Member News

What I Learned from Axios, Uber & Airbnb on Brand Equity at SXSW

MVCA Venture Fellow and DVP Senior Associate, Brandon Epstein

MVCA Venture Fellow, Brandon Epstein, a senior associate at Detroit Venture Partners, attended SXSW 2019 for the first time. In this guest blog post, he shares three branding trends he learned from the conference with Michigan’s entrepreneurial and investment community.


I was lucky enough to attend SXSW for the first time this year. The festival is known as the ultimate convergence of tech, music, movies, and politics – and I’d have to agree. There are thousands of people there for a number of different reasons. The conference can be overwhelming, but to me, the best way to soak it in is to do a little bit of everything; attend panel discussions, see artists perform, go to premiers, meet new people, and learn new perspectives. One topic that I’d been following is brand equity – how does a brand build up positive emotions with consumers?

All Brands Face Criticism and Platforms Do Not Have the Virtue of Escaping Judgment.

At SXSW, brands are measured in terms of their politics, social contribution, worker treatment, data policies, and their response to controversies. Axios held a dinner that I attended with media members from NBC, Associated Press, and Buzzfeed as well as communication heads from Microsoft and even Pfizer and Phillip Morris. While at the dinner, an Axios reporter asked about Facebook, the platform’s accumulation of consumer data and third party sites access to this data. A few in the room pointed out how irresponsible Facebook was in allowing the Cambridge Analytica scandal to occur. Pointedly, others said that the narrative of data misuse was formed through old media. They mentioned, outlets built online like Axios, Buzzfeed, and HuffPost might not have been so reactive when breaking the story that Facebook had plenty of data on its users. We all know that we freely give away our information on social platforms. The question is, have these companies crossed an ethical line? Facebook’s reputation in a Harris poll falling from #51 to #94 in one year would certainly indicate so; however, Facebook as a medium for advertising hasn’t been affected. Sure, when a news anchor says something controversial, advertisers pull their support, but has any brand considered leaving Facebook? No, because it works. Even without Facebook, there will continue to be other mediums that continuously gather copious amounts of information on consumers; it’s what the market demands.

The Media Environment Can be Fickle.

Another question asked by Axios focused on Gillette which sponsors the New England Patriots football stadium. After Robert Kraft was caught in a sex scandal, Gilette has debated whether it should remove its namesake from the side of the stadium. I was surprised at the overall sentiment that said that brands should not react in the face of such controversy. In the era of 24-hour news cycles, many cited the difference between Al Franken’s resignation to the lack of resignations from officials in Virginia who are accused of worse offenses. Brands, similarly, need to realize that the media environment can be fickle – that an indirect connection with a negative person/event/or circumstance will likely be forgotten in time.

Brands are No Longer Shying Away From Politics.

The third thing that I’ve taken away from my time at SXSW is that brands and politics are merging into one. On a panel with Uber and Airbnb, it was mentioned that companies need to be hyper-aware of politics. Patagonia endorsed two candidates in 2018 for the first time in its history based on community values. Big tech is lobbying and educating Congress more than ever. Politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) are obsessed with their brands. On Rohit Bhargava’s panel focused on Enterprise Empathy, he stated that as businesses are increasingly expected to take political, ethical and social positions on issues affecting society, empathy must now be considered a commercial imperative for success. Bhargava cites many examples such as Tesco’s relaxed, slow checkout lines in the UK introduced for people with dementia who can find the checkout process traumatic. Brand equity comes across in your actions more so than in your communications.

Altogether, brand equity is nuanced and difficult to assess. What is certain though is that consumers will continue to expect more from corporations as distrust of institutions persist. In addition, their consumers are even more demanding now of ‘purity’ among public figures and corporations. It is both an opportunity and a risk for every brand that enters the fray. A brand needs to stick to topics that are adjacent to its business and not reach for topics beyond its scope. I believe that all brands will face increasing criticism, brands need to have a long term view in the face of a fickle media environment, and politics and brands are merging.


Posted April 11, 2019 in MVCA Venture Fellows Program