So the dust has well and truly settled after this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW).
It’s been over a month since I landed back at my desk here in London after a whirlwind few days in Austin, Texas and, to be completely honest, I’ve needed all that time to process the unbelievable range of different ideas, conversations and thinking that I found myself exposed to.
The sheer breadth of the festival is something to behold and almost impossible to comprehend with thousands of sessions on offer.
The great thing about this is that no one person will have the same experience across the five days, and everyone will come away with something different on their mind.
The drawback of this being the inevitable feeling that the session you’re currently sitting in is nowhere near as good as that other one you were thinking about attending. (And the constant stream of commentary online does absolutely nothing to discourage this feeling.)
This fear of missing out runs through the whole event, and its something that you really need to come to terms with to make the most of it. This feeling reminded me of the last Glastonbury Festival I attended; you know at the start that you’re not going to get to see every great band on your list, but once you’ve come to terms with that, you can relax and enjoy the wealth of possibility that lies at your feet.
So in the few weeks that have passed, surely everything that could be written has been written? Well, I’m not sure that’s possible with the multitude of different experiences possible.
Looking back, my experience of SXSW feels like it was intrinsically linked to the subject matter on offer (or maybe that’s just the way my brain works).
A New World of Branding?
Two talks on ‘open’ branding corresponded very closely with my experience of the event. This idea as discussed in “Brands as Patterns” and “Brand as API” that goes completely against the way communications have taken shape for a long time (and something I should vehemently oppose given my grounding in brand strategy) rings very true when you look at the SXSW experience.
The patterns session looked at how a brand should build in flexibility and rhythm to its communications with great examples from the world of music and genetics. Their view is that branding in today’s always-on world needs to move towards a perpetual sequence with built-in variation rather than one consistent set of messages executed through pre-determined campaigns and bursts. It felt that this was more evolutionary than revolutionary and is something that has happened organically within branding and communications, rather than representing a complete step-change.
Saying that, it couldn’t be truer of SXSW as an event; you have an idea of what you’re going to get from the experience overall but the variation and unexpected elements within are what makes it so worthwhile and so exhilarating.
SXSW definitely embraces the idea of the ‘brand as API’, which was eloquently defined as opening up the brand fundamentals or ‘primitives’ to their audience and seeing what happens. Using examples such as Domino’s and Charmin, creating a pizza tracker and bathroom locator, respectively, the presenters illustrated that all brands have an API (Application Programming Interface) that they can access to allow interaction with the brand without purchase. LEGO has opened up its brand API spectacularly well to allow its passionate audience’s imaginations to run wild and create designs online that can later be printed in 3D when they complete the purchase.
This angle provides an interesting way of looking at any marketing challenge: by asking the question ‘what is the brand’s API?’, there is likely to be a range of new and interesting thinking that can be brought to life to deepen the connection with consumers.
SXSW’s API is the conversation and flow of ideas that rumbles through the event and this burst into being back in 2007 with the explosion of Twitter allowing people to share every piece of inspiration coming their way. While SXSW has grown through this openness in ways the founders would never have imagined, this has created a powerful entity, indeed, that is showing no signs of slowing down, there are still ways that they could embrace this currency even further. For example, building in locational activity relevant to tweeted content or identifying which talks are really trending around the event in real time and on the ground to create a more tangible buzz.
The Fear of Missing Out
The clear social one-upmanship of many of the tweets running through the festival and all over the world creates the Fear of Missing Out, or ‘FOMO’, that was discussed in a session from JWT. In a place where there are potentially 50+ different options for the next hour slot, they couldn’t have picked a better location for the session, but it did feel slightly cynical with the main message of the session being to exploit the trend by exacerbating the anxiety within the individual rather than find ways to help people deal with it, as done so elegantly by 303 in Australia with their “Enjoy the Ride” road safety campaign.
Multiplatform storytelling, or transmedia, was a big theme on show at the event and was exemplified by the way Nike went about its business with an interactive billboard that ran the length of a city block, a light show on a skyscraper, slam dunk, skateboarding and football demonstrations all in place to complement the online launch of FuelBand (which we’ll come back to later) with Nike adapting the message across each channel. An Angry Birds flash mob featuring birds attacking pigs outside of the Convention Centre was another nice example of transmedia in action, but the lack of a digital link-up felt like a missed opportunity.
Multi-platform is a concept that has been embraced to some extent within the advertising industry with cross-channel campaigns, but there are real insights to be gained from looking at the way its being done elsewhere. Lance Weiler made a stir at Sundance with Pandemic 1.0, the story of a the onset of a mystery sleeping disease which featured a mission control centre, Twitter commentary and mobile phones in biohazard bags that linked people on the ground with those watching the endemic unfold online.
Jay-Z and the Rebirth of Lego
Jay-Z proved indisputably that the SapientNitro talk ‘Y Rappers R Better Marketers Than U” was the truth by linking up with AmEx to promote their sync service and causing the biggest line of the week, even though it meant queuing at 7am on Saturday morning. We can all learn lessons from the rappers out there making us look bad; you need to stay ‘legit’ to your core audience while still forgetting the rules and innovating; and if you’re looking for social media inspiration then a lot can be learned from the rap game.
The story of LEGO’s rise out of the darkness mirrored the change in mood at the festival on the Saturday afternoon as the weather started to lift. In 2002, LEGO had lost their way and were in dire straits after innovating too much without an area of focus. By focusing back on their customer and the core brand essence of ‘systematic creativity’ and aligning the entire business to deliver this better, LEGO turned around the fortunes and has been growing at an remarkable rate ever since.
The sense of optimism was even more evident during a sunny Sunday breakfast in the Google Village; key players in the industry were talking about the positive impact that the tech community could have on the world. Various sessions looked at addressing health issues, especially in the US, with obesity high on the agenda and ‘Gaming for Good’ as a theme running through the week.
The session on how to get ‘SuperBetter’ proved a great example of this; game designer Jane McGonigal turned her recovery from serious concussion into a game. With her movement severely limited, each tiny action was designed to boost her emotional, physical, mental and social resilience so that she could stay focused on the difficult road to recovery. Since then she has been working with Doctors and Academics to create a game that can be played to help with recovery working on the theory that “people of action think big and act incrementally’.
This is one of a number of actualizing games or tools that are on the horizon including Lift, the new venture from Twitter co-founders, which is designed to help people to ‘achieve anything’ (but is currently shrouded in mystery) and Everest, which is billed as a tool to help people ‘live their dreams’.
Taking Austin to London
SXSW fever was still running high this week in Shoreditch with the UK launch of the Nike Fuelband causing some serious congestion in the area. The Fuelband was the launch of SXSW following on from the likes of Twitter, Foursquare and GroupMe. It is a hugely exciting concept and potential ‘game-changer’ with its ability to track physical activity combined with an enormous API that should throw up some interesting uses in the coming months.
It’s great to see the passion of SXSW transfer over to the UK, and the founders of Digital Shoreditch have been very bold recently in their aim to be as ‘significant as SXSW within four years’. They’ve definitely picked the one place in London that will have no problem embracing Austin’s ‘Keep it Weird’ mantra.
The biggest challenge I see is ensuring that the massive local digital and creative community take that dedicated time away from their desks to reap the benefits of something that reminds you why love what you do and can spark inspiration in numerous directions. Unfortunately, this is something that is very difficult to do when the office is so close, and the phone is on.
Interested in hearing us speak at Digital Shoreditch? Catch Idea Engineers Malcolm Poynton and Omaid Hiwaizi on May 30th.
Photo credit: grandlifehotels