March 13, 2024

SXSW 2024 Insights: Why the Greatest Risk a Brand Can Take Is Being Ordinary, Part 1

Austin, TX landscape at sunset

Our team is on the ground at SXSW 2024, and as we navigate through the bustling streets of downtown Austin, Texas — where the magic of immersive brand experiences dress the streets — we can’t help but feel the pulse of innovation surrounding us.

In this blog, Hattie Stearns, Senior Director of Experience DesignOps, delves into several key trends and insights from Day 1 of the conference, including the importance of building authentic immersive experiences that enable human connection, how the best brands create communities, and why the greatest risk a brand can take is being ordinary.

Human-Centric Immersive Experience Design: While this particular session was centered on what I would label as modern fine art immersive experiences and all that goes into creating them, Chris Holmes, one of the panelists, shared an observation about our collective relationship with the digital world — be it our phones, TVs, or screen sizes in between — which is predominantly tethered to fear, anxiety, impulse, and ego. Consequently, there’s a strong collective yearning for experiences that evoke the desire to savor and provoke wonder, discovery, and fascination, while feeling rooted in our shared humanity — offering safety and healing.

As a creative professional entrenched in the health and wellness industry, I naturally pondered “How could this translate to the pharma marketing world?” While grasping and appreciating why fine art isn’t intended for commercial application; it’s sacred and separate for many reasons. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What if we could craft marketing experiences that prioritize connectivity and healing simply through engagement?”

From Viewers to Engaged Brand Community With Culture-Driven Content: This session began with rooting us in the reality that online ads aren’t working the way they used to. While the general public consumes about 17 hours of media a week and 2.5 hours of social media a day — ads are too pricey, inefficient, and deliver inconsistent results. Instead, good brands (the best ones) create communities — environments where people can come and be as they are. Embracing the lack of a formula and getting comfortable with pivoting to culture and community interests is the key to momentum. What if healthcare marketing sparked a sense of discovery and encouraged people to not only savor content, but find commonality and stay a while?

In a category like healthcare, wellness is often depicted superficially, with a breadth of an inch and depth of a mile. The “ugly” aspects, the side effects, and the unpleasant truths are all concealed. These decisions are frequently made in boardrooms, deeming them too bold and frightening to reveal. The consequence is a sanitized or overly cautious portrayal of illness, devoid of character, which ultimately leaves the consumer feeling unseen and often triggers shame.

TABOO by Design: Provocation in Brand Experience: Led by brothers Andrew and James Mackinnon from the Australian agency TABOO Group, they began by expressing their fear of mediocrity and introduced a concept they called Vanilla Valley — a place where routine and comfort intersect, devoid of notable events, where forgotten memories linger.

Their words got me thinking about those navigating life with a disorder or illness. How much of their existence gets trapped in Vanilla Valley? Those fleeting moments of manageable symptoms often go unnoticed, overshadowed by the polished facade of “happiness with illness” portrayed in glossy campaigns and commercials.

The Mackinnon brothers drove home the notion that “nothing remarkable ever came from following a formula,” a recurring theme of the day. Increasingly frustrated with missed opportunities in the industry, I pondered: how did we end up in this wildly forgettable, uninspiring landscape of health and wellness marketing? Who dictates what is acceptable to portray? Why do we shy away from authentic, diverse representations of human health? Why are we so nervous to depict lived experiences? How did we arrive at this unspoken consent of polished, hygienic, sterile representation?

I wholeheartedly believe our industry has a profound responsibility to produce content that embodies empathy, authenticity, and honesty. However, it’s disheartening to see it often constrained by anxiety, fear, and misrepresentation. We’re in dire need of a shake-up!

If we understand the most successful brands are characterized by their ability to be interesting, fun, distinct, memorable, and relevant, why do we overlook the opportunity to harness lived experiences for storytelling? Imagine if healthcare marketing boldly embraced the tensions and taboos of life with illness, sparking an emotional response that resonates deeply with the audience. It’s time for a change.

Stay tuned for more insights from our team at SXSW 2024 and how these themes are relevant to pharma marketing.

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