Accelerating Change Through Branding

Anne Miltenburg

In our ‘Trailblazers’ series, we bring you individual perspectives on creative leadership, social innovation, and positive change from THNK’s worldwide alumni community. Today we present a piece by Anne Miltenburg, founder of The Brandling.

As a brand developer I collaborate with changemakers all over the world, from Tunis, Lusaka, Boston, Donegal, Amsterdam, to Riyadh and Nairobi. Wherever I go, social entrepreneurs rate branding as crucial to their success. Yet they rate their own brand capabilities as low. Lack of knowledge, budget to hire professionals or access to high quality resources hold them back. Through THNK’s accelerator program, I founded The Brandling, with the aim of empowering social entrepreneurs to increase their impact. We are now celebrating our first year anniversary, having worked with over 150 changemakers, and our conviction that branding is crucial for social impact has only grown. Here is what we have come to believe, above all:

Branding should be an integrated part of the business building process.

Incubators, accelerators, investors and organizations offering fellowships, mentoring and support, invest tens, if not thousands of dollars to develop a viable business model for a social venture. Yet if we just throw these businesses into the market and hope the idea will catch on, we are not doing the concepts justice. Branding should be an integrated part of business development. Every social venture needs a brand strategy that helps support growth and scaling.

Brand capability can be taught!

The Brandling offers two ways to build brand thinking capability for changemakers: in person through workshops; and through stand alone tools. We can’t reach the entire world, so high quality tools and resources are crucial. Two weeks ago, we launched our Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the:

Branding Toolkit for Change-makers.

When we first launched, we faced some skepticism. Can you teach someone branding skills through a book and tools? The honest answer is: yes and no — Yes, you need knowledge resources that help people delve into a topic and take what they can use for their own benefit. No, you cannot expect everyone who reads the book to become a branding expert. But a book (digital / print) still is a mighty vessel for knowledge transfer.

Reading a book by Deepak Chopra will not make you a spiritual guru. Business Model Generation offers great insights and tools on how to develop a business model but you will be no Richard Branson through reading it. Nevertheless, we sure get a lot further than we would have gotten on our own wits.

Social entrepreneurs, above everyone, should build strong brands.

There is a taboo in the social sector on branding, marketing and advertising. And understandably so. In a perfect world, all social ventures would grow and see their impact multiply purely based on their own merit. In a perfect world, all funds would go directly to beneficiaries and the impact we want to see. But we do not live in a perfect world. We live in a world where we are in constant competition for people’s time, money and attention. Whether you need to reach investors, potential employees, strategic partners, clients, users or fans — you need to communicate clearly who you are, what you do and why it matters. You need to know what you want to be recognized for, by whom, and how they will find out.

We can keep our heads in the sand and pretend that how we present a concept does not matter, that it is the idea itself that counts, but by not facing the reality we are doing ourselves a disservice. Branding is not overhead — it is essential. The social and environmental impact that we want to see needs to reach a bigger, broader audience than the pond everyone is fishing from, and branding helps. Call it social branding, call it co-created branding (if that soothes the mind), but let’s make sure these organizations become as influential as brands where value only accrues to shareholders.

Onwards and upwards!

We want to see a world where a family starting a fair trade lemonade factory in Sierra Leone has access to the same branding knowledge as a company like Coca Cola. That is the vision we’re working towards over the coming years, and we will go places and work in ways that I cannot even begin to imagine now. We have plans for training trainers worldwide, creating an online platform, and more. Let’s take it one step at a time though, and start with the toolkit.

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About the author: Anne Miltenburg is the founder with The Brandling, a creative agency on a mission to empower changemakers to create bigger impact through branding. She has lived and worked in places as diverse as Paris, Bamako, Seoul, Lusaka and Riyadh, and currently calls The Hague and Nairobi home.