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Nirmal's Blog

Nirmal's Blog

There is such a thing as free lunch

The word “free” strikes a magic cord to people. When something is offered for free, people tend to pay more attention to it or gravitate towards it. In business, the “free” business model brings in traffic and customers. In the online space, businesses have to combine unique content, provide some sort of an experience and even offer something for free to stand out in the crowded marketplace known as the World Wide Web. There is such a thing as free lunch in the online space.

The online world is a competitive arena and free continues to serve as a thriving business model. It’s gold to have customers coming to a website and becoming engaged with the brand. In the last couple of years, businesses have changed drastically and competition for customer attention in the online space has significantly increased. Companies are offering countless opportunities for visitors to interact with them. They are rolling out the red carpet via free trial accounts, invitations to webinars and subscriptions to newsletters for their site visitors.

In a crowded marketplace, a brand needs to stand out. The surest way for brands to do that is to create buzz for its product or service, gain attention and compel consumers to interact with the brand. Companies are going above and beyond in hopes of getting customer’s attention, time and eventually money.

It was monumental to see social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn grow exponentially in the online world. By giving people simple ways to open accounts and tap into their social network, these social media outlets provide great value by bringing people together. Facebook had 600 million active users as of January 2011 and the exponential growth was mainly due to its free, easy to create accounts. Now with their sheer size in user base, they have started to monetize it by allowing businesses to place Facebook ads.

Offering free content or service brings people to the website thus leading to an increase in traffic and user base. What better way to get people through the door than with an old trick of offering something for free.

Digital Fire

Dave Carroll. Keenan Cahill. Ted Williams. These are some of the names that have blown up on YouTube and became instant media sensations.  They had suddenly found a platform for their creativity or talent and leveraged it: Dave Carroll on his guitar fiasco with United Airlines, Keenan Cahill with his lip synching videos and Ted Williams with his ‘golden radio voice’. These stars have captured an audience big enough online to get noticed in the mainstream media.  I termed this phenomenon: catching the digital fire.

I met Dave Carroll at the BRITE Conference. He spoke about his experience with United Airlines and how his customer compliant video posted on YouTube went viral. It shows that in this digital age a customer service complaint when not properly addressed can have a major impact on a company. It taught companies that a customer complaint cannot be ignored and reminded them to serve their customers best. Dave Carroll’s popularity took off on YouTube as he released three versions of the song, United Breaks Guitars. These days, he continues to play guitar with his band, Sons of Maxwell. So far, his most popular video on YouTube is United Breaks Guitars with over 10 million views.

Keenan Cahill is a proven star. He has the online charisma with a great personality and a powerful story. He became famous after posting a video of him lip-syncing to Kate Perry’s “Teenage Dream” song on YouTube. Soon after, he appeared on the Chelsea Lately show, shot a commercial with Jennifer Aniston and posted more lip-synching videos with players from the San Francisco Giants, 50 Cent and Nick Cannon among others.  He has MPS VI, a rare inherited lysosomal storage disorder which makes his story very powerful and inspiring. His YouTube channel is #22 most subscribed (all time) for musicians and #49 most viewed (all time) for musicians.

Ted Williams caused a media storm when he was discovered on an Ohio roadside with his “golden radio voice.” His short video quickly caught fire online and landed him interviews at major media outlets such as ABC, CBS and CNN. He also landed a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers and a house. It was even reported that Oprah wanted Ted to become part of her Oprah Winfrey Network. His discovery video on YouTube has received over 12 million views.

It’s fascinating to see what goes viral aka catches digital fire. For something to catch digital fire, it does have certain similar elements to it. First it has a good story to it. Dave Carroll’s guitar was mishandled by United Airlines so instead of writing a letter to the company, he wrote a song about it. Second it is unique in some sort of way. Keenan Cahill took lip-synching and made it catchy, collaborative and interactive. Third, people have some emotional attachment to the video.  I’m sure people have felt some emotional attachment to hear stories like Ted Williams. Finally, these online stars are creative or have some sort of talent.

For these YouTube stars becoming famous is one thing but maintaining that limelight is another matter.  Although it seems that the YouTube videos made them stars overnight, it’s harder to maintain that popularity online. As David Rogers, professor at Columbia Business School puts it: to thrive online they have to offer a personal voice, show some out-sized personality, pull back the curtain a little and show the face of your customer.

Whether you are a company or a personal brand, it’s important to build a community around it. A community makes the brand more interesting and relevant.  To stay relevant beyond the viral videos, YouTube stars have to ace the fundamentals of branding: creating a community with unique content and engaging their members.

Networking Your Way To Success

On December 9, 2010, I walked into the Barclays Capital auditorium in New York to find professionals and students gathered for an ALPFA event. After a few hours, I walked out with a handful of business cards and a sense of motivation and inspiration.

ALPFA stands for Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting. Their annual event, Encuentro took place at Barclays last year. My brother was involved with ALPFA for some time and told me to come to the event. I attended the event and listened to professionals enthusiastically talk about diversity and its importance in corporate America. When ALPFA’s CEO Manny Espinoza spoke at the event, I could sense his passion and pride in the organization. At the networking reception afterwards, I immediately connected with professionals and students. I heard stories of students who received job offers at the ALPFA convention and professionals who switched jobs through their ALPFA contacts. I was impressed to hear their ALPFA stories.

ALPFA’s New York Chapter includes 13 student chapters, and is the second largest professional chapter in the country. The chapter is led by 14 professionals, who volunteer their time to develop and execute events and programs that realize the mission of ALPFA for Latinos in New York. In the last few years professionals from a variety of fields other than finance and accounting have joined the organization.  Although I have a marketing background, I have been involved with ALPFA since that event at Barclays.

In today’s competitive job marketplace, there are multitudes of avenues one can take to get a job. In my opinion, the most effective one is networking. Networking is a two way relationship; it will not work if you only consider what’s in it for you.  Although it has become a cliché that it is not what you know but who you know, this sentiment is still very true. The popular job avenues such as online job posting sites do not distinguish one’s unique skill sets and background. It is important to get noticed and the best way to do that is to get in front of people. Whether this means going to job fairs, networking events or attending conferences, it is crucial to meet people who can hire you or help you in your career. Professional organizations such as Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA), Ascend and the American Marketing Association (AMA) are some of the best avenues to professional development. They help expand one’s network as well as increase industry knowledge.

I encourage students to become involved in professional organizations early in their professional careers.  Students can join various professional organizations at a reduced fee while in school. If your school does not have a student chapter for a professional organization, take the initiative to start one. Besides putting that achievement in your resume, you will gain valuable experience that will be beneficial in the long term.  Various professional organizations also have an annual convention where professionals participate in panel discussions and presentations. Some of those conventions also have career fairs and this is a major opportunity for students to meet professionals in the field, learn more about their career interests or even get a job offer.

Upon attending a career seminar, I learned that one of the best ways to stand out from the competition is to take the initiative and ask professionals or senior personnel to have a conversation over coffee. A majority of the time, it might not come to fruition because senior professionals are very busy or they will refer you to HR but it does not hurt to try. I have taken that step and met a few professionals over coffee. Once you have a chance to meet someone face-to-face, you can learn more about the company, talk about your background and unique skill sets and impress the professional as much as you can. Who knows the next time a position opens up at the professional’s company, you might be the first one to get that call.

Your next job might only be a coffee away, so go ahead and keep networking.

Brand Nepal (Published on Nepalnews.com)

On January 1, 2011, Prabal Gurung, a New York based fashion designer went online and send out a couple of tweets encouraging his thousands of Twitter followers to consider visiting Nepal in 2011. On the eve of Nepal Tourism Year 2011, Prabal used his celebrity status and promoted Nepal to his online followers. In my opinion, Prabal could be the best brand ambassador for promoting Nepal in the Western world. He is widely recognized in the Western fashion industry having dressed the likes of Michelle Obama, Demi Moore and Oprah Winfrey. Prabal’s short messages on Twitter have definitely given visibility to Nepal’s tourism campaign.

When a country is promoting tourism, it is the best time to see country branding taking place. When I visited the official website of Visit Nepal 2011, I noticed the tagline that the tourism board was using to advance the tourism campaign. It was “Naturally Nepal Once Is Not Enough.”The goal for Nepal Tourism Year is to bring in at least a million visitors this year. According to the Government of Nepal Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation’s Nepal Tourism Statistics 2010 (Provisional Report), there were 509,956 tourists in 2009 and 602,855 in 2010. This is an 18.2% increase in tourism and October ranked the highest in tourist arrivals with 72,522 and 79,186 in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

Place branding has been around for a long time and Simon Anholt, a British branding expert states that “in today’s globalized, networked world, every place has to compete with every other place for its share of the world’s consumers, tourists, businesses, investment, capital, respect and attention.”  Simon, who coined the phrase “nation brand” in 1998 explains that the way places are perceived by people around the world has a direct impact on their ability to export products, services, ideas, culture and people, and their ability to attract investment, tourists and talent.

The way Nepal is perceived around the world will correlate to how many people decide to visit the country in this tourism year. Simon acknowledges that places are judged by what they do and what they make, not by what they say about themselves. Thus, the country’s brand is what others are saying about the country. The official website for Visit Nepal 2011 consists of quotes from renowned international news sources on Nepal. The National Geographic Adventure Magazine called Nepal “one of the best countries for adventure destination in the world” and BBC Holiday called it “one of the 50 Places to see before you die.” The National Geographic Adventure Magazine and BBC Holiday have placed the limelight on Nepal’s natural beauty of mountains, rivers and lakes and its traditional culture with numerous festivals and languages.

A report titled Branding Your City was published on March 2006 by CEOs for Cities, a civic lab of urban leaders working to advance the next generation of great American cities. The report mentioned that although the most common reason for a place to have a brand strategy is to stimulate economic growth; a strong brand can shift the perception of a place that may be suffering from a poor image among external and internal constituents. A brand strategy can also provide a consistent representation of a place or enhance its local, regional and/or global awareness and position among others.

Promoting tourism is a national undertaking, therefore including multiple perspectives and ideas as well as weighing the issues is crucial to make buy-in and execution easier. The inclusion of a variety of stakeholders is necessary to assure the success of the project. Empirical evidence shows that it is prudent to include cultural and heritage institutions, local media, and business leaders besides the Tourism Board in the planning stages of a tourism campaign.

Nepal has outlined 5 major objectives for this tourism year. They are: (1) Establish Nepal as a choice of premier holiday destination with a definite brand image, (2) Improve and extend tourism related infrastructures in existing and new tourism sites (3) Enhance the capacity of service providers (4) Build community capacity in the new areas to cater the need of the tourists (5) Promote domestic tourism for sustainability of industry.

In order to meet the aforementioned objectives, for a successful tourism year, Nepal’s government and the Tourism Board should continue to stress the security and safety of the visitors to the country. On January 12, 2011, the U.S. Department of State updated its travel warning advisory to Nepal on its website. Other foreign governments have also highlighted the security risk to their citizens when traveling to Nepal. The tourism campaign would not bear fruit if the country is perceived unsafe to travel. Therefore, utmost care has to be taken to reassure the prospective tourists that it is safe to go around the country.

I am thrilled to see how many people will visit Nepal this year. It is crucial to create brand awareness and let people know that it is Visit Nepal Year 2011. The best place to create awareness in this age is in one’s social network. I have seen a number of my friends talking and encouraging people to visit Nepal and posting videos of Nepal on Facebook.

It is great to have brand ambassadors and Prabal Gurung has leveraged his popularity and encouraged people in his social network to visit Nepal. In this digital age, everyone has a voice and one can take to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or other social media outlets and promote Nepal in one’s own way. When an enthusiastic person creates personalized content promoting Nepal, he or she becomes another brand ambassador to Nepal Tourism Year 2011.

This article was featured on the Guest Column of Nepalnews.com.

Brand Nepal Resources

For my earlier post, Brand Nepal, I used multiple resources to write the article and wanted to share them with you.

Nepal Tourism Board – http://welcomenepal.com/promotional/

Government of Nepal Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation’s Nepal Tourism Statistics 2010 (Provisional Report)

http://www.tourism.gov.np/uploaded/pdf/Nepal-Tourism-Statistics-2010-provisional-report.pdf

CEOs for Cities: Branding Your City

http://www.ceosforcities.org/files/CEOsforCitiesBrandingYourCity2006.pdf

Simon Anholt: Articles and Papers

http://www.simonanholt.com/Publications/publications-other-articles.aspx

Nepal Tourism Year 2011

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nepal_Tourism_Year_2011

U.S. Department of State

http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_927.html

Diversity (Published on MinorityMBAs.com)

When we generally hear of the word diversity, we tend to visualize people of different colors or physical characteristics. But what does diversity really mean? Is a Dutch person more of a “diverse” candidate than an American when both are applying to a job in the U.S.? What does an applicant interpret as diversity when applying to jobs and internships? Companies have created pages highlighting diversity and how it is part of their growth strategy.

Upon a quick browse through Google’s career page, we find Google claiming Diversity is our Business. Everybody’s searching for something different. Just as the very idea of Google depends on diversity, so does delivering the best possible products. Our success hinges on our ability to understand the needs of all 597 million of our users. That’s why we work hard to attract and hire talented individuals of every possible perspective, from all over the world. No matter how you slice it, diversity is our DNA. Upon browsing Nokia’s career page, we find the words, While diversity is one of the key drivers of our business success; it is also at the heart of Nokia’s Values and of the Nokia Way. We expect our employees to respect and encourage the strength that comes from diversity.

So what is in fact diversity? How do companies from different continents view diversity? Then there is the overarching question, is diversity always good?

Diversity is hard to define. The Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of diversity is 1. Being diverse; variety and 2. A different kind; a variety. A dictionary definition seems inadequate here (nor concise) or maybe I have an old edition Dictionary. Thus we ask ourselves and interpret what it means. For me, diversity means different; it means difference in ideas, language, culture and essentially backgrounds. No two people have the same background so essentially everyone is “diverse” in some sense. A person growing up in New York City is not necessarily more diverse than a person growing up in Auburn.

Google, an American company sees diversity as a tool that they can leverage to understand the needs of its 597 million users. It makes business sense to value diversity. Nokia clearly defines diversity. Nokia, a Finnish company states in its Diversity page, our goal is to enable men and women of different cultural or ethnic backgrounds, skills and abilities, lifestyles, generations and perspectives to contribute their best to our success. My interpretation without normative data, tells me that although both multinationals value diversity, a job candidate has a better understanding of diversity at Nokia.

Companies seem to value diversity dearly. They share their love stories with diversity by putting up pages, pictures and videos to showcase its presence in their company. Yet there is a lingering question, how effective is a diverse team? Are companies embracing diversity because it’s the right thing to do or do they really see it as a competitive advantage? If a company only operates in the U.S., does immersing a qualified candidate from India help or hurt the group? For companies which operate globally, it is essential to have employees from different background because it helps localize its offerings or for reverse innovation purposes. For a company that only operates locally and has no plans of going international, it would be interesting to find out if embracing diversity contributes to its growth. It helps to have different ideas brought to the table before a decision is implemented. But if diversity is not managed properly, it can prove to be very costly and detriment the organization’s image.

Do non-American companies have a better understanding of diversity than American based? What are the statistics comparing organizations in the same industry where diversity has helped achieve competitive advantage? Is diversity critical to success only for an organization planning to go international in the long run or is it equally important for small businesses? Are there industries that thrive on diversity while in others it does not really make a difference? These are all interesting questions and as more minorities pursue their MBAs and enter the workforce, they will be at the forefront of all this discussion. Research across companies and industries is needed on how companies have achieved competitive advantage through diversity.

This article is featured under “Advice from Career Coaches and Experts” on MinorityMBAs.com

Brand Nepal

Prabal Gurung sent out a couple of tweets on New Year’s Day of this year. Some read:

2011 is Nepal Tourism Year. Lookin 4a vacation spot, an adventure or 2 find urself? Will u pls consder visiting Nepal? U cud make a diff.PLS RT.

Nepal Facts: Nepal has 8 of the world’s 10 highest mountain peaks including Mt. Everest 8,848m (29,000 ft). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nepal

Prabal Gurung is a New York based fashion designer who was born in Singapore and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal. He also has 23,396 Twitter followers. Nepal, a country of about 30 million people in Southeast Asia is currently promoting Visit Nepal 2011. Tourism is a major source of revenue for the landlocked country which is most popularly known for Mount Everest. In 2009, out of 509,956 tourists, 32,403 were from the United States.

In my opinion, Prabal could be the best brand ambassador for promoting Nepal in the Western world. He is widely recognized in the Western fashion industry having dressed the likes of Michelle Obama, Demi Moore and Oprah. Prabal’s tweets have definitely given visibility to Nepal’s tourism campaign if not already encouraged his followers to book tickets to Nepal.

Since Nepal is promoting tourism this year, I wanted to understand Nepal as a brand and find out how the country was positioned in regards to its Visit Nepal 2011 campaign. Upon visiting the official site of Visit Nepal 2011, I noticed the tagline that the tourism board was using to advance the campaign. It was

Naturally Nepal

In its website, there were also quotes from renowned news sources:

“One of the best countries for adventure destination in the world” – National Geographic Adventure Magazine

“One of the 50 Places to see before you die” – BBC Holiday

The official website gives visitors a glimpse of what Nepal has to offer: from trekking, mountaineering to rafting, festivals just to name a few. Nepal has unique offerings such as its majestic natural beauty of mountains, rivers and lakes and a very traditional culture with numerous festivals and languages. Place branding has been around for a long time and Simon Anholt, a British branding expert states “in today’s globalized, networked world, every place has to compete with every other place for its share of the world’s consumers, tourists, businesses, investment, capital, respect and attention.” As the CEOs for Cities website explains although the most common reason for a place to have a brand strategy is to stimulate economic growth; a strong brand can create a common vision for the future of the community and its potential, provide a consistent representation of a place or enhance its local, regional and/or global awareness and position etc.

Nepal has outlined 5 major objectives for the tourism year. They are: (1) Establish Nepal as a choice of premier holiday destination with a definite brand image, (2) Improve and extend tourism related infrastructures in existing and new tourism sites (3) Enhance the capacity of service providers (4) Build community capacity in the new areas to cater the need of the tourists (5) Promote domestic tourism for sustainability of industry.

I find nation branding to be very intriguing. As a native of Nepal, I am thrilled to see how many people visit Nepal this year. When a country is promoting tourism, it’s the best time to see country branding taking place. It’s great to have brand ambassadors and Prabal’s celebrity outside of Nepal will truly make people interested to visit Nepal in the near future. In this digital age, I strongly believe that a short tweet can go a long way.

The importance of being resourceful (Published on MinorityMBAs.com)

Resources can be the difference between success and failure. While resources are critical, being resourceful is a vital attribute in itself. Being resourceful helps one achieve their goals whether it’s short or long term and thus is a key skill to develop.

Attending an Ivy League school provides students with vast amounts of resources. It serves as a huge advantage in terms of getting a job amongst others compared to attending a small liberal arts college. Even without attending an Ivy League school, there are numerous ways students can tap into resources of large universities.

Internships in renowned research institutions allow interns to attain experience while also tapping into the university’s resources. The Columbia Institute for Tele-Information at Columbia Business School offers a challenging research internship program for undergraduates and graduates. Another way to leverage on university resources is to get in touch with professors at research institutions to see if they require assistance in their research studies. Also volunteering at university conferences gives students an access pass to the event while boosting resume credentials. Schools also have partnerships with other universities which allow students to take classes in any of the participating schools.

When it comes to applying for jobs and internships, most are familiar with Monster, HotJobs and CareerBuilder. With the ease of applying to jobs and internships through these career portals, employers are stormed with hundreds of online applications especially when the national unemployment rate for March 2010 was at 9.7 percent. From applicants’ perspective, it’s hard to stand out and even to get a response; from companies’ perspective, they have a huge pile of applications and might have second thoughts on posting a job online next time. Thus, lesser known career portals become perfect alternatives to the mass-marketed job search engines. Startuphire.com is a great online resource for individuals interested in start-up jobs and internships. LinkedIn is another valuable resource and as the cover story of the April issue of Fortune magazine claims, if you don’t have a profile on LinkedIn, you’re nowhere. It also states that the reason LinkedIn works so well for professional matchmaking is that most of its members already have jobs. Also, there are some jobs posted exclusively on LinkedIn.

It is ever more important to be resourceful at a`time`when the labor market is tight. Hard work, perseverance along with some creativity could help both students looking for internships and graduates looking for jobs.

This article is featured on MinorityMBAs.com

Culture eats strategy for lunch

A speaker at the 2010 BRITE Conference at the Columbia Business School said something profound: culture eats strategy for lunch.

The same theme echoed at this year’s BRITE Conference. Speakers from ad agencies, globally known brands and academics talked about the importance of culture in their talks. Several speakers cited Zappos’s culture when giving an example of a great corporate culture. Attendees of the conference asked several speakers about how they were able to convince upper management to implement new programs. Their questions delved into how to get the buy in of senior executives on new ideasand not have themget lost in the organization’s pipeline. This is a major obstacle at organizations especially at most multinationals where bureaucracy is omnipresent and nothing could be more detrimental to organizations when itsculture kills the creativity and productivity of its internal customers.

Tony HsiehWhen the conference speakers exalted Zappos for its excellent corporate culture, it made me think back to the time when Zappos’s CEO Tony Hsieh came to speak at the American Marketing Association’s event at Fordham Universityin October 2010. Tony was traveling around the country promoting his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose on the Happiness Bus and he made a quick stop in New York.

That October morning Tony talked about the Zappos Culture in terms of 10 core values which ranges from (1) Deliver WOW Through Service, (2) Embrace and Drive Change to (9) Be Passionate and Determined and (10) Be Humble. The culture is what defines the Zappos brand. What’s interesting to note is that they base their hiring decisions on how fit the person would be to the Zappos culture and pay employees $2,000 after the training program to quit. These are some of the guidelines that they follow to protect the brand and culture for the long term.  I do not know of any other company that has built itself around its culture and protects it so dearly. I became a fan of Zappos that day even though I had never ordered anything from their website (until I ordered their 2010 Culture Book).

In the book, Tony talks about a blog he wrote a few years ago titled Your Culture Is Your Brand. He states that “the best way to build a brand is through culture and that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are two sides of the same coin.” At first thought it seems that Zappos is following the conventional wisdom that you should take care of your customers so they come back for your business. Yet, as Tony mentions in his October talkand the book, this has become more of a saying than a guiding principle at many companies.  Zappos’s core value #2 is Embrace and Drive Change which is set to motivate and encourage employees to be creative, open-minded and communicate their experiences to upper management. When you have such a guiding principle as part of your culture, it will be rare to see ideas go down the drain. It is probably not an understatement to say that employees who interact with customers each and every day can significantly help drive the change needed for the organization to be successful tomorrow.

When you have built a strong culture where the core values are clearly communicated, both employees and management are aligned to achieve the objectives of the company.  As Tony mentions in his book, it doesn’t actually matter whatyour company’s core values are, what matters is that you have them and that you commit to them. Zappos proudly has a Culture Book which initially started out for only employees to talk about what Zappos culture meant to them. But, the book has evolved and now involves customers, vendors and partners.

Impressed by how they have cultivated and how proud they are of their culture, I went online and ordered the 2010 Culture Book from Zappos’s website. Zappos is not the first company focused on building a strong culture but they have made culture the core component of who they are and along the way became known for having a great company culture.

Open For Business

Next to the work space room was a lounge area with a ping pong table, a TV and the box.  The box is Boxee’s flagship product and I had arrived at Boxee’s New York office to have a conversation with Andrew Kippen, Boxee’s VP of Marketing. I was interested in Boxee and the platform they were building and very curious about the box.

Boxee, a New York tech startup is gradually changing the dynamics of how we experience TV. It promises to change the way you consume TV by customizing the viewing experience. One can download the free Boxee software from their website and then experience pictures, videos and movies digitally. The Boxee device helps people find their favorite shows and movies and puts them on your TV. What is especially interesting is that they are an open source company and make most of their applications available to users and developers.  After firing a few questions about the company and the industry, I asked Andrew if open source has become the new business model. Andrew stated that open source has not necessarily become a model but being open is a key component to be successful in today’s marketplace.

Open source has become more prevalent in recent years and will be even further relevant moving forward. I remember attending the 2010 BRITE Conference at the Columbia Business School and listening to Bre Pettis passionately talk about his open source company, MakerBot Industries which produces 3D printers. I knew I had to get involved with MakerBot then and worked at MakerBot over the summer on creating ad campaigns and learned a lot on how they have built the brand. MakerBot has an online design community called Thingiverse where people all over the world share designs.

Being an “open” company gives the power to the users and customers. When users are empowered they become further engaged with the product and the brand and this is every brand’s desire. Today’s brand is about the customer experience. Once customers are engaged and have control, they will interact with the brand in their own terms which makes them more loyal to the brand and loyalty will be seen in more than just financial returns. Customers will share their experiences with the brand on media outlets such as blogs, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter and Facebook so each brand has to make customer service an integral part of their marketing.

In his book, What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis talks about openness and collaboration. He states that “if you don’t open up, you cannot collaborate and collaboration with customers is the highest and most rewarding form of interactivity”. I concur with his statement “if you’re lucky, they’ll take ownership in the product you create together, they won’t just buy it, they’ll also brag about it.” Having your customers brag about the product means the brand has not only met but fully exceeded the customer’s expectations.

So in the digital age, open has become a business model. If a business is not open, they have to rethink their strategies because customers are demanding more and seeking further control. Customers are recreating the brand landscape and the experience is being driven from them to the companies rather than the other way around. Customers have become the directors in this picture and companies have become the actors. If you’re a brand, go ahead and open it up so that customers can take it and experience it in their own ways; you’ll be amazed at what they do with it plus you’ll look great that way in this digital age.

brand 2.0

I have to say this first. I did not have ‘Bieber fever’ before but I think I caught it now. I have not been able to escape this media blitz of Justin Bieber and his new movie Never Say Never will certainly delay my cure. Thus I have given up and admitted, whether I am a fan of his music or not, I do credit him for what he has built for himself- a brand name with 7,181,163 Twitter followers ranking him #2 based on followers in 2010 and 552,500 subscribers on YouTube and counting.

How does a 16 year old boy from Stratford, Canada discovered on YouTube become a global superstar? His stardom is a reflection of a world that we live in: a world connected by the internet where everyone can become a star online and use that platform to build something larger offline. He has leveraged his popularity from the web to fill venues around the country including most recently performing at the 2011 Grammys. Being an academic trying to understand the power of user generated content, I believe studying a YouTube sensation such as Justin Bieber seems like a great case study.

The first time I heard about Justin Bieber was through a friend who had her Gmail status message set as ‘Bieber fever’. Back then I actually thought to myself, what kind of a fever is this and should I tell her to get well soon or visit the doctor. I kept that thought to myself then. Over the summer of 2010, I was watching TechCrunch Disrupt over the internet. One of the panels featured Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun, and I was very intrigued to understand how he helped catapult Bieber’s popularity beyond online space. It was interesting to hear Scooter emphasizing Justin’s story as a boy next door who became famous and how he likes to connect with his fans on Twitter. In Wikipedia, it states that Braun wanted to build “Justin up more in YouTube first…we’ll give it to the kids, let them do the work, so that they feel like it’s theirs”. Scooter discovered Justin in 2008 and arranged Justin’s meeting with Usher eventually landing him a recording contract with Island Records.

What’s interesting is what has happened since 2008. The Bieber mania has taken over day time and late night talk shows, TV shows, a Superbowl commercial, a book, a film and now an eight country world tour. His successes have given more power to his fans who still feel very connected to him. The power in this digital age belongs to the consumer and the growth of user-generated content shows that consumers are engaged and share their good and bad experiences with their network. Individuals have the power to decide how they want to associate themselves with the brand. YouTube has given everyone a voice and a channel to showcase their talent, creativity and much more. Branding in this digital age is much different than what it was a few years ago and social media outlets such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook has definitely changed the meaning of branding today.

David Rogers, author of the book The Network Is Your Customer: 5 Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age and teacher at Columbia Business School states that personality is key to building a brand online. He suggests four principles to consider when producing content on the web to build a brand: personal voice, out-sized personality, exclusivity and customer recognition. Justin has managed to successfully hone each of these four points and understands that he represents his fans. It is noteworthy to say that he initially became a sensation through people only connected over the internet and not on platforms like American Idol or America’s Got Talent.

There’s much to learn here and probably a bit early to say how far someone’s online popularity will take them but it’s fascinating to take a second and observe a new form of branding taking place. How far will ‘Bieber fever’ go and how will Justin stay connected to the online fans that made him famous are yet to be seen but till then we’ll either have to catch Bieber fever or just try very hard to ignore it.