Food + Technology Converge at SXSW 2015

March 18, 2015

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Howdy! SXSW 2015 just wrapped in Austin, TX, and this year FOOD was a major topic beyond just the great tasting BBQ and tacos. Why? Because this is a truly unique forum where really smart, creative, and innovative people come together to share insights and ideas on ways technology can bridge divides, fuel progress and increase productivity. We need that in the food industry now more than ever.

Both SXSW organizers and FleishmanHillard have seen this growing convergence of food and technology and its impact on how food is grown, distributed, eaten and sold. And we both made commitments to focusing on this area.

SXSW organizers created a specific “food track” called SouthBites. It launched last year, and this year expanded to four days, taking over an entire hotel and attracting some of the nation’s top thought leaders.

FH leveraged Omnicom’s StoryConnect on-site lounge to track food conversations, identify influencers, and follow topics and trends that matter to people in real-time throughout the conference.

A few of us FH foodies headed down to southeast Texas to get a first-hand look and listen to the offline and online conversations and interactions. As you might imagine, we were overwhelmed with, but very excited by, the amount of intelligence we were able to gather.

So we are breaking this blog into two parts.

The first will focus on the SouthBites panels and the second on the stories we were able to mine from the data generated by StoryConnect. We hope the information and insights shared will elevate our thinking, inspire questions of ourselves and our clients, and generate creative ideas.

Part 1: SouthBites
Four days, 36 panels and dozens of voices dedicated to dialogue on how to make food more plentiful, accessible, sustainable, healthful, personal and enjoyable. We couldn’t get to ALL of them but we sure did try. Some of the headliners we found most fascinating: Jeffrey Dunn, President and “Chief Carrot Officer” for Bolthouse Farms; Chris Miller, Activism Manager for Ben & Jerry’s; Katlin Yarnell, Executive Editor for National Geographic; Brian Bordainick, CEO of Dinner Lab; Gautam Gupta, Co-Founder/CEO of NatureBox; Andrew Smiley, Deputy Director of Sustainable Food Center; Dr. Cathleen Enright, Executive Vice President, Biotechnology Industry Organization along with an impressive group of food and agricultural scientists, chefs, and local restaurant owners.

Two themes emerged: 1) How do we create a sustainable food supply and 2) What kinds of experiences can we create…all with an underlying theme of transparency and trust.

A sustainable food supply relies on three core things:

  • Scientific consensus: So much science, so little understanding – our world is, as one expert called it, “scientifically illiterate.” As we debate the science of what we should eat, how it should be grown and the impact it has on our personal and planetary health, we must become educated (i.e., what a GMO is and is NOT), find common ground on who decides what’s best, and focus on our youth.
  • Addressing climate change: This is perhaps the single biggest impact on the global food supply. As production zones change we need to grow more farmers and re-think about land we’re paving over.
  • Ensuring access: Fresh foods and nutritious breakfasts continue to be major challenges particularly in rural areas. But what about suburban communities where people can’t afford gas to get to the supermarket?

Meaningful experiences consist of:

  • Exposure: Food has the power to expose people to new experiences, cultures, people and ways of thinking. Restaurateurs, chefs and brands can win by delivering more “aha” moments to their customers.
  • Personalization: As consumers have increasingly specific dietary preferences and needs, being able to create proprietary data models that can personalize brand offerings and experiences are going to be critical to building brand affinity and profitability.
  • Connectivity: Technology has afforded us the opportunity to share our food experiences with friends, family and millions of others in real-time. But while we’re posting photos on Pinterest and Instagram, are we missing out on the precious moments of opportunity with those sitting with us?

In the end, technology has created an interesting dichotomy of more access to information about what is in my food, where it came from, and how it was produced across the entire supply chain and less trust in those who grow and sell it. As the balance of power shifts from corporations to consumers there needs to be a higher level of transparency from farm to table and relationships built on shared values and beliefs.

If you are hungry for more, let me know. We have lots to share! And stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

Cheers!