Country music is deeply connected to the city of Austin, Texas. And no genre of music does better short form storytelling than country. Love, heartbreak, loss narratives are at the center of every good country song. It’s more than fitting, that one of the major themes of SXSW 2023’s first day was storytelling. 

The conference itself started with a great story that could just have been a country song. Its narrator: Simran Jeet Singh, Executive Director for the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program and author of “The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life”. 

In his opening keynote, he retold a couple of deeply personal anecdotes from his childhood and youth as a “turban wearing boy” growing up in Texas. Facing racism and open violence, but also finding solidarity and community in dire times did not only shape his outlook on the world, but enabled him to better understand Sikh faith and philosophy. 

The gist of it: we all have the ability to make choices on how we see the world. How we react to things, how to look past the negativity and focus on the good, overcoming fear, unhappiness and frustration, to ultimately find the light and beauty around us. Or: how to find optimism in a way, that doesn’t brush off the difficulties. It was a powerful statement, very fitting in current times, where it can be easy to give in to the present darkness – this new normal we all just learn to navigate. 

Some Marketing BS

The next session I attended was titled “Priming, Rhyming, Timing + Other Marketing BS”. The BS doesn’t actually stand for what you think it does. In her energetic and well-researched presentation, HBT Marketing’s expert Nancy Harhut spoke about Behavioral Science and how it enables marketers to effectively improve their messaging by implementing findings from various research on the topic: 

  • Priming consumers can be used to drive preference and purchase and advertising should use words and images that activate the consumers’ memories
  • Rhyming phrases are perceived as more truthful, accurate, and credible and therefore easier for the human brain to process – rhymes and other cognitively fluent phrases in copywriting are more believable
  • Times of transition make people more open to new products and ideas; but distant payoffs must overcome present focus biases

Or to summarize: A good marketing story primes, rhymes and times. Please don’t hire me as a copywriter. 

The Evolution of Online Search

One of the completely packed afternoon sessions was dedicated to trends in online search and how especially Gen-Z is driving major change in the field. While Google has dominated the search market for over two decades, it no longer is the one-stop-shop for all things search. Not only is search becoming more fragmented with the establishment of specialized verticals, e.g. in commerce, but the way young audiences prefer to search on social platforms like TikTok or Instagram changes search on a fundamental level – by being visual. 

Community platforms like Reddit are perceived as much more authentic due to social validation of content in a sea of SEO optimized garbage and an abundance of advertising in search results. And in recent months artificial intelligence in the form of Chat GPT and similar technologies change not only the way we search, but also how we consume the results.  

For marketers the mission is pretty clear: to remain relevant in a search landscape shaped by community, visual content and AI, good storytelling is paramount. Quality content will win on social search, while at the same time, overly polished messaging won’t work on platforms like TikTok. Brands will have to step outside their comfort zone. The downside: paid search was highly attributable and provided a lot of insights. Social search doesn’t provide the neat and accurate measurement. Yet. 

Of Mice and Lightsabers: Creating Happiness with Disney

When talking about storytelling, you must not forget about one of the biggest storytellers of recent times: the great Walt Disney himself. My colleague Simone visited the second big session of the day by Josh D’Amaro, Chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences & Products, who talked about the magic of immersive storytelling experiences in their Disney Parks around the globe. For nearly 70 years, kids and grown-ups can disconnect from the outside noise and experience joy and happiness on the „happiest place on earth“. By combining the three core elements of storytelling, creativity and innovation, Disney Parks continues to reinvent the future to create happiness for even just a day. How do they achieve that, you may ask? They put you right into their beloved story worlds like Avatar or Star Wars, enable magical encounters with characters and using food, music and visual effects to create long-lasting, powerful memories.

You don’t have to be a Star Wars nerd to heavily appreciate the special appearance of the day: A „real life“ lightsaber (or at least as close as you can get to one), that had the whole audience in awe. A curtesy of their very own Disney Imagineers, who were also responsible for a live interaction with Tinkerbell and a guest appearance from Mister larger-than-life himself, the Incredible Hulk. Because happiness is not about amassing more stuff, but about sharing precious memories.

Crafting Human Stories

Not quite Walt Disney, but also a masterful storyteller: Mark Molloy, director of Apple’s highly successful short film series “The Underdogs”. In his session he spoke about writing relatable characters at the heart of every good story, how to utilize humor and entertainment to make boring briefings work and un-focusing the brand or product to create captivating ads, while never giving the audience 100% of what they might expect or want by breaking traditional storytelling formulas and easy schemes. 

Random observations from day 1:

  • The lines are back, baby. After 2022 and the chillest SXSW I have ever experienced, it’s time to make friends in long queues again. I’m just focusing on the positive here, thanks Simran. 
  • I might need to upgrade my home theatre audio setup after visiting the Dolby brand house and experiencing some Dolby Atmos demos. Or at least buy another pair of very expensive headphones. Advertising, why does it work?
  • All the NFT bros seem to have pivoted to generative AI projects, at least according to the many colourful stickers and flyers taped to random objects around the conference center. Keep hustlin’, y’all.