At the tech and innovation conference South by Southwest Interactive, it’s as easy for companies to blend in as the flyers littering the streets of Austin.
But amid the sea of commercial chaos — where hundreds of companies big and small fiercely fight for the most fleeting of interactions — Kansas City stood towering like the Liberty Memorial.
Before we dive into Kansas City’s representation, let me paint a picture.
It was my first time at SXSW. I had little expectations on what I’d see or how I’d take in the conference. I had a plan on what to do, but the unobstructed waterfall of chaos that is SXSW quickly kicked it to the curb.
Tens of thousands of attendees roamed the streets in between pedicabs, food trucks and Austin’s strangest. With or without the $800-plus badge, they wandered in and out of bars and restaurants that were temporarily converted into company experiences called “activations.”
Companies like Sony, Samsung and IBM transformed the spaces — painting walls, mounting TVs and even constructing buildings — to show off their tech, services or products. Attendees stuffed firms’ free gear, or swag, into goodie bags like kiddoes cram candy on Halloween.
That note on swag is where our first Kansas City kudo arrives.
Barkley — the Kansas City-based ad agency — is revamping Hershey’s Take 5 brand and went to test it at SXSW. As part of its activation, Take 5 and the Barkley team snagged a bar in one of Austin’s trendiest districts on Rainey Street.
With the Take 5 activation, attendees handed over unwanted swag to staff at the event. Staff put the gear into an algorithm that calculated its value relative to what they’d already received that day and assigned a ticket for one of four levels of products. Then, depending on the level, attendees could pick between products like a Bose sound system, Fitbit activity tracker or a Polaroid camera.
Not only did it boost the Take 5 brand with a memorable experience by upgrading participants’ stuff, it reduced the number of other brands competing for attendees’ attention.
What a fantastic idea. I heard conversations on the activation’s brilliance nearly every day and, as a result, stopped by each morning to exchange my spoils from the previous day. Well done, Barkley team.
As I mentioned, it’s difficult to escape the madness of SXSW.
That’s why the intimate experience afforded by the Gatorade Fuel Lab — powered by Kansas City-based agency VML — made for a memorable, persuasive experience.
I, like perhaps many of you, only think about Gatorade as the sugary sports drink that ends up on successful coaches. But little did I know the amount of effort that Gatorade spends researching athletes’ physiologies to enhance their products, thereby improving users’ performance.
Gatorade’s gigantic activation first allows you to customize a water bottle to your liking, complete with your favorite sports team and name. You’re then outfitted with a pair of headphones and led into a dark room with a group of only nine other people. A huge screen kicks on and shares the story of Gatorade’s research lab and the impressive tech they’re offering to improve athletes’ performance.
One new product that we may see this year is a smart water bottle that connects to a sensor on your body. The sensor — basically small piece of tape — analyzes the content of your sweat, identifying how much sodium and potassium you lose as you workout or play a game of basketball. The water bottle then exactly replaces the amount of electrolytes you’ve lost by intermittently injecting Gatorade into your water along the way. Incredible that an amateur can tap the same tech that once was only reserved for Olympic-caliber athletes.
More than this tech, I was impressed by how seriously Gatorade takes improving athlete performance. I don’t think I would’ve been convinced of that if I had scrolled past a Facebook video ad. Cheers, VML and Gatorade.
Kansas Citians were small in number, but were mighty in spirit — and it showed.
This was no better exemplified than at the “Beyond Traffic, Smart City Challenge” announcement, in which Kansas City was named a finalist for a $50 million award.
In a shoulder-to-shoulder event, dozens of mayors and city dignitaries from 78 cities crammed themselves into the Garage Cocktail Bar. At one point — and this is a highlight of my journalistic career — I was encircled by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and the mayors of San Francisco, Portland, Kansas City, Austin, Columbus, Pittsburgh and Denver.
Sometimes it takes a trip away from the familiar to realize how special your home is. And sometimes it takes a global showcase of cutting-edge ideas to see how talented your neighbors are.
When Austin was named a finalist for the award, the crowd went nuts. But shortly after that, when the City of Fountains was named a finalist, a mob of Kansas Citians — all representing different organizations — went as berserk as a crowd at Kauffman Stadium. Kansas City mayor Sly James later dished out high fives to a line of smiling constituents — about 20 people in total — who were dubbed “the mayor’s fan club.”
I’ll let Integrated Roadways founder Tim Sylvester, who was present at the event, relay his perspective.
“Several times I heard ‘Wow, there are so many of you. Where are you all from?’” Sylvester said. “(An attendee) asked if everyone was with Integrated Roadways. I think she was rather surprised that we were each with our own startup and had come down en masse to represent our city. That whole ‘Are you all with, oh, wait, you all have your own thing’ happened several times. I don’t think other cities put forward that cohesion the way we do. … The Kansas City contingent definitely stood out.”
We can dance where we want to.
Kansas Citians apparently have a knack for sparking dance parties wherever they go — but that’s a story for another time and place. It was a privilege to be a part of representing Kansas City in a storytelling — and rhythmical — capacity. But it was even more of a joy to see how well the Kansas City brand travels and make new friends along the way.
Sometimes it takes a trip away from the familiar to realize how special your home is. And sometimes it takes a global showcase of cutting-edge ideas to see how talented your neighbors are. Thanks for that, SXSW.