Putting Community Back into Social Media

Jermaine Dupri and Global 14 have put community back into social media. That’s what I have to say in an interview conducted recently with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. But a community needs to be visible in order to thrive. Throughout the Q&A, I provide an update on how Dupri’s Global 14 social media community has grown in popularity and visibility through an innovative co-branding relationship that I manage at iCrossing. For instance, iCrossing and Dupri have collaborated on the co-creation of thought leadership and the launch of earned media activities. (Recently we worked together to introduce Global 14, which Dupri founded in 2011, to European and Latin American markets, as I noted in an iCrossing Great Finds blog post.)

Ultimately, what we’re doing is helping Dupri build a community of 37,000 people (and counting) who care about each other and share common interests ranging from sports to hip-hop. My main take-away: you might join Global 14 because of Dupri — but you’ll stay because of the people you meet. I have more than 700 Global 14 friends. I met all of them on Global 14 rather than importing those relationships from elsewhere. And I doubt I would have met my fellow Lifers (as Dupri refers to Global 14 members) had it not been for Global 14. Isn’t meeting new people and sharing with a community what social media is all about?

How Brands Can Be Cool by Going Retro

Sometimes a brand can unleash its inner cool by going retro. The Topps Company is a case in point. Topps has been manufacturing trading cards annually since Joe DiMaggio was playing for the New York Yankees. Since 2001, Topps has issued so-called heritage sets that depict contemporary players in cards that reproduce the design of some of its more memorable yearly editions. The 2012 Topps Heritage set features the baseball stars of today in the retro style of the Topps 1963 series, down to the brightly colored borders, inset photos, and cartoonish images on the backside. And Topps is among many other brands that create a sense of style and authenticity by celebrating their histories.

The sports industry often embraces its past. The Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball Association famously adorns its players in several styles of throwback jerseys as do many other professional sports teams.

Throwback jerseys are so popular in the National Football League that the Bleacher Report recently ranked them for the quality of their designs.

The Topps 1963 set has generated plenty of buzz among baseball card collectors not only for its design but for containing elements of suprise and delight. For example, some lucky fans will open up their packages of vintage cards to find reproductions of cards from famous stars like Willie Mays — actually autographed by the stars themselves.

And some cards deliberately contain errors in a nod to mistakes made in the 1963 set, such as this card that purports to be an image of Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs but is actually that of Aramis Ramirez of the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Wood/Ramirez “error” is an inside joke from Topps. The 1963 Topps card of Don Landrum actually depicted Ron Santo in the main and insert photos by mistake.

Many brands outside the sporting world connect with consumers through their histories. Coca-Cola does so in a number of ways, including the collectors column on its website, where collectible enthusiasts like Phil Mooney, Coca-Cola archivist, discuss their love of Coca-Cola collectibles. Bacardi recently released an archive of vintage images of the iconic brand to celebrate its 150-year anniversary.

Cartier, Motel 6, Life Savers are among the many other major brands going retro with major campaigns.

So why do brands go rertro? A recent New York Times article by advertising columnist Stuart Elliott refers to throwback advertising as “comfort marketing.” Elliott writes:

Anniversary campaigns are part of a trend inspired by the economy that could be called comfort marketing, as advertisers invoke misty, water-colored memories of the past to woo consumers into buying products in the present.

A major aspect of comfort marketing is what brand managers call authenticity: reminding shoppers who seek value in the provenance of merchandise to suggest a product is worth buying because its quality has been tested for decades.

Music Mogul Jermaine Dupri makes a similar point about how a brand can create an authentic connection by tapping into its past. While speaking at 2012 Portada Latin American Advertising and Media Summit, he told me and my iCrossing colleague Gaby Guzman, “A brand’s history is its style.” As Guzman reports on the iCrossing Content Lab, “[Jermaine Dupri] explains that often a brand’s history is at the core of who the brand is, and by getting in touch with their past, brands will generate that authentic connection with their audience Brands like Coca-Cola or the City of Miami have a long history that they can draw from to generate content and engagement.”

Note that both Stuart Elliott and Jermaine Dupri stress the relationship between having a history and being authentic. It feels phony and cynical when a relatively young brand attempts to go retro, an example being the Arizona Diamondbacks Major League Baseball team, which offers four throwback uniform jerseys even though the team has existed for only 14 years.

And a brand needs to choose its retro style wisely. As the sports world teaches us, some product designs are better left in the past:

The NFL Pittsburgh Steelers are responsible for the jersey depicted here, a throwback to the 1932 team’s uniforms. In the words of the Bleacher Report, the jersey makes the Steelers look like a “bumblebee prison football team.” On the other hand, the San Diego Chargers powder blue throwback uniforms (evoking the team look from the 1960s) are justly lauded for their sense of appealing, eye catching (if not NFL macho) style:

The San Diego Chargers, like Topps, have created an authentic connection with their fans by going retro — and have unleashed their inner cool.

It All Started with an Oreo Cookie

It all started with an Oreo cookie.

This week the Kraft Oreo brand sparked a flurry of news media coverage and public discussion by posting a powerful Facebook image supporting Gay Pride Day. Now that Oreo has made a statement, will Kraft join the conversation?

The ad itself was simple, clever, and perfect for the Pinterest age: a gay-pride themed Oreo cookie accompanied by a post, “Proudly support love!”

Within days, the ad accumulated more than 280,000 Likes and 55,000 comments, ranging from supportive to critical — and the comments keep pouring in. For instance, on Friday afternoon as I wrote this post, Facebook member Jake Pisano commented on the Oreo wall, “I have a question. . .if being gay is so natural then why can’t 2 gays have a baby together hmmm i mean if it was something natural then shouldn’t they be able to have a baby.” Meantime, Facebooker Jocelyn Battisti wrote, “Oreo I bought some of your product yesterday just in sheer respect for your open support of equal love! I am a straight female who also supports equal love and I also am a huge fan of PROGRESS. KEEP IT UP!”

The comments exploded across the digital world, creating a firestorm of media coverage from publications such as ABC News, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. According to Radian6, as of June 27, the ad had sparked 11,600 mentions of the topic across the web (and no doubt the figure is hire by now.) For instance, Music Mogul (who is also my friend and business partner) Jermaine Dupri triggered a passionate conversation on his own Global 14 social community when he posted an image of the cookie and asked, “How do you feel about this? Some Global 14 members asked whether the ad might unwittingly segregate the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. On the other hand, a Global 14 member nicknamed Crush wrote, “Why is this even news? It’s not that serious! I respect everyone’s opinion but I will be who the hell I want to . . .OREO COOKIE OR NOT! I am VERY GAY and VERY normal…”)

And in the grand spirit of user-generated content, consumers created their own images inspired by the ad:

Interestingly, Radian6 also reported that eight out of 10 of the comments made about the ad are positive with a disproportionate share of virulent remarks posted on the Oreo Facebook page — and suggesting that the media coverage overstates the controversy.

A Kraft spokesperson responded to the controversy by saying, “As a company, Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values.”

I would like to see Kraft do more than make a statement. This kind of advertisement can do something very important, which is to invite people to take a closer look at how corporations like Kraft can enact change to make society more tolerant. Big brands can act as powerful agents of change through their statements and more importantly through their actions. AT&T and Disney are among the companies receiving perfect marks by the Human Rights Campaign for being LGBT-friendly based on a number of factors ranging from the nature of their domestic partner benefits to resources they provide for LGBT employees. (Kraft scores well but lacks a perfect score.) I see an opportunity for Kraft to lead a conversation now the ad has caught our attention.

A Slice of Hip-Hop: “Hotel x Music” by BruthaZ-N-ArmZ

The song “Hotel x Music” by BruthaZ-N-ArmZ has been going through my head for a few months now, which is a good sign that I should highlight it on Superhype.

The video for “Hotel x Music” seems prosaic on first viewing: a bunch of slow-mo shots of guys hanging around in a hotel not doing much of anything. But in fact there’s more going on: a group of hip-hop artists holed up in a hotel take a hard look at their lives (“”The fans . . . consider us popular/we ain’t goin’ nowhere/It’s safe to admit that”) while appreciating for the moment (“Cool life I’m livin’/Hotel lifestyle”).

My favorite moment occurs about 27 seconds into the song, after the band quietly watches the lights of the city outside the hotel, before an infectious  horn and percussion sample straight out of James Brown kicks in — a recurring riff that carries the song.

I first heard about “Hotel x Music” on Global 14, which is a social site run by Jermaine Dupri and source of vibrant communities who share lifestyle interests ranging from hip hop to relationships. Check out BruthaZ-N-ArmZ here.

The Making of a Star: Jermaine Dupri, Leah LaBelle, and “Sexify”

Being sexy ain’t the same as being skanky. Just ask Leah LaBelle, who sings about all the ways she turns on a guy in her hook-filled song, “Sexify.”

This song really moves with a hard beat, and the word play lives up to the title. “I just want some hanky-panky,” she sings, “Sexy vs Skanky/Dancing in my bra and panties/Instincts to master/Thank me, thank me.”

LaBelle is emerging jointly from Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Recordings and Pharrell’s i am Other labels. Dupri is using a combination of social media and traditional PR to introduce her to the world. For instance, in March, Dupri started sharing the song to his 36,000-strong Global 14 community, and he’s also been giving her plenty of notice to his 477,000 Twitter followers, along with outreach to news media ranging from Billboard to Vibe (as he has documented on his own YouTube channel)

I happened to witness the star-making process through a Billboard meeting that I attended on April. LaBelle did an impromptu concert in a conference room, singing bits of songs like “Sexify” and discussing her creative inspirations. She explained that the playful lyrics for “Sexify” were actually inspired by Cosmopolitan magazine cover titles. But whereas Cosmo title lines often throw sexuality in your face (like “Sizzling Sex Positions That Won’t Give you Boob Sweat”) LaBelle’s lyrics are more suggestive and sensual.

From left to right: Pharrell, Leah LaBelle, Joe Levy of Billboard, and Jermaine Dupri

And the playful video features cameos from Jermaine and Pharrell, who have both joined forces to develop her musical career. Dupri took time out of his hectic schedule to answer a few questions about “Sexify” and Leah LaBelle:

How did you discover Leah LaBelle?

Pharrell showed me a video of her sing someone else’s material on YouTube. We noticed her swag and style. The way she sang the song gave us the idea we could make her something special. You could see it in her eyes and demeanor. She looked like someone to be reckoned with.

The voice you hear on “Sexify” is not the same I heard on YouTube. When we first started working together, I thought, “Wow her voice is much, much better than what she’s got on YouTube.” You just could not appreciate her voice from YouTube.

What was it like being in the video?

It was easy! I liked my role playing a landlord of the apartment where the video is set. You know, in a way, I do feel like I am her landlord, big brother, and protector – so me being a landlord in the video was a natural for me. [For more insight, check out this video Dupri shot on the set of the video.]

Leah LaBelle and Jermaine Dupri in “Sexify”

Do you consider “Sexify” to be hip-hop?

I don’t label the song at all. You can call it pop, hip-hop, or R&B if you like. But the moment you call it pop, someone else is going to come along and call it R&B. It crosses all lines of music.

What’s next for Leah LaBelle?

Right now we are focused on taking her record as far as we can.

“Sexify” is currently charting in the Billboard Hot 100 for R&B/Hip-Hop

Facebook Trades Community for Cash

What a difference a week makes. Last week, Facebook was poised to conquer the world with a $100 billion initial public offering. After a rocky IPO fraught with financial and legal drama, now the pundits are referring to Facebook as “Fadebook” and even asking if Facebook’s best days are behind it. I believe talk of Facebook’s demise to be premature. But I do question whether Facebook is a social brand anymore.

I’ve often compared Facebook to a large country where I like its residents but not the government. As a brand, Facebook is impersonal, difficult to admire, and anything but social. And when Google Plus arrived in 2011, the Facebook brand looked like a follower, as Google+ introduced features that Facebook then emulated to play catch-up. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg cares about building a community. Facebook is all about valuations now. It’s no wonder companies like General Motors are rethinking Facebook’s value to their brands and launching their own communities.

In fact, music mogul Jermaine Dupri doesn’t even bother spending time on Facebook to build his own brand. In 2011, he created his own social media community, Global 14, which consists of 36,000 members who share common lifestyle interests ranging from hip-hop to fashion. I joined Global 14 in 2011 and have gained 700 friends I’d never met before, including some incredibly passionate hip-hop artists such as Symon G. Seyz. Global 14 isn’t the biggest social network in the world, but its smaller size enables Dupri to personally interact with members and manage a tightly knit community.

But I enjoy my community of Facebook friends, too. What’s different about Global 14 is that as a brand, Global 14 lives community, starting with Dupri. As owner/operator of Global 14, he personally bonds with its members, welcoming them, commenting their posts, and sparking conversations with his own blog posts. He openly friends anyone. And he allows Global 14 members to get involved in the site itself. Global 14 Radio, an Internet radio version of Global 14, was actually launched by Global 14 members with Dupri’s blessing. My belief in Global 14 is one of the reasons my employer iCrossing created an innovative relationship with Dupri to help him and Global 14 become more connected brands.

On May 25, Dupri and I published in Portada magazine a byline to offer advice to businesses who aspire to launch their own networks. As we write in the article:

As it turns out, Dupri has tapped into a growing interest in smaller, more engaged communities, especially those that share content visually as he does.

Facebook and Twitter are about scale. Global 14 is about relationships. It might be time for you to start thinking about creating relationships on your own community.

Relationships are at the heart of Global 14. Relationships are what social media is all about — not stock valuations.

The hip-hop journey of Prince Mick

The music and film of hip-hop artist Prince Mick takes you on an extraordinary journey: his own. The journey begins on the streets of the west side of Chicago, where Prince Mick once lived the violent life of a gangbanger. His song and video “Imma Beast” captures that life with a raw, gritty style, and a brutal honesty (a visual statement about the world that once defined him appears 14 seconds into the video: his own neck, pock-marked with a bullet wound).

But Prince Mick as he wants you to know him today is a changed man – or at least he’s trying to be one. With the help of his mother, he’s left his criminal past behind and now uses his art to express his spiritual values. As he told me in the following interview,The essence of my story is my spiritual journey. I believe in God. But I am not perfect. I fight demons.”

His spiritual side with his street past explains why an examination of street life like “Imma Beast,” and the raunchy “Miss a Niggalive alongside an urgent spiritual bulletin like War Stories,” and his contemplative video essay “Heaven or Hell” on his YouTube channel.

I met the 22-year-old Prince Mick on Global 14, the social community founded by music mogul Jermaine Dupri. After we swapped a few messages, he sent me his music, which I featured on my blog. Our interview, which we conducted over the telephone between breaks in his schedule attending junior college near Chicago, contrasts sharply with my recent profile of Indiana-based hip-hop artist Symon G. Seyz. Whereas Symon G. Seyz views himself as a J. Cole protégé playing for a middle-class audience, Prince Mick says he sings for the streets. “The streets mean the neighborhoods I grew up in and the places where I made my mark,” he says – the kinds of places he depicts in songs like “City Streets,” which is a documentary-style tour of his old west-side neighborhood.

“I’m not a happy-go-lucky rapper,” he says. “I’m telling stories. I’m telling you real life. God does not just reach out to people who are good but also to the thugs, murderers, prostitutes, and the lost.”

Thugs. Murderers. The lost. They’re still part of Prince Mick’s world: but as his audience now, not his peers.

Learn more about Prince Mick’s spiritual journey through our interview:

Tell me about yourself. How would you describe yourself in one sentence? A filmmaker? Musician?

I consider myself as a songwriter and storyteller. I started off as a storyteller with a camera, and I do so now through film and music.

The essence of my story is my spiritual journey. I believe in God. But I am not perfect. I fight demons.

I celebrate life, too, which you see coming through in my secular music.

Where did you grow up? How did those experiences influence your art?

I grew up in the west side of Chicago. I was raised to believe in God, and so I had a spiritual side for my entire life. But I also grew up in a thug’s life. I remember when I was about 4 years old. We were living in the projects, a lot us playing in the park. The thugs started firing shots from the top of the roof. The kids started scattering, but I didn’t know what was going on. My aunt screamed, “Baby, run!” I said, “Aren’t those fireworks?” “She said, “Those aren’t fireworks.”

That experience exposed me early on to a violent lifestyle. I eventually joined a gang and became a top dog. I got kicked out of school. I became a stick-up kid and was harming a lot of people.

Because my parents lived apart (my parents separated when I was young), I would visit my mom in the suburbs and be exposed to a better way of life. But life was good in Chicago, or so I thought.

My thug’s life led to me being was shot in the neck at age 16. The bullet came from the right side and out the left side. Blood was spurting out my neck and my mouth.

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The value of small ball

My latest post for the iCrossing Great Finds blog reflects on a recent Social Media Week panel appearance by Richard Dorment of Esquire magazine, iCrossing Chief Strategy Officer Adam Lavelle, and Jermaine Dupri, CEO of So So Def Recordings. Dorment, Lavelle, and Dupri had a lively conversation about Dupri’s bold decision in 2011 to launch his own branded social network, Global 14. The lifestyle community has blossomed into a tightly knit network of 33,000 passionate brand loyalists who share Dupri’s interests that range from fashion to hip-hop. Dupri’s personal approach — he blogs and corresponds with the Global 14 community frequently — provides a lesson in creating brand intimacy. It turns out Dupri is a trend setter. Since Dupri launched Global 14, Lady Gaga has announced the creation of her own social network, and celebrities are forming branded cable TV stations. What sets Dupri apart:

  • His personal involvement.
  • How he’s used Global 14 to broaden his brand beyond hip-hop and into fashion, relationships, and other lifestyle interests.
  • The integration of Global 14 with the offline world, as seen through his recent Crown Life 1414 Tour, which saw Dupri visit 14 cities in 14 days to introduce Global 14 members to each other via parties he hosted.

The Social Media Week panel gained coverage in publications such as Black Enterprise, Differences, Mashable, Heidi Cohen’s blog, and PSFK.  As I note in my Great Finds post, I think smaller, specialized sites like Global 14 are resonating because they speak to people and brands looking for an alternative to the sprawling and impersonal world of Facebook. What do you think?

Jermaine Dupri builds a real community with Global 14

Look at the headlines Facebook has generated lately: the company files for a multi-billion dollar initial public offering. Mark Zuckerberg spends $700,000 flying private planes in one year. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg begins building a new mansion in Menlo Park, California. There’s one important element missing from these stories: community. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about Global 14, a social community that music mogul Jermaine Dupri launched in 2011 – and the catalyst for a co-branding relationship that Dupri and my employer iCrossing announced on February 8. As a community of shared interests, Global 14 offers a model for brands and advertisers who might seek an alternative to the sprawling 850-million member country known as Facebook.

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Life in the hip-hop underground with Symon G. Seyz

Hip-hop artist Symon G. Seyz lives not for record sales but for the passion of making music. The 28-year-old rapper is a member of the hip-hop underground – where unsigned musicians find audiences by giving away their own mixtapes on the streets, performing at clubs and private parties, and using Twitter as their de facto booking agents and PR support.

You won’t find the hip-hip underground in the pages of Hip Hop Weekly but on social community Global 14, where many hip-hop artists are connecting with audiences and others like them. In fact, Global 14 is where I met Symon G. Seyz, a resident of Hammond, Indiana, an industrial town just south of Chicago.

In the following interview, Symon G. Seyz, a teacher by day and rapper by night, provides an open assessment of what it’s like to create and share your music in the hip-hip underground. And he has a lot on his mind. He believes hip-hop has an image problem, and he worries that maybe he’s too clean to be cool for hip-hop – or at least what middle-class America wants to hear from the art form.

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