Oreos and TV shows pop up at SXSW: Has the tech fest lost its way?

Brands prove it doesn't matter what you're selling at South By Southwest, as long as festival-goers tweet about it.

brand cottonelle 2

Twitter, tech, and… toiletries?

AUSTIN—Samsung. Yahoo. AT&T. Cottonelle. One of these companies is not like the other, but all four turned out in full force for this year’s South By Southwest Interactive festival. The tech-centric event has been a launching pad for apps and services like Twitter and Foursquare in the past, but 2014 was the year non-tech brands hitched their buggies to SXSW’s hipster cool in the hopes that they too could become trending hashtags on Twitter.

From toilet paper producers and TV shows to sandwich makers and smart thermostats, SXSW was ground zero for some of the wackiest marketing stunts we’ve seen yet.

brand cottonelle1 sxsw

So fresh, so clean

When you think of cutting-edge technology, ultra-soft toilet paper isn’t the first or second thing that comes to mind. Actually, TP is nowhere in the top 10, or even top 100 of leading-edge products. But Cottonelle turned up at SXSW to remind festival-goers that it’s one of the hippest toilet paper companies around—and if Charmin didn’t have such an amazing Twitter presence, it might have won this category handily.

The company set up shop just feet away from the Austin Convention Center for the first time as a “one-stop shop for all your refreshment needs,” giving away makeup freshening sessions, massages, and blow-outs for users who used a brand-approved hashtag on their social networks. The Cottonelle lounge saw steady traffic, but you’ve got to wonder: What was the point?

brand oreo sxsw

The sweeter side of 3D printing

Oreo continued its quest to be the hottest cookie company around with its Trending Vending Lounge right in the thick of the SXSW action. The lounge’s main attractions were two vending machines that dispensed customized flavors of 3D-printed cookies and different crème colors. A giant screen displayed the most popular flavors as chosen by Twitter users, while baristas were slinging milk to thirsty fans. The gimmickry is beyond obvious, but the lines for Oreo’s choose-your-own-adventure machines were heinously long, so obviously the stunt worked.

Oreo has proven itself to be leagues beyond other snack brands in terms of Twitter savviness—past hits include a 2013 Super Bowl tweet that capitalized on the game’s blackout moment and an experiment that turned hashtags into currency for users to get new cookie flavors.

brand subway jared

Let them eat Subway

Subway set up camp just east of the Austin Convention Center with its makeshift #SXSubway Square—yeah, hashtag and all—to promote a new menu item, the Flatizza (TM?). Hungry techies lined up at Subway’s food truck, not to be confused with Austin’s homegrown trucks, to get some free pizza. The infamous Jared Fogle, he of Subway sandwich diet fame, rolled into town to hand out slices and “snap selfies” with fans. Subway is clearly capitalizing on the zeitgeist of social, celebrity, and self-portraits, but will the promotion help the chain sell any Flatizzas outside of #SXSubway Square? We’ll be watching those sales figures carefully. (Well, probaby not, but only because that $5 foot-long jingle is still stuck in our head.)

brand bates motel

“Norman! Bring our guests some brownies!”

Walking down East 2nd Street in downtown Austin, you pass the usual businesses: a steakhouse, a start-up, the Bates Motel. Wait, what? A yellow façade in the midst of the block was a nod to Hitchcock’s most famous film, Psycho, and more importantly, a promotion for A&E’s show Bates Motel. A vending machine on the fake inn’s front porch stocked brownies for the hungry—or the stoned—festival-goers, which perhaps stirred up some good will for the show’s ongoing second season. But it was also kind of creepy.

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Virtual insanity

Game of Thrones isn’t the only TV show taking advantage of the SXSW stage to promote its latest season, but the HBO fantasy took the most interesting approach: An exhibit at Austin Music Hall that let fans experience Westeros using an Oculus Rift gaming headset. GoT devotees waited hours in line during the festival to take the Rift for a walk through the show’s rich landscape. HBO gets bonus points for incorporating tech into its promo for the show—other networks at SXSW offered no such pretense.

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Home sweet dome

Bicycles are many SXSW attendees’ preferred mode of transit, because many of the streets are closed to cars. CBS took advantage of our tired feet with branded pedi-cabs advertising the new season of its show Under the Dome. The cabbies would not only ferry you around, but you also got to sit under a dome for real, which came in handy when the weekend rainstorm hit. Kudos to CBS for creating the festival’s most literal marketing stunt.

brand nest

Did somebody say ‘fire?’

Google had a huge presence at last year’s SXSW with an emphasis on Google Glass, but in 2014 the company played it cool. Its new subsidiary Nest took to the streets of Austin with a sky-blue fire truck, choosing a home base near the convention center to give away sunscreen, lip balm, coffee, popsicles…whatever your heart desired. Why? Presumably to chat with folks about its thermostat and smoke detector. But mostly people were just there for the free popsicles.

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