Storytelling & Brands at SXSW

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I noticed one important change at SXSW this year. It wasn’t the rise of 3D printing or the increase in people talking about the “Internet of Things”. Nor was it the insane level of engagement from out-of-place brands like Oreo, Game of Thrones, Cap’n Crunch and others. What I noticed most was that noone, at least anywhere in earshot of me, said

“Now that the Internet has changed everything…”. 

That might seem an odd observation but it’s an important one. Is it a sign that people are now “officially” comfortable with the Internet? Or is it a sign that all the industries present have finally learned to accept the changes that are upon them? Or is it simply a sign of fatigue from hearing an overused phrase flung around as the starting point to a techno-bitch session (something I witnessed two years ago while watching a panel of nonplused publishers.)

It’s kinda all three isn’t it? Oreo’s significant presence at SXSW was a sign of how companies have embraced the Internet and now see it as a place to market to their netizen fan base. Publishers have stopped complaining and are now looking to new ways to generate revenue while reducing the cost of delivery. Meanwhile the overflow of brand icons such as the Cap’n (see above) and massive lines to photograph Grumpy Cat are symbols that we just may finally have our heads around this nutty thing called the Internet.

What we seem to have learned about the Internet is that stories are what drives customer engagement online.

Was that too much of a mental leap? No? Good. While we used to see storytelling as the job of entertainers and ancient family members we now see a significant rise in both the volume and quality of storytelling online. The photo above tells an odd story but it’s an honest one and one that can only exist in our world. It’s a story not for the hardcore fan of either Game of Thrones or Cap’n Crunch (are there any of those?). It’s a story for the average person who watches Game of Thrones, but doesn’t take it too seriously. It’s a joke that can only happen through brands and probably the impulses of a single man in a costume on a hot day who’s tired of walking in a foam suit. (funny how environment can justify co-branding.) In the end I hope that neither HBO or PepsiCo (who makes that corn-based fat-factory of a cereal) see as anything more than a short, sharable story of two brands overlapping for an instant. Because that overlap inspired me to write this non-sensical post and that increases brand awareness for you, the rare reader.

This and the other investments from various brands show us that storytelling, and the attempts to create sharable content through brand engagement is the direction that many marketing and PR agencies are helping move their clients. In the end, this will probably be a net benefit to everyone. More funny photos with innocuous co-brandings and the random capture/share increase social equity of the sharer and the total measurable brand engagement for the company. All this, hopefully then, equates to a percentile increase in word-of-mouth conversion.

Now for the negatives.

That poor guy who had to walk around all day dressed like Cap’n Crunch. What does that have to do with SXSW? How does the age old “guy in a suit” PR stunt connect to the shifting face of technology? Seriously. And Oreo? It’s a cookie. What is Oreo doing to transform how we connect online? This year’s SXSW was the most corporate branded I’ve seen, it was distracting and embarrassing to see more attention given to the characters of the Internet than to those trying to make new products. Because struggling to be heard over the whirling hum of the AC unit inside the Cap’n’s suit were hundreds of young entrepreneurs trying to get their app into the hands of customers. 

I guess those startups should have invested their marketing budget in telling a better story than launching a quality product. Now that the Internet has changed everything …