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Experiential Marketing SXSW Marketing

At SXSW 2024, bold experiential marketing took center stage

By Dane Aloe, Executive vice president, Strategy & Measurement



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March 15, 2024 | 8 min read

This year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival wraps this weekend after a festival not without its fair share of drama. Spiro’s Dane Aloe says that the real star of the show was a suite of amazing experiential activations.

The skyline in Austin, Texas

Was 2024's SXSW festival all about big, bold experiential marketing? / Carlos Alfonso via Unsplash

BBQ, beer, and brand activations were all out in full force in Austin as this year’s SXSW Festival brought together some of the world’s biggest brands and agencies.

From guerilla-style takeovers to large, sponsored experiences, brands pulled out the stops to grab audiences’ attention and time. The result? Those experiential trends move beyond ‘one-offs’ to elements that can have long-term, bottom-line impacts on their brands.

Here are three SXSW-inspired trends that you should consider permanently incorporating into your brand playbook.

1. Apply both the immersive and sensorial to your activations

The gap between brands focusing on basic product sampling and truly immersive, multi-sensorial brand experiences was pronounced at this year’s festival. The use of sight, sound, feel, taste, and smell (yes, smell!) to increase brand and experience recall was used successfully across SXSW.

Take Audible’s sound experience: I’m a sucker for a great audiobook, but what’s even better? How about experiencing Austin from several stories above the ground, atop a giant Audible-branded Ferris wheel? The combination of great audio messaging, the “wow” visual experience of a Ferris wheel in the middle of downtown buildings, and the visceral feelings you only get from an amusement park ride gave audiences a huge sensory impact.

Then there was Tide’s launch of its ‘revolutionary’ laundry tile. As I walked into the beautifully designed experience, it was the distinct Tide smell that immediately hit my senses. That intentional use of smell made the rest of the experience that much more enjoyable.

Consumers within an experience want more than to watch your trailer or scan your QR code for a coupon. Full sensorial experiences are the ones that will stay in the hearts and minds of your audiences, especially in a crowded brand activation market like SXSW.

2. Use a portfolio approach to strategically plan

One of the larger shifts around experiential this year wasn’t within activations themselves, but how marketers were discussing them: openly discussing building year-long event roadmaps using a ‘portfolio approach’.

It makes sense: the science of event measurement and attribution has rapidly improved in recent years. Just as dashboards and trackable actions have existed for years in digital, the tools for experiential have improved so much that brands can confidently make choices around where they show up with a more critical lens.

No longer are brands going to events just because ‘that’s what we’ve done in the past’. The science of road-mapping and portfolio analysis can now mimic how individuals plan their financial investments.

Internal KPIs, budget tiers, and the ability to reach a very specific target audience are the first steps to determining whether an event like SXSW is a ‘go’ or ‘no-go’. Only after a rigorous planning sprint are brands considering the development of an RFP or creative brief for their agency partners.

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3. Move beyond the theoretical; get practical with AI

Artificial Intelligence was the hot topic across almost every (scheduled and impromptu) conversation at SXSW. From fear of the unknown to practical creative and operational uses, AI is here to stay. Brand marketers are quickly moving into real conversations on how to apply the technology.

But it’s one thing to talk about it, and an entirely different thing to show it. With dozens of public AI conversations each day, the ones that resonated most with the audiences were those attached to real-life examples.

My colleague Carley Faircloth, Spiro’s global chief marketing officer, discussed one such example in a fireside chat with Erin McElroy, (program director, executive programs & event experiences at IBM). The company is going beyond talking about its AI products, instead creating entire experiential programs to give prospective clients hands-on time with those tools. A gamified Watsonx experience elicited empathy and understanding from participants who could see the tangible benefits of automating certain customer service tasks to better focus on customer needs.

I discussed with David Isaac, vice president, creative production at Chobani the importance of cultural and organizational readiness as a key to setting up successful AI experiments internally. By integrating genAI into the creative process and starting small with visual brand content experiments to show results, the unknown elements of AI disappear. Then you see firsthand how the technology can offer consumers more engaging, personalized brand experiences. And it also has bottom-line impact: Chobani’s Halloween experience that incorporated AR and AI saw dwell time of double the average industry benchmark and an 8.3-point lift in purchase intent.

Now is the time to move beyond talking about AI trends, and set up an experimentation process to strategically select the right AI products, then test, learn and improve your creative and operational marketing outputs.

Experiential Marketing SXSW Marketing

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