The Over-Branding of SXSW: How Much Is Too Much?

A Still-Cool Happening in Austin Strains Under the Weight of Marketing

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Irina Slutsky
Irina Slutsky
In my seven years of coming to SXSW, I've become accustomed to a pretty high intensity of brand-shilling, but with Chevy blogging lounges, Microsoft answer centers and a Pepsi Max in every clammy hand, one has to wonder: How much marketing is too much? And at what point do the brands hoping to associate with SXSW kill it off?

"I think it's getting more like CES every year," said fifth year attendee Chris Lundberg of SalsaLabs, referring to the glitzy Consumer Electronics Show that takes place in Las Vegas. "It's terrible, I have had no useful conversations yet in three days. It's not that the people are different, it's that it's hard to talk to people after you've been blared at by 10 different sponsors."

And blared at we are: The hallowed hallways of the Austin Convention Center -- where many a start-up has been discovered -- are now full of AT&T and Samsung charge-up stations, AOL lounges, and a blizzard of promotions, fliers, posters, t-shirts, and tchotchkes at every corner. Not to mention on every free space of asphalt for many blocks leading up to it.

For the past three years, Pepsi has made tradition of going big at SXSW. The enormous PepsiMax playground takes up a corner lot, where shiny Pepsi signs and a stage for music are visible from blocks away. What is Pepsi hoping to achieve with this massive sponsorship, which also includes a dedicated website?

"Pepsico is down here showcasing emerging technologies and creating a platform of opportunity," said Bonin Bough, the company's global director of digital and social media. "By partnering with SXSW, we have a chance to see what the future of the next six to eighteen months will look like and our brands have a chance to be exposed to consumers living in the digital space." Mr. Bough said that Pepsico wants to work with start-ups and small companies that can help the company flex their digital innovation muscles.

Overall, the attendee reaction to Pepsi sponsorship seems to be a shoulder shrug and a "Hey, I got a free drink" attitude. In the PepsiMax playground, first-time attendee Dan Brooks was using the free wifi connection. "Ultimately, everyone here recognizes we're being sold to," Mr. Brooks said. "We'll take the free things, but I don't know if that's effective marketing."

One of the free things that attendees can get from big sponsor Chevrolet is a free ride in a Chevy Volt. "Chevy is getting their money's worth," said longtime SXSW-goer Steve Garfield, who not only got a ride but also drove one of the cars. "I don't think the big brands have damaged the conference, but I at times it's like running a gauntlet to get through the advertising."

Mary Henige, General Motor's director of social media and digital communications, said Chevy had a specific goal in mind by sponsoring SXSW for the second year. "Ultimately we hope to introduce savvy festival goers to the new Chevrolet and to increase awareness and consideration of our vehicles," Ms. Henige said, adding that it seems to be working so far. "We are pleased with the buzz we're creating."

It seems that Chevy's idea of giving people free rides has created a lot of good will towards the brand, since getting around Austin during SXSW has been a huge hassle. But even while sitting in the Chevy lounge, second-year attendee Nate Lotz said that big brand sponsors are teetering on the edge of "too much" presence. "This festival is turning into something more for sponsors instead of attendees," Mr. Lotz said, whose mother has been coming for years as well. "I'm sure they're bringing in tons of money, but we're not here to be advertised to, we're here to learn something. It feels like the serendipity's gone."

Mr. Lotz didn't need to pimp a startup, but those attendees who did had a different take on the big brand presence. "It's a great way to legitimize the anti-fiefdom, anti-hierarchical nature of a typical geek get-together," said Benjamin Reece, whose startup has had a partnership with Coke. "It's a good opportunity for people from corporate culture to connect to people who own start-ups."

Big brands weren't the only ones guilty of pushing product. Of-the-moment group-texting startup GroupMe was giving away free lunches at the GroupMe Grill just outside the conference center. But the lunch wasn't totally free. "Hi, have you downloaded GroupMe?" asked a slew of attractive young men and women, wearing gray GroupMe t-shirts. The people waiting in line had to show proof of the download in order to get food. "I don't care because I'm getting a free grilled cheese," said David Emmitt. "But the second person asking me if I have it on my phone is a little annoying."

Irina Slutsky has been in the Bay Area tech scene since 2004. She worked as an old-school newspaper reporter in Florida and New Jersey. She was born in Kazakhstan, like Borat.
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