South by Southwest’s Brand Activations: Ones That Stole the Spotlight

March 14, 2018

South By Southwest (#SXSW) with its thousands of attendees in the interactive, tech, film and music industries is THE place for brands to roll out the red carpet and show off their latest launches.

This year’s event, held annually in Austin, Texas, did not disappoint, with several companies spending some serious cash to ensure they left an impression.

The ones that hit it out of the park took the time to figure out an actual ‘experience’ that attendees would have, something that trade show and event organizers, as well as exhibitors, could take a page from.

Here are the brand activations that worked:

HBO’s Westworld

Season 2 of HBO’s Westworld show premieres in April, and the company decided to create a truly immersive, and very exclusive, experience for lucky participants by recreating part of Westworld’s Western-themed town in a field outside of Austin and bussing participants out there.

Attendees were first directed to meet at a restaurant/bar in Downtown Austin where white-clad hosts handed everyone either a white or black cowboy hat with the Westworld logo imprinted inside. After sipping on cocktails and mingling for a bit, attendees boarded a Westworld-themed bus and were driven out to the site of the actual experience.


Once there, attendees entered the world, just like people do in the actual show, through a portal and then on a train car, and then stepped into a fully recreated Western town, complete with 60 actors who memorized more than 400+ pages of script to engage with attendees.

For fans of the show, there were surprises around every corner with familiar scenes, secret phrases you could whisper to actors to activate special experiences and even a personalized letter in a replica post office for every attendee that connected them even further into the overall experience.

By far, the #SXSWestworld brand activation was the most coveted and buzzed about. HBO didn’t disappoint, and even people who never saw the show before likely cannot wait for the Season 2 premiere

Land O’Lakes: The Food Effect

Yes – Land O’Lakes – known mostly for its butter, although they make other things such as cheese and cocoa, was a company that pulled off a spot-on brand activation in downtown Austin.

Walking into a large, open room there was a bank of telephones along one wall. When you picked up a phone, there was a recording on the other end of someone around the world who was experiencing hunger, and they told the story of what they were going through.

For every conversation listened to, Land O’Lakes partnered with Feeding America to donate a meal here in the United States.

Bottom line was this was a success all the way around by not only creating hunger awareness, but also doing some ‘good’ along the way.

Land O’Lakes didn’t stop there – there are three other activations that were in the room:

  1. A floor-to-ceiling recreated strand of DNA that attendees could interact with by playing a game in which they had to memorize the genetically modified code of a piece of corn and then place the correct strands back in the DNA. The purpose was to educate people on that not all GMO crops are bad – such as ones that create drought-resistant corn.
  2. There was a screen-printing machine that was recreating a colorful floor-to-ceiling heat map of a series of crops that would allow farmers to more effectively identify what areas of their crops needed more or less water, spraying, etc.
  3. A giant head of lettuce hung from the ceiling that attendees could stick their own heads into and watch one of three videos, such as meeting a cow from which Land O’Lakes milk, butter, cheese, etc. products cam from.

In short, Land O’Lakes nailed it. They not only successfully showed off their brand, but they also created awareness on several topics and the result was a highly engaging experience for attendees.

Viceland’s Baby Goats

Sometimes it’s just tapping into the simple desire that humans might have to hold a little, baby goat.

That’s what cable TV channel Viceland did when it offered SXSW attendees the chance to mingle with the sweet, soft creatures for a few days in a lot in downtown Austin.


There was a line down the block at 10:00 a.m in the morning as people eagerly waited for a baby goat cuddle.

Once inside the Viceland enclosure, there also were various freebies, including Viceland-branded lighters and prescription bottles filled with mints.

In addition, there was a Viceland-branded party bus that people boarded to find a DJ spinning tunes inside, prompting an impromptu SXSW morning dance party.

All of it, the baby goats, freebies and DJ dance party on the bus supported Viceland’s overall ‘feel good’ brand.

Fox Sports – Celebrities Always Seem to Work!

Fox Sports didn’t pull any punches when it wanted to highlight the launch of its new show “Phenoms” debuting in May before this summer’s World Cup kicks off.

People lined up well in advance to have the chance to hear Celebrity Chef and TV Personality Gordon Ramsay talk about why he was involved with the project, along with a panel of other people who were connected to it.

Ramsay was his usual charismatic self, cracking several jokes, including predicting that Iceland would win the World Cup soccer tournament this summer.

Besides Ramsay, there were other soccer-themed activities in the multi-story venue, such as a panoramic series of cameras in front of a stadium that people could have their image captured wearing their favorite team colors and two tattoo artists air-brushing anything and everything for the dedicated fans.

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Partner Voices

As event professionals and destinations adjust, adapt and evolve in these uncharted waters, it is imperative that substantial resources be put in place for all of the people responsible for planning and executing trade shows, expositions and conventions. An example is Mohegan Sun, which built an industry-leading, COVID-19 Resource Center with a combination of pictures from recently held successful events (the property reopened on May 1, 2020) along with several widely available and informative documents, such as an evolving operational framework: