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From Doritos to Playtex to the Fader Fort, the SXSW Question Is: What Brand Are You? (Update)

Update: With South by Southwest Music in full swing, throngs of music fans have descended upon Austin. And that gives marketers more crowds to pitch their products and experiences to.

"The whole experience is more like social media,” says GSD&M’s Matthew Childs. "It’s not to actually sell something. It’s to get people talking about you, to position your brand with the Venturi effect of the community at South By. If you’re inauthentic to the community, you’re going to get called out pretty quickly."

Companies attempting to ingratiate themselves to the SXSW community have been on display all week: everything from the edgy (like HBO’s Game of Thrones pedicabs) to the decidedly less so (brands like Oreo and Cap’n Crunch advertising at SXSW Interactive).

"Think of it as a marketing experience that has the potential to position your brand,” Child says. "And because it’s a pretty eclectic community, the bigger your brand, the more open, the more relevant you have to be."

Original Post (March 9): Playing South By Southwest can be an artist's dream. Official showcases and free daytime gigs offer artists the opportunity to gain new fans and network with entertainment bigwigs. 

At the same time, SXSW is also a marketers dream. Those same artists' doting fans are also potential customers for savvy marketers to court. 

When the artists take to the stage, so will the brands and marketers. With that in mind, here are some South By Southwest case studies of what works and what doesn't. 

  • Doritos: LL Cool J - Or Cool Ranch?

Matthew Childs knows marketing. He's serves as a senior vice president of experience and insight at the Austin ad and marketing firm GSD&M. He says SXSW marketing isn't a one-way street. It's experiential. Smart brands want the music lovers to participate in their campaigns via social media, which can make or break a campaign. 

At SXSW last year, Doritos' 62-foot tall vending machine stagecaused some heartburn. It certainly wasn't subtle, but it worked. It garnered attention. It got people talking.

Childs says that the move is designed to create "content" – to simply get people talking about Doritos. The more people talk, the more potential product is sold – the more potential profit. He says the move demands attention, that in the "Turkish bazaar" of SXSW marketing, Doritos stands out.

This year, the company ispartnering with hip-hop legends including LL Cool J, Public Enemy and Ice Cube – and yes, they'll be performing underneath the "tweet-powered" Doritos tower, helping launch a "bolder" logo and aesthetic for the brand. 

The idea is that Doritos can borrow some old school street cred to introduce its new school image. And while one might not associate Chuck D and Flavor Flav with the flavorful flavors of Doritos, that doesn't matter. As Childs says, SXSW-goers aren't interested in the products as much as they are with the experience. Fans won't leave the show fawning over the new Doritos packaging – but they will maintain some brand recognition.

  • Playtex: Getting a Little Too Fresh?

Andrew W.K. lives to party. 

In an effort to capitalize on W.K.'s party-centric ethos, Playtex made the underground frontman its official spokesman for a new product: Fresh and Sexy Wipes, sanitary wipes for use when the party gets a little more … intimate. The brand is launching at an unofficial party this SXSW.

Childs says this move is risky. It's a new product with little name recognition and the idea, like Doritos' efforts, is to capitalize on the image of its performers' lifestyles.

But for a company that primarily markets to women, that could be a risky move. And Childs says that any SXSW marketing endeavor must first account for a backlash. Street cred accounts for a lot, but if there's a credibility disconnect, the effort could fall flat. 

"If it's somebody that's so not a part of that milieu of content creation … or is a butt of jokes, it won't work," Childs says.  "Paris Hilton might attract a lot of attention, but a lot of it would probably be derisive, rather than valuable," he adds. 

In short, Andrew W.K. and Fresh and Sexy Wipes are now inextricably bound: If his party-centric personality doesn't sell festival, Playtex could end up with a real mess on its hands. 

  • Fader Fort & Green Label Sound: Our Brand Could Be Your Life

Some of the most effective marketing efforts, Childs says, pitch an experience rather than a product.  Or put another way: to the discerning crowds at SXSW, there's always going to be a disconnect between products and pitchmen. But if brands look to create more of an event-based, experiential campaign, then that disconnect is blunted. 
The Fader Fort is a prime example. An unofficial SXSW event, the fort is a hipster bacchanal of free bands, booze and South By swag. The sponsorship is pervasive, but secondary to the exclusive, RSVP-only vibe of the event itself.

Green Label Sound is another: Mountain Dew rents out a Rainey Street house, opens the bar, and lets the music do the pitching. 

Neither brand is overtly pushing a product, which gives each group a "halo effect," Childs says. The more personal and more focused an event, the higher the likelihood of SXSW swarms potentially purchasing a product. 

"It's not directly related to sales, but it gives your brand a halo," Childs says. "Because if they're talking well about you at some further point, it's going to favorably predispose them for a purchase."

The likelihood of a brand securing the affections of festival goers is higher because they might think a brand belongs there, rather than thinking that a brand is capitalizing or "drafting" off of them, Childs says. 

Do you have any examples of good, bad or subtle SXSW marketing ploys? Let us know in the comments section. 

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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