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Voices of Innovation

Noah Brier's Brand Laboratory

Noah Brier, who heads planning and strategy at digital marketers Barbarian Group in New York, loves the Internet. He's fascinated by how it works. He has underlined entire sections of the book Linked, sociologist Albert Laszlo Barabasi's study of network dynamics. Brier, 26, has this idea that the world is breaking down our lives and jobs into little pieces, and that the network is the tool we use to scoop it back up and we want. This can sound like pie in the sky. But that's where toolmakers such as Brier have an advantage. They can go beyond words and PowerPoint demos and actually piece together their visions with code. "I'm a geek," Brier says, "and I say that with pride." Brier learned how to build elementary Web pages as a 13-year-old middle school student in Connecticut. Later he taught himself PHP, the scripting language for building dynamic Web sites. He makes it clear that his level of expertise is, at best, basic. But the point is that when he gets an idea, he can try stuff. One evening last year, Brier was doing some reading and blogging. He was interested in the concept that reside not in corporate design studios or copyright portfolios, but in the heads of millions of consumers. Later that night he woke up, he says, got out of bed, and decided to create a tool to harvest the public's insights on brands. The result is Brand Tags. It's a Web page that flashes up logos, like so many Rorschach tests, and asks visitors to tag each one with a word or phrase. The more each one is repeated, the larger it appears in each brand's word cloud. When he blogged about the new site last year, thousands of people flocked to it. Now the site has 1.5 million tags describing nearly 900 brands. A Business Plan from Brand Tags The inflow gives Brier a . He quickly tweaked it to let users type in a word (say, "big") and see the brands most associated with it (Hummer, Wal-Mart). He can compare the outlooks of Windows and Mac users. He can separate the tags that took longer than 10 seconds to come up with, which reflect more studied opinions, from more instinctive responses. "If you look at Google," he says, "most of the people who say 'evil' take more than 10 seconds. It's an opinion they're giving, which is also interesting." How do brand tags fit in with his business plan? First, they helps him (and everyone else) get a clearer understanding of brands. They contrast the idealized picture companies paint for themselves with what Brier calls "a more honest look." But beyond the data on Brand Tags is a more important message about Brier's own brand: He can make things. Not all of it is in the digital world. Two and a half years ago, Brier and a friend, Piers Fawkes, founder of trends company PSFK, decided people weren't mingling enough with other interesting people outside their jobs. Brier asked on his blog if people wanted to one morning in Manhattan for coffee. That was the birth of LikeMind. It's a monthly gathering that has spread from New York to 50 cities worldwide. "These are hosted by random people around the world who just ask us," he says. In each place, the dynamic is different. Like much of what Brier creates—and much of social media—it starts off with an idea, and people take it where they will.

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