which precedes Music and runs alongside Film, was really about new tech launches – the place to discover the latest startups, and the big event for the likes of Twitter, Foursquare and beyond to get off the ground.

Where once it was really a haven for geeks, and a playground for all things B2B, slowly but steadily it has shifted to become more and more about marketing, and then carried through to be a representation really of broader culture and society.

Let’s not forget how much more pervasive the internet has become in our lives during that time. SXSW Interactive is really about everything cultural because tech infiltrates that in every single way today. In doing so, the festival has therefore simultaneously ended up being phenomenally consumer-facing.

2018 is the perfect culmination of that evolution. On the one hand, the big speakers on stage this year are discussing everything from female empowerment, diversity and transparency, while out and about around the city there’s a mass takeover by fashion brands, not to mention the most impressive activation from entertainment entity Westworld, that has ever been seen at SXSW.

TheCurrent's founder, Liz Bacelar, "wanted" at the Westworld SXSW experience

TheCurrent’s founder, Liz Bacelar, “wanted” at the Westworld SXSW experience

The audience mark-up of the event is inevitably behind this shift as well, with that focus on culture driving it. No longer is it just comprised of developers or startup entrepreneurs, but rather a perfect slice of the typical “millennial” target consumer. Is it fully representative of America? Perhaps not. But there is certainly diversity on the ground in many more ways than you would have imagined from a tech conference, and than you would have seen 5-10 years ago.

The big consumer-facing activations used to arrive only for music. Doing them during Interactive isn’t entirely new – Nike, Levi’s, Game of Thrones, even Warby Parker have had a presence in previous years – but 2018 stands out for its pervasiveness.

In terms of hype, the big activation is Westworld, as mentioned. Today, there are people lining up for hours to get a secret shuttle out to Live Without Limits, where HBO has built a replica of the fictional town of Sweetwater to kick off marketing activity around the show’s second season.

Under Armour's Hovr activation at SXSW (Image via AdWeek)

Under Armour’s Hovr activation at SXSW (Image via AdWeek)

Back in downtown, meanwhile, technology isn’t entirely missing from the experiences put together, but a lot of it is on consumer tech for today, rather than tomorrow. Highlights include the Google Assistant house touting the future of voice tech on the one hand, and Under Armour’s push for its latest cushioning technology, Hovr, on the other. The latter was teased as a zero gravity experience, but turned out to be a group of trampolines to take photos on, proving the value of Instagram-worthiness remains (with long lines out the door to back it).

The move to represent the technical ability in product, has also been the case for L’Oréal this week with the launch of its Custom D.O.S.E. skincare line – a technological service that can scan and evaluate an individual consumer’s skin and create tailor made serums as a result.

And tech is a consideration for Outdoor Voices too, with the launch of an augmented reality campaign that encourages SXSW attendees and locals to get outdoors into a park to get access to exclusive product. In addition, Bose has also been thinking about AR, but this time demonstrating a pair of smart glasses that use audio rather than visuals as the overlaid digital information. The result is that you can hear what you see – when you look at a building for instance, it tells you what it is in your ear.

Our friend @jennifer outside the Hermèsmatic store in Austin for SXSW

Our friend @jennifer outside the Hermèsmatic store in Austin for SXSW

Some of the other experiences meanwhile are more traditional in their programming. A line-up of talks, a store and a DJ for happy hour does the job for fashion brand Express, for instance, while the Create & Cultivate pop-up, which is focused on “women to watch” and backed by watch brand Fossil, is not dissimilar.

Laying on top of all that is also some truly lo-fi consumer focus. Wrangler has teamed up with Modcloth to offer denim customization in the latter’s store, for instance. Meanwhile, Hermès is probably the most surprising attendee. The luxury brand has brought Hermèsmatic – a laundromat-inspired customization and repair service – to this year’s festival to offer fans the chance to update their vintage scarves via washing and dip-dying services.

SXSW may not be the place to discover the latest big tech before anyone else anymore, but it is certainly somewhere to come for a jump into how modern culture is evolving at the hands of our connected era, and inspiration around the kind of brand activations targeting tuned-in millennials accordingly.