How to think like a brand strategist (and act like one)

Adapted from a talk for BIS Publishers and Breda University of Applied Sciences.

I’ve got bad news and good news. I’ll start with the bad: we face a climate crisis, overpopulation, extremism, massive unemployment, to name a few.

The good news is that there are a lot of brilliant people working on solutions. Yet many of these ideas, products and services for change fail to grow. Why is that?

Most of them fail, not because they aren’t good, it’s because they fail to reach the right audiences at the right volume.


As humans, we are biased towards putting most of our resources in building great products, and relatively little in how to sell it well to the world.

We have these ingrained dysfunctional beliefs about brand and marketing: it’s overhead, it’s veneer, it’s evil.

These beliefs results in a ‘fingers crossed’ brand strategy that is leaving a lot of impact on the table.

I will argue that we need to invest as many resources into selling these products and services to the world, as we do in creating them.

Does that mean that all of that money goes to brand agencies? No: it means we need to build brand thinking skills as changemakers.

I believe thinking like a brand strategist is actually one of THE crucial skills in leadership and change-making.

There are eight traits of thinking like a brand strategist that I believe are crucial skills in leadership and change-making, and which underpin all our training programmes.

1. Make complex things easy to understand

The first key thing, which brand strategists excel in, is to make complex things simple.

Our brains are constantly under assault from all directions, and in order for a message to get through, you can’t make those brains work too hard. Not because people are stupid, but because they have better ways to spend their time then figuring out what it is that you are trying to sell them, and they will disconnect.

As a researcher, coach and teacher, my brain has to process sentences like:

“We are a sustainability crucible for cradle-to-cradle concepts and circle-economy research enabling environmental activists to empower communities.”

or this beauty:

“We support social entrepreneurs who are leading and collaborating with changemakers in a team-of-teams model that addresses the fluidity of a rapidly evolving society.”

The only reason why I keep listening is because I’m there to fix it.

Problems like overpopulation, sustainable energy, nature conservation or human rights are complex matters, but that doesn’t mean that the language we use to describe these issues, or their solutions, needs to be complex too.

Don’t get me wrong, simple is hard.

Marine biologist Dr Ayana Johnnson, whose story we feature in Brand The Change, is a formidable example of the impact you can create when you invest in making complex things simple to understand.

Dr. Johnson spent a full year developing ocean conservation policy for a Caribean Island while testing her messaging with stakeholders across the island. She developed the phrase “Using the ocean without using it up” — which was key to creating political will, and getting important ocean policy accepted.

2. Meet people where they are

Brand strategists don’t fight reality. Instead, we meet people where they are.

This makes us very different from, for instance, activists. What’s great about activists is that they set a new standard for ethics and behavior. They draw a line in the sand and demand people to come to their side.

But when you think like a brand strategist, you move to where people already are. You try and understand their world view, their needs, their channels, their vocabulary, and you meet them in that space.

One example is the family planning and reproductive rights space that thousands of organisations are trying to crack. Here’s the catch: no woman wakes up in the morning thinking about family planning or reproductive rights. What they do wake up thinking about is that hot guy from work and how to impress him, or that job promotion that could be hers if she can postpone a pregnancy.

One organization that has understood this like no other is Love Matters. They approached the issue of family planning through the lens of sex and pleasure. Google any question you might have about how to please your guy/gal, how to stay safe while being sexy, and Love Matters will come up at the top of your results.

Positioning yourself as THE information source on sex and pleasure is an incredibly powerful brand strategy, and it’s a winning one: Love Matters reaches millions of young people in Africa and India each month — many more than conventional family planning organizations.

3. Broaden the tent

When you think like a brand strategist, you will find a way to expand your market (which also means expanding your impact potential).

Many ideas, products or services are currently marketed at the people who are already ‘inside the tent’: we are merely preaching to the choir. Examples of this are aplenty amongst fair trade jewelry, organic produce, and wildlife conservation.

Yet the biggest market for growth and impact lies with those who are not yet converted: those who are ‘outside of the tent’. How will we get them in?

A great example is the plant-based meat alternatives market. When I became a vegetarian at the tender age of 8, there was only one lonely pack of soy sausages in the meat section, discouragingly labeled as meat replacement. It told my mom this was for me but no one else in the family.

It took the plant-based food industry another two decades to figure out that their market is not vegetarians but also meat eaters, and that the best way to convert more people to an animal-friendly and sustainable diet, is to talk about health and taste. Today, players like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are changing the way North-Americans and Europeans eat.

It’s a playbook that many other sectors can follow.

4. Direct how others think and feel about you

Every day of our lives we make choices: which milk we buy, whose advice we take, where we want to have our wills made, which charity gets a chunk of our end of year bonus… We make these decisions based on the associations we pick up from various sources: from a TED talk, a conversation with a sales representative, news in the press, a post on social media.

Thinking like a brand strategist means understanding how the human brain makes choices, and how we can position ourselves to be the preferred choice. The timeless wisdom here is: unknown is unloved, and if you don’t direct how people should think and feel about you, your audience will fill it in for you.

Thinking like a brand strategist means designing every single experience from product to place, people and partnerships.

If we want more people to say yes to the change we are proposing, we need more people to direct, actively, what the reputations of these products and services are.

5. Understand you always compete with someone for something

I once asked the director of a human rights museum: “Who is your competition?”. The answer: “We have no competition because there’s no other human rights museum in town.”

This response is understandable and quite common: many of us think of competition as all the similar products that are on the same supermarket shelf.

If you think like a brand strategist, you’re thinking about the best-placed customer for the service, and what the problem in his/her life is that we are solving.

In the case of this museum, the best-matched audience could be for instance parents with children between the ages between 8 and 16, looking for something that is both entertaining and educational to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Who offers a solution to that same need? This could be a nature documentary at the cinema, or a visit to the natural history museum.

Once you understand who you compete with, it’s much easier to know how you can position yourself in order to draw more people in.

6. Stand out*

When everyone zigs, you have to zag, brand guru Marty Neumeier famously said. While some markets are still emerging, others are already crowded. Think of educational charities or sustainable energy companies.

I teach a class communication directors at charities and NGOs, who face the herculean task of raising funds through campaigning. The visual below usually gets their attention.

How can they be the charity of choice when the average person can’t distinguish one from the other? You will have to differentiate, if not in offer, then at the bare minimum at an identity level.

Take a look at Give Directly. Rooted in the belief that giving directly creates more impact, they have a radically different approach to brand, visual and verbal identity and messaging.

Give Directly Zags.

7. Focus your resources

Thinking like a brand strategist has as much to do with limitations as it does with possibilities.

No matter what size of organization, you have a limit to how much time, money and talent you have to get new audiences on board. When I am told that a particular product or service is ‘for everyone’, my alarm bell goes off.

Targeting ‘everybody’ is like fishing in the Atlantic Ocean. It seems like a great opportunity because it’s an incredibly big space. The problem is that you don’t know where the fish are. You throw out your rod and all you can do is wait to see what bites.

Instead, if you focus on a pond, it is easier to spot the fish, to see what others use for bait, and learn about what works and what doesn’t. Once I learn how to catch the right amount of fish I can move to a bigger pond.

B-Corp outdoor brand Cotopaxi launched its first products on the campus of a university city, learned how to engage its Gen Z audience, and replicated that knowledge to new cities, new states, and the world.

8. Call people to action

For all the talking of WHY, and all the storytelling, we sometimes forget that we need people to take action.

This is a mindset brand people steal from their marketing and advertising colleagues.

You need a clear call to action so people know what to do. Buy this. Sign up. Hire me. Change this behavior, and here is how. Tell your friends. Donate. Play this game.

After putting in all of the hard work, don’t let people hang there. Get them on board with a clear call to action.

More at the intersection of brands and social change

My book: Brand the Change contains a full brand development method, 12 case studies of successful changemaking brands, and lots of tools and resources to build your own brand.

Check out my TED Talk: how branding can help accelerate social change

Do you need a helping hand with your brand? Our Brand The Change Academy helps 16 change makers through the process of crafting their brand strategy.

*Thanks, Reinko Hallinga, for suggesting to draw this topic out more!

Working to see the day when organisations with positive social and environmental impact outperform traditional ventures. Weapon of choice: branding.