Those of us lucky enough to be in Debbie Millman’s presence at Old City’s Remedy Coffee on Thursday, January 20, drank a cup of experiential wisdom. Inspiring? Vehemently, yes! Her passion and story evoke a close-up, walk-in-my-boots motivation, rather than sit-there-in-awe-of-a-cultural-icon inspiration. We can aptly relate to her trials by fire. An early point in the evening taught listeners to not turn down small opportunities. You never know. . . .

When Debbie Millman is onstage, you feel like a cohort, definitely along for one adventurous ride. To those confidence-eroding self-questions we all have: “Will I be able to do it today?” “Can I be great again today?” she tossed back, “Be aware of how you self-limit or self-sabotage. Don’t cut yourself off. You just may be able to do it!”

For the students in attendance—yet, benefitting all—Millman advised, “Be polite, persistent, headstrong. What can you do to make your dreams come true?”

Her emphasis on strategy certainly resonated with me as we espouse the same values at Designsensory. Millman cautioned that great ideas without great strategy won’t work, paying respect to several in her field who she tapped for their definition of “strategy” particularly in the context of brands. Ultimately, the cornerstone of brand strategy is really in differentiated advantage: the ability to either (a) be different, or (b) do things differently. Brand identity and communication design simply work to define and express this point of view.

A brand is a shared relationship between corporate stakeholders and customers. Millman pointed to how we parse reviews before buying on Amazon, as an example of how social testimony can shape brand affinity. Her statement that, “Human beings metabolize their purchases quickly” and ensuing extrapolations gave us food for thought about challenging stakeholders to create brands that are meaningful, sustainable, transparent and purposeful.

And, she caused some serious seat squirming when she announced that people passionately disavow change, illustrating the lengths to which human beings will endeavor to keep comfort close. Brands, like people, evolve but many are unforgiving of the changes to brand identity because of a discomfort with change. Remember the GAP logo debacle? she reminded.

Indeed, it was a great night to be on the front row. Insightful and inspirational.