How to Build a Robust Community Through Brand Marketing: Interview with Nish Nadaraja

We sat down with Nish Nadaraja, brand marketing consultant and community building extraordinaire. Nish helps unravel the key details of building a community through interesting anecdotes from his past work experiences. He also illustrates through his vision what the future of brand marketing will look like.

How do you define community? Community is just a feeling of fellowship that results from sharing common attitudes, interests, or goals. It’s about how people connect and relate with each other, so neighborhoods and schools are obvious communities, but so are conferences and festivals. Cults are perhaps the ultimate community, for better or worse. When I set about to create and build the Yelp community, I looked to social, psychological and anthropomorphic examples as benchmarks.

Have you always been inspired by building communities? Or was this something you discovered at Yelp? I guess I’ve always been in the middle of the action, you know involved on the student council and in my college Greek system, that sort of thing. The ideas of belonging, purpose and legacy are important themes for me. I always felts restaurants and bars should be more social, more human, as they are obvious gathering places. Yelp was my testing ground to amplify this. It’s that “we’re not strangers here, just friends who have not met yet” mentality I was drawn to.

How do you “leave a community”, or more specifically, how did it feel to walk away from Yelp? You never quite walk away! I mean I was “yelping” — which is to say recommending places to eat, drink and shop — way before Yelp. That was the early use case, people like me who were out 8 days a week and had a little bit of an ego about being in the know. I created the super user Yelp Elite program, which is the still the primary way Yelp communities are launched and maintained. Heck, I’m still writing reviews, albeit as haikus:

What are some unintended negative impacts you’ve experienced while building a community? It’s human nature to get bruised a bit as you go along your way, and that’s to be expected in any community. You have different egos, personalities, agendas, and it’s always a bit of a give and take. In online terms, trolls are still a big issue, which I guess would now fall under cyber-bullying. That’s why rules and laws come about in real life: people keep coming up with ways to be assholes.

Tell us something about brand marketing that they don’t teach in business school? I would kindly refer you to a Medium post I co-authored called Slow-Growth Lessons in a Hack-Assed World.  Outside of that, branding is reputation, nothing more. If you don’t understand your brand — and by that I mean why you exist — then just stop, please.

What experiences at Ammo have you carried with you through your brand marketing career? Ammo was a formative time for me, and the only reason I left was the Yelp opportunity. I still consider almost any project I work on to be tied into experiences, influencers and connection. We got to work on brands like Method, Miller High Life and Volvo, thinking about how to get small groups of key people to become extremely engaged with something.

With brand marketing, how does being a consultant differ from being an employed team member? I get to come in and wax poetic about some of the above, and leadership and management actually listen, but then months later these strategies fall apart without constant monitoring and attention. Execution is all that matters in the end. It’s the doing rather than saying. Branding is a constant selfie, a dialogue with customers and partners. So with consulting, I get to have a top-down approach, but I try and convey as much as possible that brand work is an ongoing, perpetual cycle. You should hire me all the time.

You’ve been doing brand marketing for almost 20 years, how has the landscape changed? The poet Jon Bon Jovi said it best, “It’s all the same, only the names will change.” We’re at a time where Snapchat is the big name in social, but it’s just another outlet. We still communicate via email and phone, and in person. We’re still humans trying to get other humans to do something. So there are new tools out there, but it’s really just a new spin on the old. Social is the new social.

What’s on the horizon for brand marketing? Human-centered design! Augmented reality! If I had to pick a future trend, it’s that we are always on, always consuming, always sharing. We’re both content creators and content consumers. Everyone’s a brand.


Julie Kent is an Editor and Program Manager at BCG DV Torque.