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In-Depth: The big takeaways from SXSW Interactive 2018

SXSW 2018

While there were keynote talks about everything from quantum computing to expeditions to Mars at SXSW Interactive this year, underpinning the festival more than ever was a more down to earth (forgive the pun) reflection on society.

This is an event that used to be about future technologies at its core; anchored in the evolution of this thing called the internet. Today, however, it’s increasingly focused on much wider cultural movements because of the way in which connectivity infiltrates every part of our lives. The two are no longer distinguishable.

Politics, entertainment and human rights are all just as much a part of the conversation in Austin these days as those big tech or forward-looking viewpoints, as a result. And thus, this year’s trends are equally a mirror of that fact – a blend of what really matters to humanity first and foremost, underpinned by the technology that is both shaping and supporting it.

Being human

While artificial intelligence permeated the entire festival – noteworthy not as a trend but as an overarching umbrella to which all arrows are pointing for the future of computing – nearly every conversation kept coming back to one thing: being human.

With discussions exploring the role of automation, multiple case studies for machine learning, not to mention examples of how fast and how deep such systems are being trained, the focus, time and again, returned to the very idea of our humanity and our culture.

Even Bruce Stering, author and longstanding commentator, closed out the five-day event by turning the view on robotics into a conversation around art and culture: “We’re spending too much time making robots useful and commercially viable. We’re not thinking enough about what this exquisite control of motion ought to mean aesthetically. It’s like we’re spending too much time at the gym doing squats and not enough dancing. So I think the tech world needs to find more confidence in their artistic impulses.”

José Neves of Farfetch and Liz Bacelar of TheCurrent on stage at SXSW 2018
José Neves of Farfetch and Liz Bacelar of TheCurrent on stage at SXSW 2018

But the festival at large wasn’t just about creative license or inputting empathy in the robots or artificial intelligence we’re building (as was so focused on in 2017), but actually about reminding us of who we are as a society full stop.

Evidence lay in the very fact so many of the big keynotes on stage weren’t from the world of technology at all. Esther Perel, a renowned relationship therapist, stole the limelight on day one for instance, when she discussed the role of belonging and loneliness in the context of modern community. “We used to have belonging but little freedom. Now we have so much freedom but little sense of belonging,” she said, highlighting the very idea of what we’re craving.

Our constant battle, Bozoma Saint John, the gregarious chief brand officer from Uber, agreed, is around balancing our sense of connectivity with actual human connections. “We can use our tech to better our society and our everyday lives, but we also need to connect to people… How do we make sure in a world where things are moving so fast, that we can keep up, yet still be in touch with our humanity?” she asked.

What’s interesting to see is how this focus is starting to impact the experiences we’re creating. Even in retail today, the idea of connected or interactive stores, like Amazon Go, are becoming less about the technology itself, and more about the tech moving out of the way, or being increasingly invisible, so as to allow us to get back to the human side of what we’re doing. It’s about optimizing experiences for the human involved –in Amazon’s case, by making it about convenience.

But the same goes at the luxury end of things. As José Neves, CEO of Farfetch, said in a fireside conversation with TheCurrent’s Liz Bacelar: “If anything, companies need to think [about] how can we develop technologies that enhance the human? The store of the future for us is about how can we make the storytelling about everything humans can do – the computers can check stock, the computer can do payment; let’s get the robotic stuff out of the way, and let the human concentrate on the interaction.”

Women and diversity

That notion of humanity, society and culture spilled over unsurprisingly into widespread discussions around equality and diversity. The idea of women having a seat at the table is not a new topic for SXSW. Women in tech has long been a subject at this festival, but it had new resonance, greater weight and a bigger focus on action off the back of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, both of which were represented on stage this year.

In her keynote, Melinda Gates, co-chair of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “Companies all of a sudden have to listen to what their employees want. I see the #MeToo movement finally causing a reckoning.”

Melinda Gates on stage at SXSW 2018
Melinda Gates on stage at SXSW 2018

“We’re in a really serious and complicated moment, where we have to take the power to change the industries and communities and environments we’re in for the better,” said Saint John of Uber, referring both to being a woman on a leadership team as much as to being one of color. She called for both women and men to now be standing up for this.

“We’re seeing it right now, we are demanding change. But this is not the issue of people of color to make the noise. Everyone else needs to make the noise. I want white men to look around in their offices and say let’s change this,” she added.

Whitney Wolfe-Herd, founder of dating app, Bumble, which in its conception is about giving women a greater element of control, likewise pushed the idea of men being part of the solution. “A lot of them have been the problem, but now it’s time to be part of the solution. That stands for something.”

Bumble, she said, has always been about doing things in a female-forward way, from the nature of the app itself, to the structure of the team internally. “We encourage more and more seats, we built bigger tables,” she said.

And Saint John then brought it back to our humanity once more: “We need to use this moment in time to remember what our humanity is. It will help in all the things we are talking about – in diversity, in women empowerment and in moving forward.”

Seeking trust

Tied up in the equality and diversity conversation, is a greater underlying societal reflection of uncertainty. Trust is at an all-time low hot off the heels of the fake news agenda that dominated headlines last year, not to mention a much broader perspective on weakened political and institutional beliefs, and growing concerns for the role of privacy and ownership over our own data.

In fact, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which was referenced multiple times during SXSW, has shown a straight-line decline for 25 years, with trust in government, the media, and banks at an all-time low. Rohit Bhargava of the Non-Obvious Company, referred to us as being “in the midst of a believability crisis”. With consumers as natural sceptics, the role for brands then is around seeking how to develop or engender a sense of trust in new ways.

This is something Adidas particularly referenced. Eric Liedtke, head of global brands at the company, said: “People don’t just buy what you make, they buy what you stand for.” Referring to a youth generation that has grown up in a world that is highly stressed, he added that people are “looking for trusted brands they can rely on” and that “authenticity is going to be core for this”.

Adidas announced that it’s aiming for all of its products to be made from recycled plastics by 2024, as part of its partnership with Parley for the Oceans, and it called on the rest of the industry to start thinking about the same. The worst problem we have right now is inaction, Liedtke added. “Everyone has to opt in, put their hand in the pile and play.”

Adidas x Parley for the Oceans SXSW 2018
Adidas x Parley for the Oceans

That view on sustainability and on climate change, reverberated throughout the week, including in a session hosted by TheCurrent around bioengineering for the fashion industry. All of it tied nicely to the fact Edelman’s 2018 survey also shows there has been a renewed confidence in experts and academics, and a fast recovering belief in CEOs, rewarded for speaking out on specific issues.

With that idea of authenticity, then, came a focus at the festival on how technology can help take this to the next level. Blockchain was the big tech buzzword of the week, once again, with endless sessions dedicated to deciphering and applying it to the future of business and consumerism today.

Explained in basic terms as a digital ledger that acts as a verified and immutable source of truth, it was referenced with regards to everything from healthcare to global supply chain management. “Whether it’s diamonds being pulled out of the ground or fish from the ocean, or a shoe being manufactured and transported, the blockchain means you are able to track that and have high confidence that it’s coming from the place it’s meant to,” said Brian Behlendorf, executive director of Hyperledger.

Graham Wetzbarger, chief authenticator of resale service, The RealReal, similarly said there is a major opportunity to use blockchain to connect consumers to authentication. “Imagine adding a digital ledger for every product, not only for when they’re first bought, but when they’re reselling. How interesting would it be if a product were always telling data? Always adding every place it’s been?” Through provenance then, we can bring about trust.

Joseph Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum, also noted blockchain’s relevancy to the privacy element of the trust debate. “On the web right now, I would argue that identity is broken,” he said. “We spray aspects of our identity around the web, it’s stored on corporate servers and is monetized by corporations, and often aspects of your identity aren’t well secured by those organizations.” His belief is that blockchain can solve this.

Of course, this tech isn’t a solution for everything, but in helping to bring back a sense of trust in our everyday systems, it’s evidently part of that broader conversation on humanity and society that SXSW has become so much about. The future, once more then, comes back to us being humans, albeit with tech playing an ever-increasing role in enhancing us in the process.

*Want to know which specific technologies and startups we deemed most relevant from the festival? Our team of startup scouts combed through the innovations demonstrated, examining and analyzing those of chief importance to retailers and brands today. Get in touch to find out more.

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Editor's pick Podcast technology

L’Oréal on creating personalized touchpoints through beauty tech

L'Oréal's Guive Balooch and Rachel Arthur
L’Oréal’s Guive Balooch and Rachel Arthur

L’Oréal is on a mission to marry technology and beauty in order to enhance their customer’s lives, says Guive Balooch, global vice president of L’Oréal’s Tech Incubator on the latest episode of TheCurrent Innovators podcast, hosted at SXSW 2018.

At the core of that purpose is the team Balooch runs, which works as an R&D lab for beauty tech. “When we started about five years ago, our goal was to make sure we could find the link between personalization and technology and find a way to get consumers the right product for them,” he explains.

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Since its inception, the team has developed products such as a connected hairbrush, a UV sensor worn on the nail, the first example of an augmented reality make-up app, and most recently, an on-demand system called Custom D.O.S.E. for SkinCeuticals, which dispenses serum personalized to the customer’s skin needs in under a few minutes.

Technologies such as AI and machine learning have conditioned consumers to become more demanding than ever in finding products and experiences that are relevant to them on a granular level, Balooch explains. But if you look at the beauty market today, off the shelf products simply cannot respond to the plethora of demands that individuals have, he suggests, especially when looking at skintones. This is where a product like Lancôme’s Le Teint Particulier comes in, in which consumers have a consultation that includes a skintone scan before generating a tailor made foundation for them.

L'Oréal's My UV Patch
L’Oréal’s My UV Patch

That’s something consumers have been demanding for some time, but the tech and science until recently has just not been possible, Balooch explains. Today we’re at a real inflection point however, meaning customization is only going to get better.

As is the case with all of L’Oréal’s beauty tech launches, the goal is to enable brands under the group’s umbrella to target consumers at a one-to-one level, removing any frustrations that arise during the shopping experience, while allowing beauty associates to focus on the human side of the interaction. For Balooch, this innovation mindset will push new or long-established beauty products to start adapting to change, thus becoming smarter over time. This means evolving the experience they offer the customer by leveraging more individual data, encouraging co-creation, and even coaching consumers themselves to become smarter about how to use their products.

“In 10 years time there’s no question to me that every person will have the ability to have the perfect product for them. I think that there will be much more co-creation – that we’re moving towards an era where the people are becoming the companies,” he notes.

Beyond developing a made-for-me final product, attributes of efficacy and seamlessness are always top of mind when launching new connected technologies, from the production process to the design of the hardware and software itself, Balooch says. When partaking in the D.O.S.E experience with SkinCeuticals, for instance, consumers are able to watch as the machine prepares their personalized serum from beginning to end. This not only helps create an emotional experience for the recipient, but does a good job at communicating the process in a transparent way.

For L’Oréal, that marriage between design and technology is key for customer-facing experiences. “Design is not just a secondary piece of what we do today with technology. [It] can actually fuel the tech itself,” says Balooch, who believes for an integrated experience, technology needs to be both beautiful and warm. The future, he believes, is a balance between such creative and engineering teams.

Catch up with all of our episodes of TheCurrent Innovators here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by TheCurrent, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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Editor's pick product sustainability technology

SXSW 2018: Adidas declares 2024 moonshot to only use recycled plastics

Adidas x Parley for the Oceans - SXSW
Adidas x Parley for the Oceans

Adidas is aiming for all of its products to be made from recycled plastics by 2024, according to Eric Liedtke, head of global brands at the company.

The initiative is a follow on to the brand’s partnership with Parley for the Oceans, which has already resulted in one million pairs of shoes sold created from recycled plastics recovered from the oceans. In 2018, it is expected to hit five million.

Each pair of shoes uses the equivalent of 11 plastic bottles, meaning Adidas is recycling some 55 million plastic bottles this year, Liedtke explained on stage at SXSW this week.

To put the trajectory ahead into context however, the company makes 450 million pairs of shoes every year right now, meaning that goal really is a moonshot. “You think five million is a lot but it’s not, it’s a drop in the bucket,” he said.

In the context of the 270 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean right now, not to mention the further eight million tonnes being added every year, he explained how important it is to get to this point. “The growth of plastic just doesn’t stop. It was a great invention, but it was made to never go away, so all that has been made is still floating around the world today. It becomes a real call to arms to fixing that.”

And the fact is that plastics are not only insidious, but everywhere. Most of the shirts Adidas produces are made from polyester, which is another name for petroleum based plastics. It’s also in the micro pellets in our shower gel, and of course in the plastic bags we receive. Adidas has already eliminated use of both of those latter two.

Liedtke says the next step is to “turn off the virgin plastic tap”. The aim is to get to the point where no new plastic is made at all, because the resource is already there – all that’s needed is for the existing plastics in the system to be used again and again. From cradle to grave to cradle, he explained. “We need to redesign the problem.”

Importantly, however, is the fact doing all of this also makes good business sense, Liedtke added. “I want to prove to the world that it is good for the bottom line. This is not philanthropy. It’s good business. This is what is critical.”

He added that the consumer is expecting and demanding it more than ever as well, especially when you look at the younger generation. “Gen Z wants to give back. They’ve grown up in a world that is highly stressed… they’re looking for trusted brands they can rely on – there’s a huge opportunity for us to step in. Authenticity is going to be core for this,” he said. “People don’t just buy what you make, they buy what you stand for.”

Adidas’ mission with Parley is to enter into full-time collecting and recycling ocean plastics to enable a fully sustainable supply chain, not just for its own brand but anyone interested. The worst problem the industry has right now is inaction, he added. “Everyone has to opt in, put their hand in the pile and play.”

Update: The original version of this story reported live from SXSW quoted Eric Liedtke stating that Adidas was aiming for all of its products to be made from recycled plastics recovered from the ocean by 2024. It is in fact to use 100% recycled polyester in every product and on every application where a solution exists by that year. This ambition is not tied specifically to ocean plastic.

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business Editor's pick sustainability technology

SXSW 2018: The RealReal on how technology will help stay one step ahead of counterfeiting

The RealReal
The RealReal

Future technologies will not only help curb the counterfeit market, but act as vehicles for brand storytelling, said Graham Wetzbarger, chief authenticator of second-hand e-tailer The RealReal at SXSW.

The advent of technologies that combat fakes may have hit strides over the past few years, but the problem is far from being tamed, he said. Even though the USA counterfeit industry experienced an 8% uptick in seizures at border control from 2016 to 2017, it is becoming increasingly difficult to target illegal goods from navigating from country to country. At present, only 10% of counterfeit goods are seized, and the industry retains $1.7 trillion in value globally, said Avery Dennison’s director of digital solutions Julie Vargas in the same session.

The challenge is outsmarting counterfeiters, who are operating in a much more granular manner, Wetzbarger noted. While in the past goods would arrive in large quantities via shipping containers, they are now coming in via airmail through local courier services. Illegal goods are also produced and retailed through a variety of channels, from very real looking, but fake e-commerce websites, to the dark web and last mile counterfeiting.

For young and label-hungry consumers in cities such as Seoul and Moscow, buying fakes is the most viable option when import taxes are too high, or there is little to no access to on-trend labels such as Off-White and Vetements, said Wetzbarger.

Tapping into the digitally-savvy behaviour of these shoppers, counterfeiters are becoming influencers in their own right and gaining a loyal following on social media. Hypebeast online publication Highsnobiety now runs Counterfeit Culture, an online video series that explores the culture globally – an indication that beyond supporting an illegal trade, fake goods are now becoming a social currency among a niche group of consumers.

Beyond traditional tools of authentication – such as inspecting the material and construction of goods – Wetzbarger also stressed the importance of introducing tags to not only tell the product’s story, but also act as an extension of the brand. In this matter, new technologies such as blockchain are starting to emerge to enable brands to have more control of tracking and developing content for individual goods.

“There’s a secret sauce to always staying one step ahead of counterfeiters. When talking about the secondary economy it’s not a perfect science, but technology can help with that,” said Vargas of Avery Dennison.

The deployment of blockchain will also go hand-in-hand with a consumer need to be constantly connected and informed about the provenance of their purchases. Wetzbarger suggested that handbags, which are the largest product category on The RealReal platform, could tell the story of previous owners if they chose to participate, for example. He also talks of a future in which a Clueless-type of digital closet, where connected labels can track what garments the consumer has, how often they are used, and what items are missing in their style repertoire.

As recently seen by Stella McCartney’s announcement of collaborating with The RealReal to authenticate and officially sell her label’s merchandise, there is a strong element of sustainability attached to buying from the circular economy. For consumers, it means having another home for an item that may no longer be to their taste, but still holds quality and meaning. For labels, it is continuing the lifecycle of a brand and strengthening its value, said Wetzbarger. “Brands are getting behind this because they want their products to hold equity.”

Adding a digital ledger on the blockchain to every product could have a myriad of benefits not only to first-time buyers, but to re-sellers, therefore. “How interesting would it be if a product was always telling data?” concluded Wetzbarger.

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Campaigns Editor's pick social media

SXSW 2018: How Kate Spade balances strategy and creative in its storytelling

Kate Spade sxsw
Kate Spade

Strategy and creative shouldn’t be opposing forces, said the marketing team from Kate Spade at SXSW this week, highlighting how they balance both for every initiative they put out.

Mary Beech, executive VP and CMO, Kristen Naiman, SVP of brand creative, and Krista Neuhaus, senior director of digital brand marketing, spoke about how every digital initiative the brand embarks on involves understanding the symbiotic relationship between strategy, the story they want to tell, and the channel they want to tell it on.

The team finds balance between being strategic about what platform to invest their time and budget on, and what they should jump in early and learn along the way. They gave numerous examples of the way in which they have done this.

When Facebook Live came out, for instance, they developed a fully-fledged campaign shot professionally and hosted by a celebrity influencer, which quickly became resource-intensive and logistically tough, and made the brand realise that bigger is not always better. Eventually, the content was scaled back to feature in-the-moment footage often shot by the brand’s team.

Kate Spade on Instagram Stories
Kate Spade on Instagram Stories

Kate Spade had only recently decided Snapchat wasn’t the best platform for the brand when Instagram Stories came out, and rather than applying the same behind-the-scenes content plan to the feature, it began by engaging with fans via a series of quotes and questions to the audience – thus allowing them to plan content ahead and understand what stuck.

A new fragrance launch was the perfect opportunity for the brand to engage and potentially acquire a younger audience, the team said. YouTube was an easy choice for the campaign as the beauty category performs particularly well among the Gen Z audience in that space. Rather than pushing pre-roll ads based on basic demographics such as gender and age, Kate Spade uncovered queries that were high volume for their target demographic on YouTube – such as what love is, and how to become successful – and put paid media against it.

The result was a series of discovery-based ads featuring notable women aged 51, 31 and 21 (such as actress Laura Dern, as seen above) talking about a selection of topics in a very personal and honest tone of voice. In doing so, the brand targeted a woman who was looking for guidance or often solace, and aimed to provide a more meaningful brand interaction, even if short.

Working with influencers and quirky brand ambassadors is at the heart of Kate Spade’s engagement strategy otherwise, as with its #MissAdventure series. Its influencer strategy is split two-fold, said CMO Beech: long-time fans who speak to a very engaged audience and whose style and aesthetic is ‘on-brand’; and influencers who at first might seem like an odd choice for the brand, but help them acquire a new customer base. Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine is an example of the latter.

Kate Spade is a brand deeply rooted in America, so it has to fundamentally streamline its strategy for its global audience, Beech said. She highlighted the need to understand what is fundamentally only relevant in their home country, and what is universal. As a result, communications are ‘cleaner’ and simplified internationally, focused on non-verbal elements that are easier to digest in any territory or language. Its comedy series was deemed too regional, for instance, while elements such as color, the idea of joy, and even animals and a lot of product visuals are brought to the forefront worldwide.

The brand’s main intention, the team concluded, is to take an intent-rich customer and serve them a more narrative-driven and dynamic service over time.

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Editor's pick Events technology

Sitting at the edge of culture: How SXSW has moved from tech to brand playground

Viceland's baby goats at SXSW
Viceland’s baby goats at SXSW

How do we know when we have hit peak SXSW? Was it the year grumpy cat stole all the headlines? Was it the hotel-sized vending machine from Doritos? Was it when homeless people were rather uncouthly set up as wifi transmitters?

Or will we look back and think about when baby goats grabbed our attention in 2018? With a solid dose of irony, Viceland went above and beyond to get people to pay its parking lot spot a visit this year, with a pit full of real-life “kids” available for petting. How else are you going to spend your time in between hopping from keynote sessions to tacos and barbecue. after all?

Jokes aside, that move represents quite a significant shift that’s happened over the past five-plus years at the Austin-based festival. At one point the Interactive portion of the show, which precedes Music and runs alongside Film, was really about new tech launches – the place to discover the latest startups, and the big event for the likes of Twitter, Foursquare and beyond to get off the ground.

Where once it was really a haven for geeks, and a playground for all things B2B, slowly but steadily it has shifted to become more and more about marketing, and then carried through to be a representation really of broader culture and society.

Let’s not forget how much more pervasive the internet has become in our lives during that time. SXSW Interactive is really about everything cultural because tech infiltrates that in every single way today. In doing so, the festival has therefore simultaneously ended up being phenomenally consumer-facing.

2018 is the perfect culmination of that evolution. On the one hand, the big speakers on stage this year are discussing everything from female empowerment, diversity and transparency, while out and about around the city there’s a mass takeover by fashion brands, not to mention the most impressive activation from entertainment entity Westworld, that has ever been seen at SXSW.

TheCurrent's founder, Liz Bacelar, "wanted" at the Westworld SXSW experience
TheCurrent’s founder, Liz Bacelar, “wanted” at the Westworld SXSW experience

The audience mark-up of the event is inevitably behind this shift as well, with that focus on culture driving it. No longer is it just comprised of developers or startup entrepreneurs, but rather a perfect slice of the typical “millennial” target consumer. Is it fully representative of America? Perhaps not. But there is certainly diversity on the ground in many more ways than you would have imagined from a tech conference, and than you would have seen 5-10 years ago.

The big consumer-facing activations used to arrive only for music. Doing them during Interactive isn’t entirely new – Nike, Levi’s, Game of Thrones, even Warby Parker have had a presence in previous years – but 2018 stands out for its pervasiveness.

In terms of hype, the big activation is Westworld, as mentioned. Today, there are people lining up for hours to get a secret shuttle out to Live Without Limits, where HBO has built a replica of the fictional town of Sweetwater to kick off marketing activity around the show’s second season.

Under Armour's Hovr activation at SXSW (Image via AdWeek)
Under Armour’s Hovr activation at SXSW (Image via AdWeek)

Back in downtown, meanwhile, technology isn’t entirely missing from the experiences put together, but a lot of it is on consumer tech for today, rather than tomorrow. Highlights include the Google Assistant house touting the future of voice tech on the one hand, and Under Armour’s push for its latest cushioning technology, Hovr, on the other. The latter was teased as a zero gravity experience, but turned out to be a group of trampolines to take photos on, proving the value of Instagram-worthiness remains (with long lines out the door to back it).

The move to represent the technical ability in product, has also been the case for L’Oréal this week with the launch of its Custom D.O.S.E. skincare line – a technological service that can scan and evaluate an individual consumer’s skin and create tailor made serums as a result.

And tech is a consideration for Outdoor Voices too, with the launch of an augmented reality campaign that encourages SXSW attendees and locals to get outdoors into a park to get access to exclusive product. In addition, Bose has also been thinking about AR, but this time demonstrating a pair of smart glasses that use audio rather than visuals as the overlaid digital information. The result is that you can hear what you see – when you look at a building for instance, it tells you what it is in your ear.

Our friend @jennifer outside the Hermèsmatic store in Austin for SXSW
Our friend @jennifer outside the Hermèsmatic store in Austin for SXSW

Some of the other experiences meanwhile are more traditional in their programming. A line-up of talks, a store and a DJ for happy hour does the job for fashion brand Express, for instance, while the Create & Cultivate pop-up, which is focused on “women to watch” and backed by watch brand Fossil, is not dissimilar.

Laying on top of all that is also some truly lo-fi consumer focus. Wrangler has teamed up with Modcloth to offer denim customization in the latter’s store, for instance. Meanwhile, Hermès is probably the most surprising attendee. The luxury brand has brought Hermèsmatic – a laundromat-inspired customization and repair service – to this year’s festival to offer fans the chance to update their vintage scarves via washing and dip-dying services.

SXSW may not be the place to discover the latest big tech before anyone else anymore, but it is certainly somewhere to come for a jump into how modern culture is evolving at the hands of our connected era, and inspiration around the kind of brand activations targeting tuned-in millennials accordingly.

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business Editor's pick

SXSW 2018: Why collaboration is part of the DNA of cult brands

Michael Lastoria (&pizza) and Christina Tosi (Milk)
Michael Lastoria (&pizza) and Christina Tosi (Milk)

Cross-brand collaboration can be the oxygen of running a brand in 2018’s turbulent retail environment, said Madewell’s Libby Waddle at SXSW this weekend.

The brand’s president joined a group of pioneering US companies, including &pizza’s Michael Lastoria, Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi and Soulcycle’s Melanie Whelan, to talk about the importance of teaming up with like-minded individuals as the key to running a successful cult label.

What all four companies have in common is a fiercely loyal customer following, which has enabled them to create lifestyle ecosystems that expand beyond their initial product and service offering. Collaborations have been key for customer acquisition by introducing the brands to an entirely new audience, the speakers discussed.

Programs such as Madewell’s Hometown Heroes and &pizza’s Little Giants, not only spotlight local labels, but create a deeper bond with communities who want to engage with brands that micro-target their interactions and enable a sense of belonging, they noted. This strategy has also been an essential element to avoid fatigue from the consumer’s standpoint, and allow the companies to stay on top of their game.

Madewell's Hometown Heroes
Madewell’s Hometown Heroes

For Tosi of Milk Bar, partnerships have allowed the brand to have more ownership in spaces consumers wouldn’t normally associate Milk with. Once they gained the consumer’s trust, it was easier to begin introducing new products that at first seemed left-field, she said, such as a protein-based cookie in collaboration with SoulCycle (while the bakery is famous for indulgent and sugar-filled treats).

Beyond the product itself, the overarching theme was how collaborations have kept consumers constantly coming back for more. In a landscape where there is on-demand access to goods at the touch of a finger, introducing new moments to ‘surprise & delight’ consumers is key, said Soulcycle’s Whelan, who introduced co-branded Jonathan Adler candles to the studio’s changing rooms very early on.

The conversation also focused on how collaborations are key to nurturing the wellbeing of employees internally, which is something Lastoria is a fierce advocate of. The &pizza founder says it is often the company’s ‘friends & family’ who introduce them to new products, and it is vital to their culture that he understands he is there to serve his employers first, and the customer second.

As for the secret sauce for running a cult brand, Lastoria said it is about being human and ensuring your business is wildly personal, which is often something CEOs forget about.

Soulcycle’s Whelan added that when you ensure you are the best part of someone’s day, cult-like interactions happen naturally: “When you can make it about someone else and brighten their day in some way, that’s when the tribal nature starts to take hold.”

Meanwhile, Tosi’s approach balances business acumen with a hint of rebellion, which has enabled her to create a booming baking empire: “Once you learn to paint by numbers, you have to figure out a way to colour outside the lines.”

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Campaigns mobile technology

Outdoor Voices pushes exclusive product via augmented reality experience at SXSW

Outdoor Voices
Outdoor Voices

A pair of virtual yoga pants hovering in the middle of a park isn’t exactly how you’d expect the future of shopping to look, but it’s certainly a unique way to push exclusive product.

Outdoor Voices, the Austin-based activewear brand, has launched an augmented reality app experience at SXSW to do just that.

Encouraging attendees at the festival, as well as local residents, to get outdoors to a local park, the initiative surfaces particular product for users based on their location. Not dissimilar to the game Pokémon Go, it means you have to be in a particular physical space in order for that virtual item to appear through the AR.

Once you then find the items, you can explore them in 360-degrees, find out more information as well as click to purchase.

The AR experience from Outdoor Voices at SXSW
The AR experience from Outdoor Voices at SXSW

“[The app] allows some individuals to really experience it and kind of see the future of retail and of our brand’s commitment to being outside and getting people away from their computer. It’s a really unique combo of how we build technology in ways that still support our brand mission and also serve all of the people that for the most part purchase online these days,” Tricia Katz, senior software engineer at Outdoor Voices, told AdWeek.

The experience is only active for two days during the festival this weekend, but future iterations of the app will reportedly see new opportunities tailored to the weather and to location.

The entire campaign is very close to one launched by Peak Performance in 2015, which saw virtual pop-up shops appearing in rural locations at sunrise and sunset. This more advanced augmented reality version from Outdoor Voices provides insight into the way digital content overlaid on the real world is moving.

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TheCurrent’s essential guide to SXSW Interactive 2018

TheCurrent at SXSW

For both first timers and longstanding attendees, SXSW Interactive is one of the most exhilarating, educational, insightful and inspiring events at the intersection of tech, culture and design. That said, it’s also one of the most overwhelming and exhausting, with hundreds of panel sessions, keynote talks, meet- ups, happy hours, parties and more to make your way to.

Not sure what to do when The Terminator is on stage, but there are tacos calling your name? Never fear, TheCurrent’s Essential Guide to SXSW Interactive 2018 sums up the best of everything you need to attend, and provides a handy guide for the week ahead in the process.

From the best sessions to head down to (ranging from artificial intelligence to blockchain, experiential marketing and beyond), to the FOMO-inducing activations that should be top of your list, we have it all covered.

We’re also on site ourselves, with two speaking slots on the main stage:

The first will see our founder Liz Bacelar hosting a big interview with none other than Farfetch CEO José Neves, discussing how disruptive innovation and technology is redefining the industry and the future of luxury retail.

The second will focus on biotech’s impact on the future of fashion with our chief intelligence officer Rachel Arthur in conversation with Bolt Threads, Modern Meadow and the H&M Foundation.

And join us at our meetup specific to fashion, luxury and retail, for an opportunity to meet the team, explore what’s pushing the industry forward & chat about the untraditional partnerships at the forefront of innovation.

Download our SXSW guide for more info, and do drop us a note if you’ll be in town. We look forward to seeing you!