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Three Takeaways from SXSW 2019 (Elizabeth Michael Commentary)

7 min read

Leaving South by Southwest is always bittersweet. On one hand, I am always exhausted and ready to get back to Arkansas. On the other hand, I never want to leave the magic convergence of industry thought-leaders, practitioners, brand activations, bleeding-edge technology, music and film. Where else can you leave a Snap Inc. party to attend a star-studded movie premiere after-party after having your mind blown by speakers you admire all day?

I went to 22 different sessions in a full week at SXSW, some better than others. The major trends this year can be summed up in one word: authenticity. Each session addressed authenticity in unique ways. Three main themes emerged: empathy, influencers and social justice on social media.

Empathy
Empathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experiences fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” 

Simply put, empathy is a brand’s golden ticket to an emotional connection, leading to higher recall with its ads. Brands express empathy in many ways. It could be through 1:1 communication on messaging apps, or the use of artificial intelligence to analyze and personalize content. The most striking ways marketers infuse empathy into strategies are through psychology and storytelling.

Psychology and advertising have long been married in an inextricable way. As people become numb to the constant barrage of ads in their everyday life, advertisers use unique and compelling ways to not only have ads accepted, but to make them memorable. As humans wise up to age-old advertising tactics, brands can tell emotionally complex stories with ads that have a high value exchange with the viewer. 

According to MasterCard’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Raja Rajamannar, people receive around 5,000 messages a day. With such narrow attention (humans reportedly have a lower attention span than a goldfish – eight seconds), brands need to take it beyond storytelling to story making. Ads with empathy conveyed through human-centered stories receive more engagement and grow brand loyalty. 

In the session “A Psychologist and an Ad Guy Walk into a Campaign,” psychologist Dr. Mel Weinberg and ad man Dan Monheit used behavioral economics to explain the magic behind some of the greatest ad campaigns of all time. The speakers outlined seven cognitive biases that affect critical thinking and decision making. 

One of the seven, “availability bias,” is the human tendency to think that examples of things that come readily to mind are more representative than is actually the case. To illustrate, the speakers showed the P&G #BecauseOfMom campaign, bringing the majority of the audience to tears.

The genius of the video is that it creates a much longer emotional journey that intensifies the memory it creates. It associates the brand with the strong emotional connection with your mother, adolescence and sense of achievement. The viewer experiences a range of emotions, amplified by a dramatic pause, followed by a visual and audio soar. Not only are we telling the story of the Olympic athletes and their mothers, but we are creating an empathetic and emotional response in the viewer. 

Influencers 
Major changes are taking place in influencer marketing. Influencer marketing is a form of marketing where brands hire individuals who have influence over its target customer on social media. 

Influencer marketing can be very effective because audiences have a high level of trust for the influencers. It is essentially word-of-mouth marketing. Brands are willing to pay big bucks for the exposure, with influencers like Kylie Jenner charging $1 million per post. The FTC has been cracking down on brands and influencers who do not disclose their business relationships, calling for more transparency.

Social media in general is having a public relations crisis. User confidence and trust is low on the heels of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, data breaches and other allegations of misuse of users’ data and privacy concerns. Yet every day, 4 million hours of video is uploaded to YouTube, 67 million posts are made on Instagram, and 650 million tweets are sent. That’s a lot of content. 

Influencers are becoming less and less trusted by their followers. Brands are left struggling to stand out and understand what rises to the top as good content. In his session “AI and Social Media: How to Take Control,” The Social Chain Group’s 25-year-old CEO Steven Bartlett discussed the role artificial intelligence plays in informing marketing decisions. His company developed technology that scans influencers’ profiles to determine if their followers and engagement are fake. 

You’ve probably heard of people buying or renting likes. You can also buy engagement. Influencers have taken to these bad practices to inflate vanity metrics like total followers and engagement so that brands pay them more money. Bartlett’s AI determined that 25 percent of influencers are fake and that if you hire an influencer that takes part in fake practices, 95 percent of your budget with them is wasted. 

Does that mean that influencer marketing is dead? Not at all. Brands can turn to micro-influencers and celebrities for their campaigns. When choosing the right influencer, be sure to ask questions about the demographics of their audience like location, age and interests. You can also ask for past reports from similar campaigns and to talk to past clients about their results. Another tip is to align with influencers who share similar or complementary values as your brand. 

And, speaking of …  

Social Justice on Social Media

Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue, a staggering increase of 13 points from last year. — 2018 Edelman Earned Brand Study

Brands are taking social justice stands and are not afraid to alienate entire groups of people. On Labor Day 2018, Nike famously aligned itself with Colin Kaepernick for the 30th anniversary of the iconic #JustDoIt campaign. Kaepernick tweeted a photo of himself with the caption: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt” 


With those 72 characters, Nike jumped into the social justice arena, polarizing customers. Nike made a bet that more of its $200-sneaker consumers would align with Kaepernick’s values. The bet paid off. In its fiscal 2019 financial results, Nike reported second quarter (ending Nov. 30, 2018) revenues for the Nike brand were $8.9 billion, up 14 percent. 

What we can learn from Nike is that regardless of your beliefs, it pays to take a stand. Pick an influencer that amplifies your brand’s values, vet them for fraudulent activity and positive character, and create a campaign that tells a great story.  

Women are reckoning with the world, and brands are jumping on the bandwagon. And it’s no wonder why. Women make up 86 percent of global consumer decisions, yet men make 92 percent of all advertisements. Women are being told what to buy by men, and brands are beginning to take notice and shift practices. 

In their “Girl Culture” panel, Margaret Johnson (AdAge’s Executive of the Year and CCO of Goodby Silverstein & Partners), Ukonwa Ojo (former CMO Covergirl), Nonny de la Peña (filmmaker and “Godmother of Virtual Reality”) and Lauren Greenfield (founder of Girl Culture Films) discussed the evolving female voice in culture and how advertisers are forging parity through equal representation.

A great example of the female voice’s evolution can be seen when comparing Victoria’s Secret and Aerie’s campaign strategies. 

Victoria’s Secret depicts perfect, skinny models. It turns out that Victoria’s Secrets’ depiction of women makes the majority of women feel bad about themselves. Conversely, Aerie celebrates women’s bodies by modeling product on real customers’ real bodies. And it has a company policy against retouching, so ads depict cellulite and all. The ads resulted in a large and supportive community of customers. Aerie has aligned itself with a social and cultural movement that drives positive change, brand awareness and revenue. 

In her session, “Irrational Loyalty. Branding to Win in a ‘Brand’ New World,” Deb Gabor examines why authentic brands with strong brands withstand crises with customers and why others are doomed to fail. Gabor explained that a brand is like a yin and yang. You control one part and the public controls an equal and opposite part. Together the two parts encompass your whole brand. 


Your relationship with customers can make and break your brand, especially during time of crisis. Brands are taking shots at aligning themselves with different social movements, and sometimes they are tone deaf. Jack in the Box’s “Jack’s Bowls” campaign aimed to highlight the brand’s bold decision to sell a product other than hamburgers; but critics pointed out the ads celebrated “bro culture” and overt sexual harassment in corporate America.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Jack in the Box made a critical error. In its efforts to control its brand message by advertising to its core demographic — younger men — it created an ad campaign that didn’t consider public reception. 

How will you take these thought-starters back to your business? Are you ready for your business to take a social justice stand? Are you going to rethink your influencer strategy? Maybe you will prioritize empathy and 1:1 communication with your audience. By the end of this article, you should have ideas swimming in your head. 

Many sessions at SXSW were recorded or made the presentation slides available. You can access more information at Schedule.SXSW.com.


Elizabeth Michael is principal at Bud Agency, a communications agency for the emerging cannabis industry in Arkansas. She’s on Twitter at @LizzyMichael.
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