The Immersive, The Epic, And The Disappointing: Brand Experience Buzz From SXSW

Dan Mason is Executive Director at 2LK, a WXO Member and creative agency helping brave brands find advantage through experiences.

He recently attended this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas. Here’s Mason’s edit of the good, the bad, and the Insta-worthy from the event – and what brand experience designers might be able to learn from examples from Amazon, Netflix, Audible and more.

As the dust settles on another exhilarating edition of SXSW, it’s evident that this annual convergence of technology, music, film and culture continues to push boundaries and redefine the landscape of creativity and innovation.

Austin was once again transformed into a bustling hub of inspiration, discovery and connection, welcoming visionaries, industry leaders and enthusiasts from around the globe.

At the heart of SXSW 2024 was its dedication to innovation. The interactive portion of the festival showcased cutting-edge advancements in technology, with topics ranging from provocative AI and mind-bending AR/VR experiences, to revolutionary sustainability solutions and space exploration.

Attendees had the opportunity to immerse themselves in interactive exhibits, engage in thought-provoking panel discussions, and participate in hands-on workshops led by industry pioneers.

Beyond the official programming, SXSW was a celebration of community and connection. Networking events, meetups and parties dotted the schedule, creating opportunities for serendipitous encounters and collaborations. It can be overwhelming at times and hard to fit it all in. SXSW’s mantra of embracing JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out) couldn’t be more true. 

SXSW continued to champion diversity and inclusion, with initiatives aimed at amplifying underrepresented voices in technology, music, and film. Panels and discussions focused on topics such as gender equality, racial justice and accessibility, fostering important conversations and driving positive change within the industry.

As Executive Director of global brand experience agency 2LK, a Founding Member of the WXO, I was most interested to see how brands turned up at SXSW. Who generated the most buzz? Whose brand experience was the most epic, memorable, and immersive? And who faltered at the first hurdle?

Most Immersive Experience: Amazon Prime, Fallout

Amazon Prime’s Fallout experience was an impressive journey into the post-apocalyptic, contaminated wasteland of the popular video game series.

Attendees were immersed in a richly detailed, gritty environment of intricate set designs and interactive game play while scavenging for supplies (aka bottle tops!). Faithfully recreated props and costumes of iconic elements of the game impressed devout fans and newcomers alike.

Most Epic Experience: Netflix, 3 Body Problem

Netflix showed up with a truly arresting 30m high hologram projection to launch their latest show, sci-fi epic 3 Body Problem. An unnerving, end-of-the-world countdown raised the tension, while theatrical lighting, immense audio and fog combined for a Vegas style show every 10 minutes.

Epic and insanely futuristic. Think Blade Runner meets Minority Report and you’re nearly there.

Most Playful Experience: Sharpie

Sharpie set down a marker with a bright showcase of their latest innovative products. SXSW-goers enjoyed a range of interactive and playful experiences and custom-made merch that evoked a childlike nostalgia and irresistible joy at picking up a colouring pen.

The highlight? Designing your own Sharpie cocktail, then it being craftily created at the bar! Imminently vibrant. Delightfully shareable.

Most Disappointing Experience: Audible

Audible’s carnival themed experience (complete with drag queens, ferris wheel and cotton candy) was well talked about on the ground – and whilst it was light-hearted and enjoyable, there was literally nothing tying back to the brand.

In many ways it served up the polar opposite of what Audible is designed to be – immersive, personal, bespoke. In fact, the only audio to be heard was a really loud DJ that made it impossible to listen to any of the featured titles. 

I wanted to be blown away by compelling stories and have my perceptions of the spoken word challenged and changed. Instead, it felt more like Vegas. 

Most Elegant Experience: Delta Airlines

The award for the hottest premium ticket in town went to Delta Airlines. It was slick and sophisticated, nailing its mission to immerse every visitor as a premium flyer – through elegant decor, fine hospitality, premium merch, smart finishes and even staff who were all trained cabin crew. A touch of class.

The offset – standing in line for over an hour and being forced to download the Delta app! A nuisance to some, fair value exchange to others.

Most Interesting Experience: Porsche

A brand like Porsche doesn’t need to try very hard to attract a crowd. So inevitably, they had one of the longest lines. A showcase of luxury performance and cutting-edge tech, all wrapped in a Texas heritage motoring vibe.

Entering through a ‘car wash’, attendees experienced the prestige brand through a sophisticated, lively mix of brand experiences garnished with their latest car models. Live music, interactive exhibits and Insta-worthy photo spots surrounded the space, while a centrally positioned speaking stage hosted sessions highlighting Porsche’s commitment to sustainability and electric mobility. 

On paper it shouldn’t work. But somehow it did.

Most Shareable Experience: Paramount+

Film and TV powerhouse Paramount+ is proud of its blockbuster titles – and it shows. Turning up again this year with their Ski Lodge house of brands in the heart of the Austin frenzy.

It was somewhat chaotic three-storey journey through a themed showcase of latest releases – Halo, Star Trek, Mean Girls, Survivor and Ink Master. With a free cocktail or three and selfie-worthy movie sets aplenty, it was an Insta paradise.

Most Unsustainable Experience: SXSW!

And the award for the most environmentally unfriendly brand at SXSW? The event itself!

For a festival which talked long and hard about environmental impact and innovative sustainable change through technology and community, it sure didn’t feel like they were trying very hard! Compared to other global shows, SXSW feels stuck in a time warp when it comes to doing the right thing – or at least, making an effort.

I’ve never seen so much single-use plastic swag – it’s even forced upon you in your hotel room! Plastic cocktail cups spill out of bins and discarded bags line the streets.

And my personal favourite – pretty much all lamp posts, street furniture, planters (and even bicycle racks) are plastic wrapped below head height to make cleaning the streets of bill stickers after the event easier. It’s like a swarm of plastic bees have been through town in biblical proportions. Surely there’s a better way? Tut tut SXSW. Must try harder.

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