Branding Overkill: Has SXSW Lost its Cool?
Many moons ago in the days when Jimi Hendrix, Ginger Baker and Stevie Winwood were the virtuosos of rock I happened upon a large musical event in NYC. However, instead of flowing inside, crowds of long-haired, tie-dyed, bell-bottomed youths were streaming out the doors, humorously shouting expletives as they vacated the building.
Seems they’d been lured in by the promise of a free “psychedelic” jam only to find that the event was underwritten by Budweiser. The killer: a light show interspersed with TV ads touting America’s favorite suds.
Not even the offer of free beer could keep this “target audience” in their seats. The jarring juxtaposition of hops and psychedelia sent them running for the exits, presumably in quest of real music and less traditional mind-altering substances. They may have escaped reality for a time, but alas, they could not evade the future.
Today, branding is embedded in nearly every public stage. Concerts, sporting events and even art exhibitions are brought to us courtesy of some corporate sponsor, usually in a venue where the building or arena naming rights have been sold off. If Ralph Waldo Emerson were alive today, he would doubtless open the year’s speaking gigs at the Goodyear Chatauqua Center in upstate New York. Past poet laureates such as Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg would consult for the Verizon Library of Congress. Which inspires me to suggest: Why hasn’t our elected leadership seized on branding and ticketing as the obvious solution to the national debt? If tourists had to pay to enter the AT&T Lincoln Memorial, climb the Nissan Washington Monument or hike in the McDonald’s Grand Canyon, America’s deficit might vanish in days, even hours. The government should take the lead on commercializing public institutions. To set the tone, it might change the domain for all federal agencies from .gov to .brand, for starters.
Branding mania appears to have reached a new level at SXSW. Once a neat little musical festival and now a gargantuan annual rite of music/film/interactivity, “South by Southwest” is underwritten by a Who’s Who of corporate giants: Pepsico, Chevrolet, and the inevitable brewer, Miller Lite, to name a few. The host of this year’s SXSW “Startup Village,” a forum to encourage current and future entrepreneurs: Microsoft. Somehow that’s just plain weird, like the Czar Alexander hosting a meeting of Socialist Democrats and Mensheviks.
A review in the Washington Post got it right in lashing out at the “oppressive” corporate presence and resulting sponsorship fatigue suffered by this year’s festival-goers. It’s hard to imagine an artist sinking lower than Lil Wayne did, flying in to SXSW merely to announce a Mountain Dew sponsorship with a new tune, DEWeezy. But Snoop Dogg did him one better (or worse), performing from atop a five-story rendition of what looked like a Dorito, Pepsico’s front-running snack food.
What’s going on here? Quite simply, it is today’s infatuation with branding. Every company wants to be like Apple, whose brand supposedly commands zombie-like loyalty, marvelously parodied in this over-the-top, not for kiddies video, BTW. The big difference: Apple doesn’t go around beating customers over the head. They know better than to cheapen or wear out the brand by overdoing it — a lesson that SXSW and its corporate sponsors would be wise to heed, lest they unwittingly prompt a stampede to the off-ramp.
Jim Crawford is the president and founder of Crawford PR. In Crawford blogs, he offers hard-earned perspective on public relations for the tech and broadband industries.