Sxsw-australia-house

The U.S. might be known for its consumerism, but the major challenges facing brands today tend to be universal. Case in point: At the SXSW festival, which officially ends Sunday, an international audience crammed into the Australia House for a packed session on how brands can tap into or create community.

And, the speakers said, what inspires community around a brand — particularly among the Millennial and Gen Z set — is a sense of purpose.

“In 15 years, we’ve raised a billion dollars, and we’ve done that because we’ve taken a disruptive approach to the world of charity,” said Simon Traynor, non-executive director of The Movember Foundation, an organization best known for inspiring millions of men to grow facial hair every November to raise awareness for men’s health issues.

Traynor, who’s worked at Nike Inc. and Quiksilver, is no stranger to cultivating compelling brands. Now, he and his group have created a global movement of five million people.

“Movember is 15 years old, so think back to pre-hipster life, think back to a different world,” Traynor said. “When you were in downtown Melbourne 13 or 14 years ago, and you walked down the street Nov. 13, 14 and 15th, and you saw a guy on the street with a moustache, you’d look at each other and maybe [give] a wink or a smile. You knew you were part of something. You were part of the Movember community. And that essence is there today.”

Margaret Zhang, cofounder of Background, an Australia-based consultancy, believes that just having a good product is not enough. “[You need] a real lifestyle around the product, because you cannot just have a product-driven business,” she said. “Because a good product is a baseline expectation now.” She urges companies to inspire their own employees, so they organically emerge as brand ambassadors.

Companies often come up short inspiring community, even in their own ranks. But too often, employees aren’t included in the community-building. “You can’t just focus only on the consumer and the end product,” Zhang added. “Everybody who’s a part of your process needs to stand for and be ideologically aligned with what you, as a company, stand for.”

Plenty of companies give to charities or pledge time or resources to causes on the side. But for some of the most valuable companies in the world, it’s more fundamental than that.

“The statement at Nike is ‘To bring innovation and inspiration to every athlete in the world,’ and the asterisk says, ‘If you have a body, you’re an athlete’,” Trainer explained. “At Quiksilver, the line is ‘To awaken the spirit of adventure that lives in everyone.’ These are really strong and emotional missions.”

According to the panelists, there’s a distinction between lip service or product marketing and genuine identity. Today, that’s a common pitfall — especially across fashion or celebrity initiatives.

“It’s not what you say, it’s not what you do. It’s who you are,” said Lindsay Cornell, an Aussie transplant working in L.A. as brand director for Will.i.am. “I think that’s going to be the future of successful businesses and successful brands — not looking at the platform, not looking at the client offering, but really looking at what you’re standing for and what value you have.”

When Cornell was a student learning about communication, she couldn’t help but note that one-way communication, like broadcast television or radio, weren’t the primary messaging channels anymore. Thanks to social media and other tech, two-way communication between brands and customers had emerged as a powerful tool.

“Now it’s unlimited, all the time, 24-7 communication,” she said. “And it’s what your community is really saying about you [all the time]. It lives beyond a campaign or a strategy.”

It also goes beyond borders.

Hyper-local services and products are de rigueur in retail, and paying that sort of attention to an area’s unique tastes can engender loyalty in customers and create avid fans. For large companies, it becomes something like “hyper-local at scale,” as moderator Nick Stone, of Bluestone Lane, called it.

The concept is easy to understand, but hard to pull off. And there’s risk, if the company doesn’t nail those regional preferences and lifestyles.

That’s especially true in Asian markets like China, added Zhang, whose consultancy helps companies expand into or out of the Chinese market.

“Every few months, there’s a new Facebook, a new Uber, every type of platform, every type of brand offering, every type of consumer experience,” she explained. “For a variety of cultural and regulatory reasons, it’s a hugely changing landscape. [And] the connectivity is way higher than any other market that I’ve ever seen. As such, the consumer has a fierce demand for novelty all the time, and that pushes companies to be way more innovative.

“Brand loyalty is actually very difficult to come by, because the options are so endless,” she said.

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