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Marketing Takeaways from SXSW2019

by | Mar 19, 2019

By Lisa Nirell

Every year, Austin, Texas, hosts South by Southwest (SXSW), a confab of epic proportions and people. The event ran from March 8-17 and the programming team invited me this year as a marketing mentor.

I’m a SXSW virgin, and I savored every moment as a memorable first foray into this alternate universe. This was my chance to learn from marketing and branding veterans from around the globe. I also wanted to discern how well my fellow D.C. entrepreneurs and marketing peeps were represented.

SXSW is part Coachella, part business conference, and part creativity paradise. Perched high above Rainey Street at the WeDC House, I witnessed a nonstop parade ranging from androgynous aliens in shiny silver spacesuits to scruffy hipsters donning cannabis logo t-shirts.

Unlike the laid-back SXSW “headquarters” registration teams at the Convention Center, the busy WeDC House employed three bouncers, ID checkers, bag inspectors and card scanners. This proved that old government security habits die hard. This was not initially the “Center for Inclusive Innovation” brand experience that I expected. Thankfully, once inside the venue, the DC Economic Development Partnership team extended a warm welcome.

Here are some takeaways from my two-day SXSW whirlwind experience:

Wisdom is the new black. The most crowded sessions focused on the human ramifications of AI, apps development, and innovation in general. I was invited to be a marketing mentor this year and spent time helping four startup CEOs design their growth strategies. Coincidentally, each founder is building tools or online communities that enable people to overcome their frustrations with isolation or privacy invasion, or to help them find like-minded hobbyists (e.g. cooking aficionados, adventure travelers, etc.).

Tim Ferriss, the guru of life hacking, interviewed bestselling author Michael Pollan on the current research and benefits of psychedelics. The general session was packed and you could hear a pin drop.

While this topic may seem completely unrelated to the topic of belonging, it’s directly related. Therapists and pharmacists are wrought with customers and patients in this era of digital overload.

In addition, researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine recently reported that loneliness contributes to shorter life spans and has doubled over the past 50 years. And a former U.S. Surgeon General said that loneliness presents a greater public health crisis than tobacco use or obesity.

Researchers learned that wisdom is the primary antidote. People are seeking new, less addictive methods than opioids and anti-depressants to alleviate the effects of excessive social media and technology usage.

Amazon won’t save us. We must transform our own mindsets.

D.C. business pundits and media applaud the arrival of 25,000 new jobs. Many believe that Amazon will forever re-shape our regional economic identity. We need to look beyond the hype.

Amazon is a behemoth; that is true. It’s a powerful brand. But we cannot expect one company to change our regional culture. Amazon will certainly contribute to marketing innovation, startup acceleration, and industry diversity. Yet every company has a limited lifespan, as we have learned from AOL’s gradual demise.

Look to our dynamic startup community to provide additional marketing and industry diversity. Stephen Buko, CEO of D.C.-based startup Kerb, joins that special league. During our discussion at SXSW, he applauded our local economic development teams for helping him secure early wins for their camera-based analytics platform.

On the other hand, regional talent shortcomings currently undermine growth. According to Buko, “D.C. definitely attracts lots of well-educated people to the region for public sector and defense jobs.” But this comes with a price. With the dearth of homegrown for-profit companies, he believes many talented professionals simply lack the entrepreneurial spirit.

Whenever Buko interviews talented people from these sectors, he struggles to persuade them to join a startup: “how do you convince a defense expert on a five-year contract to move to a (higher risk) startup?”

Watch for regional startups who are driven by purpose, not buzzwords, to shape D.C.’s emerging brand. According to SXSW producer Chris Valentine, “TwentyTables was very impressive on stage (during the Pitch Event). They did a great job at highlighting the importance of the underserved having access to healthy food options by offering customers affordable, fixed-cost meals. Startups with social good components showcase just how impactful technology can be.”

Marketers will gradually become Chief Ethics Officers.

We need to embrace new responsibilities, even when they are untested. AI has reached an entirely new level of functionality that will test our ethical boundaries and customer privacy guidelines.

Ethics must inform machine learning rules; machine learning rules must inform MarTech; and MarTech must guide—but not control–customer relationships.

Levi’s, a 146-year-old denim brand, may mark the beginning of a new era in customer experience and digital marketing. They just hired their first Chief AI Officer, Katia Walsh. Let’s hope that Levi’s ensures that their values and customer relationship manifesto guide her strategies, not the latest shiny object.

(Pictured above is Nirell with Guy Kawasaki, marketing specialist, author and Silicon Valley venture capitalist. He was one of the Apple employees originally responsible for marketing their Macintosh computer line in 1984.) 

Lisa Nirell, founder of EnergizeGrowth® LLC in Alexandria, VA, helps CMOs and CEO accelerate growth and marketing innovation. An in-demand speaker and LinkedIn Learning expert, her books include The Mindful Marketer and EnergizeGrowth® NOW. Download her annual CMO Innovation Trends study here.


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