What Purpose-Driven Leaders Can Learn from SXSW


By: Whitney Dailey, Director of Marketing

This week, individuals, executives and world figureheads convened in Austin for SXSW Interactive – a mammoth event where leaders shared ideas, solutions, innovations and a positive outlook for the future.

Although the conference features a Social Impact track where activists, social enterprises and entertainers shared how they are creating solutions, the theme of Purpose extended far beyond this singular track. From VR, to AI and IoT, the concept of creating a better, more equitable and eye-opening world was a common thread throughout sessions, activations and even parties during the week. For those who weren’t able to be on the ground at SXSW here are three takeaways business leaders can apply to their social impact and Purpose work:

  • A Strong Mission Shows Your Brand When to Act…and When Not To: On Sunday, during a panel entitled “Fighting Back with CSR: How Companies are Uniting,” panelists shared key learnings for the evolution of CSR in complex times. James Lynch, Director of Executive Communications at Airbnb, explained how having a strong company mission helped them know when to act during landmark moments over the past year. Lynch commented, “If you live your mission, moments in time where your mission is on the line is when you speak out.” This allowed Airbnb to quickly activate following 2017’s travel ban. Fellow panelist Mohan Ramaswamy, Founding Partner at Work & Co., echoed this statement and added that a strong mission can help a brand understand when not to act as well. “The idea of focus is really important. Right now you can get distracted, having a clear mission helps you know when and how to communicate.”
  • Pair Good Data With Emotion and Relevance to Break Through: Saleem Alhabash, Assistant Professor of Public Relations and Social Media at Michigan State University's Department of Advertising + Public Relations and Marcus Collins, SVP, Executive Director of Social Engagement at Doner, hit the stage for “Emoticulture: How Data & Science Create Happiness” to share some stunning data. Every minute there are 317,000 new Facebook status updates, 448,000 tweets and 66,000 Instagram posts. So how can a brand break through? The key, explained Collins, is not just the vast amount of data marketers have at their fingertips, but taking this data and infusing it with one thing: humanity. Alhabash built upon this, stating content that sticks “is relevant to me and something that ignites my emotion.” Collins closed the session by insisting marketers must be “radically empathetic.”
  • Flip the Script – Focus on the Solution, Not the Problem: In today’s divisive times, it can be easy to let global challenges lead to a path of negativity. A session entitled, “Naming and Faming! Understanding Positive Solutions” sought to discuss the power of positivity in solving complex issues. Panelists pushed organizations and individuals to “flip the script”. Panelist Blair Glencorse, Executive Director at the Accountability Lab, shared that although popular sentiment may be that “bad news sells,” that is not necessarily the case. In fact, “research shows positive stories are shared more – and they lead to more action from the people who read them.” Nora Rahimian, Founder of #CultureFix, built upon this concept, stating simply: “anger is exhausting,” and focusing on the positive can be far more energizing to stakeholders.

Walking down 6th street in Austin during SXSW, guests are met with a barrage of messages, images and, of course, music. But this year it was hard to deny the emphasis on Purpose. Not only in how business can be a powerful force for change, but how technology, innovations and even experiences can build a path towards a better future. If we leave with just a few takeaways from this year’s SXSW, perhaps it can be to: lead with a strong mission, be radically emphatic and keep it positive.