Branding “cool” at SXSW Interactive 2015

By Jenna Green

At the start of this I gave myself the mission to figure out why brands were shelling out the big bucks to come exhibit at SXSW. I prophesized that it had something to do with being “cool-by-osmosis.” Come to the “cool” event, show that you are there, catch some of the “cool” that seems permeate the city for the duration of the festivence (combo — festival + conference).

In hindsight — I was simultaneously partially right and all-but-wrong.

Today (and I say today as the goal posts on this are always changing) “cool” is doing what you believe in regardless of adversity. The people who attend SXSW are innovators, creators, gypsy souls, and regular folks with the audacity to believe they can change the world — and as byproduct of that, they are totally cool. Being present, being open, and being opinionated — these are the credentials that matter. As an attendee that’s how you get your “cool card” swiped. A perfect example of a “pinch me” moment: during one session on wearable tech I sat between the fashion editor of a major magazine from New York and head of engineering from a large data company in San Jose. Both are big power players at these companies — people who actually develop the future. As the session wound down we sat around and just chatted for another thirty minutes about where we thought the industry was headed, what were the next steps and obstacles to development, and how to overcome them. Cool. Very cool.

But when it comes to brands, “cool” is unquantifiable unicorn that all companies chase. Coming into this portion of the festival, I was under the impression that the companies who were exhibiting were trying to absorb some of that “cool” into their brand directly. However, in reality, it seemed that they were more interested in being a proxy than being the end receptacle. A brand is nothing in practice without the people to live it. The focus on employee engagement has only become more amplified as Millennials (myself included) take over the workplace. At SXSW, many companies chased relevancy through association with the fresh minds, the innovative minds, the creative minds and the Millennial minds of the attendees there. Brands are at this event to show off how the “cool” people are interested in them. With film crews shooting internal video capturing the experience of stoppers-by, and freemiums contingent on sharing a specific hashtag with your network. Whether true love or smoke and mirrors, the simple association these brands created with the various conduits of “cool” seemed like the ultimate goal of being there.

I know that there has been a lot of different takes on whether SXSW is losing some of that magic that it has held for so long — the place where the unknown could go viral in a day; where the next big thing might be in the next booth or tent over. While I don’t think there will be another Twitter coming out of this event (although, if anyone will do it, it will be Meerkat), I think the focus has shifted. It’s turned into a playground of learning for both people and companies. I walked away from it inspired and enthused by not only the attendees I met and conversations I had, but also by the fact that Fortune500 brands seemed as into this as I was.

The question for me is — outside the bubble of Austin — what happens now? It’s easy to say the right sound bites for a week, but as the weeks go on, who will keep it up? In my opinion, the companies who move the conversations from cocktails to implementation, those will be the ones who will come back next year having earned their label of cool.

Jenna Green is marketing manager at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @portergreen

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