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.
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.
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 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 her intimate performance on the Doritos stage at Stubb’s.
Brand manager: Mia Meachem, Neiman Marcus Stores vp marketing
Brand plans: Upscale retailer Neiman Marcus sought a partner to help introduce Make Some Noise, a 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.
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.”
Brand manager: Will Bortz, Taco Bell director of brand partnerships
Brand plans: The Hype Hotel is back for its third year at SXSW, powered by Feed the Beat and Hype Machine. Taco Bell has made the venue a priority for its biggest product launches of the last few years, including Tacos Locos in 2012 and their Cool Ranch counterpart in 2013. Now located on E. Seventh Street near Red River, the Hype Hotel will once again host an impossibly cool lineup of extra-now acts like Future Islands, Tinashe, SZA, Against Me!, Jessy Lanza, Chloe Howl and Jarvis Cocker’s Desperate Sound System. The lineups were once again booked by Hype Machine’s network of blogs including Consequence of Sound, Disco Naivete and Gorilla Vs Bear.
Brand manager: Amy Curtis McIntyre, Airbnb chief marketing officer
Brand plans: For several years now, Airbnb has had one of the largest unofficial presences at SXSW as many attendees’ preferred the housing service in light of scarce hotel rooms. So to formalize its relationship with the SXSW community this year, Airbnb is sponsoring its own house during the Music portion of SXSW — called Airbnb Park — that will feature custom hospitality experiences designed by Snoop Dogg, Capital Cities and Allen Stone. Created in partnership with Capitol Records and The Cashmere Agency, the pop-up installations will include artist-curated programming for every daypart, from morning “Hang Time” (organic coffee and fresh juices) to “Rise + Relax” (meditation and yoga) to food from local chefs at the “Hangover Haven.”
Brand manager: Javier Farfan, PepsiCo senior director of cultural branding
Brand plans: Pepsi’s logo may not be among the brands on the list of SXSW’s platinum sponsors for the first time in years, but the beverage behemoth is prepping its biggest marketing blitz yet across four brands — Brisk, Aquafina Flavor Splash, Mountain Dew and Pepsi, each of which will shine a spotlight on emerging artists. Brisk is teaming with Vice and Noisey for the fourth year of its Brisk Bodega platform, including a special performance from producer-of-the-moment DJ Mustard. Flavor Splash is partnering with High School Nation to create a new teen-centered art platform, featuring talent such as Taboo from The Black Eyed Peas. Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound will host musical performances and skate sessions on March 12. And Pepsi will have a major presence at the mtvU Woodies as the presenting sponsor of the MTV Artists Stage, where rising acts like The 1975 will perform. PepsiCo is going wider — and more micro-targeted — than its most mass-market events from years past. “We moved away from the idea of platinum, bronze, whatever and customized our sponsorship due to our needs,” says PepsiCo senior director of cultural branding Javier Farfan. “It cuts through Music, Interactive, Film and goes deep into certain places [with the] products we want to put out into the marketplace.”
Brand manager: Russell Wager, Mazda vp U.S. marketing
Brand plans: For its first year as the Fader Fort’s automotive partner — not to mention inaugural jaunt to SXSW — Mazda will help create original content on-site that will live on TheFader.com as part of a yearlong media buy across Fader properties. The Japanese automaker has been dipping its toes in music in recent months, following a 2012 shuffling of its senior marketing ranks, including licensing Capital Cities’ “Safe and Sound” for a highly visible commercial that aired during the Super Bowl as well as a June 2013 partnership with Canadian alt-rock band Metric and Xbox Live. “Our target consumer is already heading to the Fader Fort, and this was a great time to reach them and enhance their time in Austin,” says Mazda vp U.S. marketing Russell Wager. “We want to create credible and memorable experiences with music, and being part of the Fader Fort should help us achieve that.”