Whitney Fishman Zember, Managing Partner, Innovation and Consumer Technology, MEC
Although SXSW was started 30 years ago as purely a music conference, it has evolved into a place to exchange ideas and be inspired – of course, complemented with plenty of BBQ. In past years, SXSWi was a hub for massive brand activations. This year, there was an emphasis on more curated, experience-driven opportunities targeted at specific attendees and influencers, as well as sessions and events focused on politics, active conversation, mobility, connected living and overall storytelling. MEC captures the key trends and takeaways from their experience for inspiration and maximum business impact.
Make like SXSWi and be a brand for civic engagement
U.S. mayors and government officials (past and present) not only met directly with innovators while in Austin, but engaged in healthy debate across a number of controversial topics. No industry was immune, especially with programs focused on ‘Tech Under Trump’ and an initiative hosted by Planned Parenthood and Tumblr. Following this year’s Super Bowl, it has never been more evident for brands to understand the cultural temperature and audience views on civic action/inaction or engagement from the brands they love. If there's a topic or position your brand is passionate about, now is the time to take a genuine, committed stand in whatever format aligns with your brand ethos and story.
Hold active conversations on lessons from other industries to create greater success
What made this year so powerful was the amount of active conversation and listening that took place across the diverse landscape of sessions and panels, ranging from the dangers of biometrics and health care to sexual assault and the future of machine learning. Even The Vatican joined the conversation bringing insight from one of the world’s oldest organizations (2000+ years!) to demonstrate how they are using AI and data to reach and communicate with audiences in progressive ways. Looking beyond your competition and evaluating how industries that look vastly different from yours use technology and new ways of working to evolve, can lead to innovation and brand growth.
Remove everyday frictions to leverage mobility
The notion of mobility was heavily explored across panels and topics including biohacking, self-tracking, transportation and overall consumer innovation. The main idea being that removing everyday frictions for consumers will lead to the development of mobility-based technologies in entities both classic (think urban planning) and emerging (cybersecurity). Interestingly, from the consumer perspective, conversations from the academia community at SXSW discussed the rise of self-tracking and a consumer’s right to access their personal data from mobile/wearable tech. As new opportunities to leverage mobility (e.g., hands-free driving or card-less payments) continue to develop, now is the time for marketers to assess the current frictions with their products and consider the technologies (and partnerships with other tech brands) that can alleviate the point of tension, resulting in positive and easy experiences.
Make it about smart solutions with humanity at the centre
Building on mobility, plenty of conversations and tech demos focused on the notion of designing for a better future via smart homes and even smart cities. Imagine a future where If we focused on making the daily touchpoints that keep us safe and connected (e.g. home HVAC systems, public transit systems, street lights, cars) smarter via the Internet of Things and connected devices, what could that mean for us as a society? IBM’s Makers’ Garage brought this to life with various demos like ''create a bot' showing off its smart developer tools and Watson technology. With the right data and insights at our finger tips, brands have the ability to plug into public infrastructures and design rich, emotional and tech-powered experiences that create both impact and efficiency for consumers.
Use storytelling to leverage innovation and align on the intended outcome
This year, there was a focus on how storytelling (i.e. in film, video game, podcast or other format) can impact public opinion and even policy, when it comes to today’s hotbed topics (e.g. privacy, politics, etc.). Leveraging the latest in emerging technology, many brands addressed how they are embracing future-forward technology to impact even the most intimate moments of storytelling. For example, Disney continues its investment in VR and AR to extend the brand experience beyond the theme park and across its cruise line, consumer products and the entertainment franchise. For brands, aligning on the intended outcome is critical to understanding how to design relevant, personal and original storytelling experiences that drive community, curation, interactivity and most importantly, two-way conversation via technology enabled platforms.