As I write this, I’m on a flight back home to Portland from a taco-filled adventure during Austin’s South by Southwest, the annual film and music festival turned media and tech-haven. As memorable as the southern fried chicken tacos and Torchy’s queso were, the retail marketer in me couldn’t help but ogle the unexpected retail activations in unlikely places.
From August Home’s smart lock giveaway at TechCrunch’s annual Crunch Fest, which featured a live set by Elderbrook, to Bose’s sunglass-headphone debut, here are a list of my favorites, with takeaways for retail marketers hoping to step up their experiential game.
Vox Media: The Deep End
Vox Media hosted The Deep End, featuring three days of immersive experiences and content at an offsite indoor-outdoor venue called The Belmont. Highlighting several of their media brands throughout the locale, including The Verge, Recode, Curbed and Eater, the event felt more like a cultural immersion into Vox Media’s Millennial-centered world, rather than a marketing activation.
“The Deep End is a forum for exploring what’s beneath the surface,” says Vanessa Fontanez, VP of Experiential Marketing for Vox Media. “The activations and conversations we curated were centered around taking people deeper into their passion points — in tech, music, gaming, entertainment, food and drink, community, politics and more — to drive curiosity.”
Vox Media featured activations in partnership with Aloft Hotels, 3M, KeVita, eBay, Doha Debates, and TCL. So, what can retailers take away?
Embed Retail Organically Within a Culture
Curbed teamed up with eBay’s Retail Revival program to promote local business in global markets, encouraging visitors to love where they live by supporting local merchants and makers. Not only was this a nice nod to their host city, as they took the opportunity to show off some of Austin’s excellent purveyors, it was a seamless hybrid of digital and local physical retail, right in step with the direction shoppers are going.
The Curbed/eBay experience showed that Vox Media had a solid understanding of their audience, something that would reveal itself as a continuous thread throughout each aspect of their multi-layered activation. Attendees were able to participate in the Vox Media ethos by interacting with brands. In this case, by engaging with local retail, shoppers were making contact with the Curbed mantra “Love Where You Live.”
Regular, Low-Impact Activation Strengthens Long Term Brand Engagement
Later I headed over to the so-called Innovation Mansion, sponsored by Current Global, which featured multiple marketing activations in a swanky, tech-enabled home. Leveraging an aspirational environment to attract retail influencers, the Mansion touted a two-day lineup of high profile speakers, and an exclusive nightlife scene complete with a heated outdoor pool, guest celebrity chefs, and surprise DJ appearances.
Attendees got personalized experiences with brands like Charlotte Tilbury and freebies from a smart vending machine powered by SocialVend. Among those vended freebies was jewelry by designer Kendra Scott, and it’s not the first time I’ve encountered their brand this way. At events like these, Kendra Scott has activated with enough frequency to deepen relationships with their customers and facilitate brand recognition without being aggressive about it.
Team Up With Other Brands to Solve Problems Your Customer Didn’t Know They Had
Just down Rainey Street, one of the quieter activations made one of the biggest splashes during SXSW. Bose was showing off their AR glasses, which use audio instead of video. By building lightweight, non-intrusive speakers into the temples, they’ve given customers a way to listen to music without needing headphones or being cut off from the world. The utility of this, they say, extends from commuters who need to hear traffic sounds, to hikers who want to listen podcasts and nature, to people simply having conversations.
For the activation, Bose demonstrated how simply by looking at a restaurant and tapping the glasses, customers can hear restaurant hours and menu selections. The potential uses of this technology are limited only by the brands and apps Bose teams up with. They’re already partnering with Golfshot, Headspace, Stratva and TripAdvisor to enhance your golf game, meditations, workouts and travels.
Rainy Portland is now washing the Austin dust off my boots, but the residual inspiration of SXSW still lingers. Aside from the tacos, my best takeaway from the experience is that brands and retailers are getting better and better at using creative activations to make their products meaningful to customers.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.