This week, I'm in Boston to build the brand building capability of the six finalist teams of the Hult Prize, a start-up accelerator for budding young social entrepreneurs emerging from universities across the globe. Named as one of the top five ideas changing the world by President Bill Clinton and TIME Magazine, the annual competition for the the Hult Prize aims to identify and launch the most compelling social business ideas—start-up enterprises that tackle grave issues faced by billions of people. Winners receive USD 1 million in seed capital, as well as mentorship and advice from the international business community. So how can branding help the Hult Prize finalists to win the coveted $1 million dollar prize?
1. branding creates clarity
In branding, complexity of concept is a killer. The core of your brand needs to be crystal clear, and understandable for your entire team and to the partners you work with in order to get your brand into the world in a consistent and strong way. When people are considering your concept, it needs to come to you clearly and simply. If you want them to tell others about it, and become your advocate, it has to be sharp and simple. Branding needs that simple hook, in order to keep a consistency in the thousands of different ways people will encounter you along the way.
2. branding makes you stand out from the crowd
A competition is a simplified, albeit artificial, representation of a market. And when there is a market in which you need to position yourself, and stand out, there is a need for branding. How do you position yourself compared to the old status quo that you want to challenge? How do you position yourself compared to other teams? On the brand identity side, a compelling, recognisable (and loveable) voice and face do wonders: a quirky name, a memorable logo, a recognisable color palet. In the world of social entrepreneurship, and especially within particular sectors, certain words and images are commonplace. There is a lot of jargon, and a lot of problems we have heard of a thousand times before. Hand caressing a plant, people figures holding hands in a circle, and an image style has become known as the 'fly in the eye' photography. The UK cancer foundation Macmillan dared to be different, and stands out from the crowd, whether you love it or hate it.
3. branding puts your audience top of mind
When you develop a brand strategy in the early stages of your venture concept, it helps you to ask simple but meaningful questions about your users and other members of your audience, like investors. Branding means looking at yourself through the eyes of the other. Why does what we do matter? Why should anyone pay attention to this? Who are our audiences? What needs are we addressing? Why would they choose us over anyone else? How can we reach out to them? By looking through the users eyes, you create your own 'bullshit radar' that keeps you from taking your audiences for granted.
4. Branding and design help your venture look more feasible
A bad venture concept that is branded to perfection is like a monkey with lipstick on: no one will be fooled. But a great venture concept with a strong brand identity can help to greatly increase the perception of feasibility. When looking at the likelihood of both the business idea and the team behind it succeeding, a brand identity can make a great idea come to life, look professional, and show the team is aware of its audiences and the need to sell their concept to the world. Attention to the visual storytelling shows a team that is deeply committed to making every part of the concept work, and that you have the skills to execute beyond the idea stage.
5. Branding helps you to own and protect your concept
When you have a cutting edge idea, it is a scary thing to send it out into the world. If you want to make sure you are recognised for your ideas, branding can help. If you have elements of the concept that you want to copyright or trademark, branding elements can help do this. If you have a recognisable style, when someone at an event snaps a shot of one of your ppt slides and tweets it without a @mention, the visual identity will still provide clues to the brains behind the idea. And, a successful brand with a compelling name that leads a category, will be more difficult for others to challenge. The more original you frame your concept, both verbally and visually, the easier it is to protect your venture concept.
6. Branding names it (and if necessary, shames it)
How would you describe post-its without using the brand name? And what is a mouldable rubber, if not Sugru? To frame an innovation in the mind of your audience, all innovations need a good name. So do problems. When the Dutch animal rights group Wakker Dier chose to challenge the industrial poultry industry for their overfeeding, medication and maltreatment of chickens, it created the name 'Plofkip', which roughly translates to exploding chicken in Dutch. It became a household word that made awareness around eating chicken soar, with average consumers asking their supermarkets and large food industry brands for a ban on the practice.
7. Branding will create a return of effort
For social entrepreneurs looking for investors or donors, many of these audiences, will never be in contact with your product first hand. Your product or service might only be visible to them through a pitch presentation, or your website, or through a third party photo. Think of the Red Cross working in a conflict zone, being recognisable for donors on the 8 o clock news by the logo on their vests. Or the Waka Waka light, an iconic yellow stand up design, which you see pop up in instagram feeds everywhere. You want to make the impact of what you do visible to your audience: seeing is believing. With a strong brand identity, all the effort your put into actions and communication, and the spread of your product or service through your team and audiences, will lead back to you.
8. Branding will help you beyond the 2015 prize
Even if you don't win that coveted one million dollar prize, your venture concept can still conquer the world. A different path to funding can appear: from crowd funding to angel or social impact investors. A strong brand identity is a long term investment: it will grow with you over time.
The Hult Prize was initiated in 2010 by Palestinian-American Ahmad Ashkar, who recognised the need to accelerate social impact concepts into full blown, game changing businesses that will bring services to billions around the world. What if social ventures became such great brands, that the large global consumer market is tempted to move away from the traditional, non-sustainable, businesses en masse? What if these brands could put so much pressure on traditional brands, that they would need to adapt or die? Twenty years ago, there was little to tempt the average consumer into an organic grocery store. Today, organic produce brands and retail concepts are pushing traditional 'fast moving consumable' brands into the defence. And branding can help even the most foreign concepts, such as eating insects, palatable.
The Hult Prize is a collaboration between the Hult International School of Business and the Clinton Global Initiative.