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Monday, March 9, 2009

Key Takeaways from "We Media 2009": A Branding Challenge for our Space?

By Jenara Nerenberg

Jenara (far right) and other attendees at We Media 2009.

Two weeks ago I attended the We Media conference in Miami as a We Media Fellow . The conference was exciting and thought-provoking and made me think a lot about the state of the "development through enterprise" community and us entrepreneurs working to fight poverty through innovative, private-sector-lead solutions. I'll share with you some themes from the conference as well as my key takeaways from the viewpoint of a BOPreneur.

With a focus on media, journalism, and the power of "we" to address global challenges through social media, We Media was packed with people like Alan Connor of the BBC, Alan Webber of Fast Company, Amra Tareen of allvoices, Brian Reich of iFOCOS, and other notable journalists and media experts. Also present were BOP superstars Erik Hersman of Ushahidi, Jenna Lawrence of Ashoka's Changemakers, Priya Haji of World of Good, and 11 bloggers from the Global Voices Team. It was gratifying to see my passions of social media, business, and international development converge at the conference and in these people.  

The conference covered issues ranging from branding, advertising, hip-hop, emergency response, the role of mobiles, Twitter, and more. See my post, Reinventing Advertising, for further comment on those topics. There were 7 Game Changers awarded for their outstanding use of media to address social ills, including David Plouffe of the Obama Campaign. Mr. Plouffe addressed the audience via video and urged the We Media community to offer feedback and generate ideas on how technology can better facilitate the grassroots community organizing and policy support that Obama seeks to continue from his Campaign into his Administration.

The Pitch It Competition co-sponsored by Ashoka's Changemakers was also held during the conference, bringing in the 18 finalists to compete for $50,000; $25,000 each for a non-profit and commercial venture, both of which use media in new and innovative ways to create social impact. The non-profit award went to The Extraordinaries and the commercial prize went to SeeClickfix.  

I came away from the conference feeling a mix of excitement and frustration. Excited because there are so many great things happening in this space and frustrated because I fear the development through enterprise perspective has not yet reached these communities. In other words, I'm worried we're not getting our message out. While we at We Media talked branding, advertising, social media, marketing, corporate social responsibility (CSR), entrepreneurship, and sustainability, I thought to myself, "Do we in the BOP space have a branding challenge? Are we getting our message out? Is our voice getting mixed in with a whole host of initiatives branded under the umbrella of 'social entrepreneurship' and CSR?"  

This got me thinking: How do you define a social entrepreneur? Is it anyone who simply starts a non-profit?    My concern is that we are not effectively differentiating ourselves. Perhaps we need more classes, more conferences, more research papers, and policy analysis under the name of "Development through Enterprise" or "Business at the Base of the Pyramid," so that our approach and framework are not diluted and confused with CSR. We might even need to de-couple ourselves from the more general term "social entrepreneurship." I think Paul Hudnut's coining of the term, "BOPreneur ," is a perfect starting place, but we need to flesh out the definition. My first exposure to the BOP concept was in Harvard Business School's course, "Business at the Base of the Pyramid," and I appreciated the fact that this was distinct from the CSR class, "Customers, Commerce, and Society." I'm sure that the leadership of Professor Kash Rangan, who teaches in both courses, helped make this possible.

We need to have a dialogue on what our 30-second elevator pitch is as a community. How are we different from the thousands of people out there trying to make a difference using traditional charity and non-profit business models? How would you brand our message? How do we ensure that the BOP approach is understood by the media, journalists, and students as a movement distinct from CSR? NextBillion.net made a great step in literally re-doing, re-vamping, and re-branding itself with the new website.

But what can we do as a greater community? I know that there are thousands out there who understand our mission and practice it every day, but what we need to think about next is how to help those who do not know about or understand our approach--the mainstream media, policy leaders, and journalists--so that our brand and our message stand out in the crowd.

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