A little festival
If you have a pulse, you’ve probably heard of a festival (see: conference of colossal size) in Austin, Texas called South By Southwest, and if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve probably seen a hashtag or an ad or some other media referring to something called SXSW.
SouthBy (as the privy affectionately call it) started in the 80s with a few hundred attendees and has grown in nuclear proportions to be a festival that registers over 50,000 of people and shuts a few miles of downtown Austin down for two weeks.
In particular, SXSW Interactive (SXSWi) boasts high attendance and typically accounts for almost 75% of the festival’s attendees.
This year everyone was diggin’ on the acronym chili
AR, VR, AI, and so forth filled the halls of the conference center plus a few of the hosting hotels. There was also an impressive number of breakout sessions regarding the marijuana industry – but I digress.
But what about next year?
We got some exclusive insight from Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing in Austin and Author of Branding is Sex.
In her own words below, Gabor describes what 2018 will most likely have in store:
Brands, brands, brands:
SXSWi 2017 was a showcase for brand activation, but not the technology and digital media brands you might expect at a conference traditionally attended by trendsetters and tastemakers.
This year’s conference featured 360-degree, immersive, interactive brand experiences targeted at everyday consumers, highlighting upcoming TV shows, movies, retailers, apps, gadgets, and consumer products.
The 2017 fest featured everything from a visually accurate, full-sized Los Pollos Hermanos fast food pop-up focused on creating excitement for the comeback of Gus Fring (the character played Giancarlo Esposito on AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) to its “Better Call Saul” prequel, to a provocative and highly immersive Gatorade sports performance experience, to Casper Mattress’ brilliant partnership with the OneNight app providing 45 minute nap respites to tired attendees at the ultra-hip and retro Austin Motel.
Each year, the activations become more pervasive and increasingly clever.
These savvy brands don’t benefit from their in-person activations alone; they grow legs with great media exposure, social sharing, and word of mouth.
I think we’ll continue to see SXSW as a platform for brand launches and unexpected activations.
However, based upon unofficial reports, the total number of events for which attendees could RSVP dropped by almost 100 from 2016 to 2017. It’s possible we’ll continue to see a decline in the number of events, with a corollary increase in more curated guest lists, as the quality of those events and activations increase in quality and excitement.
While brand activation was a big story for me this past year, I was surprised by the absence or dialing-back of some SXSW’s mainstay brands like Spotify and Samsung – brands that seem like a perfect fit for SXSW’s vibe.
SXSW has become a global stage for translating online and media brands into offline experiences.
However, many brands are finding it expensive and inefficient to garner awareness and bond with audiences offline.
At an event that hosts an estimated 70,000+ attendees, exhibitors, performers, and guests, it’s become increasingly difficult for brands to get their messages to the right people, at the right place, at the right frequency, at the right time.
Between Austin’s enhanced real estate restrictions that made getting space downtown for special events more difficult this year, and the sheer proliferation of brands and messages, Austin’s SXSW has become an increasingly difficult event at which to activate brands.
That is unless you have huge ideas, once-in-a-lifetime experiences and budgets that can cut through the noise.
Since downtown Austin isn’t getting any bigger, I think we’ll continue to see a changing brand landscape at future festivals.
Technology not for technology’s sake, but as a means to create a lifestyle:
This year’s SXSW featured an entire track dedicated to retail technology and fashion as well as lots of deep-dives on Virtual and Augmented Reality.
As technology continues to be a means for producers and purveyors of hard goods, soft goods, and experiences to deliver to their customers, SXSW stepped up its game to showcase technologies such as VR and AR and their roles in personalizing and customizing our shopping and media consumption experiences.
Since VR and AR technologies are in their infancy, this dialogue is sure to continue well into coming years.
SXSW gets political:
While SXSW 2017 featured many of the delightfully quirky and geeky attributes we’ve come to expect from the 31-year old conference, attendees saw politics – specifically the issue of inclusivity – step into center stage, on and off the show floor.
From Joseph Biden’s impassioned Cancer speech (Biden said that cancer is the “only bipartisan thing left in the United States.”), to SXSW organizers’ bathroom signage stating the conference’s pledge to being “inclusive, diverse and forward-thinking,” and opposing “discriminatory legislation,” SXSW 2017 took a very strong political tone.
This year’s show featured panels that addressed Silicon Valley’s diversity problems.
Tumblr’s CEO Tom Karp announced an initiative to support Planned Parenthood (#TechStandswithPP.) And the music part of the conference hosted showcases featuring bands affected by President Trump’s travel ban. As long as powerful people speak, exhibit at, and attend SXSW, we’ll see the event as a platform for advancing political sentiments.
While it’s been my personal experience that SXSW has been encouraging diversity, 2017’s actual Interactive conference attendees (those with paid badges I saw wandering around the convention center and other official badged locations) still looked like a bro-club to me.
While conference organizers claim that the entire festival attracts 70,000+ attendees and speakers of all ages, genders, ethnicities from upwards of 80 different countries, badged SXSW Interactive attendees still look like 30-40 something year old white dudes.
For all the forward thinking, futuristic nature that the conference supposedly embodies, a lot of what the naked eye sees is rooted in traditional industry structures.
Aside from panels about diversity in the technology industry, and investing in companies run by “diverse” founders, and a handful of sideshow events and meetups, the conference itself doesn’t exactly match the faces of the technology industry I know and love.
While the industry has made some important strides towards inclusivity (and had many setbacks too – recent news of Uber’s President resigning amidst a bevvy of sexual harassment claims at the company doesn’t bode well for the industry’s future), I think we’ll see SXSW assuming more of a lead role in populating an event with faces that more closely match those of the industries it celebrates.
Hobby Lobby increases minimum wage, but how much is just to save face?
(BUSINESS NEWS) Are their efforts to raise their minimum wage to $17/hour sincere, or more about saving face after bungling pandemic concerns?
The arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby announced this week that they will be raising their minimum full-time wage to $17/hour starting October 1st. This decision makes them the latest big retailer to raise wages during the pandemic (Target raised their minimum wage to $15/hour about three months ago, and Walmart and Amazon have temporarily raised wages). The current minimum wage for Hobby Lobby employees is $15/hour, which was implemented in 2014.
While a $17 minimum wage is a big statement for the company (even a $15 minimum wage cannot be agreed upon on the federal level) – and it is no doubt a coveted wage for the majority of the working class – it’s difficult to not see this move as an attempt to regain public support of the company.
When the pandemic first began, Hobby Lobby – with more than 900 stores and 43,000 employees nationwide – refused to close their stores despite being deemed a nonessential business (subsequently, a Dallas judge accused the company of endangering public health).
In April, Hobby Lobby furloughed almost all store employees and the majority of corporate and distribution employees without notice. They also ended emergency leave pay and suspended the use of company-provided paid time off benefits for employees during the furloughs – a decision that was widely criticized by the public, although the company claims the reason for this was so that employees would be able to take full advantage of government handouts during their furlough.
However, the furloughs are not Hobby Lobby’s first moment under fire. The Oklahoma-based Christian company won a 2014 Supreme Court case – the same year they initially raised their minimum wage – that granted them the right to deny their female employees insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Also, Hobby Lobby settled a federal complaint in 2017 that accused them of purchasing upwards of 5,000 looted ancient Iraqi artifacts, smuggled through the United Arab Emirates and Israel – which is simultaneously strange, exploitative, and highly controversial.
Why does this all matter? While raising their minimum wage to $17 should be regarded as a step in the right direction regarding the overall treatment of employees (and, hopefully, $17 becomes the new standard), Hobby Lobby is not without reason to seek favorable public opinion, especially during a pandemic. Yes, we should be quick to condone the action of increasing minimum wage, but perhaps be a little skeptical when deeming a company “good” or “bad”.
RIP office culture: How work from home is destroying the economy
(BUSINESS NEWS) It’s not just your empty office left behind: Work from home is drastically changing cities’ economies in more ways than you think.
It’s been almost six months since the U.S. went into lockdown due to COVID-19 and the CDC’s subsequent safety guidelines were issued – it’s safe to say that it is not business as usual. Everyone from restaurant waitstaff to start-up executives have been affected by the shift to work-from-home. Even as restrictions slowly begin to lift, it seems as though the office workspace – regarded as the vital venue for the U.S. economy – will never truly be the same.
Though economists have been focusing largely on small businesses and start-ups, we are only just beginning to understand the impact that not going back into the white-collar office will have on the economy.
The industries that support white-collar office culture in major cities have become increasingly emaciated. The coffee shops, food trucks, and food delivery companies that catered to the white-collar workforce before, during, and after their workday, are no longer in high demand (Starbucks reported a loss of $2 billion this year, which they attribute to Zoomification). Airlines have also been affected as business travel typically accounts for 60%-70% of all air travel.
Also included are high-end hotels, which accommodate the traveling business class. Pharmacies, florists, and gyms located in business districts have become ghost towns. Office supplies companies, such as Xerox, have suffered. Workwear brands such as J. Crew and Brooks Brothers have filed for bankruptcy, as there is no longer a need to dress for the office.
In Manhattan – arguably the country’s most notorious white-collar business mecca – at least 1,200 restaurants have been permanently lost. It is also is predicted that the one-third of all small businesses will close.
Additionally, the borough is facing twice as many apartment vacancies as this time last year, due to the flight of workers no longer tied to midtown offices. Workers have realized their freedom to seek more affordable and spacious residence outside the city. As companies decentralize from cities and rent prices drop, it isn’t all bad news. There is promise that particular urban white-collar neighborhoods will start to become accessible to the working class once again.
Some companies, like Pinterest and REI, are reporting that their shift to work from home is in fact permanent. The long-term effects of deserted office buildings are yet to make themselves evident. What we do know is that the decline of the white-collar office will force us to reimagine the great American cities – with so much lost due to the coronavirus, what can now be gained?
2020 Black Friday shopping may break the mold
(BUSINESS NEWS) Home Depot states their new plan for deals and discounts over two months, in place of a 1-day Black Friday event.
Humans change and adapt – that’s just in our nature. Retail stores have struggled to maintain their sales goals for years as more and more people move to ordering online. Online prices still seem to be within customer expectations and often come with free shipping. Additionally, people that may have preferred to shop in an actual brick-and-mortar store have changed their shopping habits dramatically in 2020; it’s hard to social distance and be safe in crowded stores or in small aisles. Black Friday may be next to change.
Amazon and other big box store’s online ordering platforms have simplified getting what you need delivered right to your front door. According to Statista, “Amazon was responsible for 45% of US e-commerce spending in 2019 – a figure which is expected to rise to 47% in 2020.”
Retailers count on the holiday season, specifically Black Friday deals (the day after Thanksgiving), to bring in up to 20% of their annual revenue. It’s hard to just remove that option completely. But considering the times of social distancing, wearing masks in public, and especially avoiding large crowds, the tradition of Black Friday will need to look different this year.
It will also be interesting to see what supply chain disruptions from early 2020 will have the most effect this shopping season. We saw predictions in March that said the United States would see the biggest disruptions in about six months. Black Friday falls right on that timeline.
Home Depot has announced their plans to go ahead and give the deals over a two month span, starting in early November through December (both online and in stores with the possibility of adding some special deals around the actual Black Friday date) to help encourage a more steady stream of shoppers versus so many packing in on the same day.
The home improvement chain has actually seen a great sales year. This is likely due to people working from home and being interested in doing more home projects (and possibly having a bit more time to do them as well). As of May 2020, “The Home Depot®, the world’s largest home improvement retailer, today reported sales of $28.3 billion for the first quarter of fiscal 2020, a 7.1 percent increase from the first quarter of fiscal 2019. Comparable sales for the first quarter of fiscal 2020 were positive 6.4 percent, and comparable sales in the U.S. were positive 7.5 percent.”
Home Depot, along with many other retailers like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy have confirmed that they will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, which may not be new for all of them but has always signaled the kickoff of the holiday shopping season.
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