SXSW 2021 challenges marketers to redefine what meaningful brand partnerships look like

March 29th, 2021 | Jeannette Ornelas

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend my first SXSW, and while I would have loved to attend in-person in Austin, I applaud the team responsible for pulling off such an engaging and interactive virtual event. It was in many ways a testament to the resilience we’ve seen in film, culture, music, and technology, and a powerful reminder that the most unexpected discoveries happen when diverse topics and people come together.

As I attended sessions exploring storytelling, emerging platforms, and creating authentic brand partnerships, Comperemedia’s 2021 Omnichannel Marketing Trend, “Fandom as Cultural Currency” served as a common thread throughout, which brings to the forefront two important factors:

  1. Deeper connections. Amid economic and socio-political tensions, and with a continued push toward driving deeper connections, we will see more value-driven content.
  2. Creator credibility. Brands across categories will tap into creator culture to connect with younger, and new, customers.

Aligned with our predictions, SXSW 2021 challenged marketers to redefine what meaningful brand partnerships look like.

Deeper Connections: Creating a language between a product and a consumer

One of my favorite panels, for its diversity of thought and nuanced takes, titled “Build Great Brand Partnerships, Don’t Clout Chase,” explored what influencer collaborations need to look like to succeed in internet culture. In our own research, we have explored how as influencer marketing matures, brand strategies must evolve and this session further endorsed that notion. What was most engaging about the panel is that it explored not only the future of brand partnerships but also paid homage to past work that paved the way.

Allen Iverson ft. Jadakiss- Reebok Answer V commercial: The perfect convergence of basketball and hip-hop culture. Fresh off his MVP run to the NBA Finals in 2000-2001, Allen Iverson’s brand of basketball was the perfect complement to Jadakiss’ brand of artistry. As Adage reported back in 2009, in an article titled What Can Brands Learn from Jadakiss, “[Jadakiss] integrated himself into the places where his core lifestyle fans lived and became very accessible to them.”

Fast forward to 2020 and you have J Balvin x Air Jordan 1, which as Upscale Vandal, Founder/Owner of The Upscale Vandal Group noted, “being a kid from Colombia to help the first Colombian global music superstar have his first shoe deal…coming from losing my friends to the sneaker game and kids getting killed for sneakers…that just holds a different type of relatability in the product.” This resonated with me in many regards but perhaps most poignantly served as a reminder of the history of sneakers and how sneaker culture has fueled a billion-dollar secondary market.

The key takeaways came from Joel Rodriguez, Executive Director of Engagement Planning at Translation:

  • Culture = Code. “It’s not just about the rules, it’s also about the groups, the belief systems, the rituals, the artifacts, the language that proves whether you get it or not. Do you know the code or not? And if you do know the code and you can speak with fluency to those codes, you’re going to be embraced. If not, you’re going to hit a brick wall because it’s going to be obvious that you don’t know who these communities are, or what they value.”
  • Endorsements are dead. When it comes to the future of partnerships, the key questions should be “what can we do together, that couldn’t be done before? Or on our own, we couldn’t have accomplished?” As Rodriguez shared, “that’s redefining partnership. It’s not just about the endorsement, I think endorsements are dead. It’s about co-creation and ownership.”

Creator Credibility: Empowering your audience to tell your story

TikTok’s growing cultural influence is undeniable and that was evident at SXSW, where various sessions featured the platform. One such session, titled “Think Like a Marketer, Act Like a TikTok Creator” offered valuable perspectives that extend well beyond the walls of the short-form video-sharing app. TikTok’s Head of US Business Marketing was joined by marketers representing McDonald’s, HBO Max, and Gatorade. Each speaker offered great insight into their respective brand’s embrace of TikTok.

McDonald’s on connecting with youth. Alycia Mason, US VP, Digital Customer Engagement & Media addressed the relevance of the platform among its core audience and the importance of showing up where they are in a real way, “the way we think about our brand strategy and our brand voice is this notion of fan-to-fan. We felt that TikTok had the right environment. We focused on elevating and inspiring our audience that was already there.”

The brand has been on the platform for six months and acknowledged the importance of a circle of trust between the company and agency partners. As well as the platform’s ability to listen and create a brand-safe environment.

HBO Max on empowering your community. Katie Soo, Sr. Vice President of Growth Marketing, stressed the role of empowering your fans to share your story. HBO Max saw fans and audiences on the platform were already talking about the stories and characters that they love, which made the brand’s embrace of TikTok an easy decision. However, the focus was not on what content HBO Max could put out on the platform, but more so about giving fans content that will allow them to continue telling great brand stories. As Soo stressed, “sometimes you don’t want to be a brand that tries to tell the story for the audiences, you want the audiences to authentically share what matters to them.”

Gatorade on embracing fluidity. Jill Abbott, Head of Consumer & Athlete Engagement, acknowledged the impact of COVID-19 on media mix modeling, “we all went through the same epic shift last year around this time and for our brand, one of the things that we started to really embrace is that we can’t have overly baked plans, we have to be more fluid, we have to be able to react to things like shifts in consumer behavior.” One of the things that Gatorade started paying more attention to was where their athletes were shifting their time to. With most sports canceled at the time, people were seeking a sense of community, a sense of engagement, and TikTok was filling that void so Gatorade shifted their dollars accordingly.

Abbott spoke to the importance of experimentation and how mutually beneficial it can be to take cues from your audience, noting “we went in thinking let’s be where the people are, let’s solve for what our athletes need, which is community and entertainment, and a feeling of belonging, and come to find out it was returning for the brand as well.”

The key takeaways:

Tune in. Being culturally relevant starts with understanding where your audience is, what matters to them, and how they interact with your brand. It’s not to say every brand should rush to create a TikTok brand account, but it should be said that every brand should understand the role of TikTok and how it influences culture.

Pass the mic. It’s not easy for brands to give up control, to let someone else shape their narrative, especially if you find yourself in a more regulated industry, but allowing your audience to be a part of your narrative is how you build true fandom.

Embrace change. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s the importance of building resilience in coping with change. Media planning will likely never go back to what it looked like pre-2020 but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When things are going well it’s easy to be on auto-pilot, when things are rocky you narrow in on what truly moves the needle for your brand and, in turn, that is often reflected in a stronger ROI.

Jeannette Ornelas

Jeannette Ornelas

Jeannette Ornelas is a Senior Digital Marketing Analyst for Comperemedia. Jeannette is responsible for producing syndicated and custom reports and providing marketing insights across a range of industry sectors and channels.