Accelerating change through branding / by Anne Miltenburg

[This is a transcript of my April 2015 TEDx talk]

How do you convince people that children could design solutions to urgent global problems? How do you make the case for surfing as a tool for empowering women? How can you get the armed forces to re-imagine themselves as promoters of peace?

Two years ago, on a Tuesday night in February, I was driving home from Amsterdam to The Hague around midnight. I had just been in a fourteen hour brand thinking session, and I was tired. I had been asked by a drugstore chain, to come up with a compelling reason why women should choose their store over another drugstore, even though they sell exactly the same products at the same price. That's quite an intellectual challenge, but it’s not unusual, if you are a brand developer. So I had been staring at a box of tampax and a lipstick all day, trying to come up with that one great idea, and my brain was fried.

So, in the car, in an attempt to distract myself, I turned on the radio. And I fell right into an interview with this brilliant woman, who had developed an app that helps diagnose eye disease and prevent blindness, using any smartphone. ...And it made me angry! Why am I listening to this incredible story at midnight on a niche Dutch radio channel?That has an audience of maybe 300 people at this hour, people who are probably all already interested in social impact and environmental issues. 

Why isn’t this on prime time TV? Why was something with so much value and relevance, getting so little attention, while my tampax and lipstick client can get millions of people to run for their product?


I would have killed for that value and relevance in the last fourteen hours. Of course there are several reasons why great ideas don't always get the attention they deserve. The first thing we always think of is money, and of course, big budgets can make a big difference, I will not deny that. The second one is knowledge: these companies might not have the branding expertise they need. But I think there is another reason: we all have this binary thinking in good or bad: 

Bad products need branding, good products sell themselves. 

Growing up in the nineties, we knew who was good and who was bad. When I was at design school, we had this resident genius professor. A former design hero, now in his sixties, he entered our classroom at 10 in the morning with a glass of red wine in his hand. At department meetings, he would get up, proclaim “marketing is the devil”, and sit back down. And we lovvvved it. 

Our raison d’etre became to claim as much space for our creativity as possible, and to work for NGO’s and small cultural clients, in order to keep our hands clean. 

letting go of binary thinking

But over the next few years on the job, I discovered the world is not so black and white. When I was in Mali, and saw that NGO’s don't always have the positive social impact they claim they do. I was horrified to find that some aids awareness campaigns developed abroad, in their desperate efforts to keep people from getting infected, were unintentionally stigmatising people that were already ill, which turned them into social paria. And I realised, not everything NGO’s do is, per definition, good. 

I worked with a big fashion chain in Germany, that decided to switch to bio cotton for 3% of their product line, even though their customers were not asking for that. They made it so attractive the entire line sold out, and consequently they doubled the production. Big corporations are not always bad. 

The social sector has incredible heart, but could benefit greatly from the scale, impact and strategic brand thinking of business. Business has those strong brands, with that scale and reach, but misses the heart. 

Maybe its time to let go of this binary thinking of what’s good, and what’s bad.  We need to be willing to step over the divide, and merge the best of both worlds. 

So I could not be happier about living in a time where this merge is happening: a time of social entrepreneurship. It’s a movement that has really started to take off, but in order to truly make an impact, we need to lift it above the niche, and reach bigger audiences. 

And one of the ways we can do that is to use brand thinking to create better brands. 

What is brand thinking?

There’s been a lot of books written on the topic, and a lot of lingo and mystery in how brands are created. To put it simply, brand thinking is framing who you are, what you do, and why it matters, in your own mind, and the mind of your audience. Not leaving things to chance, but having a strategy about who needs to know about your idea, and how they will find out. 

So, last summer, I made it my quest to make brand thinking more accessible.

I distilled everything I knew about brand strategy into easy to use, actionable tools and models. I developed workshop formats. And I got myself a suitcase with all the tools I needed to become a mobile brand agency, and started travelling the world to work with change makers, from Zambia to Saudi Arabia. 

And started on my journey. 

CASE 1: Donegal, ireland

In November, I travelled to Ireland, to work with Easkey Britton, a scientist, big wave surfer and activist. Easkey has an incredible energy, and a dozen world changing initiatives. She is a professional surfer, has a phd in marine biology and does research on sustaining the oceans, and helps Iranian women gain self confidence by teaching them to surf, amongst other awesome activities. Her activities were so diverse, it was hard for others to get what it is she is trying to achieve, and where the value is for them. It was even difficult for herself to explain what it is that she does, exactly. Where do you start? Using my brand strategy canvas, we found the red thread woven into all her activities: it’s the surfers way to social change. All her activities are characterized by using surfing as a methodology to create social impact. By having a short, compelling, focussed positioning, you create focus for yourself, as well as for others. And when we started to map out her possible audience following this focus, we uncovered entire new audiences of partners and clients to fund her work.

case 2: Amsterdam, Dublin, Nairobi, Mumbai, Sao Paolo


I worked with an organisation on a mission to develop education where children design better futures using new technology. It was a concept that was difficult to grasp at first. We developed the brand,  articulated the offer, and the value to society, making what they do and why it matters visible and tangible for people. But once our first foundation stood, we realised we would not get any press any time soon unless there was a reason to report on us, today.  We needed a moment, a specific space in time to give people an urgent reason to report about it, today. So we developed the global children’s design-a-thon, where children in five global cities: Nairobi, Dublin, Amsterdam, Berlin and Sao Paolo simultaneously designed solutions for a better city. And we got everything ready for the media to help them report on the event.

Lead by local teachers, the children researched the problems, developed an idea, prototyped the solution, and presented it to each other on skype. It was an incredible day. And it worked; the event got picked up by tv, global online media. And there are no better embassadors to our cause than the children-designers themselves. This revolutionary new type of education got the attention it so deserved with the general audience, as well as educators and policy makers across the world.     

So if branding can help a surfer in Ireland, and an educator with global ambition, surely it can help the women of Saudi Arabia enter the job market.  

Whether you are a developer in Silicon Valley, or an aspiring fashion buyer in Riyadh, you need to know who you are, where your strengths lie, and how you can stand out from the crowd.

CASE 3: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

A new law in Saudi makes it possible, for the first time in history, for women to enter the job market. But how do they position themselves to potential employers, how will they stand out? What are their strengths, their passion, their unique characteristics? For an educational institute in Riyadh I adapted my brand strategy canvas to help their female students articulate what makes them who they are, and what they can mean to a potential future employer.  

If you had told me only a year ago, that I would be doing this kind of work through branding, I would have not believed you. And it’s incredibly satisfying on so many levels. If you draw a line from me, all the way back to Eve, I am the first woman in my line to go to university. My mother was the first generation to be allowed to keep her job after she got married. Social impact is not just a foreign concept. It’s for all of us. And that helped me to think big. So once I got back to The Hague, it occurred to me that if branding can help organisations frame who they are and what they do, it can help them reframe who their mission too. 

Case 4: the hague

Brand thinking is not just about framing what you do to the outside world, it can also help you to frame your thinking about yourself. And when you can create a frame, you can also re-frame. Last year, I asked the Dutch Ministry of Defense, what it would mean for them if they would become the Ministry of Peace?

What would a positioning as the Ministry of Peace, mean for the people they hire, the equipment they buy, the partnerships they forge? What if, instead of preserving the peace, they would be advancing it?  Let’s think even bigger. Imagine what a brand strategy of advancing peace could mean for armed forces across the world?

Think & act big

Of course, I can talk about thinking big all I want, but I am basically just a one woman operation.  So this summer, the tools that I have developed will be published publically for everyone to use,. I’m making a workbook, which will become the foundation for a curriculum on brand thinking, which I will pilot at a school for social entrepreneurship in Nairobi and Sao Paolo this summer. Their groups of 30 changemakers will get the tools to help them build their own changemaking brands. 

Later this year, I hope to travel to a startup festival in Gaza, where social entrepreneurship is a crucial lifeline for so many people.

And I ask myself, what if the next google is developed in Palestine?

There is such incredible talent all over the world. People with great new ideas, products and services, that deserve to scale. And we can’t leave that to chance. 

What if we could make eating insects as attractive for people as eating seafood? What if a designed-and-made-in-Ethiopia shoe brand outsells the current ubiquitous sneaker?

In a perfect world, great ideas would spread purely based on their own merit. Until that perfect world is here, we need to do justice to these solutions, and brand them professionally to ensure changemakers get the audience they deserve.