AUSTIN (AdAge.com) -- If you were worried about South by Southwest becoming the next Sundance, think again. Record attendance and more sponsors and brand activations than ever would suggest the leading indie music and tech summit in Austin, Texas, reached its over-commercialized saturation point this year, with badges to get into the interactive portion alone up 40% to 10,000-plus attendees and 11 lead sponsors. But those at the festival think SXSW has a ways to go before it reaches the Paris Hilton/nightclub/guerrilla-marketing lows of Park City, Utah's annual movie and celeb summit.
SXSW is not a natural place for non-media consumer brands to congregate, so marketers such as Pepsi, General Motors' Chevrolet and Levi's focused more on improving the show's utility and navigation rather than pushing their products (though a fair share of product sampling and branded tents could be found, too). Far from complaining, fans were rewarding many of the sponsors with positive tweets, check-ins to branded accounts on Foursquare and Gowalla, and joining Facebook fan pages. The only brands that suffered were the ones whose marketing efforts seemed too blatant or forced.
Microsoft's Bing, for example, offered attendees free taxi rides within a certain radius of downtown Austin -- on the condition that riders must first download the Bing mobile app.
Such force-fed marketing flew in the face of what many attendees deemed to be the ultimate place for viral, self-selecting marketing and applications. After all, this was the same place where Foursquare launched just one year ago.
"The bar's pretty high for authenticity," said Tony Weisman, president of Digitas, Chicago, whose client Miller Lite was a lead sponsor and hosted a contest for independent web producers to have their own short films sponsored by the beer. "It's not overrun by brands yet; it's still principally about ideas, not about posing."
"You have to create a connection back to the brand. It's a micro-audience that's going to be savvy and very finicky -- a super-consumer that's hard to win over," said Doug Aken, chief engagement officer of digital-marketing agency Mr Youth, who has worked with Pepsi on previous campaigns but was not involved with any SXSW efforts. "You would need to really do something unique to stand out -- it's not just creating noise for the sake of creating noise."
Yet as blogs continued to decry the death of SXSWi as an idea platform and the abundance of corporate sponsorship at what has become the country's leading technology summit, brands emerged largely unscathed.
GM's Chevrolet, for example, provided Volt-branded power strips for attendees to charge their laptops and phones, and also partnered with location-based social media app Gowalla to provide free rides in Chevy Equinox crossovers to the conference for attendees who checked in at the airport. Considered late to the social-media party two years after Ford found early success with its Fiesta efforts in 2008, Chevy was declared the festival's biggest marketing winner by blogs, Twitter users and local outlets like the Austin Statesman.
The Chevy Volt, which will have a soft launch in late 2010 before a full rollout in early 2011, is also actively trying to reach the under-34 set, an age group whose failure to embrace GM's other vehicles contributed to GM's bankruptcy. So Chevy activated its on-site vehicles with QR codes to drive users to a microsite, as well as a strong Twitter presence to engage viewers on site.
Pepsi also ramped up its second annual sponsorship of SXSW to activate branded experiences around SoBe Life Water, Mtn Dew and Pepsi. PepsiCo sponsored a Podcast Playground for podcasters to host quiet broadcasts and conduct interviews with key thinkers at the show, as well as a webcam appearance by LL Cool J to announce his new music-based social media project, Boomdizzle. SoBe hosted a "re-skinning" photo booth to promote the drink's new label, and Mtn Dew's Green Label Sound record label hosted several music showcases.
"As a lead partner, we want to be asking attendees, 'What's the issue? How can we make the event better?'" said Bonin Bough, Pepsi's director-social and digital media. "We want to add value and make ourselves more integrated into the experience, and in turn we get to learn early how to use these new technologies to transform retail purchase behavior."