SXSW has shifted quite remarkably in the past 10 years – from a launchpad for new technologies, to a reflection of much broader connected culture. During the Interactive portion of the festival, there remains an underpinning of innovation, but so too is there everything from politics to gender on the agenda.
The audience accordingly has widened from those looking for the latest tech trends or emerging startups, to those aiming to understand how societal shifts and digital consumer behaviors are impacting their businesses.
For 2019, that looks set to continue. For those headed down to Austin from the brand world therefore – from marketers to retail executives – it pays to be one step ahead in what to expect. Here are 10 themes to look out for during this year’s festival and the main events to head to in order to see them…
There’s always a theme around entrepreneurship that pops up during SXSW, but this year’s line up looks particularly engaging. Top of the bill is Howard Schultz, former Starbucks Chairman and CEO, who will be talking about growing a global brand with an eye on humanity as well as profits. Meanwhile, Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger are taking to the stage for the first time since leaving their company, to talk about their entrepreneurial journey. Other highlights come from Esther Perel, who is applying her relationship therapy to workplace dynamics, and Brene Brown, who will explore showing up and speaking out.
Wellness as a theme has been increasingly emerging at SXSW over the past few years, as digital health has evolved beyond fitness trackers, for instance, into mental health and mindfulness. That plays out in a few different ways this year, from the expo dedicated to wellness as a theme, to the house Lululemon has with programming focused on yoga and meditation, and a keynote from Gwyneth Paltrow talking all things Goop. Over at the Current Global’s Innovation Mansion, highlights lie in a keynote from meditation app Calm’s co-founder and co-CEO, Michael Acton Smith, alongside a guided meditation experience from the app in our pool house, and a game show dedicated to the wellness revolution.
Sustainability follows neatly after wellness as we think about not just ourselves but our planet. On that note, there’s a lot for the fashion industry to stew over this SXSW, including a session featuring the H&M Group and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition; another from Finery founders Brooklyn Decker and Whitney Casey, and one from SAP on a more sustainable supply chain. There’s also Rent the Runway talking about the sharing economy, Walmart looking at sustainable beauty, and a keynote at our Innovation Mansion with the head of global product innovation at Levi’s.
When it comes to retail, experience remains the buzzword du jour, and there’s a lot to learn at SXSW related to such a theme. From the large-scale activations taking place across the city, to those discussing how to do such things well. Giant Spoon is the agency behind last year’s winning Westworld experience at SXSW, and they’ll be on stage discussing how they do it. Also worth seeing is a session dedicated to how to ensure engagement, delight and success through experiential retail above and beyond the overdone ball-pit and photo-worthy backdrops. We’ll also be heading to Calvin Klein’s talk on how to humanize your brand experience in the robot era.
International Women’s Day
Gender and equality isn’t a new topic to SXSW, but International Women’s Day takes place on the first day of the festival, which provides an appropriate opportunity for a celebration of women this year. Cue lots of events and talks dedicated to the subject, including a full set of programming from Bumble, a panel featuring the women building brands we’ve always wanted, such as Rachel Blumenthal’s Rockets of Awesome, and a session on the rise of feminists with fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff. Also look out for actress Zoe Saldana’s keynote on changing the narrative for millennial and Gen Z audiences.
What’s interesting about this year’s SXSW schedule is seeing talks by the likes of Magic Leap distinctly pointing their focus towards the retail audience. They’ll be talking about AR in the digital shopping experience, while Walmart, Amazon and Kohl’s are (separately) discussing the future of shopping via computer vision, machine learning and AI. Also not to miss is a session featuring the Current Global’s CTO, Scott Emmons, formerly head of the Neiman Marcus Innovation Lab, diving into how retailers can leverage emerging technologies to thrive in a rapidly changing landscape.
If we’re talking culture today, there’s no escaping all things streetwear in terms of mass consumer spread. SXSW is reflecting that fact with various sessions dedicated to the topic. StockX’s Josh Luber has a keynote session talking about his online marketplace designed to work like the stock market. Meanwhile, I’ll be hosting a panel on stage with Levi’s, NTWORK and Johannes Leonardo – the agency that has worked with the likes of Alexander Wang and Adidas Originals – to discuss how streetwear turns hype into big revenue. That story will continue over at our Innovation Mansion with a business of streetwear-themed gameshow. One additional talk to try and get to is with Nike’s Tinker Hatfield, who’s known as a legend among sneakerheads.
With a new track dedicated to blockchain at SXSW this year, it’s almost cheating to add it as a key theme, but there’s no escaping the growing presence it’s had at the festival over the past few years. The most interesting sessions for 2019 include a keynote from Joseph Lubin, co-founder of the Ethereum blockchain and CEO of ConsenSys, the Winklevoss twins talking about the cryptocurrency revolution, and a session on radical transparency in the food supply chain. ConsenSys also has a house during the festival where blockchain trends happening across entertainment, fashion, media and more, will be discussed.
If blockchain is a key topic, then setting the stage for that, has to be trust. The past couple of years at SXSW have been heavily navigated towards fake news, but after a year of big data protection busts, 2019 orientates itself towards tech ethics and privacy above all else. There’s a not-to-miss session from the founder of Foursquare on location privacy, a couple of deep dives on user privacy in a post Cambridge Analytica and GDPR world, and a look at trust in the era of data.
Looking to the future
Rounding out our themes is the required nod to the future that SXSW has always brought. Malcolm Gladwell is in town to discuss self-driving cars, Publicis is going to explore invention in the age of creativity and the Current Global’s CEO, Liz Bacelar, will dive into the future of beauty with L’Oréal. We’re also looking forward to the Serpentine Galleries’ Hans Ulrich Obrist exploring the possibilities that AI presents for the creation of new art forms, and for those still in town by Wednesday, Bruce Sterling’s always enlightening annual closing remarks.
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