As the substantial roar of SXSW Interactive and SXSW Film give way to the sustained, yowling, five-day-long, banshee-like shriek that is SXSW Music, the question, “Is SXSW 2015 a tipping point for the festival” starts to sound downright silly. Take a look at the streets of Austin, which have been packed for the past four days and will only get busier over the next five, and the question really becomes, “Does it even matter?” Kanye’s coming back, y’all—how can SXSW’s health be in question when you’ve got Kanye?
Yeezy’s presence notwithstanding, it doesn’t take trenchant insight to notice that things are a little smaller at SXSW this year. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily—the overwhelming brand presence at SXSWs of years past has rarely been remarked upon as a highlight of the festival, and the fact that, say, Oreo doesn’t have a “make a custom Oreo and tweet about it” stand this year is not a loss worth mourning.
Still, it’s surprising to see that more than a few downtown parking lots that are typically the [Insert Brand Name] Lounge for nine days in March are full of cars right now (who probably paid $30 to $40 for the privilege). Businesses that in the past were the Samsung House or whatever are now just serving lunch. HBO’s Game of Thrones didn’t rent out the Austin Music Hall for a massive SXSWesteros promotion with costumes, props, set pieces, and a VR promotion this year. Instead, they have a rather modest event where visitors can wave around plastic swords for a few seconds at the site of the former Antone’s downtown. The wheel in the sky keeps on turning, and SXSW is not a disappointment because there is no Subway Pavilion, but it’s definitely noticeable; there didn’t used to be any “Still available for SXSW” signs hanging over downtown businesses on the first weekend of the festival.
That hurts the bottom line of businesses that have grown accustomed to the massive receipts that accompany a nine-day rental to an international brand, presumably, but the rest of us are all right. And it’s not like this year’s event is short on brands: you can refresh and recharge with everybody from Bausch & Lomb to the DVD release of Interstellar in downtown Austin right now. Brands will have adorable puppies deliver cellphone chargers to you while you sit in line, they will summon D’Angelo and Mary J. Blige to entertain you, they will scientifically engineer better barbecue, they will pay young people $20 an hour to dress in funny costumes to get your attention, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
In other words, if you’re in Austin right now, unless you are the sort of person who pays close attention to which parking lots are no longer the temporary property of Doritos or Brisk Iced Tea, you might not have even noticed. The brands, however, want you to know that they’ve noticed you. Last week, before the festival started, Verizon Wireless started trolling Austin residents with influential Twitter accounts by praising them as “model Austinites.”
Leaving aside for a moment that the definition of a “model Austinite” is apparently “one with 10,000-plus followers on Twitter,” this was the first step in an outreach plan Verizon had to talk to Austin residents during SXSW. Those who responded to the phone company’s overtures on Twitter were invited to enjoy Franklin BBQ without waiting in the famous line, and yesterday, the brand explained its strategy more fully:
This year Verizon is coming to the aid of the poor locals who couldn’t afford to skip down during the big show. Along with agency Erwin Penland, the telecom company is launching “Austinites Unite” today, a campaign geared to help Austin’s own get through the craziness.
Verizon is asking Austinites to use the hashtag #ATXUnite to share their frustrations on social media, and tracking the responses in real-time to send relief their way. Teams based out of New York and South Carolina will also be actively monitoring social platforms and supporting the team on-ground.
The “poor locals who couldn’t afford to skip down during the big show” probably aren’t the high-twitter-count media members that the company solicited online, and the “relief” that the company plans to offer is a bit dubious: Austinites who tweet to them that they need a ride because all the Uber cars are in use could get a free ride, but that’s not necessarily a common complaint from someone who’s left out of SXSW. (If they airlift cars stuck on I-35, or offer a parking lot exclusively to people who work construction downtown, then maybe . . .)
Still, all of this “Verizon feels your pain” business resulted in at least one amazing quote from Rick Haring, the company’s director of Social Media.
“Austinites are not anyone’s focus at this time, so we want to make sure they are heard,” Haring said. “We want them to love us more, and we will be closely tracking engagement metrics and hoping it increases our brand affinity.”
Awwwwww! That’s sweet, right? A brand spokesman for Verizon actually explained that the company wants your love. It’s hard to argue with that, and it’s not exactly a surprise either: McDonald’s is offering free fries and wi-fi because it wants your love, too, and it agreed to find a budget to pay bands who play its brand activations because it wants their love. The Divergent film franchise has a virtual reality experience set up near the convention center to increase brand affinity, Samsung booked D’Angelo and Mary J. Blige to make owners of their devices love them more, and everybody is closely tracking engagement metrics.
The engagement metrics will probably be scaled back this year, but they’re still very much at the fore of what SXSW is about. It’s still unclear, at the moment, what exactly a smaller SXSW means for the city, the festival, and the brands that pay the bills. But if the first few days are any indication, the change doesn’t seem to be hurting anybody.