SXSW 2017: Intimacy at Scale

So much of the agency conversation at SXSW has been poorly focused panels on AI and chatbots, so a trip south of the river to the Hyatt was in order. There, we would get a direct view from a brand that has been successfully developing customer relationships for some years.

Sweetgreen have taken their simple mission of ‘building healthier communities by connecting people to real food’ from their original group of three college buddies to a team of almost 5000 nationwide. As they grew, they realized that their new scale might disconnect them from the values that made their business special – a problem faced by many new companies having their first taste of serious success.

CEO and co-founder Nathaniel Ru defined the levels of intimacy they believe their brand needs as being based on four principles:

  • Integrating Impact is about how they integrate community giving and local food activism into the DNA of every outlet.
  • Tell Stories with Substance and Style – here they focus their message about real food through fun and unusual executions, such as the Wasted Salad, which is made up of all the parts of vegetables traditionally trimmed off.
  • Tech-Enhanced, not Tech-Dependent – Sweetgreen have deliberately veered away from any delivery service, believing that even if people stop in for a few moments to pick up their food, they will be exposed to the brand, the aura of the outlet, the music etc, and will still be connected to the brand on a tangible level.
  • Understanding Customers starts on the Inside – this is about applying an equal importance to nourishment (of all types) of Sweetgreen’s staff as is applied to their customers.

However, while Sweetgreen has had admirable success in both business and ethics, Ru’s closing statement did not ring true: “There are companies that get better as they get bigger, and these are the ones that focus on human connections as they grow.”

This statement, firstly, is demonstrably false. Uber and many other ‘sharing economy’ services have the removal of human contact, and the treatment of their workers as mere commodity, at the heart of their business model. And few could argue with the fact that they have grown and continue to do so.

Second, the statement demonstrates the dichotomy at the heart of this year’s SXSW. This year, the sessions can be reasonably divided into two camps: half being about AI, chatbots, emotional computing, etc – automation as a replacement for human action. And the other half hasa been about community – how we need to pull together in new or remade societal structures to improve quality of life and defeat the perils that encircle us.

While Sweetgreen may have found an answer to intimacy that scales for them, it is quite possible that their perspective puts them in a minority, or that their idea of intimacy may turn out to be not quite as scalable as they believe.

Read our full SXSW recap here.