I’m Stef Hamerlinck. A brand designer and strategist. I founded Let’s talk branding so I can help other designers learn more about strategy, design and branding.

6 key takeaways from the OnBrand conference 2019

6 key takeaways from the OnBrand conference 2019

What can we learn from the leading people in branding?

Last week, I was invited to visit the OnBrand conference in Amsterdam. “Europe’s leading branding conference for marketing and creative professionals.” Besides the amazing venue, it was an interesting day, with talks ranging from different topics such as brand purpose, retail, digital experiences and much more. Sharpie and paper in hand, I tried to document the most important takeaways for you. So here we go:

6. Avoid/inverse stereotypes in branding

A panel with Kerrie Finch (futurefactor), Amanda Fève (Anomaly) Eileen Bosman (Dept Agency) and Sally Smallman (Diageo) talked about stereotypes in branding. It was obvious that some stereotypes such as how men and women are portrayed in branding are problematic at the least. The main message was, try to inverse stereotypes, play around with them. Another important remark; stereotypes are normal, they are shortcuts for humans to understand things quickly. Not all stereotypes are bad, we just have to see them for what they are.

Gender stereotypes are so common in advertising and branding. Whiskey is for men, Make-up for women, that kinda bs.

Gender stereotypes are so common in advertising and branding. Whiskey is for men, Make-up for women, that kinda bs.

5. We are in a post-digital era.

In a fascinating talk by Zach Pentel from Spotify, he illustrates the traits of a modern brand. One of the big themes was the ‘post-digital' era. We are seeing a lot of agencies, designers today, talking ‘digital’ and ‘analog’ as if they are two separate worlds. I believe, today, digital and analog are really intersecting so much it’s hard to distinguish them. A brand experience should not just be digital or analog, it’s usually both.

Spotify had a great advertising campaign using data creatively and with humor.

Spotify had a great advertising campaign using data creatively and with humor.

We can see companies like Spotify organizing local events, doing subway advertising, sending items through the mail (the analog one). A few years ago, every company was a ‘tech company’, now every company want’s to be a physical company. The days of ‘brick & mortar’ or ‘print is dead’ have passed and now that the dust is settling, we can see a new ‘post-digital’ era emerge. I believe we as brand strategists, designers should think about that when we are creating.

In another talk by Beatrice Askaner (Adyen) about the future of retail, we saw similar thoughts, where brands are mixing digital experiences and physical experiences. Such as Deliveroo creating restaurants in Singapore, Amaro creating a guided shopping experience and Citizin M enabling customers to check-in digitally in their lobbies; instead of having staff do it for them, they have staff welcoming the customer, helping customers ‘do it themselves’.

Deliveroo physical restaurants in Singapore

Deliveroo physical restaurants in Singapore

4. Trends are relevant, just not how you think.

Emma Chiu from JWT Intelligence walked us through some of the top 100 future trends. Looking at trends or reading trends reports may feel a little bit ‘useless’ sometimes. Especially when it feels like buzzword bingo. What is the use of looking at trends then?

For me, it set’s the frame of how we are looking at things. It can you a starting insight for building a narrative for a brand. For example, a lot of trends 5 years ago talked about how Gen-Z will be ‘social-media’ addicted, how they will be completely ‘digital natives’. Yet in the latest trend reports, we can see Gen Z behaving differently with social media, more aware, but also more critical. We can see ‘eco-anxiety’ and anxious Millenials wanting transparency. I see trends as forecasts of stereotypes, they might have an underlying insight that’s true, but never just accept them as the holy grail.

I see trends as forecasts of stereotypes


3. Identity behavior, not types of people.

The people from Analog folk had a great talk about how they work. One of the main points was about how they gained the insights to build their creative output. Rather than focussing on ‘asking people’ what they want, they focus on ‘observing behaviour’.

I think this is an important note when doing research, but even more important is the fact that they said: Identity behavior, not types of people. In marketing and branding, we are obsessed with creating ‘segments’ or ‘personas’ that summarize types of people that want to engage with our brand. In reality, people aren’t always one thing, they can be an ‘apple person’ and 2 months later buy a Microsoft. They can a health freak and walk into a burger king sometimes. What’s more important is understanding their behavior, what drives certain behavior? What are the needs? How can we change behavior?

A beautiful case of this type of work was for Marmite. They observed (see what I mean) that people always have a ‘hate’ or ‘love’ relationship with the weird UK ‘sticky stuff’ they spread on their sandwiches. They created an app and campaign called ‘tasteface’, where you can record your reaction while tasting, the app then tells you whether you love it or hate it. Go check out the full case here.

2. Purpose is not the (only) solution.

Ahhhh, brand purpose, the hot thing, or not? In this talk by Alain Sylvain from Sylvain Labs, we saw some needed context for brand purpose. A couple of important points on ‘purpose’:

  • Purpose is not ethical ( Hitler had purpose).

  • Purpose is human nature.

  • Brands have weaponized purpose: greenwashing, pinkwashing, woke washing, you name it.

  • Having a purpose = Easy — Commitment = Hard

A much quoted example of misuse of purpose, the Gilette ad for men. I actually believe it’s a good move by Gilette to turn things around.

A much quoted example of misuse of purpose, the Gilette ad for men. I actually believe it’s a good move by Gilette to turn things around.

I like this ‘action-driven' approach Alain introduces, it’s less about the words written down, but more about committing to something. In my opinion, brand purpose is something that should not be ‘enforced’, especially not by you as a strategist or creative. If it’s there, then use it, tell the story. If it’s not, then don’t try to ‘force it’. But also: if your client wants you to ‘invent’ a purpose, just because it looks nice, it’s your responsibility to explain to them that it demands ‘commitment’ and not just words.

1. Cast a wide net

In her talk ‘good brands, bad briefs’, Ashley Vinson from Facebook raised some really interesting points about a brief.

  • She talks about defining the right KPI’s, focussing on a real ROI for the company, and not single vanity metrics such as CTR.

  • The medium and deliverables should be based on the audience, not the other way around.

  • First, create a big idea, then have the right creative solution that’s native to the medium.

  • When it comes to defining your audience, you should cast a wide net. Let the algorithms do the work to figure out what people will like your product the most. She showed some really compelling data showing a huge difference in ROI when campaigns opened up the targeting.

This last point, “cast a wide net” really drove home for me. It’s not just about the Facebook algorithm, it’s about people and their behavior. Too often, we define the target audience really narrow, because we read all about ‘brand tribes’ and other cool branding slang, but in reality, we need a brand to be open to more people and see who reacts. Ashley also mentioned Byron Sharp’s work in this context. Byron tells a similar story about targetting; target the entire category if you want a brand to grow.

Byron Sharp’s book ‘how brands grow’ in a nutshell.

Byron Sharp’s book ‘how brands grow’ in a nutshell.

Bonus round!

Here’s a couple of extra screenshots and interesting takeaways from the conference.

What brands could learn from your grandma. Epic analogy by 180 Kingsday

A great overview of what constitutes a good brief

In stead of focusing on ‘audiences’, try to target a certain mindset.

Another interesting slide by Analog folk

Another great rule by Zach from Spotify. Branding is a constant effort, customers can forget about you every day.

Don’t count on your current audience to inform your new customers. Always be on the lookout for new people, never accept one ‘final audience’ as the the perfect fit, you might be missing out.

A great slide to close this bonus round of, a graph by Stephen Gates from Invision. We only learn a fraction of our job in design school.

Thanks for following along! I hope you enjoyed some of the takeaways. Of course, I did not see all of the talks, so check out OnBrand for more updates and video’s in the coming weeks. I want to thank the people at OnBrand to invite me and my team.

Check out all of the talks here:


Stef Hamerlinck - Researching the competition

Stef Hamerlinck - Researching the competition

Camille Baldwin - Pattern Brands

Camille Baldwin - Pattern Brands