SXSW and Its Marketing Mission.

If it’s March it must be SXSW. The annual festival, currently underway, for education, Internet entrepreneurs, film and music, is seductive. The content is always compelling. The curatorial instincts of the festival organizers are close to flawless, and the energy and enthusiasm of the attendees is infectious. 

It’s difficult not to come home feeling rejuvenated, hopeful and ready to change the world.

But there’s a more dominant force at work during the three-week long celebrations that not only transforms downtown Austin, it turns festival attendees into the pawns of marketers.

You see it everywhere: 100 year-old buildings are wrapped in branded plastic sheaths; pedi-cabs are transformed into mobile marketing vehicles; and the very citizens of Austin are pressed into service to become a mobile charging station, say or peddlers of swag on every street corner.

There isn’t a venue, a party, a presentation or a free cocktail in Austin that isn’t sponsored by one brand or another. And while there were no real breakout start-ups this year (a la Twitter or Foursquare), there was a very famous Grumpy Cat that gave Mashable some much-needed cache. 

SXSWedu precedes SXSW Interactive and the headliner this year was Bill Gates. His eponymous foundation does wonderful work in education, among other high impact projects, and his speech was highly anticipated. But even that speech included a big endorsement for inBloom, a huge sponsor of the EDU conference and in which The Gates Foundation has made a significant investment.

While inBloom is no Twitter or Foursquare, no one else seemed to be, either. Both EDU and Interactive are notable this year for their lack of breakout technology. No single start-up seems to have captured the imaginations of the educational or technological cognoscenti, so our attention must shift somewhere else. 

Which makes this a particularly good year for marketers.

SXSW supports its mission in a variety of ways, including hefty registration fees paid by attendees and corporate sponsorships. Marketers spend so much money on SXSW every year because of the quality of the audience they reach. These people are the quintessential “influencers.” When this audience speaks, many other people listen. If I see Oreos doing something cool at SXSW, and I tweet about it to my thousands of followers, Oreos not only got some promotion, they got my implicit endorsement. 

So whether you’re riding in the “Game of Thrones” pedicab (and lets face it: you want to sit on that throne more than you want to hang out in Downton Abbey) or getting your picture snapped with the Grumpy Cat in the Mashable space, or quaffing free cocktails at the Rackspace hangout (normally a sports bar), you’re working to advance the goals of some marketing person out there.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that the festival organizers may want to change their tagline: SXSW—come for the content, stay for the swag. And cocktails. And Oreos. Ah, hell. Just come.

FIVE THôT columnist DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite.


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