AI, Inclusion, and The Best Brand Experiences from SXSW 2018

Posted by Samantha Stallard on March 21, 2018
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The annual conference in Austin, TX is infamous for its over-the-top parties, brand marketing activations, packed lecture halls, and enough breakfast tacos to make you physically ill - a fact our team continues to test year after year. While always an inspiring and innovative event of the brightest minds in tech, marketing, design, film, comedy, style, and music, this year, like last, had clear political undertones. In 2017, it was all about vowing allegiance to social issues, while this year tackled major issues like cybersecurity, the #MeToo movement, healthcare, surveillance, diversity in the workplace, artificial intelligence (AI), and the responsibility social platforms have to place checks on their power while reflecting on the changing tech landscape.

The festival, which attracted more than 400,000 attendees, also added a health and well-being expo this year, showcasing startups such as Alpaca Market, a vending machine that dispenses healthy food options such as salad and yogurt parfaits, and myLABBox, which sells at-home STD testing kits. 
The conference included events led by diverse organizations focusing on underrepresented groups across the industry, including a multi-day event hosted by Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the Hustle House, a series of events for Black and Latino entrepreneurs. Black Girls Code also hosted a virtual reality workshop as part of the main conference.
Condé Nast kicked off its presence at SXSW with a panel moderated by Phillip Picardi, the Chief Content Officer of Teen Vogue and themThen on March 10th, new Glamour Editor-in-Chief Samantha Berry spoke with Lenny Letter’s Lena Dunham on authenticity and the media in 2018, where they discussed how to build authentic connections with female consumers. Jason Tanz, WIRED’s site editor, moderated a panel featuring the cast of HBO’s Westworld, during which the cast and show-runners gave a behind-the-scenes look at the series in anticipation of its second season premiere this spring. Pitchfork founder and editor-in-chief Ryan Schreiber closed out Condé Nast’s editorial presence at SXSW by moderating a panel discussion on music journalism in the streaming era.
Key themes this year included
  • Building inclusive brands: Many panels and speakers focused on how brands can reach more diverse audiences. In a panel called “How Gender Fluidity Recasts Brand Engagement,” speakers from IBM, Goodpatch (a user-interface design company) and T3 (an advertising agency) discussed how companies can target gender-fluid audiences
  • AI adoption: In a panel called “Accounting for Human Tastes: Marketing and AI,” speakers from Pinterest, The Home Depot, and L’Oreal USA discussed how their companies are using AI to generate actionable marketing insights
  • Voice assistants as the “next internet frontier:” Google created a “Fun House” activation to showcase its Google Assistant technology throughout the home, while The Richards Group agency hosted a session called “I’ve Got No Screens: Internet’s Screenless Future” on how brands can win in the voice-activation space.

Check out some of our favorite brand experiences from Austin below...

HBO's Westworld Immersive Theater Experience

Matt Lief AndersonHBO.jpgPhoto courtesy: Matt Lief Anderson, HBO

Held on two acres of land just outside Austin, HBO began production on their Westworld park back in November and a crew of 40 people spent the last five weeks assembling the set, from architectural elements to landscaping. According to HBO’s marketing team, the park designed and executed by Giant Spoon included “60 actors, six stunt people, and five bands, scouted primarily from the local Austin area, in addition to six local horses.”

Guests first met at a bar within Austin-proper, where they were given either a black or white hat (villains or heroes) before being ushered onto buses that took them to the undisclosed location of the theme park. At the park itself, guests ordered cocktails, including the Mariposa Special (an Old Fashioned) or the El Lazo (a tequila gimlet). People were encouraged to explore, interact with the park's hosts, immerse themselves in various storylines, and even pick up personal mail in the town post office.

Google Assistant Fun House

google-house-sxsw-PAGE-2018.jpgPhoto courtesy: @Google Twitter

Google's AI and voice platform, Google Assistant, took over a house in downtown Austin to show how common household tasks, from turning on lights, closing blinds, and even changing the litter box, can be connected to Google. 

The idea, much like Google’s recent ad campaign for the Oscars suggested, is to “Make Google Do It,” through the 12 different rooms and activations that allowed consumers to see how the Google Assistant works. When attendees first entered the space, a Google-branded lowrider was parked on the lawn with Google Assistant installed in the speakers. After asking the car to find nearby parking, the car came to life and bounced attendees around to War’s song, Low Rider.

Also on the lawn, people asked Google Assistant to trigger the sprinklers or make lawn decorations move. Inside the house, consumers played with Google’s AI-enabled Chromebooks at a fake dinner table, drank margaritas in the kitchen that were made with Patron’s Google Assistant skill and learned how Google Assistant connects to TVs to stream YouTube and Netflix. In the bedroom, attendees learned how Google Assistant can help with hangovers—from lowering the blinds to playing music to operating a robotic hand that organizes laundry.

Ready Player One VR Experience

Nick WagnerAmerican-Statesman.jpgPhoto courtesy: Nick Wagner/American-Statesman

On March 29, Warner Brothers is set to release Steven Speilberg's adaptation of Ernie Cline's seminal 2011 novel set in the dystopian future of 2045, Ready Player One. In the movie, people inhabit a virtual world, the OASIS, and participate in a contest created by the recently deceased founder and owner to collect hidden "easter eggs" inside the game. 

To introduce the world of the movie and its VR spin-offs, Vive and Warner Brothers took over an Austin street corner and created several of the sets of the movie to set the mood for the demos. Visitors could create their own OASIS avatar, visit a Hot Topic pop-up stand selling exclusive tie-in merchandise, grab a drink at the full bar, or play vintage arcade games. Those interested in competing to win prizes could play a few Ready Player One-themed trivia games on the main floor, scanning their RFID bracelets to connect to a leaderboard. The second floor of Brazos Hall was taken over by a series of six VR mini games that directly correlate to settings found in the movie.

Roseanne Reboot Experience

emma kenney  micahel fishman  lecy goranson_1520800996061.jpg_13540283_ver1.0.jpgPhoto courtesy: KVUE

Just in time for its March 27 reboot, an immersive "Roseanne" experience hit SXSW. Guests had the chance to grab a bite at the Lanford Lunch Box, which served sandwiches, pie, coffee, and root beer in collectible koozies. Then, they took a load off in the Conners’ living room where they could take an animated GIF straight from the iconic couch. In the kitchen, fans grabbed classic quote shirts or screen-printed custom needlepoint-inspired totes to take home as a souvenir, before closing out the experience with a visit Dan’s garage to kick back in a recliner and enjoy clips from the series.

On Saturday and Sunday, there was a meet-and-greet/trivia experience with cast members, both original and new -- Lecy Goranson, Michael Fishman and Emma Kenney. Fans who didn't make it to the experience could cruise through town on customized sofa pedi cabs, complete with miniature afghans that broadcast Roseanne’s laugh and theme song as they pedaled around the city.

Comedy Central's Backyard Bash

Alicia SXSW.pngPhoto courtesy: @theconsciousink Instagram

Comedy Central went back to Austin for their annual daytime party during SXSW Music at Pelon's Tex Mex. With the new year came a name change, with Kegs and Eggs know being dubbed Comedy Central's Backyard Bash. The two-day activation featured a number of show specific activations, such as the Drunk History Dunk Tank, South Park Couch, The Daily Show Trump Museum Annex Caricature Artist and Broad City Friendship Bracelet station. All attendees received a wristband for free beers and tacos. Additionally there was an airbrush tattoo station, DJ/MC pumping up the crowd and a prize wheel with tons of free merchandise. 


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Topics: news, festivals, experiences, brand experiences

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