Everything’s bigger in Texas

Why SXSW can outperform CES

Anyone that has been following the industry reaction to the virtual 2021 CES will know that it went...well...ok. AdAge described it as ‘being akin to a series of back-to-back Zoom calls’: brands played it safe, opting to color within the lines of the organizing body rather than trying something bold. Sure, a few brands lashed out and hosted live-streamed music experiences, but even here, they didn’t really push the envelope.

As we’ve arrived in March, thoughts begin to turn to the next tentpole event on the marketing calendar: SXSW, which will also go virtual in 2021.

So how do brands learn from CES, and how can they stand out at SXSW? We’ve got a couple of ideas.


1. Don’t set out to create a virtual event. Set out to create something compelling

The overarching criticism of CES was that every presentation felt the same: similar sets, similar approaches, similar content, similar structures. The result? A blur, where the product, the logo, the brand, and the message are forgotten instantly. This occurred for one simple reason: brands set out to create virtual events, instead of setting out to create compelling content.

This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to the world of virtual events: marketing and advertising are dogged by agencies and brands worrying more about the delivery channel than the idea itself (“...but what would it look like as a TVC?”).

The lesson? Start with an idea. Don’t start with a tactic.

Take inspiration from genres and styles of complementary entertainment. Examine the plethora of options available via other forms of digital engagement, or social platforms, or trends in the online and offline world around you. And most importantly, consider what will move the needle for your audience: it almost certainly won’t be a traditional live event reimagined as a virtual one.

2. Don’t ignore the zeitgeist: Be a part of it

SXSW is more than just a festival: it’s a global meeting of the minds. Leading creative trendsetters come together to inspire discussion, create new ways of thinking and develop the next big thing, and these conversations are watched from all around the world - which is exactly why SXSW is so attractive to brands. This is why it is critical that you ensure that your brand is engaged in the discussions, as opposed to simply broadcasting business messages.

One of the other major criticisms of CES was that there was too much of exactly that: brand broadcasts, not real engagement. It’s important to remember that SXSW is a celebration of the cultural zeitgeist: if you want your brand to be a part of the conversation, make sure you have the ability to keep up with the absolute latest via live interaction.

3. Hybrid can be your hero

One of the key advantages of SXSW going virtual in 2021 is that it has totally democratized the experience: rather than the usual procession of brand/music/tech/film execs, anyone with $399 can attend. This means that in cities all around the country (and even the world), thousands of people will be looking to experience their first-ever SXSW - and hosting hybrid events could make your brand their hero.

Consider COVID-conscious live experiences that let SXSW attendees come together in their local environments to experience a little of the in-person magic that makes the festival so dynamic - for those who feel comfortable doing so. They can co-watch keynotes and sessions, grab a plate of famous Austin BBQ, take in live music, hit a food truck, catch a movie: there’s so much inspiration in the SXSW world to draw from. This is a once in a lifetime (we hope) chance to bring a little bit of Austin to everywhere.


4. Think like an Austinite: Get weird

Austin prides itself on being weird... It’s even their local business slogan. Lean into this. Get weird with your approach: it’s not like times could get any weirder. CES was a parade of brands playing it safe, and as we said earlier, no one took any risk, and so no one reaped any reward, and no one stood out. The time for bold, exciting, out-there thinking is now: the world is slowly blinking into the light of a post-COVID reality, and we all deserve a little excitement.

If your agency isn’t challenging you with big, bold thinking that takes a risk and provokes a response give us a call. We promise we’ll help you get weird, get successful, and stand out.

Here’s a free thought-starter: losing SXSW as a real-world experience costs the city of Austin an estimated $350m, and this will be the second year in a row it has missed out. How could your brand reach out to empower a community on its knees: one that has facilitated this globally recognized confluence of creativity, technology, culture, and commerce for 34 years? In addition to doing something noble and good, that would really stand out.