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SXSW18 PSA: You all have it very, very wrong.

Written by Elise Erwin

Learning, taco, Lone Star – repeat. That’s right y’all, SXSW18 has come and gone for another year. Bastion Effect's Elise Erwin, shares how and why SXSW was so significantly different to years past, and what brands must act on immediately to avoid being left behind.

Before I jump into how and why SXSW was so significantly different to years past, I want to set the scene.

My journey to SXSW began this year on International Women’s Day (IWD), a special day created to celebrate women, their worth and potential. What an empowering sentiment, as I excitedly jet off to be surrounded by the globe’s most inspiring experts across brand marketing, tech, health, media, music and film.

Lining up at the airport check-in, I realised this IWD would be extended as a result of the time difference. Isn’t that nice?

What I didn’t realise, was that this ‘nominated’ day to also consciously acknowledge female existence, would be the agenda for the coming week. Better yet, it would call time on all forms of discrimination and exclusivity.

SXSW18 will go down as the year of the awakening. While we all skipped in ready to be enlightened on the latest tech innovation and trends (which were covered as well, we will get to those later), we walked away with a clear message to diversify the lens with which we operate.

It’s shockingly obvious, but we’ve been designing for and marketing to white men for thousands of years, and ignorantly patting ourselves on the back. Good morning, news flash – we don’t all think or operate within the cultural frame of white men.

Did you know that women are 47% more likely to sustain serious neck and foot injuries following a car crash than men? That’s because car manufacturers have been designing and testing the cabins with a focus on male fit and form. Fingerprint recognition on smartphones is also less likely to work for females, due to (shock horror) the size and width of the phone. Writer disclaimer: my giant hands are exempt from the latter injustice.

Stop and think about the products and services that don’t work for you. Why? Maybe there isn’t a sustainable market to customise to that level? Cut that conditioned thinking, will you. More often than not, women are being missed, and with the buying power we now hold, brands are missing a glaringly obvious opportunity.

As custodians of the audience, marketers play an important role in driving unbiased thinking forward. Think about which voices are being heard in the room, who is developing, how diversified is the testing strategy. These are important questions to ask as we move towards the automation age.

The biggest concern surrounding AI, is that it’s perpetuating bias, with machines learning from often stereotypical, content online. In one example, a Bot was led astray within 24 hours of being online. Pulling from existing conversations, the Bot became a genocide-supporting, anti-feminist Nazi, tweeting messages such as: “Hitler did nothing wrong.” Yes, governance is going to be paramount as we move forward, and people of all genders, colours and socio-economic backgrounds need to contribute, as these very smart machines can learn values and appropriate language use. 

To summarise a few SXSW18 speakers who are steps ahead: 

1.     CEO and Founder of Bumble, Whitney Wolfe-Herd.

Hailing as a Co-Founder of Tinder, (backstory found, here) Whitney set out “to create the female internet”, built on the values of accountability, empowerment, kindness and love. Recognising men are conditioned to chase and face continual rejection, Whitney changed the often-aggressive dating narrative by introducing compliments to men – women must make the first move. Marketing wise, when questioned if the LA Clippers were the right property to sponsor given the NBA’s misogynistic reputation, Whitney answered a perfect yes. The StrongerWithHer campaign came to life within the culture that needed it most.

2.    Writer, Actor, Social/Political/Everything Commentator, Lena Dunham.

Speaking on authenticity in the media, Lena shared that she’s “always wanted to operate from a place that erases shame,” creating to share the stories of those who may deem themselves ‘terminally unique’. Asked by moderator and Editor of Glamour magazine, Samantha Barry, on if and how men should be brought into the conversation, Lena’s answer was grounded in caution. In short, it’s important to expose men to women’s real issues and voices, but ultimately what we’re all trying to do is make women feel like there is a space from them in society. It would be a little ironic to allow men to cloud the conversation.

3.     Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Co-Founder, Melinda Gates.

Sitting down to chat to Joanna Coles (Chief Content Officer at Hearst Magazines), Nina Shaw (Talent Attorney and Founding Member of the Times Up movement) and Stacy Brown Philpot (TaskRabbit, formerly Google) to discuss the future of the workplace, Melinda made it clear that "we can't keep building from the same old blueprint that created the Old Boys' Club,". She insisted on making equality part of every single conversation and finding great male allies – cue a synchronised sigh from every white male. Facts were thrown – 72% of film narratives are driven by men, less than 2% of tech venture capital goes to women and less than 1% to people of colour. Again, remiss and limiting. Motivation was built when the panel conceded that it only takes a community of three to create change.

4.    Uber Chief Brand Officer, Bozoma Saint John.

Joining Uber following a pretty ugly period in Senior Management, Boz furthered the importance of the internal culture check. She also spoke on the need for brands to evolve like people. Remaining static could be disastrous, even for brands built on heritage – values can remain (although, hopefully evolving with the times) but a brand’s purpose should change, in line with the market.

Generating the best quote of the week was Symone Sanders, CNN Political Commentator and Former Press Secretary to US Senator Bernie Sanders: “How many bald, black, 28-year-old girls do you see on television?” Good point Symone.

Before I round this out with next steps, I’d like to make a personal point – I love men. I was raised by an empowering father and I’ve worked, and continue to work, with some incredible males who coached me to ask for what I rightfully deserve. I’ve also worked with disempowering and competitive women, understandably guarding their token seat at the table. Change will be a story of us, not them.

The commercial and personal benefits of more diverse and inclusive workplaces, that are free of expert blindness is hugely exciting for us, our clients and their audiences.

So how about we all:

1.     Evaluate the room. Whose voice is not being represented? Speak for them and get them in there!

2.     Anonymise CVs – remove schools, gender and anything that stereotypes.

3.     Deeply consider the language we use, on and offline – AI is listening, as are mortals.

4.     Listen, really listen to customer stories and curate solutions for them. Build, test and moderate in line with the customer’s mindset. Don’t assume you can understand the complexities of another audience.

I look forward to a time when we can go back to simply discussing innovations in tech and trends, at SXSW. I can imagine that will be a pretty great time to be alive. 

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