Most of the 35,000 attendees of SXSW were in grade school when the annual interactive event launched 20+ years ago, but I’ve been going since the Wired days, and I can remember when the conference drew barely 500 people. Now, of course, SXSW takes over most of downtown Austin for the better part of two weeks, turning “the capital of live music” into an undulating and relentless trade show. Entire buildings are commandeered by marketers and repainted as living testaments to brand promises. Most of them are forgettable. But this year, one of them stood out.
2016 will be remembered as the year IBM called the ball on cognitive computing, and its marketing activation at SXSW, which rechristened a 5,000-square foot restaurant as the IBM Cognitive Studio, was pretty much pitch-perfect.
But first, a little history.
Over the past three decades, IBM has remade itself several times, both as a business (from consumer hardware to services and cloud) and in its public-facing image. But a consistent theme has been the company’s knack for identifying sweeping technology trends — then popularizing those trends with massive marketing bets. Each of these wagers were on the come — IBM threw its weight behind a thesis well before the market was mature. And more often than not, it was proven right.
I first noticed this playbook back in the late 1990s, when I was starting a new publication focused on the then-nascent Internet industry (The Industry Standard). I was convinced the Internet was going to reshape business as we knew it, but most traditional technology and media players were skeptical. The Standard is remembered primarily for two things — its massive success (we had more advertising pages than any publication in history) and its extraordinary fall (2001 was a pretty rough year). But few recall how slim that magazine was when it launched. Back in 1997, the Internet was a tough sell, and as we tried to get the publication off the ground, we were told repeatedly that the Web was a fad.
Then IBM came out with its “e-business” campaign and declared all businesses would forever be changed by the Internet. Soon everyone got on board, and the Internet became a household word (and a household utility to boot).
In the 2000s, IBM launched another forward-thinking campaign it called Smarter Planet. The theme debuted at the apex of the 2008 financial crisis, promising that we could think our way out of our global problems through intelligent application of data and processing power. Sure, it was self-serving, but it was also a powerful reminder of how connected we all are, and how we must work together to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Smarter Planet remains a long bet — I think IBM’s core vision will be proven right.
But this year IBM has pushed its chips into another massive marketing platform: Watson and cognitive computing. Named after IBM’s founder and launched with clever ads featuring Bob Dylan, Serena Williams, and many others, Watson is IBM’s heavyweight answer to Siri, Alexa, and “OK Google.” Unlike those more well-known consumer platforms, Watson is an enterprise play: The service is a cognitive processing layer delivered to businesses at scale.
That’s a mouthful, and it’s hard to explain exactly what it is that Watson does. But at SXSW this past week, IBM managed to bring Watson alive. If you couldn’t be there, here’s a quick overview.
As you enter the studio you’re asked to register and take a quick survey that gives Watson some core data about you. You’re given a RFID bracelet encoded with that data, and then set loose in the building. There you may meet Pepper, a high-fiving robot that can have a rudimentary conversation with you, or you can lose a game of Rock Paper Scissors to another IBM-powered robot named Marvin (he’s got access to more predictive data than you do, sorry). The most popular display was the behavioral apps that ingest data about you from the social web and then draw insights such as designers you might like, or popular entrepreneurs whose personalities on Twitter match yours. (I’m apparently most like Elon Musk. Not to worry, Tesla.)
Wall after wall of displays and interactive kiosks crammed the former Vince Young Steakhouse, including, of course, a full bar and snacks. Each feature highlighted how we are all now interacting with computing and big data in ways that push us to new levels of possibilities — in medicine, sports, gaming, art, and of course business. I spent more than an hour in the building and only scratched the surface of the place — and according to staff I spoke to, the exhibit had been packed for days on end.
It must have cost IBM at least a million to build, program, and execute the Cognitive Studio, but thousands of the world’s most influential technologists and developers got a change to deeply engage with IBM’s core brand values during SXSW’s six-day run. They learned that through Watson, IBM can deliver what Kevin Kelly calls “intelligence as a service,” and if just a handful of them end up integrating Watson’s products into their companies, the execution will have paid for itself. Not to mention, the exhibit does a great job of explaining and demystifying an increasingly disquieting fear of AI in our broader society.
I’ve been wary of marketing’s increasingly strong grip on SXSW, but kudos to IBM for creating a place that everyone I spoke to felt added true value to the event. I hope many more take a cue from Big Blue at SXSW next year.
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