The $1 Million Buy-In: Blue Chip Brands Flock to SXSW

The famous (or infamous?) Doritos vending machine makes its return to SXSW, while Lady Gaga will perform as part of the chip maker's Bold Missions program.

For every one of Scott McNearney’s 14 years working for South by Southwest, the festival’s sponsorship chief has heard complaints about the abundance of marketers.

“It is an old line and oversimplified for folks to state that ‘SXSW is overbranded,’” he says.

Still, a cursory glance at the lineup of the festival’s official “platinum” sponsors would suggest some changes are afoot -- longtime partner Pepsi’s logo is missing, as is Citi, which made a big splash in 2013 as the presenting sponsor of Dave Grohl’s all-star Sound City concert at Stubb’s. Even Vevo, which has had a splashy profile at the past three SXSWs with live-streamed concerts, will be present only as a speaker this year.

One SXSW marketing veteran, who’s sitting out this year, says of the confab, “It’s not as cool as it used to be, and it’s very expensive to activate.” And indeed -- sponsorship fees can range anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million, before additional talent and production fees are factored in.

And yet plenty of new brands are stepping in where others may have pulled back.

Pepsi, for starters, is rethinking its approach to its sponsorship that will highlight four different brands. And Subway and Pennzoil are both onboard as platinum sponsors, with additional events this year also in the works from Airbnb, DirecTV, Neiman Marcus and first-time Fader Fort sponsor Mazda, among many others.

“Brands are underwriting talent expenses more than ever,” McNearney notes -- a crucial detail, since the vast majority of the 2,200 acts set to perform this year will play unpaid showcases. “And many brands are conducting smarter and smarter activations that truly enhance the experience for South by Southwest attendees.”

With attendance set to be on par with last year’s 41,700 registrants, and total foot traffic that has been known to soar past 100,000 during the confab’s 10 days, it’s easy to see why more and more blue chip brands are flocking to Austin. Here are highlights of  key brands.
BRAND MANAGER: Eddy Cue, Apple senior vp Internet software and services
BRAND PLANS: After seven years at London’s Roundhouse Theatre, the iTunes Festival is making its first North American trek during SXSW and will take over the Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater March 11-14. Boasting a lineup that includes Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, London Grammar, Pitbull, Zedd, Keith Urban, Willie Nelson and more to-be-announced performers, it’s guaranteed to be one of the week’s hottest tickets.
WHY IT WILL STAND OUT: In a highly competitive week for tech and streaming-music marketers, iTunes is throwing its hat into the ring some six months after debuting its iTunes Radio to a mixed reception. A splashy SXSW debut should garner lots of attention, as well as traffic to the live-streamed performances on iTunes.
BRAND MANAGER: Ram Krishnan, Frito-Lay vp marketing
BRAND PLANS: Depending on whom you ask, the 56-foot-high Doritos vending machine stage has represented the zenith or the nadir of branding at SXSW for the last two years. Either way, the stage, strategically located one block off the busy Sixth Street drag, worked for the company in making a splashy introduction of its Doritos Bold flavors to the market, and also set a high bar for the tortilla-chip maker to top its own antics. Perhaps that’s why Doritos recruited Lady Gaga for this year’s Bold Missions, which will require fans to complete various acts of bravery between March 6 and 13 to score a ticket to the intimate performance on the Doritos stage at Stubb’s.
WHY IT WILL STAND OUT: Gaga is perhaps the biggest pop star to grace the stage at SXSW, and encouraging consumers to make “bold” moves and share them online will ensure plenty of buzz for the brand in the week leading up to her performance. Plus, the sheer audacity of Doritos’ marketing stunts is sure to spark much continued debate among attendees and the bands themselves, as it did with Doritos performer DIIV in 2013.
BRAND MANAGER: Mia Meachem, Neiman Marcus Stores vp marketing
BRAND PLANS: Upscale retailer Neiman Marcus was looking for a partner to help introduce Make Some Noise, a creative platform for the retailer’s designer collection for young women, by celebrating females making waves in fashion, tech and music. Its search quickly led to Atlantic Records, and now the platform boasts a hot roster of acts across both genders. The two companies will host Cusp on Rainey, a three-day salon, spa and music event. It will be held at 78 Rainey St., featuring performances by acts Chromeo, Charli XCX, Cash Cash, Night Terrors of 1927 and Meg Myers.
WHY IT WILL STAND OUT: After a small yoga-themed activation at SXSW in 2013, Neiman Marcus’ vp marketing Mia Meachem saw an opening to target women during the increasingly male-dominated conference. “We wanted to create a forum where women could connect and escape from the hustle and bustle of South By,” she says.

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BRAND MANAGER: Caralene Robinson, VH1 senior vp creative group and consumer marketing
BRAND PLANS: VH1’s 24-hour music channel Palladia is making its first major splash at SXSW with a lineup chock-full of You Oughta Know acts including Aloe Blacc and Johnnyswim as well as buzzy newcomers like Bleachers, Phantogram and Sam Smith. With presenting sponsorship from AT&T and additional support from Whole Foods, whose You Oughta Know contest winner Bravesoul will also perform, the March 12 event at The Cedar Door is modestly titled “Palladia’s Epic. Awesome. Showcase.”
WHY IT WILL STAND OUT: In a week designed for emerging artists, Palladia has a particular lock on the acts about to make the leap to the big time, plus two networks that can broadcast the performances to an even wider audience.


BRAND MANAGER: Anna Sherwood-Stephan, Vans music and entertainment marketing manager
BRAND PLANS: In its second year bringing its Brooklyn-based House of Vans series to The Mohawk, alongside SpinMedia, Vans will host a full retail store, open mic series and BMX demos alongside five days’ worth of diverse music showcases. Vans Mexico and Pitchfork’s Show No Mercy (March 11), Spin and Vans (March 12), Stereogum and A$AP Mob (March 13), The Windish Agency and ATC SXSW (March 14), and Vibe and Flosstradmus Presents (March 15) will hold down daytime and evening performances.
WHY IT WILL STAND OUT: You’ll be hard-pressed to find a venue playing host to full bills of artists who cater to fans of Spanish-language indie-rock, sludge metal, alt-folk and noise pop, depending on the time of day.
BRAND MANAGER: Kendra Gurnett, Nordstrom Rack marketing manager
BRAND PLANS: As a sponsor of Pandora’s third annual Discovery Den, Nordstrom Rack will help play host to a hot lineup of “live mixtapes” that includes an electronica night with Betty Who, Ryan Hemsworth and Charli XCX (March 12); a hip-hop showcase with SoMo, Mobb Depp and Tyler, The Creator (March 13); Americana music from Hurray for the Riff Raff, Wanda Jackson and Lucinda Williams; and an indie-rock finale featuring Black Lips, Albert Hammond Jr. and Jack Antonoff’s Bleachers, among many others. The Discovery Den will also relocate to The Gatsby in Austin’s Red River District, having spent the last few years at Antone’s.
WHY IT WILL STAND OUT: A first-timer to SXSW, Nordstrom Rack is beginning to dip its toes into music sponsorships and will offer limited product samples on-site while supplies last. It will also help enable a live audio stream of each showcase.