How brands are rethinking a virtual SXSW this year, from mailed cheese to immersive online games


Last March, as the stark reality of the coronavirus pandemic was made clear, marketers and experiential agencies were frantically working to retool activations slated to run at South by Southwest in Austin. Contingency plans were activated for some, but others had to quickly cancel their experiential marketing efforts entirely.

This year, however, it’s a different story for marketers activating at the festival, which is known to be a hub for experiential marketing, as there was no question that the multi-day event would be held virtually. The festival kicks off online on Tuesday and will run until the 20th.

With that being the case, festival organizers, sponsors and marketers had the necessary clarity and planning to spend time and find ways to bring virtual activations to life, integrate brand sponsors into conference content as well as create ad placements for brands on the online platform.

“From SXSW’s standpoint, it’s all about figuring out a way for brands to add value to the experience,” said Brad Spies, director of special projects for SXSW, on how the festival worked with brand sponsors for this year’s virtual festival. “That can take so many different forms.” 

It has — how brands are showing up at the virtual SXSW varies. Sponsors like CNN and Wisconsin Cheese, as examples, are mailing boxes of treats from local Austin vendors and Wisconsin cheese, respectively, to SXSW attendees to go along with their virtual programming.

HBO Max, meanwhile, a brand apt to use the SXSW stage for flashy experiential stunts, is embracing the virtual aspect of the festival by creating a digital experience, called HBO Max Orbit, to showcase characters and content from the company’s catalog for attendees to explore. Others, like TikTok, are focused on capturing attendees’ attention with panel content.

“[SXSW] has become an important part of our yearly marketing plans,” said Jason Mulderig, svp of brand marketing at WarnerMedia Direct-to-Consumer, adding that the company has typically shown up with splashy immersive in-person events like HBO’s Westworld and Game of Thrones activations of recent years that put attendees in the worlds of the shows. “This year, we are sponsoring [the festival] because we wanted to reach attendees throughout the normal course of attending the online portion of the festival. We can’t buy a corner lot here and pop up an activation, so we’re having to sponsor a portion of the festival.”

And, ideally, fill any gaps with HBO Max Orbit, which is a digital responsive game that responds to players’ facial expressions and gestures. The company is aiming to give fans an environment to complete challenges as well as match with characters and clips.

Other brands, like Wisconsin Cheese, are also aiming to continue to deliver an immersive experience for fans even without the tech-savvy of a virtual game. The cheese purveyor is delivering 2,021 personalized boxes of cheese, roughly a literal ton of cheese, to SXSW attendees this week. The attendees will then eat the cheese as part of a virtual cheese tasting event hosted by comedian Nick Offerman.

“We wanted it to be as close to coming together and having fun at a party as we possibly could,” said Suzanne Fanning, CMO of Wisconsin Cheese, adding that the brand spent the same amount on this year’s experiential effort as its previous in-person efforts at SXSW. By having an interactive cheese tasting for SXSW attendees, the brand is looking to elevate the typical virtual brand activation.

As for why the brand returned to SXSW despite it being yet another virtual festival, Fanning noted that “There are lots of virtual events out there but the eyes of the world will certainly be on this particular virtual event to see what happens.”

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