One of President Obama’s professional speechwriters provided the most accurate description I’ve heard yet of the phenomenon that is SXSW. In a session on persuasive writing, she likened the annual interactive media conference to a shopping experience at TK Maxx; a hot mess, but if you’re prepared to put in the effort you’ll find that pair of designer shoes you’ve been looking for.
Reflecting on four days and, close to 30 hours of lectures, it’s a significant challenge to adequately sum up such a diverse experience. The scale and breadth of SXSW is quite simply overwhelming.
Given that, I’m hoping a unifying theme will go some way to help present a more coherent overview of my time in Austin and usefully, that theme can be summed up in one simple word, tension.
In almost every session there was a reference to increased polarity, whether political, cultural, societal, or ideological. These polarities are in turn, creating a series of tensions having a seismic impact on the communication landscape. As a result, in many ways, our industry has never been more divided.
If last year’s SXSW was still coming to terms with, and seeking to explain the dual seismic events of Brexit and the US Presidential campaign, this year focussed even more on how to operate within a divided world. Clearly these tensions represent significant challenges for businesses and brands. Importantly they also represent considerable opportunity, more of which later…
Progress vs. Equality – The divisiveness of technological change:
In his keynote speech, London Mayor Sadiq Khan warned against the divisiveness that the technologically driven fourth industrial revolution will continue to bring. Providing opportunities for many, but also creating inequalities for others. Whilst he acknowledged the tremendous capacity for good this new reality brings, he urged tech giants, corporations and elected bodies to take responsibility, ensuring they collectively mitigate against these dangerous divides.
As an industry we’ve already seen the mistakes we’ve made in underestimating these divisions, assuming we have a good grasp of the consumers we seek to engage. The need to consistently remove ourselves from our own algorithmically and media curated bubbles to gain deeper understanding, remains a priority.
Digital vs. Physical – Physical fights back:
The tension between the digital and physical world was high on the agenda. In a provocative statement, Tenarra Schneider Group Director at Fjord, suggested that the physical world was in fact fighting back. In the coming months and years digital will fade into the background, an invisible enabler of physical sensory experiences. As digital capabilities are embedded into objects around us we’ll no longer have to rely on keyboards and mobile handsets to interact, creating a renewed emphasis on the physical. As we consider our marketing communications, we should increasingly think about how we can combine both areas to design more impactful and captivating experiences for audiences.
Building on this, Johanna Murphy, former CMO of Rag & Bone, urged us to rethink our understanding of personalised marketing. Murphy suggested we’ve been guilty as an industry of reducing personalisation to highly automated, data fuelled interactions that ironically represent impersonal experiences to the end user.
The real opportunity comes when we combine tech enabled personalisation with the physical human touch. Murphy illustrated this beautifully using a fashion brand who’ve reimagined their use of influencer marketing. In addition to engaging influencers to showcase their products on social platforms, they subsequently used geo-targeting capabilities to entice new fans in-store to meet their favourite influencers in person. Murphy summed it up as “the perfect interaction of tech enabled and the human touch”. In the future, our challenge will be to find those perfect interactions.
Bricks and mortar vs. ecommerce: The future of retail
The changing face of retail was high on the agenda and the subject of several sessions. Inevitably the role of bricks and mortar vs. ecommerce was discussed at length.
Joe Pine, author of the Experience Economy, asked us to reframe the way we thought about the physical in-store experience. To do this he took us through the progression of economic value over time, noting that as we evolve from a service to an experience economy. “We will be required to shift from creating value for customers through time well saved (service economy), to time well spent (experience economy)” and instore has a huge role in allowing us to do that.
An emerging experience economy requires a shift in our thinking as we build our communication plans. Our role is less about planning campaigns and more about planning experiences. Applied to physical retail and taken to its extreme, in an ecommerce dominated world, the instore experience itself becomes the primary product and any goods purchased during those visits should be seen as memorabilia. Furthermore, brands should begin to charge for those experiences. Disneyland springs to mind.
This may be the extreme, but the need to breakdown legacy silos existing within organisations to ensure ecommerce, instore and marketing work collaboratively to create a more coherent and richer consumer experience is an urgent one. In essence, the experience IS the marketing.
Purpose vs. Product – the case for purpose-driven brands:
There was much discussion around the need for purposeful brands. In an entertaining session, AJ Hassan of R/GA Chicago and Todd Kaplan VP of Marketing PepsiCo discussed what it takes to be a brand with purpose. They argued that, brands have the power to impact and change culture, especially where there is a need or vacancy. They warned though, that true purpose-driven brands have purpose at their core and drive a consistent mode of behaviour, 365 days a year.
For many in the industry the jury is still out on whether purpose really drives demonstrable business results – there are compelling sources of evidence supporting both sides of the argument. What is clear, however, is the emergence of a new generation of younger consumers, far more conscious of the brands they chose and what it says about them. At the very least, purpose can give brands much needed distinctiveness in increasingly commoditised marketplaces.
Brand vs. Performance:
Who wouldn’t be enticed by a session entitled Balancing Brand Building vs. Performance. This is the perennial tension that continues to challenge us on a daily basis.
Whilst there was no silver bullet offered, a varied panel agreed performance marketing would soon be pervasive and brand activity should already be one of the strongest drivers of performance. It’s proving its longer-term contribution that’s the biggest challenge. Data and analytics were seen as the game changer and the rallying cry was for all of us to embrace accountability rather than avoid it. Performance is everything and everything is performance
Tension marketing – a new reality:
Deciding what to leave out of this article was by far the biggest challenge. I haven’t even touched on Elon Musk’s renditions of My Little Buttercup (Google it…) or the game changer that is blockchain.
Questions of culture, secrets of cult brands, marketing to algorithms, and an incredible keynote on relationships from world renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel were just a few of the areas that all failed to make the cut (Esther highlighted one of the most fundamental tensions of all – the contradictory needs for security and freedom in human relationships).
Despite the diversity of subject matters, for me this increased polarity was the pervasive theme. And, as I suggested up front, it challenges us but also offers considerable opportunity. Perhaps it demands a new approach, specifically designed to exploit these tensions. It seems likely that businesses and brands that are able to navigate these polarities most effectively will win in the future.
Put another way, if necessity is the mother of invention, tension is the edgy and highly influential younger aunt.
Thanks SXSW, I found my killer heels and a whole lot more.