(Place) Brands With A Conscience (new book)


Developing brands with a conscience is the main concern of the think tank Medinge Group. The think tank states their purpose as to “influence business to become more humane and conscious in order to help humanity progress and prosper.” Recently the group released their newest book, “Brands with a Conscience”. Our founder and CEO, Nikolaj Stagis, is among the contributors. Nikolaj joined Medinge Group back in 2011.

Conscious and human brands

Being conscious and humane can sound very fuzzy and abstract when applied to brands. However, according to Medinge Group it really isn’t. The group of international brand experts lists 7 main characteristics, arguing that a human and conscious brand:

  • Has a visible conscience
  • Apologizes when things go wrong
  • Invests time and energy in relationship building
  • Promotes the value of caring for one another
  • Acknowledges that we are all fundamentally equal
  • Is visibly accountable for all its actions
  • Takes risks in line with its values

How to merge healthy business practices with a conscience is a growing concern not only for large international companies, but for organizations and brands of all sizes — including places like cities, regions and municipalities. It’s a complex brand identity issue that requires more than introducing more ambitious CSR initiatives or enacting new policies. Although it can seem like a marketing ploy used by multinational corporate leviathans to simply try and quell the guilt of their customers (and it might just be that for some), it’s anything but superficial in the many cases, where such soft notions have a positive impact on business. On the contrary, it’s deeply rooted and profound. It’s mounds of hard work, but it can pay of.

The key learnings from these success cases is the focal point of “Brands With A Conscience” written by members of Medinge Group. The book marks the culmination of the group’s continous work on the issue of brands as agents for positive change: An expert guide on how exactly to navigate this modern-day branding landscape in a sustainable and ethical manner. Among the included brands are Adidas, Tata Steel, H&M, and the Slow Food movement.

The book is written by several of the groups 30 members. Besides Nikolaj’s contribution, the book also includes chapters by international experts and branding personalities like Nicholas Ind, author of 11 books, Ava Hakim from IBM, Brigitte Stepputtis from Vivienne Westwood, Oriol Iglesias from ESADE Business School in Barcelona, and famed consultant Simon Paterson among others. We’re very excited about the book and how it’s shining light on this important issue.

From Lejre to Bogotá

Nikolaj’s contribution to the book is a chapter on how human and conscious brand behaviour is just as important when it comes to place branding. Throughout the chapter a range of very different responsible, conscious, and human city brands from Denmark and Norway to Colombia are discussed and dissected and their practices compared to less succesful cases.

One example is the Danish Municipality of Lejre, who through a focused effort managed to brand the area as “The Organic Municipality.” The strategy wasn’t just a clever campaign, but an extensive initiative from the municipality, local entrepreneurs, and interest groups. The initiative had many outputs including everything from financial incentives to local organic agriculture to a project with rental chickens, where ordinary people get to experience having daily access to their own organic eggs. Today, as an example of just one impressive figure, 12% of all farmers in Lejre Municipality produce organically, double that of the national average of 6%.

Another Danish case is the city of Kolding, who through rigorous citizen involvement and workshops developed “Kolding – We Design Life” in collaboration with Stagis. The project took its point of departure in Nikolaj’s earlier writings on authentic brands (If you’d like to know more about the process Kolding went through, then it’s covered more in depth here, here and here.)

Building upon selected authentic strengths — an authentic passion for design and design thinking — the municipality managed to implement a strategy that didn’t feel forced but came naturally to both the municipal organization and the local citizens. Since then, the city has implemented elements of design thinking throughout many of it’s services while also establishing the, in comparison quite small, city as a leading national design hub just behind the Danish capital of Copenhagen. Right now, Kolding is creating a Kolding Design Week, which we also suggested back in 2012.

The unconventional methods of Bogotá’s highly succesful mayor Antanas Mockus are also among the selected cases discussed in the chapter. Mockus gained international media attention when he fired a large part of the city’s infamously corrupt traffic police officers. Instead he hired 420 mimes to promote good behaviour and make fun of traffic violators, because he thought the citizens of Bogota were more concerned with being mocked than being fined. Although they might seem like sensationalist stunts at first sight, the initiatives of Mockus has brought major positive change to the city, including a 50% decrease in traffic fatalities.

Copenhagen’s turnaround

One of several interesting interviewees in the chapter with first hand experience with succesful place branding projects is Frank Jensen, Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, who discusses the journey the city of Copenhagen has been on. Within a few decades the city has managed to pull of, what the mayor describes as “had [it] been a corporation, they would have called it a turnaround.” A few decades ago the city suffered from a decreasing population and a bad rep. Today the city’s brand is stronger than ever and it has received accolades from international media outlets such as lifestyle authority Monocle, who praised the city as the world’s most livable.

The turning point came in the 90’s, when the mayor and the public administration decided that it was time to write a new story about Copenhagen. They sat down and they asked themselves ”Who are we and who do we want to become?” By looking inwards they managed to catalyze a strong sense of social responsibility and an interest for sustainability and turn it into a relevant and authentic story.

Today many people know Copenhagen as being among — if not the — top city in the world for bicyclists. This is not just the result of Copenhageners having an abnormal love for riding bikes. It’s also the result of a municipality that looked to its inhabitants and broke new ground by planning and designing a new revised infrastructure not seen elsewhere that catered to their biking-affection. The municipality looked inwards and found out what mattered the most to the Copenhagen’s and then utilized many of the different tools at their disposal to create a positive change that resonated with the local population.

It’s about authenticity

Although the challenges each place is up against differ enormously in this wild new land of brand opportunities, an overall theme in the success stories is very clear: The emphasis put on identifying and utilizing the intrinsic and authentic strengths of a brand. Looking to the unique characteristics already present and then growing and nurturing them, realizing their full potential. Be it a place or a company. As Mette Touborg of Lejre municipality puts it: “There is a method, but I can’t say that the idea about being organic would work everywhere. Because it depends on the culture of the area.”

The concept of authenticity is a recurring theme in Nikolaj’s writing and is also explored further in his book “The Authentic Company”. Although the chapter takes it point of departure in place branding, many of the same concepts can be transferred to brands in general.

Learn about brands with a conscience

To learn more about brands with a conscience, great cases, and other interesting insights check out the book. Brands With A Conscience is published by KoganPage and is available for order here, where you can also find a free sample chapter.