I Learned One Thing at SXSW

Although I attended quite a few sessions at the interactive conference, SXSW (South by Southwest) in Austin, Texas this past March, one main thought rang true throughout the conference: To be successful, brands need to connect on an emotional level with their consumers.

The first session in which this message became apparent was “Women are building the brands we’ve always wanted.” It was a panel discussion featuring four women from various companies: Jamie Gilpin, CMO at Sprout Social, Inc.; Rachel Blumenthal, Founder & CEO of Rockets of Awesome (a children’s clothing line); Amanda Clark, Senior VP and Head of North American Development at Taco Bell; and AJ Hassan, Executive Creative Director at R/GA.

Each of these women told unique stories about their work experience and how they have noticed the impact women have on brands, both on the agency/branding side and as consumers. The clear takeaway in their presentation was that not only are women the main purchasers of the products and services we buy, but the way women connect on an emotional level is the way brands are finally starting to talk to their consumers.

Qualities that were traditionally associated with femininity, such as transparency, connectedness, honesty and emotion, are now being embraced by brands as gateways to connection and building brand loyalty.

Taco Bell embraces this notion of connecting with their audience by ensuring that their brand voice starts a conversation, versus talking down to people or just pushing content at them. Regarding Taco Bell’s attempts to become a more authentic lifestyle brand, Amanda Clark lists the efforts they have made to serve a better product and to evolve the brand to be more of an experience:Using cage-free eggs

  • Purchasing chicken raised without antibiotics
  • Removing all artificial colors and ingredients
  • Publishing all ingredients online
  • Developing a taco-inspired clothing line with Forever 21

Taco Bell also created an entirely new restaurant experience, Taco Bell Cantina. With an urban design, open kitchen and custom menu with sharable apps and alcoholic beverages, they sought to create restaurants where customers would want to stay, enjoy their food, make memories and connect with the brand, rather than just buy tacos and leave to have those experiences elsewhere.

Integrated marketing agency Scottsdale South by Southwest
Taco Bell Cantina


I thought that might get your attention. Another session where this message of forming deeper connections appeared was called “Branding is sex. Get your customer laid and sell anything.” The speaker was Deb Gabor, founder of Sol Marketing in Austin, whose goal is to “build winning brands by finding and engaging with your best customers – those most predictive of your success.”

She discussed “irrational loyalty” being the ultimate goal of branding, saying that, “irrational loyalty exists when customers are so dedicated to a certain brand that their lives would be diminished if that product disappeared. Irrational loyalty means customers wouldn’t even consider using an alternative brand; they’d feel like they were cheating.” Then she stepped up to the plate and hit a homerun, saying:

“The way brands build irrational loyalty among their customers is by bonding emotionally.”

If you’re irrationally loyal to Apple, or Starbucks or Lululemon – and you know who you are – you’re buying that brand for more than just the product they sell. It’s not just the way the product makes you feel. It goes beyond the features and benefits to something deeper and more sentimental. The feeling you get when you walk in the store, or carry that coffee cup into work or open the package that arrives in the mail. It’s a bond you have with that brand and no other. Kinda gives you the warm fuzzies, doesn’t it?


So, how do brands attain irrationally loyal followers? Well, they need to find out who their audience is. They can start by asking these questions about their consumers:

Integrated marketing agency Scottsdale South by Southwest

Once we can get inside their heads, walk in their shoes and see the world as they see it, we can get a better idea of what makes them tick and how we can connect with them. The alternative to knowing that one specific person we’re talking to is to vaguely target an entire group.

“When you point at nothing, you will hit it with amazing accuracy.”

Deb points out that you’re not doing yourself any favors as a brand by talking generically to everyone. Your message will resonate with people when you know who they are and speak directly to them.

This is just a taste of what I learned at SXSW. But at every session I attended, the message was clear: Connecting with your consumers on an emotional level is more important than ever.