Brand Positioning

5 Takeaways from SXSW Interactive 2018

Written By: Michelle Ovalle

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Brand Positioning


April 20, 2018

5 Takeaways from SXSW Interactive 2018

As a former Austinite, South by Southwest has always held a special place in my heart. During the annual festival, a vibrant mix of cultures, fashions, sights and sounds fill the city, creating a palpable energy that invigorates your senses. And as an attendee, you’re constantly and increasingly excited for the next session, the next event, and the new ideas you can’t wait to put to good use.

Although the music portion used to be my main jam, this year I delved deep into the interactive side of the conference. The long lines, tight crowds and that continuous feeling of FOMO I just couldn’t ditch were totally worth the lessons and insights I gained along the way.

1. Tech doesn’t replace us, but it does change our roles.

Since the beginning of time, humans “have been obsessed with trying to overcome their limitations,” said Jenna Niven, creative director at R/GA New York, in a session about AI and creativity. From the steam engine to the internet, human invention and technology have helped humanity achieve more — and now it’s AI that’s taking us to new and exciting (or terrifying, depending on who you ask) frontiers.

Humans continuously evolve and reach new great heights. Image credits: far left and middle: Library of Congress; far right: Getty Images

With new tools and systems in place, creatives will have capacity for higher levels of design thinking. We’ll continue to create, but we’ll become more empowered to question and understand what it is we’re making, why we’re making certain decisions, and most importantly, how those decisions impact the quality of the final product and its audience. In other words, we’ll approach creativity with a more empathetic and inclusive lens.

And as we practice empathy in our work, Hayley Hughes, design language lead at IBM, encourages us to “have empathy with our teams and with each other, and then we can have empathy for the people we are designing for.” As we build an internal, empathetic practice for our peers, that attitude will naturally extend outward into our work.

2. It takes diversity to thrive.

The borders that used to separate people, cultures and ideas are fading in a really beautiful way (thank you, internet and social media!). That means an even wider audience has the opportunity to interact with the things we create. And just like empathy will improve what we create, so will diversity in the workplace.

It is our minds and experiences that feed into what we create — so a diverse team will naturally create a product that’s more relevant for more people. Who doesn’t want that?

Jane Makich, program lead at Google, spoke about diversity and how to organize teams for success at the Scaling Design Systems: Pixels to People panel. She explained that, to create products that resonate across different audiences, “the only real tool I think we have is to hire people with diverse perspectives.”

3. It’s not philanthropy; it’s just good business.

Millennials are surpassing the boomers in purchasing power and shop very differently than previous generations. We’re belief-driven, we value transparency and authenticity, and we respect brands with principles. Like Adidas CMO Eric Liedtke said, “Millennials don’t buy what you make, they buy what you stand for.” We’re pretty great, right?

In their Creating a Purpose-Driven Brand by Design session, AJ Hassan of R/GA and Todd Kaplan of PepsiCo walked through different ways brands can do — and be — good. The key practices they consistently see baked into the DNA of purpose-driven brands are:

1. They look to impact society.

2. They live by their core beliefs.

3. They build relevance by creating meaningful connections with their audiences.

In the case study for LIFEWTR, a new premium bottled water, Hassan and Kaplan explained how they built a brand from scratch following the purpose-driven process outlined above. Their story proves purpose can be built into any product in a meaningful and relevant way (even bottled water). You just have to find the sweet spot — where what your brand stands for and what your audience cares about overlap.

LIFEWTR is a purpose driven brand that exists to “advance and showcase the sources of creation and creativity” by using their packaging as a canvas to feature artists.

4. You’ve got to build excitement.

Creativity and storytelling are vital to every project, and as creatives, it’s our responsibility to share our ideas in compelling ways that people can’t help but rally behind. Without excitement and support, we may lose the opportunity to make something great together.

In his amazing 24 Principles of Design session, Bruce Mau discussed his no. 1 principle, Design is leadership. Lead by Design. He reminded us that our job “is not to do the work in hopes that [we] might inspire. It’s to inspire in order to do the work.” Seems like sound advice coming from a man who was able to change the meaning behind a country’s name and has been selected to redesign Mecca!

Creating brands, campaigns, websites, advertisements and everything in between is a collaborative effort. Let’s not get so busy with everyday business and deadlines that we forget the value of feeling excited — not only for what we create together, but for the meaningful impact we can have on others.

5. People want to be engaged.

People enjoy experiences more when they’re involved, and they’re more likely to remember the brands and campaigns that invite them into a new world. This was evident everywhere at SXSW. I repeat, everywhere, from the VR and AR experiences brought to you by brands like Bose and Sony to HBO’s Westworld theme park reproduction.

And although the use of technology is a huge advantage, it isn’t the only option. Mercedes-Benz proved that with their simple cube installation. Between sessions, attendees walked into a giant cube and selected a colored string to indicate their car purchasing preference. Participants then strung the yarn across the walls, looping the strands through hooks representing responses to questions being asked. The brilliance behind it — which I only realized after I had participated — was that Mercedes-Benz had just tricked me into taking a survey! A survey I guarantee I (and many others) wouldn’t have answered if it showed up in my mail. Mercedes-Benz gathered valuable data, and I took some Insta-worthy photos while imagining a life in which my car drives me to work while I nap. Win-win.


The Mercedes EQ cube invites curious passers-by to step in and voice their opinions on Electric Intelligence.

So what’s next?

Beyond the industry-related knowledge I expected to gain from attending SXSW, Ray Kurzweil’s session taught me something both unexpected and valuable, something I’ll keep in mind for the rest of 2018 and beyond: that although “people genuinely feel things are getting worse…every aspect of human well-being is getting dramatically better.” Understanding that the world is objectively becoming a better place (Kurzweil showed examples and data to support his claim) brings me some peace of mind.

And the thing is, when you’re at SXSW, you really sense the truth in that. It’s in the hundreds of thousands of people who have traveled from all around the world to be there, waiting to be inspired. It’s in the effortless, kind conversations that are sparked in those dreaded lines, making line-waiting — dare I say — pleasant. And it’s in the words of the speakers, who not only teach us where the world is headed, but also emphasize our responsibility to create work that is meaningful, functional and inclusive for all.