South by Southwest (SXSW) just turned 26. For most people, 26 is still a relatively youthful age — a time when idealistic folks are establishing careers, setting up independent lives, and deciding whom they want to become as adults. But for the Austin-based festival dedicated to the latest trends in music, tech and film, 26 years of history can make you look like old news.
It’s become a cliché to talk about how SXSW isn’t what it used to be, that the funky little festival for indie musicians and starving artist filmmakers has lost its soul somewhere along the way to the 62-foot Doritos vending machine stage and homeless people transformed into WiFi hotspots. And while it’s easy to dismiss many of these complaints as hazy nostalgia for an imagined past, this perceived decline in quality over time can be a real problem for many brands.
Whether it’s cultural cachet or dedication to innovation, the human tendency to see the present as not quite measuring up to the past means that a brand must always fight to maintain its reputation. Without constant rejuvenation, a festival, company, or product will always fall somewhere short of its past iteration. So how exactly does a brand like SXSW fight to keep its cool?
The simplest way for a brand to keep moving forward is to keep growing, and SXSW has done exactly this. In 1987, about 700 people showed up to what was then strictly a music festival. This year there were more than 30,000 attendees for the SXSW Interactive portion of the festival, which is just the part that focuses on new technology. By growth alone, a brand can show that it has outdone its earlier self.
Times change, and brands need to change with them. SXSW has never hesitated to embrace new trends, transforming itself from a basic music festival (a model that has been around for about as long as music itself), to a meeting place for people who want to see the latest in technology and art. This has meant adding a film portion to the festival, along with what might be the biggest current draw, SXSW Interactive. While another brand with a particularly long history (if I might classify the Catholic Church as a brand, too) now considers how to adapt to trends among its followers, SXSW freely lets go of its past and embraces the next new thing.
Even as they try to embrace new trends, brands must remember not to lose sight of their original mission. While this may be one of SXSW’s weaker points in the eyes of many of its detractors, the fact that the festival has not moved to a city more accommodating of its large numbers (OK, it’s hard to imagine SXSW in Houston), or cut down the amount of festival time dedicated to music, means that the brand has been able to bring on new followers while keeping dedicated fans in the fold. It remains to be seen whether SXSW will be able to balance its unique tradition with the right amount of growth and evolution, but the mixture so far has continued to outdo itself.