SXSW Diary: Food, feelings and the future

The worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson examines a few noteworthy themes at SXSW Interactive

AUSTIN — It’s the peak of SXSW Interactive. People are starting to filter off, and, on cue, the sun has come out for the music people. A few days, multiple panels, meet-ups, hack-a-thons, and countless demos later and some themes emerge.

As any speaker applicant knows, the addressed have to be submitted the summer before, in July, a whole eight months before the actual event. Granted, they can evolve slightly and speakers can be changed, but it’s hard to pick an issue that will remain relevant that far in advance, especially when change is happening at double the pace than it used to.

This was borne out in the schedule. The list was exactly as I had predicted. Virtual Reality? Yup. Artificial Intelligence? Yup. Privacy and Big Data? Yes. And so on. Though, mercifully, drones were relatively infrequent. I can’t help but feel that if the subject matter could be selected closer to the date it would feel more visionary. Scanning the schedule for something genuinely new was like searching for a needle in a haystack.

That being said, some themes have emerged. Here are a few. 

The future of food. Food and food brands had much greater visibility here this year, not least with the large presence of McDonald’s. The fast-food giant has taken one of the prime spots in front of the convention center to host talks, stage concerts and showcase a virtual reality experience where visitors can step into, and virtually color in, the inside of a Happy Meal box. The SouthBites program has been much better attended, and many of the new startups in the exhibition space seemed to focus on food. So did many of the talks.

I took part in a panel examining food trends with speakers from Vice Munchies, Taste Talks and Whole Foods. Anthony Bourdain, the uber-chef who is soon opening a food mega-temple on Pier 57 in Manhattan, was also a featured keynote. All this activity echoes the general trends we’re seeing surrounding food and the ongoing examination of the future of food. Not only are we looking at how to feed an ever-growing global population, food culture has started to take on exponentially higher significance in people’s lives and spending habits. Millennials are spending a high proportion of their disposable income on food and eating out.  

The Nespresso Effect. Or the Keurig, you decide. This year has seen a swath of new at-home dispensing and culinary devices. From PicoBrew, which I featured in my January CES coverage, a machine that allows people to create craft beers at home, to Teforia, a home tea machine which makes personalized teas, caffeine-free brews, or English Breakfast to taste.

Outside of the food category, there was Hero, a new at-home pharmaceuticals dispenser. With a connected app, the machine enables families, seniors, and consumers with parents who live remotely to monitor their prescription drug use. The company says the product helps remedy the $300 billion in wasted medical bills associated from abuse or misuse of drugs.

Cuba. Two talks this week were on the future of Cuba (one from our own Innovation Group). The subject is top of mind, particularly as President Barack Obama is due to visit the country next week. Also, Starwood, AT&T and Marriot announced they were working on deals ahead of Obama’s visit.

Cuba as an open market has been the stuff of what-ifs for many years, but interest in the island is now reaching a fever pitch. Brands are announcing direct flights, partnerships, and initiatives there at a fever pitch. We found this compelling, not only from the point of view of what it means for tourism, but also to understand the Cuban consumer and how they might evolve if Cuba opened up. Access to the Internet is still woefully tricky there and smartphones are a luxury. Yet our study found a young class of dynamic, entrepreneurial, creative Cubans pushing change, setting up businesses and magazines, and spreading media and entertainment. I sent my team there in January to create an in-depth study and documentary, which includes 40 in-depth interviews with consumers, academics, business owners, economists and experts.

Islam. For the first time, I’ve seen more panels about the Islamic Market, either in Middle Eastern regions or in the US, and how brands can effectively reach this group. It’s an interesting shift. Already we’ve seen brands from Dolce & Gabbana to H&M start celebrating the young, vibrant face of Islam, so it was nice to see this emerge with examination at SXSW. It’s worth it. The buying power of the Islamic consumer continues to grow worldwide. In 2014, Muslim tourists spent $36 billion while shopping globally, according to the MasterCard.

Emotional experiences. Following the larger general trend we’ve seen of brands placing a greater emphasis on emotion (Glade’s Museum of Feelings, for example), quantifying emotion, and transforming emotion through immersive tech — Kodak created what is perhaps the best brand activation experience we’ve seen in a while.

In partnership with artist Marcos Lutyens, Kodak Alaris created The Memory Observatory, a physical manifestation of the experience that the company wants to convey with its new app, Kodak Moments. The app transforms personal photos into "rich stories worth sharing," and similarly, the installation guides visitors on a journey of self-discovery. First, a visitor texts a photo to the app, then they enter the structure for a one-on-one session with a guide who helps them interpret what the photo means to them in words.

The visitor then enters a larger room filled with strangers where their story has surprisingly already been edited into short snippets that are paired with appropriate sounds and smells, while the photo is projected on a refracted surface overhead. The experience is an emotionally rich meditation on the nature of self-presentation in the social media age, allowing for surprising moments of vulnerability and connection to others. 

VR and empathy. Virtual reality was everywhere, naturally. A growing theme, which we’ve seen elsewhere, is an understanding not only of how virtual reality can be used for therapy, but also how it can be used to create deeper emotional connections and empathy with events. Charities such as Charity Water and the Clinton Foundation have used VR films to bring consumers to the heart of other people’s realities. They’ve said that this has had a transformative impact on people’s donations as a result. The next step will be quantities data, neuroscience and analytics to prove the connection between the two.

Novelties. From brand activations to silly posters and crazy giveaways, SXSW has become more ludicrous than ever, and in many instances, quite vacuous. My favorite innovation? "The Wand," an absorbent plastic and mesh wand which claims to eradicate hangovers by stripping away sulfite preservatives and histamines in wine. Its target is 30- to 60-year-old women. 

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

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