SXSW isn't just a music, film, and media festival. For entrepreneurs hoping to make a splash, for startups seeking to tell a compelling story, and for companies hoping to build a brand, SXSW's tens of thousands of attendees can be the perfect launching pad for a business...

... if you actually know the right way to connect with that audience.

Since SXSW is here again, it's the perfect time to talk to someone who knows exactly how smart companies can connect with their customers in an authentic way, one that actually builds a brand -- and a following.

Alan Miller is the founder and President of COLLiDE, a boutique culture agency and festival creation company that specializes in full brand integration. You can't just write them a check and get back a bunch of promotional literature and ads; they go -- and expect you to go -- much deeper.

(Which is a very good thing.)

I'm old, so I have to ask. What is a "culture agency"?

We call ourselves a creative culture agency, because what we do best is develop and build and brand strategies and execute them based in culture: music, sports, arts, culinary... we build cool, credible campaigns endemic to the culture a particular client markets to.

We realize that sounds like a different approach, so we back it up. We've always believed that if we ask our clients to invest in culture, we should, too. So we have COLLiDE Travel With Purpose, travel guides based on musicians and artists sharing what they love about their cities. We produce festivals.

And we have COLLIDE atx, a brick-and-mortar restaurant, bar, and creative space that is a new way to bring people together in Austin. A particular chef is only there for 60 days, then we bring in a new chef. The first chef, Patrick Armstrong, comes from a Spanish tapas truck in Austin called Boca. We said, "What would you do if we gave you a kitchen for 60 days?" It's a great opportunity to elevate young chefs who want to try something new. We've had tremendous partners come in: High Brew Coffee partners with us, Deep Eddy Vodka partners with us...

We also use the space to highlight musicians, artists, entrepreneurs... So yes. We truly believe in connecting people through culture and experiences.

Give me an example of how a brand can connect through the festival experience.

One we're working with now is JanSport. Rather than just creating a backpack for all the artists, we've done something special. We chose ten artists who are coming to SXSW from around the world: Brazil, Australia, the Philippines, South Africa, etc. We chose a band we liked and sent each a JanSport backpack filled with cameras and said, "Share with us what is amazing about your scene and your culture." We just asked them to create two videos.

What we got back were some of the most amazing stories from the artists about their scenes. We chose three of those artists, and they'll play a showcase at SXSW.

That's a really cool way to tap in and work with artists in a way that's is authentic and credible and helps elevate them. And it's a great way for JanSport to connect with music fans in an authentic and credible way.

That's the opposite of, say, writing a check to become "The Official Athlete's Foot Powder of the Winter Olympics."

That's lazy marketing. Just putting your logo on something is like buying media.

If you're trying to connect with a millennial audience or with Gen Z, you have to focus on their passion points. You have to reach them in an organic and credible way or you won't create any traction. Slapping on a logo doesn't help you connect any more closely to the community than you are.

Integration is the win.

Which means you have to know why you're marketing the way you've chosen to market.

The most important thing is the why. You always have to ask why you're trying to do what you're trying to do. Keeping yourself honest in that respect is the most important thing.

Then, identify a genuine passion point for the audience you want to reach. If you're trying to reach an audience that isn't passionate, you'll always be vanilla. To hit the people who will help your brand grow, find what they're passionate about. Music, sports, film, arts... whatever that passion point is, find it.

Then find a partner who understands how this works. If you do it on your own you'll always get out-priced because you won't know who the decision makers are. Find a partner who truly understands the landscape. Not only will that save money, it will dramatically increase the impact of the marketing approach you choose to take.

You also focus on the other side of the culture equation: the people who help create the culture.

Absolutely. Go a step farther and look at what the community needs. What can you, as a brand, add to that -- right now?

Say you're talking about music; there music schools that need equipment. There are artists that need support on the road. There are all kinds of services you can provide. We welcome artists in to our restaurant to eat for free before they do a show in Austin.

Bands need gas in their tour vans. Bands are living on the road; they need stuff. How can you best support that... and then build the core of your plan out of the needs of the community?

Approach it that way and you will always be respectful, and useful, and on target.

Let's talk specifically about SXSW.

South By is an experience that is very different from almost any other festival. What's so great about SXSW is that you can build an event based on your brand. If you go to a normal festival, they put up your logo. If you go to SXSW, you can choose a venue that represents your brand.

We're working with brands like StubHub, Showtime, Twix, Snickers, Avacados from Mexico, JanSport... the list goes on and on. Each one lives in different experience, though.

For example, Stubhub is represented at a very large venue, so we curate the artists to make sure they're on brand. If you want indie rock, at SXSW can have it. If you want hip hop, you can have it. You can work with a venue that represents your brand and will hep you connect with your audience.

And make sure you don't get caught up trying to be the biggest. Too many big brands simply try to out-spend everyone, and you can find example after example where the big brands got backlash from that approach. People attending SXSW appreciate the opposite approach.

They don't want bigger. They want smarter. They love smarter.

I've been to SXSW before, and many brands extended their efforts into the city.

Investing locally is a really smart approach. The more you can tie in local partners, the better... and the more you can connect with your audience.

The most important thing is to not see it as a one-time event. What you do at SXSW should be a launching pad or the conclusion of a campaign that launches the next one.

People see through brands that do one-off. See it as a showcase experience that builds out and shares your content. Plenty of brands start leading up to SXSW three months out, and continue that campaign for three months after. Just crossing off the "music" or "film" box doesn't work.

That makes connecting through culture pretty hard.

Oh, it is. We don't just buy media. If you want to be good at what you do, you have to know the landscape, the community, and you have to put your trust in the people that understand it.

This space is moving so quickly you have to always be very far ahead of all these elements or you can't be successful. But that's a good thing because it means if you're smart, you can gain a huge advantage over your competition.

Smart is what wins, not money. We love working with brands that assume they have to spend more to get more. It's fun showing them that it's about spending correctly, in the right places -- not just spending more. Sometimes they don't even to spend as much as they had been spending; there are layers that can be removed if you do this the right way.

Don't get caught up in the verticals. Focus on the why, and you'll always do better.

Published on: Mar 9, 2017