A Marketing and Branding perspective on SXSWi 2016

The city of Austin is taking a deep breath this week after the final SXSW attendees travel home.  From a marketer’s point of view, Interactive was a kaleidoscope of branding and marketing efforts this year. I witnessed a pink Lyft van that would randomly stop to set up a karaoke booth while a troop of brand ambassadors piled out of the van to pass out pink wigs with a free ride card. The USA network built a replica Coney Island Ferris Wheel to promote Mr. Robot. Every building I walked past in downtown was sponsored by a different company and renamed for the duration of SXSW. Pedicabs, buses, cars and pedestrians were all branded while trying to stand out in a sea of other brands.

Companies like SOOH stood out in the trade show, held in the convention center. A lot of other companies’ branding fell short with the offer of a free pen or beverage koozie.

2016 SXSWi Tech Trends

Each year of SXSWi, there is a defining trend or new technology that is the talk of the festival. 2015 marked the year of the wearables, where as this year was known as the year of VR. There were complete session tracks dedicated to discussing the current and future markets of VR as well as buildings dedicated to showcasing Virtual Reality. Mashable christened The Main as “Mashable House” and showcased current tech on the market such as the Sony Playstation VR and the Samsung Gear VR.

The Eureka team came across an off the beaten path showcase at Easy Tiger sponsored by the New York Times. We were given complimentary NYT Google Cardboards and a live history on how the New York Times publication is a pioneer in Virtual Reality news and film. Time will tell if the hype and the trend of VR will continue.  I guess we will have to wait and see what the “next big thing” will be next year.


Behind the Scenes: NYT VR – Panelists: Jake Silverstein, Sam Dolnick, Sebastian Tomich, Jenna Pirog

The sessions and speakers scheduled this year were also impressive, and so were some of the lines. Being a marketer, I choose to attend sessions within the branding and marketing track.  However, this track and the themes this year were evident across most sessions at SXSWi.  Just as VR was a high-ticket tech topic, company branding and how to humanize software products were two themes that stood out in the majority of sessions I attended.

Can Algorithms be brands?

An interesting question was posed during the first session I attended, and this question reverberated throughout SXSW for me – How do you make a brand out of a piece of software that, in truth, is just an algorithm? Martin Harrison, Head of Strategy at Huge Inc., discussed the difficulty in branding and marketing an algorithm as a product.

The main objective is building trust with the brand; making sure the product gives a benefit and then tying it to the logo (the mark of quality for the brand). A great example of a company and brand that is built on an algorithm is Spotify. Martin Harrison also expressed that in the modern world, “we (as a collective) are comfortable with being watched, if we receive benefit or a perceived benefit.” This is why companies such as Spotify or nest, that have built their businesses on collecting data on users to provide a service, are successful…the brands have consumer trust.

The key takeaways were:

  1. Humanize the product (whether it be a piece of software, hardware that runs software or an app)
    • The algorithm can’t be human.  The product MUST humanize itself through the brand.
    • Design with empathy.
    • Design human
  2. Making “code” isn’t enough – combine elements and provide a service
    • A great deal of products on the market are defined as (fill in the blank) as a service.  So create a reliable, trustworthy, and high quality service.
  3. Digital category management – “Get your brand on a shelf”
    • Don’t let retailers define your category or marketing
    • If need be, define your own category by creating a strong brand.

Building Influential Tech Brands

This session was directly in line with the service offering at which Eureka Software excels.  We don’t just start building someone’s product from their good idea.  Our team researches the market and designs/builds a product that is specifically right for the given market.  Robin Thurston, Chief Digital Officer at Under Armour and David Lee, CCO at Squarespace, led the discussion on why good products fail. “The best product dies from lack of brand awareness, not the product… and your best marketing channel is your customers.” This is why it is business critical to work with a software design and development team that will investigate the market and speak with your customers / potential customers on what makes the most sense for your business.

My final takeaway from this session was that “product designers and marketers are not always seen as equal business builders… companies die from lack of product design and branding.”

Again, this session tied back to the importance of building not only the best product you can, but build it a) for your customers and the market and b) create a brand that consumers can interact with and trust.

Overall, I thought SXSW this year was fantastic and we’re all looking forward to what 2017 SXSWi has in store!

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