Doritos, Amazon, nerdy pop-up bars: The brands are back at SXSW 2023

Yes, the stars will be here strutting the red carpet. Of course, the bands will be in Austin, the so-called Live Music Capital of the World. But the real attraction — rather, the real money — is in cross-promotional brand tie-ins. 

At SXSW 2023, the brands are at it again. I take no pleasure in reporting this.

Last year’s conference felt small in the best possible way. Sure, there were a few brands — I drank a margarita with a rim dusted with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, naturally — but it didn’t appear that the city had been invaded by thousands of brand activations as it had in years prior. Perhaps the brands had permanently eradicated the six-figure “Random SXSW Experiential” lines from their marketing budgets.

Nope! 

Every 30 seconds, I receive an invitation to the INSERT BRAND HERE House with some combination of food, drink, and sensory experience promised. My inbox weeps.

Roku is building a real-life version of its screensaver, with an actual diner, at which I will gladly eat Just a Big Salad, a nod to Elaine’s normal Seinfeld order. Ooni Volt pizza ovens wants to make me a pizza at a natural wine bar. FX’s DAVE is co-opting a fleet of pedicabs to tie-in with an upcoming storyline about going on tour in search of love. Sure!

Airstream is matched up with Porsche. Am I interested in learning why?

Yellowjackets is doing some camping thing on the East Side.

La Croix would love for me to visit the exclusive La Croix lounge inside the La Croix house. 

Some company called ZOZOFIT would like to scan my body.

Doritos. Oh boy, Doritos, that talisman of SXSW over-stuffed-ness. The giant vending machine is just a fading memory, but you better believe the triangular snack chips are back in town. This time they are teamed up with Billboard to host Anderson .Paak, serve Doritos BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos and Doritos Flamin’ Hot Limon Margarita Cheesecake, and have constructed something called the Taste the Night Tunnel, a “multi-sensorial experience” that involves — naturally — augmented reality. As if this reality weren’t augmented enough!

It’s all part of something called Doritos After Dark, which is the only time I eat the dang things anyway!

How about pop-up bars and restaurants?

Forget going to your favorite places during SXSW, they are now transformed into immersive experiences for your favorite television shows (and many you have never heard of).

Amazon Prime is pulling an Elon Musk and creating a Texas town, Prime, TX, which is a takeover of the Hotel San Jose, replete with bars honoring The Boys and Daisy Jones & the Six, a restaurant collaboration with non-restaurant Grubhub, and a presentation of the key to the “city” with actual Austin Mayor Kirk Watson. Is this augmented reality?

If that weren’t enough, the company is also turning the nearby Austin Motel into a pop-up for new show Swarm, wherein the lobby will be a replica of a … Texaco station? Yes, they are selling Frito-Lay products inside. Cross-promotional!

The Highball will be a Dungeons & Dragons tavern. Three-decker Clive Bar on Rainey Street? That’s getting the triple treatment: a tavern for Yellowstone prequel 1923, a sci-fi-themed bar for Star Trek: Discovery, and a sports bar called the Ice Cave, which oddly doesn’t appear to have a direct tie-in. What a missed opportunity.

What this all means is that the reports of a shrinking, smaller SXSW have been premature. It should have been evident when the conference exported itself to the other side of the world, but still, 2022 made locals feel wistful for SXSW 2002. This year is going to be a madhouse, with 2022 merely acting as a proof-of-concept for a rebooted SXSW following two years of cancellations and virtual-only events.

It’s a sad state of affairs if you enjoyed the 2022 version, which featured four-hour lines at the Cheetos Hands-Free House because, really, there weren’t 100 other randomly generated brand activations happening at the same time.

This year will be different. One will stroll right into the IMGN x Warner Music So Satisfying House while everyone else is riding around town in DAVE-branded pedicabs. Unless tens of thousands of extra people decide to come this year, in which case, pray for me, and pray for the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

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