SXSW Highlights

I packed about 17 experiences into my one day (Saturday, 3/11/17) in Austin, not including all the mind-expanding conversations I had along the way. The global, truly interdisciplinary nature of the crowd this event continues to draw is beyond impressive.

First, thanks to the 250-300 people who came out for our Style Track panel, Connecting Customers via Innovation. I was excited about the audience engagement and the long lines for questions. I was also happy about a theme that emerged again: People really matter in retail and brand-building. My co-panelist Aliza Licht talked about bringing the DKNY brand to life through the authenticity of her brainchild @dknyprgirl. I was asked about conversational commerce and recalled my past posts about how it works better with humans than with bots.

Aliza and I also agreed organizational success when it comes to innovation is less about technology and more about how people work together cross-functionally. Of course, all four of us also talked about a lot of tech, ranging from RFID/Bluetooth tagging to social platform and influencer campaign management to retail associate tools.

Second, I stopped by a number of brand activations -- none of them called this, of course. 

  1. The Girls' Lounge - Out-of-the-way location, but a good introduction to The Female Quotient. The menu of 10-minute coaching sessions and the spread of female-empowerment books was also a productive way to help women understand the organization. Headshots sponsored by Facebook were a logical tie-in for both brands. A pretty random rack of clothing "provided with love" by H&M and a similar jewelry case made less sense to me.  
  2. Modcloth, the store - Like my recent trip to Adidas, I was thrilled to be greeted and given a rundown - if a little long for this New Yorker - of what to expect in the store. To sum up, the hanging apparel can be tried on and shipped; the folded tees and totes (both exclusive to the store and not available online, which I've said before is smart) and Anthropologie-inspired assortment of well-curated goodies are grab-and-go. Fun and very on-brand fact: When browsing the large store, you note what you want to try on with a clipboard so you don't have to carry anything around. And, yes, I mean an old-school clipboard. Tip: If visiting Modcloth, also check out Hacienda, two doors down, for a local and unique selection of housewares.
  3. Pinterest House - The emphasis on the recently-launched Lens product started on the entrance line, which ran alongside a wall of items to try out one's camera lens on. And it was reinforced more subtly, with "Lens" in the wifi password. The line to take a staged shot in an all-white set was longer than the line for the free Salt Lick's BBQ Pinterest offered, which says a lot about millennials' commitment to a photo opp. (PSA: Try the portobello - I found my vegetarian BBQ fix.)
  4. Food Media Lounge, presented by feedfeed - The packed room in an off-the-beaten path location for a 9:30 AM panel about the changing business of cooking reinforced how highly engaged the food community is. This came through even more clearly in the the simple, co-located lounge, where I got to speak with feedfeed Co-Founder, Julie Resnick. I can't think of another vertical where it's possible to achieve the depth and breadth of engagement the feedfeed has garnered in a few years and is putting to work by connecting brands with its community and influencers.
  5. Brandcast Design Lounge - This was the launch event for their new web design tool, which is meant to be more flexible and provide better design options than Squarespace. The demo, tutorials, and wine convinced me to at least think about trying out a free account, although even the sales reps warned it's better suited for pro designers.
  6. e.l.f. Beauty Break (lounge) - It was packed at all hours with their target demo, so that's a win. They got their cosmetics onto the faces and into the hands of the crowd or at least got them to try out new colors with YouCam.
  7. Style Kickoff Party with Gibson & Neiman Marcus - This was music and fashion at their best, in the perfect venue for the weather (open air but covered). Tito's Vodka also represented with solid positioning and tasty palomas.

Finally, I tried to keep my eyes and ears open to what brands were doing as I took my 23K steps in the rain. A few marketing plays stood out:

Cascading yellow balloons outside the new Soulcycle - I suspect this was less for Austin locals or to attract riders during SXSW, and more to reinforce the presence of this brand as everyone heads home with barbecue and beer to work off.

Kendra Scott-emblazoned pedicabs - This is a broad enough brand that it can't hurt to have a moving billboard anytime there are a lot of people around. But I'm not sure how effective an advertisement this was; if you didn't already know it's a jewelry brand, you still wouldn't.

Soylent gifting - I don't know if my experience is representative, but I knew of Soylent from Twitter so the brand recognition was there and I was curious enough to take a bottle of each flavor. While the tent on a highly-trafficked street may not have introduced new people to the concept, it was an effective way to get people to try - and hopefully Tweet about - the beverages.

Casper nap vans - I saw two of the vehicles parked around town. Again, it's not bad to be where so many people are. But for a mattress start-up that's already a tech darling and probably has reached the music and media crowds before, I'm curious about the goals of this particular effort.

Speaking of media, there was advertising everywhere for new and existing television (a term I use loosely to include streaming content). With the SXSW crowd being early adopters and over-indexing on Twitter, where every show now has a hashtag, I can see why.

In general, I think this is the real value for brands, advertisers, and start-ups at SXSW -- getting in front people who are always trying to make discoveries and are eager to tell others what they find.