SXSW: an idea festival, not a music festival

by Mar 15, 2018

When I think of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festivals, I think of the stories my friends used to tell of great music, lack of sleep, crowds and brushes with famous people. Like the one involving a backyard concert, the Old 97’s and Janeane Garofalo. The owner of a company you might know tells a great SXSW story about finding work-life peace standing in line for the bathroom after seeing Billy Bragg play.

I hadn’t really thought about SXSW until a windfall of a Platinum Badge (their premier access pass) came my way earlier this month, and I took another look at the conferences offered.

If you were like me and haven’t looked lately, SXSW has grown up considerably. Although it still has more great music, film, digital and gaming than one person can take in, for me it truly has become a festival of ideas. There are conference tracks for more than 20 topics ranging from Brands & Marketing and Experiential Storytelling to Intelligent Future and Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality. Here are a couple of the ideas that keep popping up that we should all keep in mind.

Sustainability is mainstream

At SXSW, sustainable marketing is popping up in all sorts of places not labelled “sustainability.” One good example was the presentation The Flow State: How to Tap into Consumers’ Brains by Raashi Rosenberger of Pinterest and Ben Butler of AB InBev. Rosenberger shared how Pinterest intentionally sparks action by triggering a “flow state” among the people who use their site.

Flow state for Pinterest is defined as that moment when enjoyment, self and accomplishment intersect. Being in flow also requires humans to experience time as well spent and not just spent. Her co-presenter also talked about the importance of the experience of time and explained how it is at the heart of his work leading the Stella Artois “Buy a Lady a Drink” initiative with Matt Damon’s This session mentioned nothing about the classic tags of sustainability, but it really was one of the best talks about a company making sustainability part of the brand.

Butler explained the key insight: people who love Stella Artois have a desire to spend time more meaningfully and doing good for others. This insight connects directly to’s mission to give time back to women in developing countries who often spend up to 6 hours a day getting water. For Stella Artois, connecting those ideas started as a campaign but is now one of their brand pillars. This whole talk went to the heart of helping companies communicate their sustainability story, but the word was never said. Sustainability is so mainstream the ideas are here without hardly a mention of the underlying concept.

Radical empathy for the people you serve

Making an emotional connection is not enough; as marketers we are being asked to find deep, radical empathy with consumers. Radical empathy requires really getting to know the people we serve. We often refer to them as consumers, customers or target audiences. For radical empathy, we have to know them well enough as people to connect with them through our humanity and understand their attitudes and beliefs as well as their behaviors.

As a researcher, I am intensely interested in how we can better observe behavior to get beyond the bias of self-reporting to understand what people really want and need. People share their lives in unprecedented ways through digital platforms, allowing us views of behaviors we’ve never had before. As Christine Berglund, Design Lead at Capital One, pointed out in her talk, Designing with Humanity, we as marketers and communicators are all behavioral designers. She defined behavior as a person’s action in a particular context. “Design is a form of mind control,” she said, and our responsibility is to help the people who use our products achieve some good in the lives of those we serve.

So as marketers and communicators, we have a responsibility to use our powers for good. I can think of no greater good than creating a sustainable future for all of us.

In Austin, home of SXSW, you don’t throw anything away: it either goes to recycling or goes to the landfill. Austin makes it clear nothing is going to that magical place called “away.”

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About the Author

Susannah Enkema

Susannah leads the research department in developing projects, and then in dissecting the findings and boiling them down to the most important insights that pave the way for smart marketing strategies and creative approaches. She works closely with the creative and account departments to offer ideas, support and information that help all departments meet client goals.

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