Five Crazy Brand Promotions at SXSW 2015

SXSW doesn’t just take Austin over for ten days in March – it transforms Austin.

With Hootsuite bike-n-booze trollies all over town, shuttle buses wrapped in TV and movie posters, and normal restaurants temporarily re-branded into eateries like the “Fast Company Grill,” the city is a sudden cornucopia of hyper brand-awareness.

Naturally, it takes a special promotional effort to stand out amidst all the branded chaos. Here are our awards for the boldest promotions we’ve seen so far, ranging from completely effective, to utterly head-scratching.

Most Organic – Bates Motel

Head and shoulders above all the re-branded shops and restaurants in the area is the promotion for A&E’s series Bates Motel, an actual motel complete with ominously flickering “No Vacancy” sign. Actually a pop-up structure (constructed in a mere three days, according to Variety), Bates Motel offers fans the chance to explore everything from the main office to bloodstains in the rooms, as well as a contest to spend a night in the motel.

SXSW Bates Motel Fritz Kessler

A&E’s pop-up Bates Motel at SXSW: Image by Fritz Kessler

I’m not sure what would be worse – sleeping in a blood spattered room, or sleeping on the busiest street in Austin during SXSW. But, either way, Bates Motel has it covered, and does so in a way that’s both fun for fans and passers-by, and completely on-brand.

Most Ominous – Mr. Robot

Do you need a group of hackers in hoodies to wander mysteriously around SXSW and promote your brand? If so, Mr. Robot’s got you covered, with an act that’s part flash mob, part scavenger hunt, and all confounding (their website isn’t much help, either). They popped up in the food truck pod near the convention center and marched around in circles, tossing a lone business card on the ground. It contained instructions to take a selfie with the Mr. Robot fellas to reap further rewards.

Mr. Robot SXSW Fritz Kessler

The Mr. Robot Army: Image by Fritz Kessler

I did so, and was promptly tossed another card containing….a coupon for a local restaurant? There’s probably more to it than that, but when tons of brands at SXSW are practically begging to lavish you with free drinks, food, and swag, discovering the secrets of Mr. Robot required a patience I found I didn’t have.

Most Burdensome – The Game of Thrones Pedicab

With generic pedicabs flooding the streets of Austin, the idea of riding around town in the Iron Throne probably seems pretty cool, especially for the hardcore Game of Thrones fans waiting to get into the “South by South Westeros” exhibit in downtown Austin.

Pity the iron throne pedicab driver: Image by Fritz Kessler

Ben and the Iron Throne Pedicab: Image by Fritz Kessler

Pity, though, the pedicab driver who has to lug the throne around with you in it for a dozen blocks at a mere ten bucks a person. I spoke with Ben, a driver of one the iron pedicabs, who told me that it’s hugely challenging to pull such a non-aerodynamic vehicle up a hill and against the wind. When I asked how heavy the cab was, he laughingly and wearily replied “too heavy.”

So remember, be kind to your Iron Throne driver if you visit South by South Westeros this year, and toss ’em a few extra copper pennies.

Most Ludicrous – The GE BBQ Research Center

Because nothing says “barbeque” like “General Electric,” GE has a ranch-style installation on Driskill street that’s all about smoked, sauced meat. Credit GE, though, for throwing everything and the kitchen sink into this one: the BBQ Research Center is complete with dudes in white lab coats monitoring tins of pulled pork, classes on whether data science will affect the future of BBQ sauce, and even a giant BBQ “super smoker.”

GE BBQ Research Super Smoker Fritz Kessler

The GE BBQ Research Super Smoker, complete with dudes in lab coats: Image by Fritz Kessler

Even for an appliance-producing company like GE, it feels like they’re reaching here. Of course, the line to get in was also huge, so it’s possible I’m just bitter at not having tasted some of the super smoked BBQ myself. Looks like I’ll have to wait until next year to find out if GE can “bring good BBQ to life” or puts it to death.

Most Edible – The VISA Ice Cream Sandwich Wrapper

For those no longer content to merely see, hear, touch, and generally be subsumed by advertisements at SXSW, now you can consume them, too. VISA provided ice cream sandwich purveyor Coolhaus with edible wrappers that you eat along with the sandwich, thereby eliminating the age-old problem of getting a little bit of napkin in your mouth when you eat ice cream sandwiches, and/or cones.

VISA SXSW Fritz Kessler Edible Wrapper

The edible VISA wrapper from SXSW: Image by Fritz Kessler

Resembling some sort of rice paper with the VISA card image dyed in, the wrapper wins points for ingenuity, but loses significant points for blasé flavor and poor mouthfeel – plus, the food dye totally rubbed off on my hand. The chocolate chip cookie and brown-butter-bacon ice cream sandwich from Coolhaus, though? I’d pedal an Iron Throne around all of Austin for another one of those.

So, what were some of the most insane promotions you’ve seen at SXSW? Let us know in the comments, below.

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