SXSW Retrospective: Wonder


On May 3rd our Sydney office hosted a SXSW Retrospective event at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Over 60 marketers joined us for a thought-provoking discussion around our key take-outs from this year’s conference. Our lecture, titled Wonder & Delight, reflected on the big themes and critical implications from the world’s biggest festival of ideas.

This article covers off part one of the talk: Wonder. Here, we captured the big ideas that are shaping the cultural zeitgeist and challenging our sense of humanity.

Check back in soon for part two, Delight, where we talk about the cutting-edge innovations that are redefining what creativity and technology can do.


Year of the Woman

Unofficially, the theme of SXSW in 2018 was women — and how women are negotiating new relationships with power. Indeed, it was a breakthrough year for women at the festival, with equal representation of keynote speakers, Esther Perel winning Best Speaker, and a major presence in the Film and Music streams.

In her keynote The Company We Keep, Melinda Gates took aim at American workplace cultures, which have failed to evolve at the same rate as the workforce itself. Women and people of colour are still being deprived of senior opportunities as a result of the old boys club mentality; powerful white men who may be well-intentioned, but still gravitate towards old white ideas.

She calls for a radical redesign of the 21st century workplace and offered two ways to get there. First, begin disproportionately investing in women and people of colour. The Gates Foundation enforces ambitious quotas to overcorrect historical exclusion. Second, to force the conversation of equality into absolutely everything. This relieves women from their role as “buzz kills” and helps men fearful of “saying the wrong thing” to speak up.


Closer, conscious communities

Andrew Keller, Global Creative Officer at Facebook Shop, spoke persuasively about the evolving relationship between technology and community. Facebook has reengineered its mission statement from ‘connecting the world’ to ‘bringing the world closer together’. This shift has focused the company around meaningful relationships achieved through community.

Brands can play a critical role in fostering community. People use brands as a proxy for bonding with others — whether that’s over a moment of inspiration, a great human feat, or something hilarious. The best brand-led communities create something that their audience can share.

In the case of Bud Light, it was a stupid catchphrase — ‘Dilly Dilly’. It made huge waves in earned media and took on a life of its own. In the case of Teen Vogue, they established common humanity with their audience by embracing the diversity within their readership. They assumed their readers were intelligent, sophisticated girls (and boys) and created a ‘brave space’ for them.


Rethinking authenticity

That consumers crave more ‘authentic’ brands has felt like a corporate truism for some time. In the past decade, marketers have experimented with brand purpose as a way to demonstrate that authenticity. The jury is still out as to whether purpose is the panacea it was touted to be; many brands’ attempts to carve out their own has been rejected for feeling ‘fake’ or somehow insufficient.

Yet there are some brands who are still knocking purpose out of the park. We learnt a valuable lesson at SXSW this year: purpose can have a role, but it doesn’t have to be noble.

Lynx’s purpose is to help teenagers get laid; at first glance an odd purpose that doesn’t feel as ‘important’ as it should. But it's brought to life brilliantly, demonstrating that brand purpose needs to be relevant and meaningful but doesn’t need to be virtuous. Johnnie Walker’s purpose of moving forward together is loftier. But while their campaigns go after something bigger - race in America - the significance of doing so is offset by an unexpectedly playful tone.

MailChimp provided a final case study in authenticity. Tom Klein, the CMO of MailChimp, spoke about how brand personality should be pushed harder to better connect with customers. Their ambitious MailShrimp campaign put the brand’s weirdness front and centre. Klein gave the brand permission to throw off its corporate shackles and embrace imperfection — with refreshing consequences.


The best defence is a good offence

In a media environment where social media is hyper-reactive and weaponised, how can brands best prepare themselves for attacks on their reputation? Nancy Elder, Head of Communications at Mattel, and Linda Boff, CMO at General Electric, offered up three tactics.

The first tactic concerns corporate communications. Traditionally the worlds of corporate PR and branding have sat in separate silos — but this misses an opportunity to earn advocacy for the brand in corporate settings. Netflix’s inspired response to a legal infraction is a best-in-class example of how the two worlds can overlap.

The second concerns brand architecture. Elder spoke to the history of Barbie and G.I. Joe, two brands that have weathered their fair share of criticism over the decades. For the first time, Mattel is moving to a branded house model, requiring investment in Mattel the parent brand. This gives them the platform to speak more powerfully, with one unified voice.

The third is to serve super content to your super fans. Boff explained how a tiny sliver of people are hardcore General Electric devotees; they love big machinery, energy and technology. Boff invests in pleasing those fans as a way to engender love for the brand and ultimately create a smart layer of defence. GE Reports is the result of that investment, a content hub written by energy and tech journalists for ‘the super geeks’.

Part two of our SXSW Retrospective: Delight is now available here.

If you missed out on this special event and would like to schedule a presentation in your office, please contact us at

By Alistair Stephenson, Strategist at Re|Sydney