Building worlds at SXSW

What started off as a music festival for new bands and musical acts in the 80s is now the home to entertainment, sports, and political brands and individuals debuting their latest and greatest to almost half a million attendees.
So what exactly is SXSW?
At its core, SXSW is the 10 day phenomenon that transforms an entire city to a global launchpad for culture.
It’s the place where innovative and startup brands and artists come to grab the attention of consumers and journalists from thousands of different print, radio, TV and digital outlets through exclusive and immersive experiences.
SXSW is the place for people to experience things first. For many brands, it’s the place to create in-world experiences for festival-goers, influencers and press to drive impressions, engagement and value.
We talked to our Managing Director of Media and Entertainment Rob Drury, who’s worked with brands including Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon Prime Video’s Good Omens, to walk us through the evolution and impact of world-building at SXSW.


Why is SXSW the place for brands to go and launch their TV shows, products or tech startup?

First, SXSW made an effort to grow the property to what it is today. It started as a music festival, then launched a tech conference, and now you see comedy, food, VR and AR tracks at present in the same space.
Ultimately, press followed it.
Second, SXSW is the tipping point for cultural breakthroughs. First, it was the place for breakout music including Hanson, John Mayer and James Blunt. Then, Silicon Valley giants Twitter, AirBnb and Foursquare used SXSW as a platform to launch or promote their products.
At festivals and conferences like CES and San Diego Comic Con, the media are hungry to discover and write about the next big thing. The difference between traditional conferences and SXSW lies in the experience. SXSW is multichannel environment where the press can cover everything from the next new band to the next TV obsession.
For television networks, it’s a no brainer to have a footprint at SXSW for shows that premiere in the next 4-6 weeks to drive ratings. Gone are the days when networks just hope the press will show up to a random street corner to launch their new show. Now, there’s a new expected way to earn media impressions. At SXSW, networks know that there is the potential to get picked up and earn millions (or even billions) of media impressions.
Now, Austin is a hub for experiential marketing. It lends itself to TV and film because of the immediate connectivity to fans and attendees and the variety of immersive environments that can exist in the space.

There are so many experiences for attendees of SXSW, how do brands stand out anymore?

Simply put, brands stand out by doing something original that stems from location and strategy, to tactics and world-building, and using technology in a new way. Brands need to create new, authentic experiences. More so than any other premiere conference, brands at SXSW have become very competitive to earn the most buzz via press and social media.
An example of cutting through the clutter and championing their new series with a unique activation, in 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale took over Austin and became the coolest moving billboard to ever exist. Actors dressed up in the iconic red dresses and walked all over town. It was eerie. It was different. It worked.
[Read A Handmaid's Tale at SXSW]

The brands that make the biggest splash are thoughtful about the experience of a festival attendee and lean in to becoming a must see experience.
With Prime Video’s Good Omens, creating an immersive in-world experience with a lounge, free beer, free food and entertainment made perfect sense. Attendees of the festival have hundreds of options for activities to attend, and they pack it all in. We wanted to be the oasis where attendees come to hang out and really interact with the world of Good Omens.


Brands, especially TV shows, seem to be invested in building worlds in addition to one or two quick promotional stunts. Is this trend now an expectation? 

It’s certainly a trend that has seen major successes in recent years, but for the right shows. For iconic legacy shows, it can be a slam dunk. If you recreate the diner from Seinfeld or Central Perk from Friends, fans will flock to it to suffice their dream of being in a show they know and adore.
It comes from a concept that has perhaps seen its peak, but brands are still seeing great attendance and media impressions.
With Good Omens, a show on that doesn’t premiere until the end of May, we took this approach and made it captivating in a different way. We took a familiar setting, the Garden of Eden, and modernized it and made it relevant to the show into a must-see and must-be-at destination to drive tune-in for the series in the summer.
We invited people to come into a world they think they know, and gave them something they’ve never seen before by implementing elements from the show.
[Read Good Omens Wows at SXSW]

What can we expect in SXSW 2020?

Finding the next vertical, whether it’s gaming, women’s initiatives or the 2020 presidential election. Brands will be eager to be the next “it” and the media storm that follows in and outside of Austin.

Request a copy of the Best of SXSW 2019 Trend Report