5 Key Lessons in Brand Authenticity

By Julianne Schiavone, Media Planning Director, Maxus

Each March, executives from nearly every industry descend on Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) – also known as the “premiere destination for discovery.” Over the last 23 years, SXSW has become the place where in the same day, one can attend an enlightening discussion about the future of media and technology, listen in on a panel with your favorite celebrity, network with some of the hottest new start-ups, watch an exclusive clip from a trendy TV show via a 3D pit of fire (looking at you, Game of Thrones season 6), drink a beer while charging your phone at a cool Austin venue (courtesy of a media partner), and end the day walking by a live Questlove performance on the street.

While SXSW taught me the difference between Texas BBQ and “regular southern” BBQ, and allowed me to get inspired by so many industry influencers, it also helped crystalize a much greater theme: the importance of brand authenticity when engaging online.

Here are the five most critical lessons I learned from attending this year’s event:

1) Understand where your audience is and be authentic on the platforms they are using:

As a brand, you cannot just throw money at creating Snapchat content because it’s the cool new thing to do, and especially if the audience you are trying to reach is not a Gen Z’er who would appreciate consuming bite-size content. Use a channel that directly engages with your target audience and speak with them through it. You’ll not only reach the people you want to reach, but you’ll also have a more genuine way of communicating with them.

2) Put out content that is real.

People appreciate when you take the time to portray things in a realistic way and with a consistent voice. This particular takeaway came through loud and clear during the two panels I attended regarding USA Network’s award-winning series, Mr. Robot (a Maxus client). The success of the show, and the marketing campaign around it, was largely build on the idea of authenticity. Before making decisions, the marketing and media teams continually asked themselves how Elliot, the main character, would approach the situation to keep true to the show. Additionally, show-runner Sam Esmail emphasized the importance of conveying the world of tech professionals and hackers in a way that was realistic, using real code and scenarios that could without-a-doubt take place in the real world. And to the 900+ avid fans at the panels, that authenticity was clearly much appreciated.

3) Stay true to your voice and who you are.

My favorite event at this year’s SXSW featured a discussion with Kerry Washington on the effects of social stardom. When speaking about how she navigates her social presence, Washington said she has made a strong commitment to authenticity and staying true to herself. She decides what she wants to comment on and what she wants to put out there based on what feels good and what moves her. It’s important to engage with fans in a real way and encourage them to use their voices too. As far as what brands she decides to work with, Washington says she sticks with ones that truly understand her, which in turn helps her (and her partner brands) stay authentic.

4) Create a connection with your audience that feels like a friendship.

Sure, brands or influencers can have that one good video that gets thousands or even millions of views, only to never engage you again. In order to truly build a long-lasting legacy, brands need to find a way to have ongoing conversations with people. YouTube influencer Joanna Franco put it nicely when saying that one of the first things she thinks about before producing content is, “Does this make sense for my audience,” or, “Is this something I would want to watch, before I send it out to my friends?” This type of influencer thinking can easily be applied to brand engagement at large—if you’re putting things out there that aren’t what your audience would expect from you, then you’re going to lose them.

5) Keep Austin weird.

The saying is that Austin is weird, but in reality, it’s just real. Likewise, SXSW is an experience that offers brands a unique way to get in front of fans, potential partners and industry peers. Everyone there is trying to be ‘cool’ while remaining authentic. The partners that embraced this cool, ‘weird’ vibe of Austin, and created activations that can only be experienced at SXSW, were the best and had the longest lines. The showy parties at swanky rooftop bars were better suited for other cities, and their attendance confirmed it.

If you’re not authentic, it’s going to translate to your audience. So take a cue from SXSW, and get real.