A good story is in our DNA. Without it, everything is just noise. At SXSW we experienced a range of executions, some that delivered a complete narrative, and some that did not. We were exposed to tools of future storytelling that have a vision to enhance our experiences. We found activations that succeeded in aligning with the mindsets and context of attendees; and ultimately we were reminded that whether you are pushing boundaries or following an established routine, your brand voice comes through in the execution.
One of our first stops at SXSW was Amazon’s “Good Omens” immersive experience. The installation occupied a full block of prime real estate right off of the famous Rainey Street. As we learned, Good Omens is “a 6-part series based on a 1990’s novel about an angel and demon that partner up to stop the world from ending”. Mike Benson, head of marketing at Amazon Studios stated, “Our goal with the space is to create a comfortable, Instagram-worthy space that allows fans and new audiences to experience the world of Good Omens.”
The experience was a large walled off garden perched above street level. Upon entering, you were greeted by an angel and a demon, both asking if you’d like to enter heaven or hell while pointing in opposite directions. This put us right into the mindset of immersion and we were excited to see what they had in store. It reminded a couple of us of something like the Sleep No More experience in NYC; something where we’d see a narrative play out, with our choices having consequences.
After the angel and demon greeting, we entered into a space with a cluster of mini installations:
All of these mini installations were well constructed, and the garden was a comfortable space. But the immersion ended as soon as you passed the angel and the demon. We would’ve liked the story to continue while we got a better sense of the mini-series plot. The choice of heaven or hell had no implications, and we left without having any better sense of the Good Omens universe. We couldn’t help feeling like this was a missed opportunity to bring us into the story.
We encountered a few experiences as SXSW that had a great proposition, one of these being a 1934 inspired speakeasy to celebrate the launch of Netflix’s new film, The Highwaymen. The experience began while standing in a long line on Rainey street, where a Sheriff’s Deputy—portrayed by an actress—warned you to let her know if we noticed any funny business. Once through the door, we were told by the person checking us in, who was not in costume, that there were games downstairs and we could build up points on our scannable wristband.
Taking the stairs down to a large basement we were greeted with a band blasting loud music and a packed dark space. There were a few people dressed in old western costumes, and the only game we saw was a poker table in the corner. After standing around for a few minutes, we tried to find out if there was anything more. We noticed that you obtained points by conversing with the actors or if you posted and hashtagged the Highwaymen neon sign. From there you could purchase swag in the general store: Wrangler shirts, Stetson hats and more.
This activation did a lot right and was one of the most elaborate and thought out, but there were missed opportunities:
Overall, they had a great concept and we enjoyed it, but the experience fell apart in the details. After watching The Highwaymen, we were a bit more confused about their intent. The film is about the Texas Rangers who took down Bonnie and Clyde. Not only was none of this clear during the event, but there was no speakeasy, gambling or general store in the film.
“The great war is upon us. The Night King’s horde marches on the realm…” echoed the Red Priestess in front of the Iron Throne and a group of willing blood donors. Admittedly having Game of Thrones IP to work with is a bit of unfair advantage, but this was a case study in experiential storytelling. Attendees were brought in to the Bleed for the Throne experience and were inspired by the sacrifices of GOT characters to… donate blood to the American Red Cross.
The connection between Game of Thrones and blood is one that no one had to explain. The connect is quite self-evident, and HBO proceeded to immerse you in the narrative from the moment you walked in to the moment you left… possessing slightly less blood. Entering through a castle gate, we were taken through projection rooms inspiring you to be brave: Arya’s blind fight, Tyrion’s Battle at Blackwater speech, etc. You enter into a cavernous hall with full choir singing classic GOT melodies, and a red Priestess giving you a pep talk. They call you up individually, you knee before the Iron Throne, receive a Hand-of-the-King pin, and go out to a full war camp set to give blood. You sit and give blood surrounded by soldiers preparing for the Season 8 battle. They’d ask, “if you were ready to fight for the living”, they’d tell you their story, give you a nod of respect for your contribution (i.e. blood donation) and carry on preparing their weapons. Walking out and back onto the streets of Austin, you felt like you had an experience far away from Texas. Here’s hoping the war for the living goes well.
The evolution of glasses as a platform for new technology is exciting for storytellers. The opportunities for AR to add to an experience magnifies as soon as it goes from phone to glasses/optical devices, and this is not limited to just vision.
Our team enjoyed demoing the Bose AR Glasses – a set of glasses with built-in custom speakers designed to target only the wearer’s ears with music. We tried these on and were impressed with the quality of sound coming from the built-in speakers in the ‘arms’ of the glasses; there are no earpieces or headphones. The “wow” moment was when we had two colleagues standing side by side, one with the glasses on and the music turned up, and the other colleague couldn’t hear it at all.
The glasses themselves have a Wayfarer reminiscent look—a step up from what we’re used to seeing in tech glasses. In the demo you’d hear a band playing and could turn around to get the illusion of 360 sound by hearing different instruments come to the forefront depending on which way you turn; something that for now only works with their custom Bose AR App. That extra context to the sound immersion is uncanny at first, but takes you one step deeper into the audio experience and the potential of this “audio augmented reality platform”, as Bose puts it, is immediately apparent.
Catching one of the talks on the future of live experiences we listened to Matt Lawler (Director of Digital Media, Global Partnerships AEG) talk about the future of AR within the context of concerts, sports games—in an effort to enhance the consumer experience—and of course commerce. Imagine coming into the concert arena and immediately being able to see the seats you could upgrade to, along with their corresponding prices.
That same AR technology can provide an overlay of information and states over the game. Second Spectrum has been able to do this very successfully with the NBA. For the analyst and statistician, this is an incredible tool. For livesport viewers, it’s less inspiring, but still useful for some. There is something lost within this layer, and the narrative of real people playing a real game starts to feel less joyful, and perhaps a bit less human. At the moment, it still feels like watching the NBA in the world of Minority Report.
We are obviously still at the beginning of AR’s potential, and we’re particularly interested in how we’re starting to see it integrate into our world in more welcome and friendly ways. During one of the talks, attendees were presented with the HotStepper app, which we tried out later that day. It’s an AR character-based wayfinding app from Nexus Studios. The app gives you a dose of AR utility with story. It turns out that following the dancing HotStepper through the streets is actually fun and useful. It’s a case study in taking a technology, and making it interesting and fit for human consumption.
At SXSW, Foursquare Labs demoed a spatial heat map called Hypertrending. Hypertrending is a top-down view of the location of all Foursquare users. The map view provides a real-time look at where users are, with each dot representing a different place and the size of those dots corresponding to the number of users in each place. Each color represents a different type of place, such as a restaurant or a hotel.
Creepy? Yeah, a little bit, as echoed by Foursquare’s co-founder Dennis Crowley, “The technology walks a fine line between being ‘creepy’ and ‘cool’.” To get people’s input, they demoed this tech in Austin during SXSW exclusively and asked for thoughts on the technology with Crowley highlighting, “The need for transparency, thoughtful leadership and ethical behavior from technology companies.”
We appreciate Foursquare’s self-awareness that this tool can easily become too invasive, however, the Hypertrending tool is anonymous enough not to cross that threshold in our minds. Feeding the user this real-time information can allow you to make better choices and have better experiences. When trying to give the best experience possible in mass—as all festivals attempt to do—we see this as a highly functional tool to pinpoint events and avoid the crowds.
On the main thoroughfares through SXSW, there are countless small brand installations. They are obviously all fighting for eyes and ears. The one that spoke to our team the most was far from the flashiest, but was Visible’s Drop Beats Not Calls. Visible is Verizon’s new affordable brand targeted towards Millennials and Gen Z with approachable pastel-colored branding, app-based services and no brick and mortar.
Drop Beats Not Calls consisted of a fully built out recording studio with a sound engineer inside of a soundproof clear cube. While in the studio you recorded your song and had your picture taken for the album cover, choosing from a series of different backgrounds. The final step was giving you a USB drive with your song which pulled out of a faux blank white cassette tape. The experience worked because it aligned with the mindset of attendees to experiment and create and showed up with the right context for the music festival audience. The thinking was clear: we are a phone company and this is a music/tech festival, let’s give people something contextually valuable, something they will want to, and an experience worth talking about.
The majority of big brand activations at SXSW had the same 3 key elements – booze, music and food. This is all fun and good—they are the staples for a reason. While there’s value in pushing boundaries in experiences, there is something to be said for having your brand voice come through clearly while not reinventing the wheel.
Our team felt Uber Eats was the perfect example of this. Yes, essentially it was just another party, but they did it right and they did it big. They hired some of the biggest names to perform (Khalid, Virgil Abloh, Billie Eilish, etc.) and integrated what these artists loved about food into the experience. For example, Khalid loves McDonalds—it reminds him of home—and Uber Eats served McDonalds the night he was performing. He performed his new single, and the setting felt like McDonalds set in a Tron universe surrounded by lush foliage. Each night was catered by a different food brand or restaurant that you can order from using the Uber Eats app, and that had a special connection with the artist.
These details made the Uber Easts voice come through clearly: young, current and sincere. It’s a reminder that a clear brand story can be told without doing something new, but also by doing something well.
After so many different experiences, talks, events and product demos, maybe the most reflective and memorable experience we had at SXSW was attending a talk by Simon Tam from the band The Slants. The Slants are an Asian American rock band, and the talk was titled “Redefining What’s Offensive”. It was Simon on stage, accompanied by two bandmates behind him on guitar and cajon, playing short snippets as he progressed. His story is about his quest to register and trademark their band name—a quest which lasted several years, and took him all the way to the Supreme Court.
We won’t go too much into Simon’s story because that deserves a piece on its own, but would encourage you to look it up. The talk reminded us just how impactful a good story and storyteller can be; no big budgets, tech or gimmicks needed. As humans, stories are how we’ve always tried to understand a strange and complex world, and we’d do well to never forget that.