The evolution of SXSW

I returned to Austin recently for another must attend SXSW experience.

I returned to Austin recently for another must attend SXSW experience. While everyone is talking about the exponential growth of the Interactive portion of the festival, what struck me was how SXSW has truly become the crossroads of culture; a meeting of the brightest minds and influencers from around the country and the world. It hosts thousands of engaged attendees, but millions participate in the conversation. The people who generate content at SXSW are social “connectors” across consumer segments and other key stakeholders that are key to our food and beverage brands.

This year, we were exposed to emerging group-texting applications like Fast Society and GroupMe; I'll be curious to see how that cohort evolves. Although SXSW was where Gowalla and Foursquare launched, there were fewer advances and new technologies in this space than I would have anticipated.

At least this time around, I wore jeans (instead of a suit and heels) and felt far more comfortable. The setting is casual, and every person is engaged and engaging. I was on a panel and everyone in the room was simultaneously listening, blogging, and tweeting on laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Multi-tasking in the extreme.

PepsiCo has been a major sponsor of the event since 2009 because it's a place innovation happens, and where the best minds in the space converge each year. We love the chance to experience new technologies and talent six to 18 months before they change the way we engage with our consumers.

 Our first year we built a "podcast playground” – a quiet place away from the fray where content creators could produce reports and that facilitated them bringing SXSW to their communities, while munching on SunChips and drinking Pepsi.  This year, this concept morphed into a day stage we hosted in conjunction with Fast Company to bring SXSW external to the masses via PepsiCo.com and to the PepsiCo team around the world.

Authenticity is key and brands must add value. The Pepsi Max Lot hosted panels and concerts all week. We partnered with location-based platform Foursquare to host a secret closing concert that was only accessible through a custom badge on Foursquare.  SoBe challenged attendees to “Try Everything. Find Yours” with “flights” of different flavors and a webcam with animated disguises that people could share in social media spaces. Brisk drove pre-SXSW buzz with 4,000 exclusive, crowd-sourced cans from mobile photo sharing start-up, Instagram. Lipton Natural Iced Tea had a groundbreaking partnership with Pandora, and Mountain Dew was back with its Green Label Sound Showcase.

We also featured Zeitgeist displays. Streams of online conversations showed where people were meeting, their schedules, and hot themes on screens, designed to help people on the ground at the festival achieve the best possible experience.

We hosted a day stage to co-curate rich content and our PepsiCo Women's Inspiration Network (WIN) hosted “Digitini”, honoring leading women at the CNN Grill (CNN's first time with a permanent location at SXSW) with digital influencer, Sloane Berrent. These media, startup, and influencer partnerships bring sophistication to content that a traditional model would not allow. It also allowed us to recognize nine amazing women leaders in the digital and social media space.

I also enjoyed seeing our employees, brand and digital leaders discussing social trends and collaborating with fellow attendees on best practices, while more than a dozen PepsiCo employee roving reporters shared their insights on Pepsico.com. Education for our employees is key to driving company-wide innovation and experimentation - a model we call “Digital Fitness.”

So, now that I begin to come down from the cloud that is SXSW, it is time to again review the value we get from our participation at SXSW.

We deeply engage our consumers and learn from innovative digital leaders. We learn how our business will need to change over time, and which technologies will change the consumer landscape.  We meet and engage with the brightest young talent and showcase our collaborations with our partners such as the PepsiCo10, two of whom launched programs at SXSW. And our teams return from SXSW brimming with big ideas and new relationships, which we'll focus on immediately to drive the digital culture at PepsiCo to connect with consumers in new and meaningful ways.

If you haven't been to SXSW . . . you don't know what you're missing. It's high energy, it's deeply engaging, it puts so much innovation in front of you that it takes months to fully digest, and it puts you in the midst of creative social entrepreneurs and thought leaders that are second to none. One more piece of advice - wear flats.

Julie Hamp is SVP of communications for PepsiCo, a position she has held since December 2007.

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