A festival that each year hosts a slew of lectures on branding encounters considerable challenges managing its own brand. On the heels of a historic cancellation due to the Corona virus outbreak, SXSW should professionalize its brand management and hire a spokesperson.
In the weeks leading up to the scheduled 2020 SXSW conference, a petition ran with tens of thousands of Austinites asking the organizers to cancel the conference on grounds that having it take place as scheduled would pose an irresponsible risk to public health. SXSW had taken note of the petition, it said, but made the argument that the festival should nonetheless take place because Austin Public Health had stated that there was no evidence that closing SXSW or any other gatherings would make the community any safer.
With its curt acknowledgment that it was ‘aware’ of the petition, the organizer did not actually move beyond this ‘cognitive empathy’ to a more emotional accommodation of concerns. “The show must go on” is in our DNA,” I read in the March 6 statement on the cancellation of the event and that pretty much summed it up.
When SXSW was finally cancelled, it was through a decision not made by SXSW, but by the City of Austin, that it accepted only begrudgingly.
SXSW, you’ve got issues
There is no such thing as a brand that can exist without the consensus of a solid majority of its internal and external stakeholders. As Mary Jo Hatch and Majken Schultz found out through their work for LEGO and British Airways, brands need to be managed through a continuous alignment and realignment of how management, employees, and external stakeholders perceive expectations for the brand. The findings informed their Vision, Culture and Image method which is one of the most powerful tools brand managers have available to them.
When there is a lack of alignment between the expectations of any of the three aforementioned groups, an issue emerges. In what follows, I will focus on the employee / management relationship when talking about SXSW (I simply have no information on staff attitudes), and will only focus on management and external stakeholders. Issues that are not well managed make for festering wounds, where small concerns become bigger roadblocks, and even at times serious challenges to the ‘license to operate’ of the organization.
Just a few years ago, SXSW stumbled over GamerGate, a scandal consisting of a collective of gamers harassing female activists who they accused of ruining their gaming experience with political correctness. As reported in this Wired article, SXSW had allowed a GamerGate panel to take place, and there was also an anti-harassment panel scheduled that was meant to counter all the things GamerGate stood for. Because of threats from the GamerGate community against the latter panel, SXSW ended up cancelling… both conferences in an attempt to keep the peace.
Needless to say, treating both panels on equal moral footing made for an outpour of negative reactions and the whole episode offered a textbook example of an organization that did everything it possibly could do wrong because it was tone deaf to the concerns of its stakeholders. Clearly, a great many people did not and do not perceive SXSW to be just a “marketplace of ideas,” to use the words of SXSW Interactive’s directive Hugh Forrest, but a place where some ideas (on gender equality, for example) are more valued than others.
The cancellation following the Corona virus outbreak has made for yet another such issue. A great many stakeholders were of opinion that it was the responsibility of the organizer to be extra cautious and cancel the event, notwithstanding statements from city health officials that were meant to alleviate concerns.
SXSW did not catch on to the fact that even if the position that cancelling the event would not have contributed to the protection of public health were true, that was not actually the point since the reality in which a company functions is defined by prevailing perceptions of that reality and not by reality itself. Your stakeholders are the ones who will tell you when your conference is safe to continue, not you, even if experts are on your side.
So SXSW took a double reputational risk by sticking to its guns and not solving the issue. On the one hand, it accepted the risk that somehow Austin could become a conduit for a further accelerated spread of the Corona virus through the influx of visitors from abroad visiting SXSW. It would, in such a scenario, have been accused of having acted irresponsibly by ignoring calls from stakeholders to cancel the event.
A second reputational risk consisted in seeing the event be cancelled by another party, leaving the impression that it took an external party to cancel SXSW plans, with the organizers apparently willing to accept considerable risks to see their event take place. This second scenario is the one that became reality.
The way that SXSW communicated about the Corona virus outbreak was not helped much by its usual style of communicating, which brings me to my second and last point.
Communicating like it is 1987
SXSW communicates anonymously to the media which then reports on what ‘a spokesperson’ of the organization has said. In a not so distant past, for example in 1987 when SXSW had its first edition, such practice might have been du jour, but since then times have changed. Especially in times when an organization is confronted with a ‘moment of truth’ where its reputation is at stake, and the cancellation of SXSW 2020 was such a moment, communicating anonymously is less than an efficient option to take.
Through their research for The Human Brand, Chris Malone and Susan Fiske found out that people anthropomorphize companies. We consider them as much individuals as we do ourselves, with their own free will. This entails that the two qualities we use to evaluate companies are very similar to the qualities used to assess other people: warmth and competence. These two factors determine together more than 80 percent (!) of the way we engage with others, both people and companies.
Warmth involves whether we view others to be honest, trustworthy, kind, or friendly, while competence relates to whether they seem capable, intelligent or skilled. Everything we said about warmth comes from what you say, but also how you say it. And as Malone and Fiske also acknowledge in their book, it helps to put a human face on the organization. People of flesh and blood, who have a face, a voice, and a name, are useful conduits for warm communication.
In need of brand management and… a face
An organization that does a great job yielding room in its line-up to panel conversations and lectures on brand management, would do well to step up its own efforts in that regard. For the brand of an event that is of critical importance to the Texas tech ecosystem to continue to be relevant so it can provide domestic and foreign creatives a valuable place to meet for another 30 years, it must look after its brand better than it has done on some occasions in the past.
An important way to accomplish this will go through the recognition that it does not actually own its brand, but that its brand will only endure if its stakeholders have an important say in what it stands for.
But there is not only work on the brand management front. If you want to garner trust, your brand needs to be human, and to accomplish that, it can and should not only be the logo that does the talking. SXSW would do well to have a real flesh and blood spokesperson on board, somebody who can look audiences – literally – in the eye and help bridge and align as best as possible external and internal expectations of the brand.
Did you enjoy this piece on SXSW’s brand management?
You might also like my interview with Ronald Voorn where he denounces a marketing approach that focuses too narrowly on inbound marketing because it is not evidence-based.