3 rabbit holes to avoid at SXSW

Originally published in Campaign Live.

Kristen Colonna, Chief Strategy Officer at OMD North America, talks us through the pits of despair festival go-ers can easily fall down.

Growing up, my father would occasionally recount the phrase, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there,” a catchy bit from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

I could not have foreseen how often this phrase would pop into my head across my five days in Austin, though perhaps I should have. Being at SXSW is a lot like diving down Alice’s rabbit hole. This year, I had chosen to take a red pill and a blue, and cover the experiential storytelling, and brands and marketing tracks. I was excited to explore the next frontier of storytelling and debate the merits of marketing fundamentals versus new age thinking.

What I found myself reflecting at the end of those five days was not necessarily new enlightenment, but instead a familiar question that begins every brief, every challenge, every marketing conversation: what is the problem we are trying to solve?

Exposed to a myriad of solutions, tactics and shiny objects in marketing today, if we don’t know the problem we are solving, any of them seem viable, and valid, solutions; certainly, at SXSW. In Austin, and in everyday marketing, we must reframe these opportunities in service of a problem to solve, before we slide head first down the holes — and can’t climb out.

Hole #1: Everything is dead

What’s dead, you say? All of it. Brand building. Advertising. Authenticity. Storytelling. It’s all dead. And we’re next. I heard this everywhere, and yet nothing could be less true. What is true is that there are more opportunities to reach and resonate with consumers than ever before, and as a result, context is more critical than ever. Only against the context of the problem we are trying to solve, can we map solutions and vet their ability to accomplish our objectives. Contrary to the hype, nothing is dead, and everything is in play. We just need to know what game we are playing.

Hole #2: The technology tail is wagging the dog

In “Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World,” Nick Westergaard reminded us to double down on content that is “brand centric and customer aware,” and to solve business needs and consumer needs before creating more stuff! Sounds good, but we couldn’t be further from that truth as an industry.

Wowed by the potential of AI-driven, MR-driven and everything in between, we are witnessing a bit of the tail wagging the dog. Content is being created in service of what technology enables, instead of in service of what connections are required to achieve more valued and valuable relationships with brands. Those more valued and valuable relationships can only happen when we empathize.

With technology leading the discussion, we are ignoring empathy for the barriers and drivers of the consumer, for their unmet needs and desires, and therefore ignoring the true and meaningful application of these new and immersive stories.

Hole #3: Measuring ourselves out of existence

“Awareness is not an Objective,” exalted Kai D. Wright at his SXSW discussion, “Following the Feeling: Creating Brand Value.” The power of his proclamation is all too often over-looked in marketing and advertising.

Awareness is almost always a vague and lazy objective, that obscures the real (harder) problem to identify and solve. It leads us to hyper focus on media metrics and diagnostic KPIs (easier) without having identified the real behavioral or attitudinal change we are trying to affect, over both the short and the long term.

We dive deep into the rabbit hole of campaign performance and optimizations, skipping over insights and the humanity critical to successful marketing. Now make no mistake, linking marketing to business performance, and measuring and attributing it to real business outcomes, is paramount.

But diving into the measurement rabbit hole without meaningful objectives and a clear picture of true success is dangerous for two reasons: it prevents us from creating the kind of content and communications required to forge a meaningful and motivational connection to the consumer, getting them to feel and do, something and; it forces a focus on micro-metrics and short-term performance, without an eye to long term brand value.

Awareness is not (almost always) an objective.

Looking into — but not falling into — these rabbit holes offers a re-grounding in the timeless marketing basics, and gives much needed perspective to all the bright shiny objects at SXSW and in the marketing conversation today.


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