If someone could have told Joel Lunenfeld (BA ’99) when he was a student at UB that he would someday become vice president for global branding strategy at Twitter, he probably would have had a few questions.
“What’s branding?” for instance. Also, “What’s Twitter?”
In fact, the digital media mastermind distinctly remembers being shown the internet for the first time during his sophomore year, and being less than blown away. As an anthropology major, Lunenfeld was more interested in cultural matters than technical ones—and in figuring out his future with a degree that didn’t make his next step altogether clear.
#life, as they now say.
An unpaid internship with the Buffalo Sabres (that he almost didn’t take) introduced Lunenfeld to this thing called marketing. Though a music career was once his dream, the Brooklyn native found himself drawn to advertising, which was then just starting to spread into the online realm. His anthropology background differentiated him in the field, in part by helping him to better understand people. Within a few years, he had co-founded a small agency in Atlanta. Moxie Interactive began with four people and grew to 600, with Lunenfeld as CEO at the age of 26, landing deals with world-class brands such as Coca-Cola and Twentieth Century Fox. He made the leap from there to Twitter’s nest five years ago.
As Twitter’s vice president for global brand strategy and creativity, Lunenfeld has made the advertising campaigns of big-time brands work on the network’s pithy platform. More recently, his branding mastery has turned internal, focusing on Twitter’s own messaging. Despite 10 years in existence—a ripe old age in tech terms—Twitter is still often misunderstood. Lunenfeld says an early impression of the service as a place where you share what you had for lunch lingers, when really it’s a platform for news and social discourse.
“We have direct communication that’s completely in the moment—candidates speaking with voters, consumers speaking with companies, fans speaking with celebrities, foreign embassies in conversation with each other. We’ve never had a global conversation like this,” says Lunenfeld. Hashtags ranging from the powerful to the playful proliferate on a forum that is open to all. “Twitter is like the most bizarre cocktail party in the world,” he says.
Now it’s Lunenfeld’s job to bring Twitter’s presence in this exchange to the foreground. What he did for outfits such as Pepsi, Starbucks and American Express—helping them utilize Twitter to make their brands more engaging—he’s trying to do for the little blue bird itself. “We’ve never had a voice before,” he reflects. “We were just the voice for everyone else.” So, in a role he describes as the company’s chief storyteller, he’s telling the tale of Twitter, which started as a quirky tech tool and quickly developed into a cultural phenomenon.
In some ways, it’s a tale that mirrors Lunenfeld’s own. Though his path to success wasn’t preplotted, it was swift nonetheless, a case of the right person in the right field at the right time. “Those things I once thought were weaknesses—not having a 5-year plan, not having a locked-in direction—were actually great strengths,” he says. Being unclear about his future made him open to possibility. Being naïve, he says, made him just foolish enough to start new things.
Now, at 39, a husband and a father of two young girls, Lunenfeld is comfortably situated. He sees his professional success not as the answer to life, but as being imbued with its own essential question—“What for?” So he continues to start things. Last year, he co-founded the Guardian Gym in Oakland, Calif., a nonprofit martial arts facility that provides free membership to area youth who want to train in jiu-jitsu, boxing or yoga. (This fall, the offer was extended to Oakland teachers as well.) He also serves on the board of Hire Heroes USA, which supports military members and veterans in the civilian workforce. He wants more of this kind of involvement in his future. “My No. 1 goal now is to find a way to integrate everything I love and care about,” Lunenfeld says, with the bold idealism that could come only from an anthropology major rocking it in Silicon Valley.
Earlier this fall, Lunenfeld returned to UB for the first time since his graduation to spend a day with students, staff and alumni, all eager to glean insight into the future of digital media from an industry insider. Reflecting on where it’s all headed, Lunenfeld lets his signature brand of uncertain certainty rise to the top.
“I’d be lying if I said I knew,” he says. And
that’s exactly what makes it so exciting.