As the three hour party RSVP line outside an Austin bar stretches around the corner, no one wonders why a surprising number of people seem to be wearing red clown noses. To my right, a guy walks towards me with a light up disco ball covering his head. He passes nonchalantly by a woman dressed in medieval armour wearing a helmet with two foot horns. Standing beside them is a gentleman holding a yellow sign declaring his availability as a real estate agent for anyone considering moving to Austin. Nearby a strange medley provides a suitably odd musical score to this outdoor parade as a violinist wearing a werewolf mask, a bucket drummer and two distant outdoor bands merge into an accidental quartet.
This is the daily scene at SXSW - an annual festival of music, technology, film and everything quirky in the world that comes home in March every year to the "capital of weird" in Austin, Texas. The event has grown rapidly and today features more than 50,000 attendees who all come from across the world. Thanks to previous launches of Twitter, Foursquare and other big tech success stories here ... the festival is now a place where marketers from all types of organizations come to launch everything from careers in robotics to new murder mystery television shows.
SXSW, in short, is a tempting place to promote just about anything. It is the Super Bowl of marketing the trivial. Yet among the chaos and rush, there is one thing that has stood out this year as the ultimate marketing strategy: kindness.
There is daily kindness from the people who choose to forgive the hopelessly slow cashier on a food truck. There is unnoticed kindness from people who strike up conversations with lonely strangers to involve them in unexpected conversations.
And there are plenty of examples of brand kindness. Like Samsung promising to bring a spare battery directly to customers simply via tweets. Or virtual assistant company Zirtual offering complimentary on site assistants for their customers as a simply way of saying thank you. Or Go Daddy creating moments for viral generosity by being the brand that picks up the bar tab for a large group without the typical desperate requests for tweets or attention. Or Southwest Airlines playing the hit song "Happy" on a flight into Austin, and encouraging passengers to dance in the aisles. Or USPS software brand Entropic offering to "ship your swag" for free.
Everywhere you look here in Austin, the smartest brands are skipping the temptation of putting up big banners and instead offering value, creating moments for people to share ideas freely and connecting them face to face in spaces like 3M's Idea Exchange Lounge, or Paypal's Blogger Lounge. Each offers the rare chance to have "lean back" moments where participants can put devices away to just enjoy an experience.
And so the surprising marketing strategy that seems to be paying off most at one of the world's geekiest and most continually connected events is using kindness to be useful, foster human connections and help people escape the self imposed isolation of their own technology.
Even if that bond happens over the barely audible backdrop of street drummers and werewolf violinists.