South by Southwest is an expansive event. For a few dewy spring weeks since 1987, the festival that celebrates film, music and technology takes over Austin, TX.
Finding its rhythm catering to thousands of hungry creative minds, SXSW blends content-heavy speaker sessions with live art performances covering the latest tech and trends. This year, one theme emerged from the diversity of content: authenticity.
Did you just roll your eyes? I get it. ‘Authenticity’ is speedily approaching ‘synergy’ on the buzzword scale of meaninglessness.
But that’s kind of a shame, because I’d like to pivot into a deep dive of value-added ideation, leveraging forward-thinking narrative for a high-impact deliverable.
Still here? Let’s talk about what authenticity can actually look like for modern digital communication.
Straight out of the small-talk-for-beginners handbook, this question might be the most uttered phrase of SXSW. People flock to Austin from across the globe, so discussing hometowns tends to ground conversations about what we do with the concreteness of where we do it. When we talk about where we’re from, we’re telling the story of how the what is informed by the where.
By returning to the subject of place, conversations onstage and off add a pop of color with tales of small-town upbringings or buzzing urban comings-of-age. Speakers share how their city shapes their business, or vice versa.
The golden child of this place-based authenticity thread was watchmaking wunderkind Shinola, which has built a brand on re-invigorating American manufacturing from the once-great city of Detroit. Shinola’s rustbelt setting proves fertile ground for a redemption story—one that is authentically their own, and that they share with consumers who want to be a part of the comeback.
What can social media marketers take away from Shinola’s success? Humanizing works, as long as the stories being told are true and matter to the audience. Leverage social media to amplify stories that show the human side of your brand. Most importantly, don’t try to be something you’re not. Just because a technique works for other brands or industries doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for your story. Consumers can sniff out a fraud from a mile away.
Despite wishing he had a cooler wrestling name, entertainer John Cena wouldn’t change his moniker. “Sterling Awesomeness” might be more interesting, but it wouldn’t be him. As inspiring as he is imposing, Cena used his featured speaker session to remind an audience of workaholic technocrats that joy and love should not be neglected in the toolbox for success.
Asked how he has the energy for everything he does (wrestling, acting, charity work including granting over 500 wishes through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and acting as spokesman for brands like Crocs and Wonderful Pistachios), he returns to the nourishing properties of emotional fulfillment. He wouldn’t do it, he says, if it wasn’t something he tremendously, authentically loved.
While Cena’s fights take place in the ring, social marketers face a completely different battle online, to consistently share content that resonates. Let’s not market ourselves as a “Sterling” when we’re a John. Shinola and Cena alike remind us to keep the message positive and on brand, and to always follow the love.
The brands that resonate tell stories that ring true to their audiences. To truly “be yourself” as a brand online requires not only a deep market understanding but also the courage to potentially neglect a target that isn’t the right fit. The ads for Duluth Trading Company’s “ballroom jeans” come to mind.
Showing a large man squatting comfortably in their carpenter denim next to some tongue-in-cheek phrase, the ad is funny, down-to-earth, and a little rough around the edges. I scoff every time I see it.
But that’s okay! A millennial urban female, I am clearly not the target for that ad. By communicating their brand message authentically, Duluth sacrifices universal appeal to score a direct hit with their base.
From keynotes to concerts, pitches to pork ribs, there is a lot to take in at South by Southwest, and the theme of authenticity permeated throughout. An otherwise nebulous concept, authenticity in context offers a solid blueprint for digital pros.
What does building authenticity on a brand-level look like? It starts with a foundation of deep market understanding, then grows into a relentless campaign to communicate honestly and passionately, connecting the people and places that have built the brand with those it serves.
But if that’s too wordy for a post-it note on your laptop, just do you boo!