SXSW 2014: 3 top takeaways for brands

It’s been a week since I got back from SXSW. To a certain extent it feels like I am back from the future, although there is a lot of truth in what William Gibson said about the future: it is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Looking back to last year, one of the biggest trends was 3D printing, something that has been used commercially for decades. This year, the killer trends were robots, wearable tech, data, privacy and the internet of things. While none of these are really new (CES 2014 was better known as “the connected everything show”), the difference is that by being fully immersed in the future for five days, you get a glimpse at how it might actually look.

For the first time, I realised just how different our lives are going to be.

Babies being born today will grow up with knowledge of their genetic make up through services like 23andme.com. They will also have access to detailed data about their body and overall states of health through ever improving wearable tech which will eventually be implanted within the body.

This data will mean that more than ever, diseases will be preventable and health tracking could become a bigger business than pharma – I for one would much rather be spending money to prevent illness than cure it.

We also caught a glimpse of a future where robots evolve to take over our jobs. Professors from MIT imagine a world where robots will become as common place as smartphones and cars. It’s a sentiment backed up by Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk who predicted that “In the next 30 years there will be more smart machines (robots) than humans on the planet.”

And when it comes to technology, the adults of tomorrow will all be able to code, (I wish I could code but somehow my brain says ‘do not compute’), 3D print most things as well as design and manufacture their own products at home. Easel (http://www.easel.com/) for me was one of the stand-out launches at SXSW this year, enabling would-be designers to create, from scratch, a flat design, to be cut out to their own specification using Shapeoko, a CNC milling machine costing a mere $649.

But what does all this (near)-future gazing mean for marketers today? I believe that brands have a real opportunity to help shape this future –through product development but also by gaining a deeper understanding of the thematic trends involved to better connect with people. Here are my key take outs for brands:

1. Understand and embrace the new value exchange

The value exchange between brands and their audience has historically been advertising for content. In this future this value exchange is likely to shift to one of data for valuable experiences.

While I do think there is some truth in the fact that privacy no longer truly exists, there is data that should be owned by you, the consumer. How willing you are to give it up depends on how much the bespoke service or product on offer enhances your experience. People’s willing adoption of Google+ in return for a better search experience is a good example of this.

For brands, this means taking responsibility for how they use the data they are collecting and always thinking about the value exchange they can provide. To truly enter the space, brands will need to actively review what they can be developing in terms of wearable tech or partnering with existing providers to collect data that offers customers a better experience.

2. The best way to understand the future is to get involved with it now

You can only learn how to swim by getting into the water. Similarly, brands need to understand what is coming and help shape it themselves by actually testing new technologies.

It was refreshing to see Oreo using 3D printing to deliver personalized cookies based on what was trending at SXSW. While by no means a perfect user experience, ‘Trending Vending’ marked a brave learning curve for a future-facing brand (who wouldn’t look forward to a future where you can print your own personalized cookie at home!).

Subway experimented with electroencephalography (EEG) reading headsets (inviting people to compete to win sandwiches using their brainwaves) while Game of Thrones used Oculus Rift to recreate the dizzying winch elevator ride up to the top of the wall at Castle Black. All brave leaps into creating memorable and engaging experiences through immersive technology.

Jeremy Bassett, strategy and new ventures director of Unilever, comments that “Partnering tech start-ups will be how we will pioneer the future of marketing” and this is going to be an interesting development for marketers. Looking forwards, brands will need to include a R&D budget within their overall budget (I usually advocate 5%) where the KPIs are simply learning and getting better as a result.

3. Agility is going to be key

As we know well, it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

Coming away from SXSW I can’t help but feel that this has never been truer and with the rate of change accelerating, it may be the beginning of the end for some companies. However for those that are agile enough it represents an amazing opportunity to adapt and thrive.