Archive for the 'Trends' Category

Picking Apart the SXSW Music Schwag Bag

(Looking at the third of 3 SXSW Gift Bags – One for each festival.)

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The music bag is always the heaviest when it comes to schwag. This year’s was no different. And much of it was just clutter, plain and simple. For instance: tons of tons of CD samplers. I personally am not a fan of them, unless they’re mixed by friends. But I do love the annual Japan Nite CD sampler, which is a great sampling of the Japanese bands that showcase every Friday night of SXSW at the club Elysium.

There was some gum from ubiquitous advertiser Dentyne, who I think covered every possible medium and location during the festival to get their gum out. There was also a sample snack size of Zone Perfect nutrition bars. The pack of playing cards from DirectTV was a nice gesture, but anyone who plays cards religiously could tell right away that they were really cheap.Perhaps the strangest item was from BestofBands.com: some kind of plastic “Casper the Friendly Ghost”-like thing with a blood splatter on its “head.” None of my friends or I could figure out what this thing was. It looks like it has a “tail.” Or is it a cape? Is it supposed to clip on something? Oh well, too vague to maintain any interest. And since it’s an election year there was a Rock the Vote button, but no other call to action on it. No voter registration stations or even a website. Local Austin diner favorite Kerbey Lane included a surprisingly thin pad of Post-It notes, with their website address only. Kerbey is great: it’s one of the few places in town open 24 hours. I feel like this was an opportunity missed.

I liked the intention of Last.fm‘s offering: a small guide to all the bands playing at SXSW. The reason I like the intention is because it’s obvious they wanted to make something kind of useful, but still branded. It’s not a bad strain of logic, but the follow-through really doesn’t hold up at all. A dozen websites do this better (and also link to calendars).

For straight up design aesthetic, no one is doing it better than British Music at SXSW. Under the banner name “British Music Embassy,” the printed guide to all music British was impeccably produced, even down to the details like rounded corners. They did an equally impressive brochure last year as well and once again they’ve done the seemingly impossible- they’ve made a brochure I actually want to read. Cheers to that.The final piece of schwag was the favorite of my group of friends. “Sgt. Solo” from Armed Forces Entertainment. I’m not exactly sure why, because it’s just a green army man figurine with an acoustic guitar instead of, say, a flame thrower. I suppose my friends just liked throwing it at each other or stacking it on top of dishes at restaurants. But a small, completely portable piece of schwag that can break up a few minutes of monotony is always a good idea.

Vampire Weekend

The convergence of bands, record execs, media watchers and tastemakers have turned SXSW into a perfect, yet bizarre, laboratory for the study of rock band promotion. In this maelstrom it seems like every year a handful of bands rise above the background noise and get singled out as the next big thing. As you’ve probably heard by now, Vampire Weekend, an indie pop band comprised of fresh-faced college kids who wear boat shoes, is this year’s must- see act. This band’s rise to SXSW superstardom displays an incredibly calculated awareness of music trends. In many ways they are the most purposfully, intelligently and agressively marketed bands of the last few years.

This band is almost aggressively uncool. Sure, there is some irony, but they proudly flaunt the fact they’re a bunch of foppish ivy leaguers. They are utterly non-threatening; their press photos show clean-cut, unremarkable dudes with tucked-in shirts and flip-flops. It’s preppie-pop with some world music influences. They sound a little like a few dorky Paul Simon fans who got way into a stack of bizarre, late-period Sting albums. This is not edgy rock. My mom likes this band. So why are they selling out clubs?

Knowing this, I got in line about an hour early, which it turns out wasn’t close to early enough, since the line was already 200 deep. My place on 4th street was near enough the stage door to see the band load in: beardless nerds in pink pants and blazers. Resigned to the fact I wasn’t getting into Antone’s, I played roving reporter and talked to the other doomed show goers to try to find out why they were cool. An alarming number of people in line had never heard this band, and came just to see what the hype was about. Also notable was people who mentioned that they enjoyed this band “because of who they are” or “because they’re Ivy Leaguers.” When I pointed out that an Ivy League education was not very rock and roll, no one seemed to mind.

At some level, they seem to be a reaction to the insider rock culture that dominates the Internet and SXSW. For example: the continuing trend to write music reviews in obscure, subcultural jargon; SXSW’s increasingly exclusive parties and high-velocity buzz bands are all relatively recent developments. These trends arose, at least in part, from the mainstreaming of the “hipster” archetype that dominated so much pop culture the last several years. The image of the scenester Adonis was carved out of bad haircuts and silly bandanas that are marketed so aggressively (yet cheesily) that a few years from now it’s going to have the same kitsch as an 80’s movie.

Like all bands, blowing up is part luck. Vampire Weekend having their producer on the Pitchfork Media staff (as disclosed in their 8.8/10 review) doesn’t hurt. But even more than their predescessors, Vampire Weekend is a carefully calculated product manufactured by people acutely aware of the type of marketing and branding required to stand out from the crowd. Their squeaky clean image is a big part of it. Lyrics about sitting around the quad and summering on the Cape are subtly confrontational. Rock kids get riled up to imagine the yuppie beach-house set invading the gritty world of indie college rock. Also, there has long been much talk about the materialistic hip-hop scene, but there is an aspirational quality to Vampire Weekend’s music. Their lyrics paint a picture of an easy, comfortable life that is specifically not that of a rock star. One music video shows them sailing on a yacht! But beyond that, I think fans aren’t looking for music to be dangerous anymore. Vampire Weekend is safe, scrubbed rock and roll, that feels subversive enough to get the indie stamp of approval. Whether or not they live up to the hype remains an open question for me, and the other 400 people shut out of the showcase last night. But honestly? Seems unlikely.

No Sidewalk Chalk?

When it comes to SXSW 2008, I’ve seen a lot of the typical brand promotion strategies. We’ve seen the posters. We’ve seen the bottle replicas serving as posters. Every type of beverage has a wrapped vehicle (the Monster energy truck I thought was a little different and appropriate for the brand), and if brands don’t have any of the aforementioned, they have street teams to hand out the product. Other than the interactive lounges, I’m a little bored.

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So where’s the sidewalk chalk? This is what I really wanted to know when I walked down 6th St. at noon today. Knowing that downtown largely becomes barricaded and patrons are able to walk in the street, I would think that sidewalk chalk would be an absolute hit! 6th is probably wide enough to fit three Weiner Mobiles at least, and that could be a lot of room for chalking your brand onto the ground. I can’t be positive of the cost differences between synthetic posters and an artist with great chalk skills, but I imagine they might not be too far off, making sidewalk works of art quite possible. And who knows, maybe chalk isn’t the only option. I actually saw one solitary piece of sidewalk advertising and that was a poster somehow attached to the ground. There’s nothing to say that posters can’t be put on the ground too, and maybe you could put a great creative spin on it. Maybe it’s just me, but I see a lot of cool potential. So all I can say is, when other brands are looking high, maybe next year other brands should look low.

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.

Picking Apart the SXSW Film Schwag Bag

(Looking at the second of 3 SXSW Gift Bags – One for each festival.)

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When it came to free schwag from the Film festival, it was an unequivocal bomb. I’ve mentioned already that all the bags seemed a little lighter than last year, and my guess is that it has something to do with SXSW positioning itself as green.But the film bag is just ridiculous- a handful of postcards, maybe one or two trade publications and a random CD. I don’t know if the film industry is just on hard times the last year or so (the writer’s strike?), but clearly their heart wasn’t just in it.What stuck out to me the most wasn’t something with a “wow” factor, but more of an oddity factor. A bright orange brochure about the boutique hotels in Miami. Also a postcard for Friendster, with my first thought being “they’re still around?” Another postcard, from Jaman.com stuck out from the rest of the stack mainly because of its extreme pandering. A photo of 4 people with nooses around their necks (one of them being in a mechanized wheel chair). I suppose that’s “extreme.”

Finally, just because I wanted to have at least four things to talk about, a CD sampler from A21m. What with the 3,000 bands at the festival, I don’t know if this is quite the time to want to be thinking about “independent music for licensing,” but you never know.

After-Hours Marketing

A staple of the SXSW experience are the late night after parties. These affairs are generally exclusive, corporate financed and excessively branded. Last night I finally cashed in enough credibility to get invited to the Red Bull/Facebook Lounge, which was an intense and drunken barrage of extremely aggressive marketing.

To be fair, waking up on a friend’s couch in one’s clothes with a hangover you could sell to science never leaves you with a good taste in your mouth. But this event was excessive, tacky and made me feel a little dirty. The opening shot was the admission pass: a temporary tattoo of distressed art and Red Bull logos. You had to apply the tattoo to enter, and there was a small branded Red Bull “tattoo studio” with a sink and sponges outside the gate. So anyone who wants to party needs to walk around with a logo on their forearm or neck the next few days. Dirty tricks? Maybe. But effective.

Once inside the scene was impressive, albeit sort of tasteless. It was a converted hanger/parking lot with a Red Bull logoed stage that looked like it was left over from the last U2 tour. Performing on it was some guy with a laptop. Across from the stage was an incredibly elaborate two story lounge packed with every ostensibly cool extra a marketer could dream up: white leather sofas, Guitar Hero 3, plasma TVs playing break dancing videos and ubiquitous Red Bull and free booze.

The co-sponsor of this party was Facebook, and near the VIP area was the “Facebook pavilion”, a converted bus packed with computers and Facebook schwag. Amazingly, there was a line of drunk revelers desperate to update their Facebook profiles, no doubt to let their friends know about this sweet party. It was pretty incongruous, and sort of interesting that people’s digital lives were so critical that people would take time out of a real live party to spend time on a computer.

Overall, if a sort of glossy, polished nightclub-like experience is your thing, you’ll love this party. But the fact remains is that as an advertiser, pouring people free alcohol only brings them to your event, it doesn’t sell the product or build brand loyalty. It’s all about how you market to them while they are there. Love it or hate it, Red Bull has very effectively matched a lifestyle to their brand. There is clearly a “Red Bull experience” and events like this definitely help to build it.

Everyone Loves Guitar Hero / Rock Band

rockband.jpgI don’t remember seeing one Guitar Hero or Rock Band setup at all last year, but this time around it seems you can’t throw a free swag bag without hitting somebody holding one of those plastic instruments. They’re all over the convention center, particularly the trade show areas. It’s smart thinking. These are fun, interactive games. People love playing them. Wrap around your branding and it’s a win-win situation.


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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