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Culture & Authenticity Steal the Show at SXSW

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I touched down in Austin for my first-ever SXSW experience excited and wide-eyed, but not entirely sure what to expect. I was convinced there would be a lot of power-networking and jargon-speak. Heck, I even ventured to think it might be some strange cross between Disney World and Star Trek! But in the end, what it turned out to be for me was an incredible and refreshing reflection on culture and the importance of authenticity.

Culture

It’s no secret that we’re a culture of consumers. And as each of us represents our own brand, and has our own marketing channels through social media, what we’re consuming via advertising has a lot of competition. Beyond that, the second (and third and fourth, etc.) screen phenomenon makes us a culture of super-consumers. But we don’t want to consume just anything; we want to engage with content that’s interesting and relevant to our lives.

Here are some stats I learned this week that blew by mind: Did you know that 79 percent of people visit Facebook while watching TV? Or that 76 percent of people who tweet about TV are tweeting live, while they’re watching it? Or that worldwide, there are 3 billion hours of game play (console & social/mobile) per week?

When people connect with a brand through social channels, they’re inviting that brand to be a part of their life, so it’s important for brands to challenge themselves to meet people where they are. Once marketers find a way to meet their consumers where they want to be met, they also need to remember why they’re there (or if it applies, figure out if where they are is even somewhere they should really be).

But it’s not simply just about advertising or campaigns, it’s about being relevant and making people feel like they have a stake in what you’re saying and doing as a brand. It is important for brands to create a deeper connection with their fans and to provide value for them.

The questions a brand must ask itself are, “what are the cultural moments that are relevant to my brand and how do I prepare to be a part of them in a meaningful way?” Whether it’s spur of the moment, real-time marketing (puts a dollar in the “Buzzword Jar”) or planned participation, brands that connect on a cultural level are most successful in staying relevant.

Authenticity

You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole. A lot of brands these days are trying to adapt who they are to fit with cultural trends. But turning a brand with heritage into a modern brand—while staying true to your roots—is no easy feat. Sarah Hofstetter, President of 360i, recently wrote an Ad Age column on this very topic.

I loved the way Paula Kerger, President and CEO of PBS, articulated this point by reminding marketers that when creating new media plans, it is still important to remember your DNA and what made you excel as a brand in the first place.

Brands should focus on their core values and roots and make an effort to humanize themselves in order to create authentic experiences and dialogue with their communities. Be consistent across mediums (I hope you all get to meet Shaq someday – the guy is just as funny and inspirational in real life as he is on Twitter) and keep it simple. Or, as Chris Torres, creator of Nyan Cat succinctly stated it, “Don’t try to force it, just do what you do.”

By the way, if you are interested in learning more about how brands can achieve authenticity, read our previous post on the topic.

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So, what were my favorite moments at SXSW this year? Hands down, the authentic ones—like Shaquille O’Neal making a phone call to a fellow attendee’s wife (who happened to be a huge fan)—and Susan O’Connor making a lap of the room to shake every hand before her presentation. They were also the cultural moments, like PBS showing a Mr. Rogers remix and a Downton Abbey Harlem Shake video during its presentation.

As a side note, I also learned that you can embed animated GIFs into PowerPoint presentations. This is going to change everything.

Cover photo via Katie Wall