Mar 15, 2017 / by Bruce Kennedy

I attended dozens of sessions, speakers, panels, parties and taco trucks over the last few days and in truth, I learned the most from the taco trucks.

There is an unspoken rule to finding a great taco truck no one wants to admit; the cleanest truck will not have the best food.

Now I’m not saying to go in search of a place that wouldn’t pass a health inspection but for authentic, local food you do not want to stop at a place that is spotless. Perhaps it is because we associate pristine, spotless dining experiences with chain restaurants or that anyone who focuses too much on their taco truck’s look is not focused enough on the food. Whatever the case, there is a lesson to be learned here that was echoed across SXSW; Authenticity above all else.

For this post, I want to focus on one session: SXSW Podcast Stage: On Brand.

Nick Westergaard, the host of #OnBrandPodcast was joined by Duff Stewart, CEO of GSD&M and Heather Whaling the Founder of Geben Communications. The panel was an engaged discussion on brands and individuals choosing to take a stand and share their beliefs on politically charged issues in an increasingly polarized political climate.

While I highly recommend you check out the full podcast, one of the most interesting parts I’d like to highlight is when the panel surprisingly advocated speaking out on the issues that matter to you personally or as a brand.

Westergaard cued up the conversation by dispelling the myth that consumers want brands to keep quiet on social/political issues – sharing the statistic 73% of consumers report they would switch brands if a similar brand supported a good cause.

Whaling shared her own experience as an agency owner and CEO who is vocal on social media about women’s issues and many politics as a whole. Westergaard even recounted her saving him during a divisive Facebook comments debate saying “she swooped in like some socially conscious social media arch angel!” When asked if her outspoken nature has ever raised issues with potential clients, Whaling noted she wouldn’t want to work with someone as short sighted to take issue with her sharing her beliefs.  She’d prefer to work with clients who evaluate her firm on the results they produce. (Full disclosure, Cision is one of those clients and can to attest to the quality of their work!)

She also outlined the benefits of speaking out. One being infobesity and the need for brands to create stronger connections with their existing customers and stand out to find new ones. “With everyone producing safe sanitized content – you can really stand out with contextually aware content,” she noted. Pro tip: Cision’s Director, Communications Stacey Miller also recently shared thoughts on this with PRWeek. Here are a few things to consider if your brand wants to take a stand.)


Whaling’s own interest in women’s issues has increased the visibility of her own firm and led to new clients reaching out to her personally. In fact, she implemented a progressive maternity leave policy and was quoted in Forbes for her take on the issue. More recently, she used Cision to analyze Twitter conversations around the #WomensMarch and landed a widely shared article in Wired.

Stewart focused on brands not being afraid to showcase their values in their campaigns, citing a commercial his firm worked on for Zales Jewelers featuring a same-sex wedding. Stewart argued that not only do brands have something to gain by speaking sincerely about what they believe as a way to stand out in a crowded, information-heavy age but given the size of the platforms available to them, they have an obligation.


When questioned on potential backlash from consumers who find themselves at odds with a brand’s stance, Stewart pointed out “consumers vote every day with their dollars,” and noted brands taking a stand should have pre-planned crisis responses ready to go, along with clear long-term goals. Keeping an eye on the long-term goal will help them avoid being scared off by short-term social media backlash. He noted that had Zales walked back their campaign, they would have lost any new advocates they gained with the message along with any offended by it.

All three panelists spoke about authenticity in their own way. Because consumers desire to connect emotionally with the products or services they use, marketers need to think outside the box in order to differentiate themselves in a crowded market and how to navigate the bumps and bruises when you do fight for what you care about.

Several other speakers touched on this topic of authenticity in more detail than I can go into here.

  • Alfred Ironside remarked “an ideal leader has a personal story that reflects your brand.”
  • Sara Dietschy said “People love when a brand stops selling you something and shows its personality,” and attributed her raise to fame on YouTube because her videos are “MTV Cribs but with substance.”
  • Mark Cuban’s keynote didn’t focus on authenticity but was a showcase in it, with Cuban being ‘unapologetically Mark Cuban’ in the way only he can.
  • Donny Osmond spoke on how he uses storytelling to reframe his music for those who hear his name and think “I’ll never like this song.”

What the truck does this have to do with tacos?

While these panelists and speakers touted the advantages of being authentic, all of them acknowledged that authenticity comes with a risk. It is often messy and can turn some consumers away at your door. But in the age of oversaturation in marketing, influencers and super-fans are more important than ever, which is why out of 100 amazing experiences I had at SXSW, I am still ranting and raving about Art of Taco – a no frills little taco truck with the best damn tacos you’ll find Austin (get the queso, steak fajita & brisket!).

Did you attend SXSW or follow along on Twitter? Share your favorite takeaways in the comments below or with us on Twitter @Cision.

Tags : social media

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About Bruce Kennedy

Bruce Kennedy is a social media manager at Cision, where he manages Cision's global brands. Previously, he worked in public relations in tech and entertainment, helping brands from early stage startups to household names like Red Bull, Disney on Ice, Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey, Techweek and more.Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.