Trends and brand insights from SXSW 2018

This March, a group of IDLers traveled to Austin, TX for a 5-day expedition into the apex of progressive brand experiences: SXSW. True to the IDL way, we worked and we played, usually at the same time. Our team explored brand activations and the city of Austin, attended panels and keynotes and saw films and live music, while also leaving our own set of footprints along the way. Participating with seats on a panel discussion, two branded event build-outs and impromptu music and podcast recording sessions at the IDL house, our time at SXSW inspired us in an unparalleled way. 

While many go-to industry tradeshows have lost relevance and feel tired, SXSW stands out as a leading frontier where brands experiment with the most forward-thinking innovations around customer engagement – a market concept that holds more weight now than ever before. Read on for the trends and insights that left an impression.

Applying Technology

While SXSW is known to be tech-centric in revealing groundbreaking advancements, this year notably lacked outright invention. The spotlight instead shined on innovative applications of familiar technology. A SXSW session called "The Distractathon” by Carl Addy of The Mill noted that as today’s highly distractible population thinks and makes connections faster than ever before, web-like thought patterns become more intricate and dynamic. Contrastingly, technology has to this point built upon itself linearly. But its advancement has caught up to the capacity of the human mind, pushing developers to explore ways of interfacing technology and media into the way we think by becoming more, well, distracted. Accordingly, brands this year showcased savvier, smoother integrations of existing gadgets and processes more intelligently adapted to how humans behave.


AR & VR 

Virtual and/or Augmented Reality showed up in almost every brand’s space, though the concept of immersive technology has lost the novelty of its rise to prominence several years ago. Prioritizing fresh applications over futuristic additions, successful activations featured VR and AR in uniquely homogenous, usable forms. Popular formats included movement-based multi-player games such as Sony WOW Studio's A(i)R hockey,

or sports-based applications like Gatorade’s football experience that left customers engaged, expended and craving a refuel. Simulation technology sometimes seemed like a trend brands merely felt obligated to include, but thoughtful VR and AR empowered visitors to physically connect to brand narratives in a markedly sensory way.


Voice & Audio

In our screen-filled world, consumers value the opportunity to enjoy screen-free activities without sacrificing their technologically informed lifestyles. Consider the prominence of gadgets like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, or the exploding popularity of podcasts. As information consumption becomes more auditory, brands are taking note. Bose delivered an audio-based AR experience through an interactive earpiece that granted the ability to “hear what you see” and use motor skills to select soundtracks and operate the device. Unpolished and resoundingly authentic, this experience stood out as the most captivating tech-application we encountered. 

Brand Storytelling

Vulnerability = Trust

Standout brand experiences rose above that token industry buzzword, “authenticity”. They avoided the invisible wires and sleight of hand behind experiences choreographed to feel “real”, instead establishing credibility organically. The Bose activation invited visitors behind the curtain, candidly sharing prototype-stage products in a space staffed by real developers eager to field questions and feedback about the technology.

Other activations over-focused on doing something “cool”, seeming contrived or confused in the apparent absence of focused, on-brand messages. With a few bowls of product and one very loud DJ, the Snickers experience amounted to nothing more than a party in a bar that left visitors emotional lukewarm towards the brand. The activations that gave space for connections to form naturally are the ones that hit lasting notes.

The Store of the Future

Products typically take a backseat at SXSW as companies look to weave interactive, digital, and social experiences into consumable brand stories – a concept emerging in the brick-and-mortar market with increasing frequency. The “Future of Physical Retail in a Post-Digital World” panel captured this rising trend with the analogy “pay for the rollercoaster ride and exit through the gift shop”. Today’s shopping happens online and actual, purchasable goods no longer lure people from their homes. Retailers must innovate the incentives bringing consumers to the store by marketing experiences that convey a captivating brand story – even if this result in a product-less space.

Ready Player One

Consumers Lead the Way 

Modern consumers dictate how, when and where they will spend their money and interact with a brand. Market math has changed with time; advertising spending does not simply add up to proportional sales dollars anymore. Brands at SXSW illustrated this idea with spaces that let visitors direct their own stories. From bussing visitors to a real-life version of the Westworld set to housing a spatially immersive rendition of popular sci-fi novel turned feature film “Ready Player One”, activations reached customers by granting them the power of customization.

Pay for the rollercoaster ride. Exit through the gift shop.

IDL Footprint

Hershey’s & goPuff 

A recently-launched experiment by The Hershey Company and on-demand delivery app goPuff asks modern consumers of the e-commerce age to consider what the store experience of the future might look like. VR headsets delivered with goPuff orders allow customers to shop for convenience store products in otherworldly settings. IDL pulled this virtual landscape into reality with a candy-filled experience that introduced SXSW guests to the co-branded initiative. Augmenting this vibrant translation, IDL Senior Creative Directors Bryan Boul and Christopher Massaro spoke next to Dan Folkman and Brian Kavanaugh, goPuff’s VP of Business Development and Hershey’s Sr Director for Retail Evolution respectively, on the “From Shelf-Edge to Immersive Moments” panel at the Retail Innovation Lounge. Watch the whole conversation here

L’Oréal at the Fast Co Grill 

IDL teamed up with L’Oréal to channel their latest advancements in personal skincare technology through a branded experience within the high-profile Fast Company Grill. Armed with a state-of-the-art suite of technologies for customized facial serum, bespoke foundation and an augmented reality hairstyle app, the pristine build-out IDL designed, produced and installed hosted two days of customized skincare sessions demonstrating “The Future of Beauty for You”, attended by press and industry influencers.

IDL x L'OrealIDL x L'OrealIDL x L'Oreal


Our team left SXSW inspired by a long list of market insights, including this core takeaway: Companies fell flat trying too hard to be everything to everyone. Umpteen activations promoting an identical list of all socially sensitive buzzwords from “sustainability” to “giving back” felt like the creators cared more about checking off boxes than any of the listed causes. Brands were successful when they zeroed in on one emphatic brand mission and built experiences around intelligently curated core values. Individuals form brand relationships most readily when they perceive a level of trust. The experiences that build armies of followers eager to share and advocate for the brands they love feel like real connections because they are real connections.

SXSW electrifies all of Austin, from the thousands of costumed pedicabs to the vinyl-dressed buildings to the incredible congregation of attendees, with energy that is tangible and contagious. Some of the greatest minds in the world show up to share their knowledge; hearing Elon Musk’s passion for colonizing Mars or Dan Rather’s perspective on the future of journalism makes it impossible to leave without a sense of empowerment and inspiration. In the realm of experiential brand marketing, no experience parallels the value of living out SXSW firsthand. 

Team Picture

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