SXSW 2018: Follow Your North Star

Authenticity is a strange word to hear repeated in seminars about branding, marketing and advertising. But lo-and-behold, authenticity was a buzzword at SXSW 2018- it was inescapable!

The dictionary definition of ‘Authentic’ is ‘of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine’.

Somehow in the world of social media, where we’re constantly being shown picture perfect lives, and brands are telling us about how much our lives would improve with their product/service (therein, how much our lives currently suck) there seemed to be a huge disparity in the importance that was being placed on authenticity vs what I was seeing around me.

Take a glance through your social media feeds- I’m willing to bet that almost every single post you’ll see is a carefully curated snapshot into someone’s life.

Never would I ever share those ‘crappy life moments’ on Instagram or Facebook where their longevity is forever- I’d only ever share them on Snapchat or Instagram stories where they last 24hrs. I’d rather post a picture of the sunset in Oia on my Instagram than the fact that I was stuck on a train floor for 5 hours between Vienna and Budapest because we didn’t book a ticket (don’t worry- this wasn’t illegal- I had the Eurail pass).

It got me thinking- can brands really be authentic if as an individual, I’m not? Brands are brands; they’re big faceless corporations with their logos on our clothes or shoes or bathroom products.

I was fortunate enough to watch two panels that were genuinely inspiring at SXSW 2018. The first was ‘Better Together: Cult Brand Collaborations’ with Michael Lastoria (&pizza), Christina Tosi (Milk Bar), Libby Wadle (Madewell) and Melanie Wheelan (SoulCycle). The second was ‘The Secrets of Cult Brands’ with Spike Jones (Spredfast), Alissa Lieppman (NFL), Jeff Taylor (instagram) and Ali Weiss (Glossier).

Conveniently for me, these sessions were back to back and in the same room (which is a whole other SXSW hack conversation!). Each speaker in these sessions really resonated with me because they themselves were authentic, and, therefore, what they were preaching was authentic as well. While these sessions were completely different, there were a few similarities that I was able to extract from them.

1. Stay true to your North Star

Ali Weiss from Glossier must have repeated the phrase ‘North Star’ about 10 times or more in the hour-long session. It’s a phrase I’d heard, of course, but never one that I’d thought of in terms of marketing.

It’s also one that’s more powerful than two simple words because of the idea it evokes. We all have, whether we realise it or not, a few guiding principles that we run our lives by, and brands are no exception. It’s really easy to lose what your North Star is as a brand or business, so what Weiss says is simple: always remember your guiding principle, why you started and what you want to achieve. Remember those and you’ll be authentic.

2. Your audience wants your attention NOW

Gone are the days where people would call customer service or send an angry email.

Now, people have the power of social media, and boy do they make sure that their voices are heard! Glossier has even created a team to respond to questions on social media. But employing a team like that doesn’t always have to be a reactive move- I think it’s a proactive move as they’re meeting their audience where they are.

It’s just like the team at SoulCycle learning their regular riders’ names, or the sales staff in Madewell stores listening to their clients or the NFL teams responding to questions on social media. They’re meeting their audience where they’re demanding their attention.

By meeting your audience in this type of open playing field, you’re being authentic – you have to be. It’s an open forum where what you’re saying can be screenshot and shared faster than you can delete it! You have to preach what is truly authentic to your brand.

3. What you expect to happen doesn’t always happen

Alissa Lieppman told several stories where the posts that they thought would be the most popular weren’t. And posts from some of the smaller teams in the NFL far out-performed some of the larger teams.

One example that stood out that she mentioned was the fact that an NFL Super Bowl ad, featuring two players who weren’t even playing in the Super Bowl, got more hits than posts from the two teams that were playing in the Super Bowl!

4. Your audience can smell B.S. (no matter how you dress it up)

This is, above all, what came through from these panels. Your audience, especially your millennial and Gen Z audience, can smell fake from a mile away.

Yes, we embrace portraying a certain side of our lives to the world, but we can tell immediately when a brand is being inauthentic. Melanie Wheelan and Christina Tosi spoke about how when their brands collaborated (a spinning studio and a bakery- weird combo, I know) they had to find a middle ground that was true to both of their brands.

The brainchild: a protein cookie; something healthy but also sweet. And it worked because it was authentic on both sides- they weren’t trying to pretend to be anything they weren’t. They didn’t try and pull a Pepsi and align themselves with something that was completely inauthentic to their brand.

I was sitting in a session a few days later and one of the panelists (I’m not going to name names) kept mentioning ‘authenticity’ and then plugging his business.

I immediately smelt the B.S. and was unimpressed and zoned out from him in a second; and as an individual and in my career, I’m his target audience. So, there is definitely a fine line between being authentic and using the idea of being authentic to try and sell.

Nothing can happen overnight, and I’m by no means saying throw out your current content strategy. But what I am saying is that it’s okay to strip back the layers a bit and to stop trying to be anything other than what you started out trying to be.

Your audience are your biggest supporters. Don’t scare them off trying to impress them by being something you’re not.  Follow the light of your North Star and your correct audience will be there every step of the way.

Written by Aimee Bricker

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