Last night at Austin’s SXSW, lines snaked around the block as attendees waited for a taste of the latest innovation by Dominique Ansel, maker of Manhattan’s hard-to-get cronut. The midnight festival event was the launching pad for Ansel’s new milk-and-cookie shot, and hundreds waited more than an hour and a half just to get a bite.
The dessert was announced last week and quickly became one of the breakout ideas of this year’s festival, which has traditionally served as more of a springboard for startups such as Foursquare and Twitter than it has for French pastries.
Still, the debut of a new dessert is only part of this product’s story. The project was the brainchild of PR firm Allison+Partners, which was looking to create visibility for itself at its first SXSW -- a tall order, given the festival’s crowded marketing landscape.
Says Jonathan Heit, the firm’s president and senior partner, the firm chose Ansel and the Austin conference in part to reflect its own client base, one that spans both food, content and technology. The firm also wanted to hold an event at a bar to reflect its own founding 14 years ago over cocktails in San Francisco’s Belden Alley.
Still, standing out at SXSW is not easy. It requires, in part, capturing imaginations. The agency felt strongly about launching a new product at the festival and approached Ansel, who has become nearly synonymous with innovation. His cronut, a hybrid pastry combining elements of croissants and filled donuts, was selected as one of Time magazine’s 25 best inventions of 2013, rocketing his small SoHo bakery to international acclaim last year.
But even with Ansel at the helm, the project required an appetite for risk. Heit says the SXSW initiative required a hefty investment that he estimates reaches the six figures, factoring in staffer time throughout the past nine months. “It’s a big investment for us,” says Heit. Given the competition with multiple large global agencies, he adds, “We call this punching above our weight.”
Ansel needed to invent a completely new pastry and produce it at the event. He said it took around two weeks to develop, taking his inspiration from his first taste of an Oreo cookie a few weeks ago and the pairing of cookies and milk. The shots wrap a special aerated cookie dough around a hard chocolate center that’s filled with organic milk before serving.
Just coming to SXSW required special planning. Ansel takes only one day off a week, and the SXSW event was planned for that day off. The event handed out 500 cronuts and shots, requiring special equipment to be flown into Austin as well as a sous chef since each cronut takes 3 days to produce.
All told, a team of people put together the two-hour event Sunday night, passing out snacks to those in line at the Intercontinental Hotel and managing a social media campaign to encourage discussion on innovation.
Those looking to learn from an event like this need to focus on the bigger picture, Heit says, providing value that goes beyond next-day metrics. “There’s got to be this idea that you get into business with kindred spirits and believe in what you’re doing” and plan for the long-term.