SXSW
10:00 am
Mon March 12, 2012

Food Trucks Become Corporate Ads at SXSW

One of the trends at this year’s edition of South by Southwest involves major national brands using food trucks to create a kind of interactive marketing experience. But they’re relying on Austin eateries to inject some local flavor into the mix.

Free food is everywhere during South by Southwest. The web host Squarespace has a food truck serving dishes from places like Franklin BBQ and Izzoz Tacos. The social media news site Mashable has a food truck giving away food from mmmpanadas. Austin mobile food vendor Snappy Snacks has been wrapping trucks with corporate brands, including one for NBC’s Today Show.

“Our marketing team, they’ve seen how much food has grown at this event, and it was a great way for us to get involved,” said Vidya Rao, a food editor at Today.com. We are a morning show. We have a lot of cooking segments on the show, so food kind of mixes in perfectly with what we’re doing.”

Sometimes corporations use food as a recruiting tool.Salesforce.com rented a trailer and was handing out breakfast tacos made by the local food truck Peached Tortilla. Ursula Ayrout is director of marketing at SalesForce.

“We’re looking for new people to join Salesforce. We’re hiring,” SalesForce marketing director Ursula Ayrout said. “People love talking about food, and we really want to show our personality across with the food we’re giving away.”

Food truck marketing was a subject at a South by Southwest Interactive panel on Sunday called Food Trucks Share Social Media Tips. One of the panelists was Daniel Shemtov, creator of the Lime Truck and winner of the Food Network reality show the Great Food Truck Race.

“It’s the trendy, cool urban kind of way to directly interact with customers,” he said. “Big businesses want to be involved with them to say that, ‘We also have cool personality. We’re also young. We’re hip.”

But Shemtov warns that local proprietors partnering with large corporations need to be careful.

“We’ve been approached by a couple companies that didn’t match our brand and we would never do it, because it’s like selling out,” Shemtov said. “And we still are like a unique urban niche. And once you sell out, you’ve sold out.”

So what do food trucks get out of it besides a days’ worth of sales?  Most of the people eating their free food are from out of town and might come back. Short Bus Subsowner Eric Klusman partnered with the marketing company SapientNitro and says he can just hope there is some kind of long term benefit.

“We get to give people our sandwiches for free and let them trying them for the first time and hopefully come back. As far as we’re concerned, yes, we’d like to have people that are local trying our sandwiches, but we’ll feed anybody from anywhere,” Klusman said.

But many food trucks are confident they’ll do just fine without a corporate partner, and some are even slimming down their menus so they can sell more quickly, because as long as the weather cooperates, this week will be one of the busiest all year for mobile food vendors in Austin.