The days when social enterprises could attract audiences purely on the merit of their altruism evaporated years ago. In its place lies an industry so packed with movers and shakers that it’s reached the apex of global marketing innovation.

Behind every successful changemaker driving social impact is a brilliant brand manager, and Anne Miltenburg is one of the world’s best when it comes to social impact branding. When she’s not gracing the pages of Forbes magazine, she’s empowering clients like Internet of Elephants, Children’s Designation, and Alf Khair via her business, The Brandling. Her unique approach to branding couldn’t fit the industry she serves more snugly—she has a decidedly human approach that fits hand-in-glove with the humaneness of the businesses she works with.

Exclusive interview with The Brandling founder, Anne Miltenburg.

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Back to Basics

“[Branding is] really about defining what you want to be recognized for… In that sense, it’s a very human skill.” Part of Anne’s uniqueness is driven by her global citizenship. She jet-sets from the urban hubs of Africa to the high-paced cities of the United States designing social impact brand strategies weaved with the same degree of diversity as the cultures she works with.

She’s customized her brand development process to suit her passion for visual creativity and project management. It may seem like a self-serving way to go about it, but she believes that one of the reasons brands fail is that entrepreneurs don’t evolve in a way that makes them happy. “When a business model isn’t making you happy, then it’s not a sustainable business model.”

In many ways, her branding canvasses work around existing best practices, so the question of what makes hers so successful is a hefty one. The answer? Just as horse whisperers have a potent ability to understand the motives, needs, and desires of the animals they treat, Miltenburg has a profound capacity to draw out the goals and wishes of social entrepreneurs. Branding is a behavioral art, and one she excels at.

Accelerating Change through Branding | Anne Miltenburg | TEDxTilburgUniversity
TEDx Talks

Know Thyself

Most entrepreneurs are intimately acquainted with the shallow face of branding: It’s all about appearances—“framing who you are, what you do, and why that matters; developing an understanding of who needs to know and how they’re going to find out.” Even the clumsiest novice should be able to answer those questions, so why do they struggle with the simplest ones? Miltenburg has found that, although entrepreneurs are intensely connected to their motives and aims, they often have a difficult time translating this to the outside world. The ancient Greek aphorism, “Know thyself,” is as relevant to entrepreneurship as it is to psychology, and one of Anne’s greatest talents lies not only in helping social entrepreneurs define these facets, but also in translating them to the outside world with as much passion and enthusiasm as the entrepreneur exudes in person. With enthusiasm comes happiness, and with happiness comes success.

The Canvasses

In the early days when Miltenburg worked as a strategist for agencies, she would come up with concepts developed from clients’ briefings long after they’d walked out of the door. It was a one-sided process, and she realized that a co-creation approach would yield much better results. With that, the Brand Thinking Canvas was born. It translates complex branding models into two simple, holistic models that help you understand what a strong brand is all about and how to design your brand strategy. The questions the canvasses ask are simple and require simple answers. If this sounds easy, think again; it’s the most basic elements that are often the hardest to define.

The first model asks

  •    What’s your vision?
  •    What are the promises you make to your audience?
  •    How do you translate those two facets into a visual and verbal identity?
  •    How do you translate that into audience experiences?

In other words, how do you communicate, what kind of team do you need, and what type of technology will help create better experiences for your customers?

The second canvas deals with your target demographic. It helps you to map out your audience, including your customer segments and investors.

“framing who you are, what you do, and why that matters; developing an understanding of who needs to know and how they’re going to find out.”

Overcoming Your Own Adversity

As a creative thinker with immense vision and an innate desire to effect real change, you must be willing to stick with your idea, no matter what adversity comes your way. For Jonah, he witnessed this first-hand when he was just starting out. After travelling to Ghana and realizing how different the culture was, he could not wait to share his idea with everyone he knew. He believed that creating an authentic experience for others could not only succeed, but help empower people all over the world to become global citizens.

Yet, his idea to build an ethical travel organization met a great deal of resistance and skepticism in the early stages. As Jonah recalled, a big idea is “usually an unchartered territory, and people will laugh at you. It’s going to be hard at first, it’s going to be uncomfortable; you have no idea if it’s going to work”.

Jonah went on to share how he got started: “I was a Social Entrepreneur before I even knew what Social Enterprise was. We started Operation Groundswell without any real knowledge of what the forthcoming industry would be.  We started it at a time when it wasn’t cool to be a Social Entrepreneur, wasn’t cool to have purpose and profit intertwined in your business thinking; you were kind of an outsider, and it was kind of viewed as odd”.

Clearly, Jonah was up against a mountain of opposition. However, he pressed on, believed in himself and his vision, and used this opposition to fuel his passion for success.

When Marketers Do Business Development

These days, business and brand are so intertwined, they develop in lock-step, so even corporate culture affects your branding. If you’re dealing with a product that doesn’t yet exist, this step becomes particularly challenging. You must figure out how to frame your product or service in the minds of your audience in such a way that they understand what they are and what value they offer.

Changemakers spend much of their time working towards social change, which leaves branding on a lower rung of their priorities ladder. In many ways, the branding is ground-breaking not because of the way it brands, but because of how well it draws the overarching goals out of the minds of social entrepreneurs who are drowning in far greater priorities.

A Stitch in Time

Today’s businesses exist on a grand stage, so authenticity and honesty are imperative. When something prevents you from submitting your ideas to full public scrutiny, your branding suffers. A failure to brand in an engaging, convincing, and honest way can destroy a business in five digital minutes, so today’s social entrepreneurs need to stop cutting corners on communicating the complexity of what they’re trying to achieve.

Audiences need clear and smart communication. Any part that doesn’t fit in with your brand identity needs to be cleared away. Take your audiences seriously. Respect their intelligence. They have millions of messages coming their way each day, so you need to catch their eye with something strong and engaging.

Entrepreneurs often fail because they often bootstrap their brand by hiring friends and family to do pro bono creative work. There are other ways around this issue. Build long-term relationships with a creative team who is willing to offset a low starting budget with one that grows with the relationship, and the business.

Defined Demographics Isn’t Enough

Anne’s focus on audiences instead of demographics is a stark reminder that every business functions in a public place where scrutiny digs deep. For this reason, every point of contact needs to be consistent with your brand. Your image must be communicated to everyone — from your service providers and funders, to your customers. Brand “leaks” or areas where your branding has cracks need to be stopped before the entire dam wall caves in.

“In a perfect world your ideas would grow and spread purely based on their merit but unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world, and you have to work hard to get that message out there… You need to craft the brand that you deserve,” says Miltenburg.

Her new branding toolkit comes out at the end of January 2016. It gives social entrepreneurs an accessible source to build their branding capabilities to fight their way towards success. In the meantime, your brand could use a more personal approach. “Try to be as close to yourself and as true to yourself as possible,” she suggests. “Find out what makes you different, what makes you unique, and what value you offer to an audience. We tend to think of [branding] as a very complex process but think of it as a very human process.”