Vice Branding at SXSW

The Vice brand is interesting because they don’t really sell anything. Born from a small independent ‘zine based in New York City, Vice got famous through their fashion “Do’s and Dont’s,” an ultra snarky man-on-the-street critique of style. They also have a record label. They have a sporadically-published magazine they give away for free. They recently expanded to producing movies and documentaries.

Interestingly, they don’t seem to move enough actual product to be springing for the $30k parties throughout SXSW. Their true livelihood is a stranglehold on the zeitgeist and a powerful love-hate relationship with the hipsterati. Many complain about them and their very harsh voice (which is valid), but every year at SXSW people fight tooth and nail for a pass to their after-hours parties. None of this is especially unique enough to distinguish themselves from SXSW background noise except for one glaring problem: Vice is the one legitimate underground brand that could be declared a sellout.

Vice seems to promote just about any product they can get their hands on, most notably their long term co-branding with Toyota’s youth oriented Scion imprint (National music chain Guitar Center is another major advertiser). Why do people tolerate a legitmate voice of the underground flaunting their relationship with a giant corporations?

Rock fans tend to be hypersensitive to corporate sponsorship. Most people can spot a big company trying to buy “cool” a mile away. SXSW attendees obviously understand this and are willing to tolerate it in exchange for the free beer and free music, though it almost leads to some resentment. For example, Filter, Fader and Nylon magazine each have a huge SXSW presence which, though effective in its own right, in many ways undermines their underground credibility. Their events inevitably feel corporate. Vice, in contrast, emerges with their authenticity intact despite their massive marketing effort.

This year at their signature day event Scion branding was everywhere. This included a Scion with a custom paint job of the headlining band, Motorhead. This band was not even a part of SXSW in any official capacity. And the band was Motorhead, a pioneering British heavy metal band that started in the 70’s. These guys obviously do not drive Scions. The entry wristbands also proclaimed “THIS IS A SCION EVENT” in block letters. But despite the advertising, the energy was adamantly non-corporate. The party was wild, dirty and had the feel of being slightly out of control. The seemingly unlimited alcohol didn’t hurt. This year’s banner moment was a tattooed guy with a huge beard literally asleep on the hood of one of the many Scions parked inside the party’s grounds. Vice deliberately took away the polish and glamour from a very well-funded and branded corporate event to make the event feel spontaneous and a little dangerous.

The other card in Vice’s hand is the fact they have never claimed to have any kind of integrity. Their entire voice is based around being an extreme of the New York City rock insider, a hard-partying socialite who pulls no punches. It’s an identity that has no problem taking Toyota’s money if it means they can party a little longer. This attitude, which was once probably genuine, is now a savvy marketing twist. It’s subtle, but they have cached their “selling out” as a part of their persona, enabling them to accept aggressively corporate mainstream marketing while maintaining their legitimacy.

The capstone was Vice’s now traditional Saturday late night party, an event entirely free of advertising. There were no banners, no promoters and no schwag. The only branding was the alcohol available from companies like Sparks, Miller High Life and Hornitos who likely paid dearly to give away alcohol in order to be associated with Vice.

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SXSW is an Austin event. And Door Number 3 is an Austin advertising agency. We're interested in how new ideas in advertising, media and branding will be presented during these 9 quick days. From inside the lecture halls where top specialists present their thoughts, to out on the streets where advertising is put to the test on tens of thousands of festival-goers. We'll be there with the complete coverage, reports, photos, editorials, and perhaps some tricks on how to sneak into a few sweet afterparties.

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