SXSW Diary: Everyone's interactive

The worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson's Innovation Group discusses her first day at the Interactive Festival in Austin

AUSTIN — Aside from the obvious financial reasons, it’s strange that SXSW continues to have music, interactive, and film as distinct events. Increasingly those three worlds are intertwined; Tech companies are music platforms; Brands are filmmakers and content producers; And everybody today is interactive — even the White House.

President Barack Obama joked that it’s easier to order a pizza than to vote in his much-hyped talk on Friday. He called on the tech world to create a more seamless voting system that would unlock new voting numbers and increase engagement in government. (On that point, Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, a former Google executive, has separately said she’s overhauling all government websites to make them more user-friendly.)

The increased symbiotic and rapid-fire connection between consumers, social networks, brands, commerce and marketing is as hot a topic as ever at SXSW. I’m speaking on the virtual eco-system of content, commerce, and conversation at the Decoded Fashion House on Saturday. One interesting facet of this is the continued influence of user-generated content, particularly among Generation Zs, who no longer passively consume broadcast content but want to make it.

"Generation Zs see themselves as brands, to a much bigger extent than even Millennials have before," said Brendan Lowry, marketing director at Curalate, a platform that makes visual social media shoppable. "They just want to push out content they’ve created." Indeed. Look at the spectrum of hotly touted social media influencers every brand is trying to tap in to right now, and many are Gen Z.

They’ve grown up with digital platforms at their fingertips and in many ways are upending the traditional relationship between brands and consumers. They command massive audiences and influence, but the challenge for brands trying to engage them is that these audiences demand unflinching authenticity. (Ah, there it is ... ) Touting a brand in an obvious way will be instantly decoded by their audiences. Gen Z, we are finding in our research, may be the most critical audience of consumers to date. Brands will need to relinquish much more control, and even be open to criticism, or irreverence, to resonate with them.

While we’re on the subject of Generation Z, our Innovation Group’s official panel on Friday was "Generation Z and Gender: Beyond Binaries?" The conversation was led by Shepherd Laughlin, our director of trend forecasting, with guests Arabelle Sicardi, a freelance writer; Becca McCharen, founder of hot fashion label Chromat (which has featured many trans models in its runway shows); and Tyler Ford, a trans youth activist who’s been crowned one of the best social media stars of 2015 by MTV and one of Dazed's 100 visionary talents shaping youth culture in 2016.

The panel was inspired by a stat that appeared in our 2015 Gen Z study. In an original survey of 1,000 12- to 19-year-olds, we found that 81% agreed that gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to. As Laughlin explained, we thought this was ripe for more exploration, especially given the context. "Gen Z has grown up in an atmosphere of unprecedented gender fluidity. Same-sex marriage is now a fact, transgender models walk runways, and Miley Cyrus says she doesn’t relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy," said Laughlin.

In preparation for the panel we conducted a new deep dive study and the results were compelling. We found that 56% of US Gen Zers know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. More than a third of Gen Z respondents also strongly agreed that gender did not define a person as much as it used to, compared with 23% of Millennials 28 years old and over.)

The implications for brands are manifold. To begin with, the shift is manifesting in how people shop. Only 44% of our respondents said they always bought clothes designed for their own gender, versus 54% of Millennials. But it also means brands need to consider their marketing and visual language. Calvin Klein, Zara, and musician Ariana Grande are just a few of the names that have launched gender neutral or gender free products in recent months.

Speakers on the panel were quick to refute that gender fluidity is a trend and cautioned brands against trying to tap in to the rising discussion of gender fluidity in a glib, or shallow way. "Teen outrage is unlike any other rage," joked Sicardi. This group is also highly sophisticated, critical, and has rapid access to the Internet, so brands will get called out if they don’t get it right, agreed Ford: "Gen Z’s know how to use the Internet better than you."

Ford explained that gender fluidity has always existed. The difference is that with access to Tumblr, Google, and social networks, teens have been able to connect with bigger networks, and find empowerment, and new language, to define their truth. "I basically Googled my way into my sexuality and gender," Ford said.

Lucie Greene is worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson's Innovation Group.

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