SXSW and the future of food

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I attend SXSW Interactive every year and have seen this side of the festival grow from just an afternoon of Interactive events, to what it is today. I know SXSW has its critics but in my opinion it is an amazing five days of varied talks, debates over BBQ and chance meetings. As the festival has grown so too has my commitment to understanding more about emotional relationships with food and how these are formed. I’ve made it my mission to explore the full impact of marketing on human relationships with food and eating. Here’s what I made of SXSW and the future of food.

How can VR beat real eating?

There’s often criticism of how brands now dominate SXSW Interactive but I have to say I love seeing what different brands, especially food ones have to show. It felt like almost everyone had some element of virtual reality, from McDonalds to Budweiser. These VR installations were certainly cool, immersive and new experiences but it was hard to see how they could enhance the real-life multisensory experience of eating good food. Without question, the technology and the potential for VR is amazing but the application within the food & drink industry doesn’t seem clear yet. Ultimately, VR can’t yet replicate the tastes, smells and sheer joy that is eating a great meal with the people you love. So for now, VR within food and drink seems more of a novelty than a necessity.

It’s not about the ‘next big thing’

Many articles have focused on the lack of a ‘break out’ app or technology at this year’s SXSW. I partially agree with this, it’s like my experience with VR and food, it was impressive but not ready to revolutionise yet. Where I disagree with others is in how I don’t actually see this as a disappointment. People are creating and inventing all the time, I think we’re beyond eagerly awaiting the ‘next big thing’ at SXSW. It felt as if the festival had matured and moved on from this mind-set. Instead, the focus was on fixing systems, social issues and making the world a better place, with a look at technology’s role in making this happen.

One new concept I’ll be watching closely was Nom, the live streaming app for food, devised by YouTube Founder Steve Chen. Having a number of food clients, I’ve witnessed how food brings communities together and live streaming really helps with this. I loved hearing about the inspiration for Nom, with its founders meeting in places like Google’s Kitchen Sync, trying to talk about tech and ending up talking about food and meal planning.

Who has the courage to change the future of food?

President Obama’s speech talked about how the government needed people like the SXSW audience. He talked about harnessing technology to make government better and how SXSW attendees need to help make it happen. As I listened I was struck by how much the food industry also needed the same thing if we’re ever going to solve some of the problems surrounding food. I’m all too aware that we live in a world where there is both people starving and struggling to get enough to eat, and at the same time an obesity epidemic and an entire industry dedicated to helping us eat less and better. These are serious issues that are just crying out to be shaken up by the kinds of visionaries, entrepreneurs, scientists and passionate people who attend SXSW. SXSW panellist Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, summed it up on stage when he said: “There are so many opportunities for social good in food entrepreneurship. Not enough smart people who want to be makers are looking at the world of food. You can make money and do good at the same time.”

To come up with the kind of answers, ideas and technology we need to solve global food problems and world issues, it’s clear that diverse teams in the workplace are most definitely needed. I was impressed by the Google.org talk where Director Jacqueline Fuller spoke about how Google's workplace is 70% male and how they know that they would create better products if they have a more diverse teams. It was good to hear how they were working to address this.

The highlight for me as it was for many of this year’s SXSW attendees was Dr. Brené Brown, who received a standing ovation from thousands of people. She spoke with passion about choosing courage over comfort, in short, “if you’re going to be brave, you are going to get hurt” she said. It made me think once again of how badly the food industry needs brave and bold people with the courage to be vulnerable and the vision to change the way we do things.

The courage to change and tell the truth in a pressured online world is certainly needed. According to one talk I went to, six out of ten young girls will stop doing something they love because of an image related anxiety.

Brilliant brain insights from SXSW

Neuroscience is an absolutely fascinating area that more marketers are starting to utilise, so I was pleased to see there were plenty of insights into the human brain at this year’s SXSW. We’ve known for a while that our decisions tend to be made emotionally rather than rationally but at this year’s event I learnt that actually 95% of decisions are non-conscious. This means almost all of our decisions are not the logical, rational, well-thought out choices we often think they are. Clearly this has huge implications for marketing and the way brands communicate with consumers. For food and nutrition this statistic raises some big questions too. Primarily, if we’re not making rational decisions when we choose to eat - is education and information about food, whether it’s calories or sugar content, really going to make a difference?

I’ve long suspected that education alone is not the answer to solving our unhealthy relationship with food. This was confirmed for me at another SXSW talk which stated that education doesn’t change behaviour. According to Brian Wansink, Professor and Director at Cornell University this is true for calories and low-fat foods too. Giving information on fat content doesn’t necessarily lead to better decisions, so we need to re-think how we tackle challenges like obesity.

SXSW speaker Roger Dooley pointed out that while digital technology has changed rapidly, all around us over the last few years, the human brain hasn’t actually changed in 50,000 years. Clearly, our brains need time to adjust and adapt to the things we’re creating. When something new is invented, are we really considering its long term affects on our brains?

As marketers we talk a lot about how brands should be using story telling as a method of communicating with consumers, so I was interested in a statistic that came out at SXSW which said that 65% of all human conversations are actually stories. It sounds like a huge amount, but when you stop and take a second to think about conversations you’ve had to today, it seems almost obvious. It’s a clear endorsement for utilising story telling techniques in marketing campaigns.

A fresh start for food marketing

Above all, SXSW forced me to think hard about how our food system is fundamentally broken. A talk from Andrew Zimmern, US TV Host and Chef and Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek really emphasised this when they said: “Instead of being a force that fuels and enriches both our bodies and the planet it depletes them. It makes it incredibly difficult for busy and hard working families across the country to feed their kids healthy food on a budget and is trashing our natural resources around the world in the process.”

This talk asked us to imagine if we could start afresh with food. What would we grow, how would we distribute, sell and market it? Whilst a complete fresh start for food might not be possible for now, I think when it comes to food marketing we can afford to start again and to try and do things differently. I hope that in the future, marketing can play a positive role in forming healthy emotional relationships with food. With so much knowledge, data and insight available to us on how to influence consumers, there’s a need for food brands to use this knowledge responsibly.

Karen Fewell is founder and director of Digital Blonde.

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