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SXSW 2015 (Pt. 2): You Say You Want An Evolution?

The South By Southwest Festival used to be all about music. A string of live music venues in the bustling Sixth Street area of downtown Austin, Texas drew enough talent that a festival was organized to establish the city as a live music showcase. That was what we in the marketing biz refer to as a "good call." Since then, the once relatively intimate Music Festival has exploded in size and now includes Film and Interactive Festivals. (In fact, many locals now avoid the crowds by heading to "Anti-SXSW" Festivals outside the city.) Much like any other successful branded entity, SXSW has thrived by adapting to the times.

A brand should stay constantly aware of cultural shifts, ready to adapt nimbly but not recklessly. It wasn't that long ago that record labels provided the main showcase events at SXSW; today attendees are packing into showcases hosted by Spotify, Tumblr, HBO and other brands that can provide an experience beyond just product. The A&E Network even built a life-size, functioning Bates Motel where fans of the TV series could actually stay during SXSW.

The exhilaration of sleeping in a motel run by a transvestite murderer may be a bit of an extreme example, but it is representative of the compelling omnichannel marketing experience today's consumer seeks. Notice that a functioning replica motel doesn't need to include a 3-D printer, geo-targeted push messaging or a smart watch to make a lasting impression. Fans of a suspense-filled TV series may not necessarily respond to high tech — but they will get sucked in by high drama.

That being said, the right tech in the right moment can be a beautiful thing. Just ask anyone who got in on the ground floor of Uber. In a SXSW discussion featuring Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink and Bill Gurley, renowned tech venture capitalist, it was noted that younger millennials no longer think of a car as a status symbol the way previous generations traditionally have.

Could the auto industry be on the verge of a major shift in perception? Services like Uber and Lyft have commoditized transportation to the point that Uber is now one of the fastest growing job providers in San Francisco. According to Gurley, some municipalities have even petitioned city councils to change building codes to reduce the number of minimum parking spaces required for a commercial structure.

Parking lots may not be the only things experiencing shrinkage. SXSW even provided some glimpses into the future of retail. As shoppers do more and more product browsing via mobile, brick-and-mortar retail space is expected to decrease in both size and numbers. Showrooming is condensing and optimizing the number of physical products on hand, while smart shelves equipped with video screens can react to shopper behavior in real time, highlighting products of interest accordingly. Stores are selling products by themselves. (Maybe if they learn how to buy things too we can all just stay home.)

Whether you run a music festival, an automotive manufacturer or a t-shirt kiosk, change is coming faster than ever. The key is to monitor trends. Philips Healthcare placed booths outside the SXSW trade show with the sole purpose of collecting opinions about healthcare from festival attendees. They weren't there to sell, they were there to learn from one of the most forward-thinking, early-adapting crowds you could ever hope to meet.

A smart brand will realize what it doesn't know, and take the time to find out. Because data reveals trends, trends inspire foresight, and foresight is what keeps you from getting steamrolled by change. Your one-man band could be getting ready to rock the world — be sure to stay plugged in.