Why Brands Fell for SXSW

This story is part of Digiday’s coverage of the SXSW Interactive Festival. Sponsored by Centro, a provider of media services and software that aims to improve campaign performance and digital media teams’ productivity.

There was a time, not long ago, when brands looked at the digital world quizzically. Those days are over. Now brands are obsessed with how they can speed up their operations and make digital essential to what they’re doing.

And that’s why they’re here at SXSW in droves. The brands are varied. There are package goods brands like Pepsi and Oreo, car brands like Chevrolet and nearly everything in between. It used to be noteworthy that a major brand devoted a big presence to SXSW. Those days are over, considering how American Express last year brought Jay-Z in to do a concert that was the hot ticket of the event.

All this activity has trickle-down effects. The event has a different feel, nearly as much a marketing event as it is about tech. If anything, SXSW is emerging as a place where marketing and tech meet. Talk to any brand, and you’ll hear how they want to build closer relationships with startups. Target, for instance, is here to trumpet a “retail accelerator” program with Fast Company. Another brand’s executive told me he was on his way to meet with a top incubator. Unilever has a huge contingent here, focused mostly on education and making connections with startups and developers.

There’s little doubt that, at this moment at least, brands have startup fever. There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, it’s about time they got involved with the newest ways consumers will connect — and help guide the development on these platforms. And at the same time, some of it is for show. As one exec explained, “There are things you do to drive the business forward, and there are things done to get promoted.” Often sexy programs like startup partnerships fall in the latter category.

Is it all worth it? That depends on the objectives, of course. For some brands, SXSW is simply a way to connect with a young, tech-savvy audience. For brands like Oreo, which is deploying heavily here, the goals are slightly different. It’s more about flexing muscles as a progressive brand.

A major goal expressed by many brands is internal. A top brand told me that his company has two dozen people here across several departments. It’s worthwhile, in his view, since those people will go back to their day-to-day jobs with an idea of just how big (and exciting) digital is nowadays. For many brands, as hard as it might seem, that kind of internal evangelization is still critically important.

And the other is talent. Brands are here on the hunt for it. There are tech-savvy agency people to poach, developers to woo and even digital stars at other brands. SXSW is fertile ground for that.

But for many brands, the draw is a chance to learn new things away from their day-to-day rigors. Bob Arnold, associate director of digital strategy at Kellogg’s, told me he’s trying to attend sessions in areas outside his core expertise, taking in design sessions for instance. Montana Triplett, director of digital marketing at Moet Henessy, tweeted that SXSW is “like going back at college for five days, only this time I’m learning.”


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