The SXSW that could have been: brands share their lost activations and back-ups

SXSW was canceled by the City of Austin one week before it was due to begin / Shelley Hiam

For brands and media companies that build their live marketing calendar around SXSW, the cancellation of the annual Austin festival has pushed marketers to quickly rethink their best-laid (and now dismantled) plans. The Drum shares the lost brand experiences of SXSW and asks how their creatives will refigure the activations for future use.

Gore-Tex

Gore-Tex, the waterproof savior of Pacific Northwest hikers, was due to bring a bit of real weather to the sunny climes of Austin. For four days the brand was set to camp out on the lawn of the Four Seasons Hotel with five different experiences, all of which aimed to teach visitors how the fabric technology keeps out wind and rain.

“Two of the demo experiences were going to be large walk-in booths that were interactive and hands-on directly with products through cycling in the cold and wind, and taking a virtual reality experience during very cold conditions,” said a spokesperson for the brand.

“Other demos included dressing from head-to-toe in Gore-Tex products and stepping into a rain shower, testing shoes with Gore-Tex technology in a wading pool and an ‘immersion test" where people try on gloves and stick their hands in water.”

Meanwhile, the company had planned to host a series of community runs that would test out sneakers featuring Gore-Tex’s Invisible Fit tech. And in true SXSW fashion, a happy hour was planned on the Sunday.

Gore-Tex pulled out of the festival on 5 March, one day before the City of Austin cancelled the March dates for SXSW. This was primarily due to the hands-on nature of the activation, which would have seen participants pass around VR headsets and demo products.

The wellbeing of its staff was more important than incurring a financial cost, the company said, although it is now considering how to mitigate losses. It plans to review the physical elements of the SXSW activation and test if they can be used at future events, including trade shows, and consumer-facing events.

“Given that our event was based around hands-on, experiential demos... it will be difficult to translate the exact physical experience directly into a digital experience,“ said the spokesperson. “However, we are exploring how we can potentially create a digital experience to further educate new and existing consumers on the Gore-Tex brand and technologies with the assistance of [experience planning agency] Double A Labs.”

Visible

Visible, the all-digital wireless carrier, had teamed with brand agency Madwell to produce ‘the Contentorium’ for SXSW.

The idea came off the back of a previous experience, ‘Phonetopia’, which let attendees physically step inside the inner workings of their phones, as well as the success of last year's SXSW Music Box.

The Contentorium was planned as a space “filled to the brim with content worthy backdrops”, according to Visible’s head of experiential, Kirstie Rivard. It was also set to house an unofficial speakers room, where attendees can form their own panels and fireside chats on the fly from 13-21 March.

Creative concepting for the space began in December and the team was working on the finishing touches when the Austin announcement hit the wires. For Visible, such an experience was more critical to its marketing campaign than most in the telecoms, due to the direct-to-consumer, digital nature of its business.

“Being a direct to consumer brand with no physical stores, experiential marketing has been a valuable part of our marketing strategy that allows consumers to get to know us in real life,” explained Rivard.

So, with the build already complete – and more experiential opportunities lined up – Visible is currently looking into a back-up space for the Contentorium’s debut.

“Options include activating at another festival, perhaps popping up somewhere in Austin, or even bringing these experiences back to [Visble’s base of] Denver,” said Rivard. “We feel strongly that people will be able to still enjoy our Contentorium experience, just not at SXSW in March.”

Additionally, the company has managed to recoup all its travel expenses.

“The Austin hotels and airlines have been incredibly amazing to work with,” added Rivard.

Lush

Lush was planning to take a typically political stance at SXSW.

Parodying President Trump’s obsession with “that wall”, the natural beauty brand was due to activate its ‘Freedom of Movement’ campaign by erecting a replica Mexican border built from bricks of limited-edition soap.

Instead of building it up, however, the company would encourage passersby to dismantle it piece by piece with the sale of each bar.

“All of the money raised through the sale of the soap was due to go to organizations working on the front lines for migrant rights,” said Eva Cook, brand PR specialist at Lush North America. “Once all the soap was gone, a memorial would be revealed, showing all those who have lost their lives while crossing through the desert into the US in just the last few years.

“The intention was to draw attention to the dangers migrants face and drive the public into showing their support and raising money for the different organizations through purchasing the soap.”

Despite announcing plans to drop out before the festival’s official cancelation, Lush had already built the wall with the help of an external company. All in all, the activation took around three months to strategize and put together, although “conversations leading to Lush being prepared to launch a campaign about migration have been happening for a lot longer”, Cook adds.

With the structure ready to go, Lush still plans to activate it somewhere else once the risk of coronavirus has subsided. Mi Casa Es Tu Casa, the soap that would have been on sale at the activation, is being sold online, and the documentary that was set to run on a loop throughout the SXSW event is available to watch on YouTube.

“We’ll continue to highlight the work of various organizations working on the front lines for migrant rights during the campaign period on our website and social channels,” added Cook.

“Finally, we are running a Phone2Action page, whereby the public can get in direct contact with their local representatives to demand that our immigration system provides permanent solutions that guarantee safety for all.”

Bumble

Austin-based dating app Bumble was planning a second run with its SXSW Hive this year. Set to return to downtown Jo’s Coffee, the dating and social network promised panel conversations, ‘profile styling’ sessions, a complimentary piercing station, and birth chart and tarot card readings.

Bumble’s list of special guests included the activist actor Sophia Bush and the singer-songwriter Tayla Parx. Squarespace, Sanctuary and Meruji were on board as partner brands.

The brand had enlisted experience design firm Accomplice to create the Hive this year. Agency co-founder Ben McCraw said he had created a space where visitors “would be able to immerse themselves into the Hive entirely from both a digital and physical perspective”.

The brand representative said it is currently still discussing the next steps for the Hive.

Poo-Pourri

Toilet spray brand Poo-Pourri was due to bring a 30-foot-tall inflatable giant poo to the music portion of SXSW.

The experience promised to be an immersive journey through shit – “Not the literal shit that constipates your body,” said Rachel Champlin, senior PR director at the company, “but the mental shit that constipates your mind,, like self-doubt, anxiety and stress.”

Poo-Pourri founder Suzy Batiz and her internal ‘PooCrew’ worked Pneuhaus, Flight School, Omnispace 360 and of Ben Turk Consulting to devise and produce what can only be described as the giant turd.

Yet despite the expense of building a fully heated and air-conditioned poo, Poo-Pourri will be by-and-large unaffected by the SXSW cancellation financially.

The activation formed part of an existing nationwide tour that began in October 2019, and the company will be diverting the costs associated with permitting and event space towards rescheduling a visit to Austin once the coronavirus situation is under control.

The brand has also postponed all of its other scheduled city stops until late April when it’s slated to land in Philadelphia.

“We are committed to doing our part to help protect our staff, partners, attendees and members of the local communities by upholding our brand values and social responsibility,” said Champlin. “We will continue to monitor developments in all future areas in the coming weeks.”

In the meantime, an interactive version of the experience is live at the dedicated microsite GiantPoo.com. Visitors to the site can upload “the negative shit [they’ve] been holding onto” and digitally flush it away in a multicolored flourish.

Orangetheory Fitness

Cult fitness brand Orangetheory was due to show up for its first-ever SXSW with its ‘HypOThesis’ activation.

The four-day event aimed to showcase the workout concept’s “trifecta of science, coaching and technology”, according to a press release, through the medium of rowing races, interactive data visualizations and daily workouts from international Orangefitness Coaches.

Additionally, the brand had organized its own program of speakers, which included execs from Nike and the American Heart Association. Krewela, the electronic duo who soundtrack the brand’s ‘Welcome to More Life’ campaign, were set to perform on opening night.

“Orangetheory Fitness is hoping to bring the HypOThesis activation to life in the near future,” said a brand spokesperson, adding it is also looking at ways it can deploy some of the activation assets digitally.

White Claw

As a ‘super sponsor’ of SXSW, every frat bro’s favorite hard seltzer was due to stage multiple activations at the festival in a bid to cement it's “dethroning” of the beer as the leading sponsor within the alcohol category.

These were to be housed under the ‘Waves by White Claw’ event banner, which would feature art, large-scale installations, workshops, and DJ sets from “2020’s most admired tastemakers and purveyors of culture” in an industrial event space on East 7th Street.

“Waves by White Claw celebrates the intersection of waves of all types — from the cultural and sound waves that converge at SXSW each year to the three-crested wave that has swept the beverage industry by storm,” said the original event listing.

“Built around the spirit of White Claw’s ‘Live Your Wave’, Waves is an environment dedicated to championing those who overcome any barrier to find their way to a pure and uncompromised existence.”

The brand declined to comment on how it is mitigating costs and repurposing the live event for an offline or alternative environment.

However, a small group of conspiracy theorists on Twitter has been asking a more pressing question: what’s going to happen to all the hard seltzer that was shipped in for the festival?

One user claimed their distributor brought in 36 trucks of the drink in preparation, and now “there’s just a shitload of White Claw sitting in their warehouse”.

“What is going to happen with all SXSW White Claw?” asked John Bridges, the executive editor of the Austin American-Statesman. “Can it be repurposed into hand sanitizer?”

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