David Rogers at BRITE '14

Be customer experience focused and channel agnostic. Solve problems. Keep trying to make the customer experience better. Recognize that the boundaries between the physical and digital have blurred.

Disrupt or be disrupted.

Those are some of the key messages from the BRITE '14 Conference at Columbia University in New York City. Now in its seventh year, the two-day event is sponsored by Columbia's Center on Global Brand Leadership.

It brings together more than 500 thought leaders from media and business to discuss the ways innovation and technology are transforming the ways we build great brands. Keynote speakers included David Rogers (shown above), faculty director of Columbia's Executive Education programs on Digital Marketing Strategy and founder and executive director of the conference.

The Shape of Things to Come

Speaking on the first day of the conference, Rogers focused on the concept of disruption and the ways innovation — spurred by digital technologies — are transforming our relationships to businesses and each other.

"A lot of disruption is generated by changes in consumer behavior," he explained, citing demand for services like Craigslist, Uber and GrubHub, which just filed for a $100 Million initial public offering.

Rogers defined disruption as advances that reshape the market structure. He echoed the cautions that were expressed in a McKinsey report last year that noted:

Almost every advance is billed as a breakthrough, and the list of “next big things” grows ever longer. Not every emerging technology will alter the business or social landscape—but some truly do have the potential to disrupt the status quo, alter the way people live and work, and rearrange value pools."

Why does the definition matter? "I don't want disruption to become a buzzword," he said. New technologies come and go, but only some truly disrupt the status quo, he stressed.

In a soon to be released book, Rogers argues that organizations need new strategies to thrive and survive in this era of constant digital disruption. In the book, The Network is Your Customer, he offers five strategies businesses can use to create value and new opportunities:

  • Access — be faster, be easier, be everywhere, be always on
  • Engage — become a source of valued content
  • Customize — make your offering adaptable to your customers' needs
  • Connect — become a part of your customers' conversations
  • Collaborate — involve your customers at every stage of your enterprise

BRITE '14 conference

Rogers gave participants an opportunity to think differently about the changing landscape of media and technology during a 20-minute brainstorming session. Participants were asked to collaborate with the people at their tables to create the framework of a disruptive business. While some used the time as an opportunity for coffee breaks, others accepted the challenge.

But the results made it clear that thinking differently is easier said than done. None of the options the crowd shared seemed to have the stuff of say, Warby Parker.

The Netflix of Eyewear

Neil Blumenthal of Warby Parker

Ask Warby Parker co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal to share the company's story and he'll likely tell you it was "founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to create boutique-quality, classically crafted eyewear at a revolutionary price point."

Actually, you can read that on the company website. Blumenthal is a little more understated in person, as attendees at the conference learned when he took the stage at BRITE yesterday. Blumenthal explained how he and co-founder Dave Gilboa set out to shake up — make that disrupt — the eyewear industry by making it easy for anyone to buy affordable, stylish, high-quality glasses. Available online and through company showrooms, Warby Parker glasses start at $95.

The company was built on a culture of disruption. As Blumenthal noted in a New York Times article last fall:

We think a lot about being a disruptive company. The question is, How do you remain a disruptive company? How do you create a culture of innovation? The first way is actually asking for innovation. A lot of companies don’t expect or ask their team members to come up with ideas, but we demand it. It’s just everybody’s responsibility.

While Blumenthal is clearly proud of his company — named for two characters that appear in a journal by beat generation writer Jack Kerouac — he was just as passionate about the broad topic of customer experience.

"The medium doesn't matter. The experience matters," he said, noting that too many businesses worry more about the channel they use than the experiences they create. "The key is to be experience focused and medium agnostic."

In a digital world of constant connectivity, companies and brands have to accept a new reality. "It's not 'your' brand anymore. It's 'our' brand. Your brand now is what other people make it out to be," he said.

Hold Tight: Everything is Changing

Donald Chestnut of SapientNitro

As Donald Chestnut (shown left), chief experience officer at SapientNitro, stressed: "We're in the midst of fundamental change." SapientNitro is an interactive marketing, creative design and technology services agency, and Chestnut is its lead architect for technology-driven customer connectivity.

"There is no aspect of your lives that has not been touched by technology," he said. But he added that too often, companies and brands use technology in ways that are "in-human and disconnected." To be effective, technology has to be people-centric, he said.

Although the lines between the physical and digital worlds have blurred, the focus on providing exceptional service and amazing customer experience has remained the same, he continued. He offered three suggestions:

  1. Think of your brand managers as experience managers
  2. Make sure you have a deep understanding of the experience of your products and the people who use them
  3. Continue to innovate so you can engage with your customers in a blended world that increasingly brings online and offline together

"Customer experience has become very personal," he said.

All images by Asa Aarons (all rights reserved).