Brands need to be more than human

by Louise Burgers. Today, brands should be more than human to leverage the power that branding provides so that we can design a better world, said brand guru, Debbie Millman, speaking at Design Indaba 2020.

by Louise Burgers. Today, brands can be and should be, the profound manifestation of the human spirit to leverage the power that branding provides so that we can design the world we want to live in, said brand guru, Debbie Millman, speaking at Design Indaba 2020.

Millman said we had witnessed more significant change in branding in the past 10 years, than in the past 10 000 years. She knows what she’s talking about. Millman has worked with over 200 global corporate brands, from Burger King to Häagen-Dazs, 7UP, Gillette, Tropicana and Twizzlers; written six books on design; and interviewed up to 500 artists, designers and cultural commentators, and gone on to win awards for her branding and design podcast, Design Matters. She is regarded as one of the most influential designers of our time.

She loves to tell a story, that much is evident from her carefully crafted presentation. In a talk littered with religious symbolism and historical references, she took the Design Indaba audience back to the beginning of time when the world – and design – was created. She wanted to trace how we got to this point of a world with nearly 8 billion people; 195 countries; 4200 religions; 8.7 million different species, of which the human race is only one; where there are 17 armed conflicts currently happening; and 1.5 million significant brands.

The point being, that brands have huge influence in our daily lives and have the power to transform our world – should they use their tremendous power for good.

So, how did we get here? she asked, before proceeding to go back in time to when humans developed cultural universals like abstract thought, planning, labour, language, art and music. “32 000 years ago, we created our first mark on cave walls. It’s not a coincidence that we have gone from documenting our reality on cave walls, to the walls of Facebook,” she acknowledged dryly. “6000 years ago, in an effort to unite people, we created symbols to connect us and allow us to feel safer and more secure, more comfortable in groups. Sharing created consensus. Many of these symbols were of course to demonstrate religious affiliation. Along with symbols, we developed rules and regulations around food, birth, death, marriage and procreation.”

Of course, when people didn’t agree with each other’s symbols, whether religious or political, wars were fought, giving some symbols dominance over others.

Brand behaviour

The first brand to be recognised legally, was in 1876, when trademarks law was promulgated, and Bass Ale registered its trademark. “Trademark law changed our perception and understanding of the use of marks and symbols…” Millman also pointed out that the human race has been manufacturing behaviour with visuals for millennia. It’s a behaviour as old as we are.

Referring to our over consumption, she wondered aloud if it was good or bad?  There are 116 000 shopping malls in the United States; 40 000 supermarkets with 40 000 product items; more than 80 brands of manufactured water; 100 flavours and variants of Oreo cookies…

“I believe it is both good and bad. Humans are both good and bad. We are the ones creating these symbols and using them. So, why do we behave in this way in the first place? Every one of our mass market products are owned, operated, manufactured and distributed by the corporation and sold to the consumer for financial gain. That is pretty much the way it has been for the last couple of hundred years.

“Until 2011, when real, significant, far-reaching change occurred. From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, to hashtags on social media like #metoo, there has been a cultural shift in the world. In its wake, the discipline of branding has transformed more in the last 10 years than in the last 10 000 years. The most influential brands today are those pushed upwards by the people for the people, with the sole purpose of changing the world,” Millman said. According to her, this is our greatest innovation: the creation of brands that can make a difference in our lives and reflect the kind of world we want to live in.

She referenced the pink pussy hats created and knitted by women the world over, marching against patriarchy, for #metoo and against injustice in 2017. “[That hat] was created for the people by the people to serve, which is what I believe, is branding’s highest power: to unite people in the communication of shared ideals. The pink pussy hat became the global mark for a movement. Universally recognisable, it connected an audience in an unprecedented way.

“It is proof positive that branding is not just a tool of capitalism, but today, brands can be and should be, the profound manifestation of the human spirit. It is now our responsibility to make that happen. To continue to leverage the power that branding provides. We must design a culture that reflects and honours the kind of world we want to live in. And it is imperative that we do it together.”

In fact, brands need to be more than human to make those human connections last.


Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.


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