OnBrand ’17 recap: What can we do today for a better tomorrow?

By Nicolas Deskos | 24 October 2017

When we were thinking about the theme for OnBrand ’17, we wanted to choose something that could be open to interpretation. So when I asked this year’s speakers what “Beyond” meant to them, I was happy to hear different takes on the same idea:

But as you watch the video, you quickly discover one underlying vision: What can we do today for a better tomorrow?

Nowadays, the most successful brands no longer market to the world; they exist in the world. Ben & Jerry’s—well-known for advocating topical social issues such as LGBT equality and climate justice—know how to make a difference beyond just selling tasty ice-cream. During his opening keynote, Jay Curley from Ben & Jerry’s stressed that businesses have a duty to create positive change in the world, even if that means alienating some of your followers:

"Pissing people off by standing up for your values actually helps people respect your brand."

“Post WWII, businesses have been the most powerful force in society, so the only focus cannot be on reporting profits to the shareholders. You also need to have a positive impact on society. If companies only focus on making money, they'll have no one to sell their products to.” And according to a study by Geniusworks, 88% of consumers believe companies have the power to influence societal change and should be addressing issues presently facing us.

Sitting on the fence is no longer an option

Can brands afford NOT to have an opinion in 2017? Probably not. “Marketers often sit on the fence because they don’t want to offend anybody. But in doing so, they end up standing for nothing,” explained 72andSunny’s Simon Summerscales. But more often than not, when a brand does take a stance on an issue, it just doesn’t feel genuine or authentic (yes, I’m still talking about Pepsi).

So how do you avoid jumping on the activism bandwagon and actually inspire real world change? Defining your point of view is one step; practising what you preach is another. Besides selling ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s enlist their fans to join social movements and advocate for real progressive change. Adriana Hoppenbrouwer, CMO of Dutch power brand HEMA, showcased how they stay true to their “for everybody” value proposition by creating campaigns and products that disregard tradition and promote LGBT rights, despite the inevitable backlash.

Advertising needs to get real

But it wasn’t just brand activism taking center stage.

The current number of adblock users made an appearance in several presentations during the conference (in case you were wondering, the figure is now 615 million). But instead of focusing on why (spoiler: most ads suck), agency leaders provided constructive remedies to the ad industry’s growing problem (spoiler 2: it’s not winning more awards).


In probably one of the best-titled talks of the conference, “What brands can learn from Beyonce”, Alain Sylvain, Founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs, focused on the rise of the utility brand. “People are looking to the internet to drive decisions. Marketing as we know it is gone. Ruthless utility is what people want today.”

Drawing on Beyonce’s evolution from sex symbol to feminist icon, Alain highlighted the three things brands need to do to make a difference in people’s lives:

  1. Hero the product over the trademark

  2. Empathize ruthlessly

  3. Arouse values over desires

Alain wasn’t the only speaker nodding to cultural icons to drive home his point. Stephen Corlett, Managing Director of 180 Kingsday, drew inspiration from the likes of David Bowie and Muhammed Ali, to show us all why it’s okay to be a little bit mad sometimes. To quote the late and great David Bowie:

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area... And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

In these turbulent times, brands can be changemakers

Stephen closed his presentation with their recent work for Unicef—a moving video shining a light on the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

“Everyone in this room has the power to shape the conversation,” said Greenpeace’s Laura Hilliger on the main stage. And she’s right. As creatives and storytellers, we can influence the narrative and drive real change in society—whether that be challenging gender stereotypes or raising awareness about humanitarian issues.

It’s no longer just the job for NGOs.


Just as media companies—such as The New York Times and VICE—have an obligation to speak the truth, tech giants like Google have the responsibility to harness their power and influence to create positive impact in the world. And that’s exactly what Steve Vranakis’ team at Google Creative Lab does. “Technology should be for everyone... people are more than just commercial transactions.”

With visible emotion, Steve touched upon the role of Google in aiding victims of the Syrian civil war with their technology. During his keynote, Steve challenged the audience to join him in aspiring to be creative activists, reminding everyone that this doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition.

“Creatives have the power to change the world. We are more powerful than we think.”

Sometimes going beyond is not a far-reaching aspiration; it’s the steps we take to shape a better tomorrow.

Wondering what we've got in store for OnBrand '18? Sign up for updates here.

Nicolas Deskos
When he's not cycling around Amsterdam, Nicolas is curating OnBrand events and writing frank, no-nonsense articles on branding and marketing trends. Coming soon to an event near you.