South By Southwest has long attracted forward-thinking brands looking to capitalize on a captive audience of technology innovators, entertainment industry leaders, drunk college kids, and other people you wouldn’t want to spend 10 days standing next to in line. For three years running, Doritos put artists like Lady Gaga inside a symbolic giant vending machine. Last year, Subway herded festival attendees into #SXSubway Square, a sandwich concentration camp where they were asked to “Think Flatizza” while their brain activity was monitored by Subway scientists. Though controversial among those curmudgeons who always complain that the mega-corporations are crowding out the smaller start-up ideas that SXSW used to be about, like turning homeless people into Wi-Fi hotspots, few can deny that these strategies were very effective at making people aware of Doritos and Subway. (They make chips and meat-tubes, for those who didn’t go to SXSW.)
This year, that same priceless, yet ridiculously expensive brand awareness is being sought by McDonald’s, the world’s largest purveyor of hamburger sandwiches, and a company that long ago had to abandon its signature “Over __ Billion Served” because there was only room for two digits on the sign. However, those billions mean nothing to McDonald’s executives, as they increasingly don’t include hip millennials who want a ketchup-slathered beef hillock that reflects their 21st-century, Instagram lifestyle. Hence McDonald’s recent efforts to attract them by giving Ronald McDonald cargo pants, and accepting payment in the form of fist bumps. And now, going to SXSW in a McDonald’s food truck.
According to the company’s first-ever Chief Digital Officer Atif Rafiq, McDonald’s is attending SXSW 2015 to “showcase how we’re using digital to enhance the customer experience,” something it will do most visibly with its “Fry-Fi” food truck. As the name suggests, the Fry-Fi will provide attendees free Wi-Fi to enhance the customer experience of standing in line for French fries, which conveniently reduce fried potatoes into portable, grab-and-go sticks, for today’s #YOLO youth. Only here, those fries will be served out of a truck, like millennials prefer to eat all their food out of. Nearby will be the McDonald’s Lounge, where you can enjoy some McCafé coffee on “comfortable couches,” then try to keep your fries and coffee down while you listen to McDonald’s-sponsored “salon sessions, panels, and hackathons.”
And if you’ve devised an innovative way to hack a burger, SXSW is the festival for you, as McDonald’s hopes to get a substantial return on investment for its inescapable presence—and presumably ungodly amounts of sponsorship dollars—by hosting three official SXSW pitch sessions. In these, it will seek answers to the question, “How will McDonald’s help lead the next generation of customer experience?” that Rafiq says “everyone seems to want to know,” in those conversations with genuine human beings he’s having, like, all the time.
Those pitch sessions include:
- “Restaurant Experience,” in which the company will solicit ideas for how to “turn the restaurant experience on its head” and change it from the boring, outmoded process of ordering food, eating it, and being left alone. “This is not about tweeting, ordering online, or Wi-Fi connectivity,” the description scoffs at these conventional steps in consuming food. “We are talking about multiple screens, proximity technology, personalization, and even smart packaging.” If you are also talking about those things without ranting wild-eyed on a street corner, you should go talk about them at this McDonald’s panel.
- “Content Creation,” where McDonald’s will seek plans for how it can get into the field of developing the “authentic content” it’s pretty sure consumers are looking for from their fast-food monoliths. “Brands have to co-create content with communities, curate daily content to stay relevant, and create content with social in mind,” the company that sells fried wads of chicken says. Attendees should come with ideas for how they can achieve that content creation objective, and the ability to just throw around the word “content” like it means anything anymore. (If you’re at SXSW, you should have this already.)
- “Transportation And Delivery,” in which McDonald’s proclaims, “Our existing idea of door-to-door delivery and drive-thru will soon be obsolete. Imagine a world where drones could deliver you food while you’re driving down the highway.” This is definitely worth going to if you just need a place to escape from the corporate hustle of SXSW, where you can relax with soothing visions of a Big Mac-ferrying robot slamming into your windshield at 100mph, killing you instantly and saving you from our McDonald’s-controlled future.
Of course, despite its use of reassuring buzzwords like “Wi-Fi,” “content,” and “drone,” some may question why McDonald’s would set its sights on SXSW, which is, as of press time, still officially described as a music and movie festival.
“You may not even realize that music has always been in our DNA,” Rafiq says of this thing you definitely didn’t realize. “In fact, we were one of the first brands to create a branded music video with the launch of ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ back in 2003.” So you see, McDonald’s has more than a decade’s worth of experience in making commercials that masquerade as a celebration of music. At SXSW, it should fit right in.