PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters Life!) - When the Sundance Film Festival opened last week, its director John Cooper lamented the "ambush marketers" who had returned in bigger numbers with free gifts for stars than in recent years when the bad economy had driven many away.
Cooper told a press conference he understood a major event like Sundance would attract companies seeking to publicize their brands, but he wanted them to give back.
"I honestly wish they could find some way to contribute to independent films or art, in general," he said.
Some of the so-called "swag suites" at Sundance 2011 have gotten the message. Several are sponsoring events that support the arts and social causes, and others are making charitable donations comparable to the value of the gifts given to the stars.
More product marketers are also switching strategies and looking to associate with an idea or cause.
One person who years ago understood the importance of giving is fashion designer Kenneth Cole. A member of the Sundance board for seven years, he has been making jackets for volunteers. This year the net profits from the Sundance-branded down-filled vests will benefit the Sundance Institute.
"I've always sought ways -- when I get involved outside of what I do -- to lend more than just my name or my voice or writing a check," Cole told Reuters. "There are a lot of great stories out there that need a platform in which to be told, so Sundance's work is important."
Levi Strauss and Co, makers of Levis and Dockers apparel, is sponsoring an initiative called Shape What's to Come, which encourages mentorships among women in the arts and business.
The initiative showcased a panel with activists Gloria Steinem and Pat Mitchell discussing themes of the Sundance documentary "Miss Representation," which explores the lack of women in powerful jobs in the United State and the media's limited portrayal of what it means to be a woman.
"The days where brands are purely transactional are gone. People are looking for more meaning, more cultural relevance," said Michael Perman, senior director of global marketing for Levi Strauss.
Microsoft's Internet search engine Bing has its Bing Bar at Sundance for the second year. At times, it has opened its doors for anybody to come in and hear celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Harry Belafonte talk about their social activism.
Bing marketing director Lisa Gurry described it as a "subdued approach" to boost brand recognition.
"It's really about creating an experience that connects to people," she said.
Puma shoes are featuring their new Faas running shoes. For each pair given away, another pair will be donated to charity. A suite called House of Swagg has a mobile phone that takes users to a website (swagg.com) where items can be bought and money donated to support Stand Up to Cancer.
L'Oreal, Sephora and Los Angeles hair salon Nine Zero One were also offering makeover services for the stars. Ralph Lauren sponsored a dinner promoting its Big Pony men's fragrances.
But amid the hype, one thing seems clear -- many of the giveaways are more targeted to giving than getting than in previous years.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Patricia Reaney