Influencing shamelessly with Jeetendr Sehdev
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Influencing shamelessly with Jeetendr Sehdev

Since the launch of LinkedIn in 2002, social media platforms have dominated our online time and attention. Today, the 3 billion active social media users in the world spend an average of almost two hours on social media every single day. Whether you love social media or hate it, if you’re marketing a consumer product or service, it must be part of your brand strategy.

In a world where some startup founders become superstars, I wanted to find out how entrepreneurs should tangle with the wild world of celebrities, influencers, and viral content makers.

On this week’s episode of the What’s NEXT podcast, I spoke with Jeetendr Sehdev, author of the New York Times bestseller The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right).

Jeetendr is a former ad man, working with brands including Mars and American Express; a former professor of marketing at USC; and now a popular commentator and columnist on celebrity culture for media outlets from Access Hollywood to the Financial Times.

The crux of his work—and what startups can learn from it—analyzes mega-celebrities like the Kardashians or Beyoncé as corporate brands. This approach requires defining a brand more broadly than you might be used to.

“A brand is an entity that creates an emotional connection with your consumer and that then allows you to hopefully charge a premium or to develop a more loyal fan base,” Jeetendr said. “It’s an intangible power force of sorts.”

Jeetendr views Kim Kardashian, for example, as an early adopter of social media and wildly successful at it. “Any CEO, any entrepreneur, any business leader who is serious about building a following for their brand needs to be playing close attention to Kim Kardashian and her marketing tactics,” he said.

Branding: Then vs. now
In the traditional marketing world, a company like Unilever or Proctor & Gamble would have brand managers and brand marketers, Jeetendr explained. These executives would consider three things: the characteristics of target consumers; what’s currently happening in culture; and the brand or product identity.

“Out of the insights of that research, you will create a positioning for a brand, or you know what the brand actually stands for, and then you go to market with the marketing messaging around that,” he said.

In the Kardashian World, he wrote in his book, “The traditional ways of connecting with people have now gone out the window. And in order to change the way that we think about products, services, and ideas, we’ve got to change the way that we think about ourselves.”

The marketing paradigm
This massive shift is due to digitally native consumers: This new breed can see right through traditional corporate marketing tactics.

Diversity and inclusion are important components of this shift, Jeetendr believes. For one thing, diversity leads to creativity, as different viewpoints play against each other. For another, today’s global consumers are more color-blind and gender-blind than ever before. They’re looking for diversity in everything they consume.

A brand that wants to be seen as cool and different must have a diverse team and reflect that in everything the company says and does. “The reason why it’s cool and different is because it’s the cultural narrative at the moment. It’s what’s going on,” Jeetendr said

With the rise of social media came influencers, often people who’ve become celebrities outside of the traditional pathways of auditions and agents. He noted that a micro-influencer, one who genuinely connects with a few thousand fans, can be as or more valuable as a promoter than someone who has millions of followers.

What’s more important than numbers, he added, is that the influencer’s interests and content fit with your brand. That fit might change depending on your specific marketing goal, for example, building awareness versus driving purchases or advocacy.

Rules to win
Smaller brands must disrupt, Jeetendr said, especially if they’re going up against big, established players. He developed a strategy he calls SELFIE, which stands for surprise, expose, lead, flaws, intimate and execute.

“Surprise” is maybe obvious, but not easy. The key, he said, is not only owning your uniqueness but amplifying it, like Kim Kardashian did by flouting traditional standards of beauty.

“Exposed” means not overly curating communications with potential customers. “Overexposure lets your customers in on what your organization is really about, what you as a leader of your brand really stand for, and it allows them to connect with you on a values level,” Jeetendr said.

That goes along with the F in the acronym, which stands for “flaws.” “Showing your vulnerability, showing your humanity—those are the ideas today that connect with these younger generations.”

Jeetendr advises startup leaders not to try to run away from mistakes. “There is more forgiveness in the marketplace than there has ever been before,” he said. “Consumers are drawn towards brands that continue to innovate and are human.”

That vulnerability includes being open to being hated. “Hate is a status symbol,” he said. “If I’m not being hated, I’m not in the game, because hate is also me striking a nerve with somebody.”

E is for “execute.” Jeetendr sees many startup leaders being overprotective of their brands. He recommends putting your brand or product out and letting consumers define it for themselves. For example, who knew that UberPool would turn into a dating service?

Finally, if all this seems overwhelming, Jeetendr broke it down to three simple to-dos for brands that want to break out:

  • You have to be brave enough to do things very differently.
  • Your brand has to be relatable and human.
  • You have to continue to innovate and try new things as a company.


To learn more about how startups can use social media to build their brand clout, you can listen to the full episode in the embedded player above, or subscribe through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, RSS or your favorite podcast app.

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