Emotional fuel at SXSW

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Credit: Ad Age

Brand activations at SXSW, considered by some the Super Bowl of experiential marketing, have shown yet again why experiential, once viewed as an ancillary piece of a client's marketing mix, has become the core. Experiential marketing literally brings a brand's personality, values and attitude to life, and there's no better place to do that than in Austin, Texas, a city that is fiercely proud of being weird.

Experiential marketing creates more brand advocates than any other marketing method. It creates increased engagement and has longer ROI than other advertising mediums. According to Shaz Smilansky, who penned "Experiential Marketing: A Practical Guide to Interactive Brand Experiences," people who undergo a live experience are likely to tell around 17 other people about a positive experience. When you do the math on the 167,800+ attendees, you can take that to the bank.

This year there were the expected big spectaculars but also more personalized, intimate and authentic activations. (Think Off-Broadway plays instead of big Broadway productions.) SXSW is the perfect meta example of a powerful event where there is something for everyone.

HBO brought Westworld to life through the creation of a theme park complete with gunslingers, prostitutes and booze. The recreation of the town of Sweetwater featured in the series was over-the-top, relevant and real.

Ahead of its March 29 release date, Ready Player One's activation was a high-tech party that immersed fans in the movie's '80s nostalgia and provided ample custom cocktails and photo ops. With all the coverage generated by the film's music-infused event, excitement will surely build and drive ticket sales. Interestingly, a reported tech glitch that occurred during the film premiere only added to the experiential charm as it was less about a high-tech theater than it was about supporting an Austin landmark. And, giving love to its community goes a long way in experiential, with studies showing that 72 percent of people would tell friends and family about such efforts.

Sony inventively showed off its tech prowess by creating a dozen mini adventures in an Austin warehouse. Whether engaging with robots or VR sports activities, Sony displayed its tech chops. The company showed visitors all it has to offer in a tangible way.

While mega activations can take millions and months to deploy, brands don't need to go over the top to authentically connect with consumers. Not to mention, experiences are magnets for millennials and Gen Z. Sure, high-tech bells and whistles (and booze) often enhance the magic. But even companies with modest budgets can and should deploy activations that make consumers active participants in their brands. This year it was less about being blown away by the next big thing and more about how to apply emerging technology in a practical way given the clutter of today's environment.

Marketers must continue to insert their brands into culture. Authentic intrusions that engage customers where they live, work, and play are welcome. Activations, big and small, can boost brand sentiment and loyalty when delivered in ways that matter. The importance of experiences in the marketing mix has increased for CMOs. As a longtime experiential practitioner behind first-time activations for marketers in all sectors, it's no secret why.

Experiences have the power to reach into people's hearts and impact their emotions. They foster connection and community. This includes an individual's circle of influence because 49 percent of people create mobile video at experiential events. Activations must be true to a brand's intrinsic values. The hope is that genuine offline experiences generate positive online conversations.

Experiential marketing is a big deal. Sixty-five percent of brands that put experiential at the core of their marketing strategy say it positively correlates with sales. SXSW attracts a diverse group of attendees and the magic of experiential is that it transcends generations and appeals to the need to relate to one another.

I'm reminded every day that the emotional connections created by real-life interactions simply can't be replicated online. I love and hate it when I get experiential envy. It pushes me to be better.

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