Experiential Marketing

Why Roku brought its cityscape screensaver to life at SXSW

The company is leaning into the fact that Roku City has become a meme.
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· 4 min read

Would you live here? In Roku City? This year at SXSW, Roku bet on it.

At the annual event in Austin, Texas, the connected-TV maker partnered with the tech retailer Best Buy to recreate Roku City—aka the virtual cityscape screensaver that appears on Roku devices when content isn’t playing—in real life.

The multi-level pop-up, open for two days this week, featured aubergine everything: A dimly lit luxury entertainment room, an indoor park, a style shop featuring purple hair extensions and face jewels, and a rooftop diner serving purple-hued food and beverages.

The park came complete with a coffee cart that served Austin-based roaster Creature Coffee and Gigi’s Cupcakes, featured on an episode of Roku Original series The Cupcake Guys, while the rooftop diner’s menu included odes to popular TV shows and movies like The Big Salad (inspired by Seinfeld), French Fry Forest (made with purple potatoes and inspired by Inside Out), and a slice of apple pie called I’ll Have What She’s Having—a reference, of course, to When Harry Met Sally. Creative production agency DesignScene helped bring the space and its menu to life.

The idea behind the installation, according to Julian Mintz, Roku’s head of US brand sales, was born out of the steadily rising interest in and cultural conversation around Roku City over the last few years—whether that’s the 1,000-word New York Times profile on the fictional metropolis from last fall, Roku City merchandise, or the many internet memes. According to company metrics, Roku City is mentioned every 12 minutes on Twitter, and two in three Roku users said they would visit Roku City.

“Bringing it to life, in real life, is the next logical step,” Mintz told Marketing Brew.

Purple brain

Mintz said incorporating Best Buy into the experience was born out of upfront talks. The partnership is an indication of a longstanding and layered relationship Roku has with the retailer, whether that’s through the sale of streaming sticks and television sets at Best Buy stores or through Roku’s advertising business, Mintz said.

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That synergy continued through the week: As Roku City opened its doors, Roku and Best Buy announced that the companies had struck a first-party data pact on Roku’s advertising platform, and had also reached an agreement to sell the first-ever Roku-branded TVs exclusively in the retailer’s stores.

Despite the presence of high-end devices and Roku’s style shop, retail sales were not the immediate goal. Instead, Roku City was designed for brand-building—as well as for hosting the company’s clients in a splashy location, Mintz said.

The installation seemed to be a hit with guests. The rooftop diner, reservations for which were available through the app OpenTable, was booked up within 90 minutes of going live, an early indication of its popularity. Overall, more than 1,000 people moved through the space in the two days that it was open to the public, Roku spokesperson Sarah Saul told Marketing Brew.

I’m gonna be a part of it

The pop-up, Roku’s first-ever installation at SXSW, comes as the connected-TV company reported 23.9 billion total streaming hours in its most recent fiscal quarter, a 23% jump year over year, and cleared 70 million total active accounts. Like other streaming companies, Roku is readying its upfronts pitch to advertisers in a challenging ad environment and pushing further into original programming and new ad formats.

It also comes at a critical juncture for the streaming industry: More than 38% of total TV usage is spent on streaming services, according to recent data from Nielsen. As usage has grown, so too have streamers’ presences at SXSW: this year, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Paramount+, and Showtime all crafted experiences for the event.

“Between this understanding of how important Roku City is to our audience and this general march toward the future where all TV is going to be streamed, it just felt like a really good time,” Mintz said.

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