Mastering Empathy, Inclusiveness, and Cultural Cognizance: 
Take-Aways from SXSW 2021

By / Agency Culture, Marketing

As a creative, visionary, and bibliophile, this year’s South by Southwest Festival represented a curated stream-of-consciousness I could happily sink my teeth into. Although the in-person, multi-dimensional relationships that can be developed in a non-virtual SXSW experience were missed, the online presentations offered solid fodder for the curious, culturally cognizant denizen of an increasingly global society.

Topics of interest ranged from advances in AI and biotechnology to creating inclusive and representative cultural and creative stewardship for the hyper-digital age. Most poignant and overarching were the never-more-important themes of empathy and inclusivity—practices we consciously champion at MODintelechy. This left me pondering ways these subjects are shaping the wider digital marketing landscape, and what we can learn from them.

The Keynotes – Cultural and Creative Inclusivity

An enveloping theme of cultural inclusivity and the impacts of creativity on communities throughout the arts and business, and freedom of expression was woven into SXSW this year.

There’s a quantitative impact of creativity on business markets. McKinsey performed an analysis of this impact, developing the Award Creativity Score (ACS). Creative companies experience positive financial impacts, but market indices prove that the ability to innovate, and the capacity for a company to translate creativity into their business adds incredible value to the bottom line. i also states that creative industries in Austin generate $4.3 billion in economic activity, $71 million in tax revenue, and 49,000 jobs annually. ii

Keynote: Raising the Bar: Accelerating Diversity in Music

In a talk on inclusivity within music, industry leaders discussed genre, age, race, gender, and initiatives for change to make the music industry more diverse. Liliahn Majeed the SVP, Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Officer at the Universal Music Group weighed in as well as Sony Music Group’s Tiffany R. Warren, and Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change.

The influence of music on our country is clear.” – Liliahn Majeed

Systemic inequalities were highlighted, and the ways in which industry animates them, but the discussion was ripe with hope and joy, as well as ways that culturally driven creativity is being upheld despite the framing of cultural, racial, and other stereotypes.

As an article in Adweek recently pointed out, “Women are increasingly demanding a seat at the table.” This cultural shift means marketers need to rethink female representation in their marketing to general audiences. The music industry is a key indicator of this trend because it takes up so much of the market share in advertising and media prominence, but it’s lessons can be applied across every marketing modality.

Huge brands like Nike get it. Using a mantra of inclusivity, the company scored brilliant success in one of the fastest growing ad-markets – India. The music video “Da Da Ding,” represents the new face of Indian women.

The music industry wasn’t the only one, however, to call itself out for xenophobic practices and the need for change.

The Importance of Market Empathy

Keynote: Charles Yu & Lisa Ling

In Charles Yu and Lisa Ling’s talk covering Yu’s book, “Interior Chinatown,” the creative writing process, identity, the importance of representation, and anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, it became clear that persona development in an age of empathy and identity couldn’t be more necessary. This has proved evident in our own persona development work for identity security client SailPoint, which is helping drive a more accurate, personalized, customer-centric experience across their website, sales, and marketing strategy.

Yu’s book delivers insight as to how Asian-Americans have been marginalized, but are finding pathways to deliver their unique insights to a culturally inclusive society. Yu suggested that, “The solutions will come from community building on a local level.” In marketing speak, Yu’s point is relevant to knowing your audience, speaking to their interests, and gathering support and ownership of your brand’s goals.

A human-first perspective will always land better with potential customers, and cultural inclusivity allows you to reach a wider or more specified market niche, as needed. You might not think higher click-through rates and conversion could so profoundly be affected by this approach, but data proves otherwise. Entire niche marketing strategies can be developed based on inclusionary thinking. Knowing your customer intimately also helps you speak directly to the problems they wish to solve. iii

As one attendee @Aminah Walton stated, “It’s upsetting that the prominent media narrative doesn’t reflect the beauty of different cultures and hearing/seeing/learning individual stories. No ethnic group is monolithic and until individual stories become more the norm, the disconnect will continue as we see today.”

Market-based empathy isn’t a new concept, but it’s gaining traction, necessarily so. As Heinz marketing said so well, “Companies don’t make purchase decisions, people do.” Market empathy is necessary as we learn to embody a human-centric approach to marketing and branding. Facts and statistics for storytelling simply aren’t enough anymore. We need to connect emotionally to our target market, on a cognitive, almost subliminally compassionate level. Especially as we emerge from Covid, brands that do this, in our opinion, will surpass all others. The stories we tell, as Walton pointed out in the discussion of Yu’s book, should connect us.

Stories are also the backbone of good marketing. As Forbes points out – your brand story is where you should start. Your company can’t grow without a great story. If it’s confusing, ambiguous, or inconsistently communicated, it might be time for a refresh. iv

AI & It’s Moral Implications

Keynote: AI and Great Power Competition, Alexander Vindman, Geopolitical Strategist

Human-AI interdependence grows ever more pressing. In this talk, discussions on the geopolitical ramifications of AI were presented. Most importantly, the question was presented: how can we create technologies that are authentic to our values?

As one attendee, Jason Palacios, stated, “If a robot were to pass the Turing Test then it would be considered human.”

Artificial intelligence is already transforming digital marketing, with the following needs aptly addressed:

  • Combining AI with AR/AV for enhanced customer experiences.
  • Identifying customer data and managing its use.
  • AI chatbots for real-time customer interaction.
  • AI directed email marketing for the better conversion of leads.
  • Gathering insights to direct content creation.
  • The improvement of digital ads based on consumer data.

Even with these current uses, and future AI developments already in the works, how can we be sure that computers will serve humans and not turn us into a data commodity alone? The global data market is nearing the trillions, and shows no sign of slowing down, as a great need to protect client-side and customer-data grows exponentially, too. v Digital transformations continue to drastically shape our world, and the ways in which we determine the mindful use of AI will be key. As the computer-human relationship grows, it will be more than a Turing test which determines our fate.

Key Takeaway

Humanness in marketing has never been more needed, even against the canvas of data technologies that are evolving at warp speed. Cultural inclusiveness, empathy, and human story are still the gravitational components pulling us all toward positive change and the most effective communication and marketing. MODintelechy’s own imperative toward collaborative branding and fostering authentic partnerships that form impactful work, is in step with these larger themes presented at SXSW this year, and certainly on the minds of many of the world’s great thinkers and innovators. Learn how we approach problem solving from a people-first perspective.

i Creativity’s bottom line: How winning companies turn creativity into business value and growth. (2017, June 16). McKinsey & Company

ii Creative development. (n.d.).

iii 7 niche marketing ideas for specialized businesses. (2014, October 28). WordStream: Online Advertising Made Easy

iv (n.d.). Forbes

v Gartner says global IT spending to reach $3.9 trillion in 2020. (n.d.). Gartner

Written by / Agency Culture, Marketing


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