Humanizing Brands in the Digital Age: An Interview with Branding Expert Andy Stalman

Published: April 6, 2022

andy stalman

Andy Stalman, TOTEM Branding (Spain)

Brands are constantly evolving. No doubt, the role of brands in the marketplace, in the global economy, and in the daily lives of consumers is always changing. In the Digital Age, and at a time when consumers increasingly look to brands to assume greater social responsibility, brands have taken on a more significant role in society than ever before.

At the same time, the global intellectual property (IP) community is witnessing another trend at work: the evolution from “trademark practitioner” to “brand professional.” Today, the brand professional’s mandate extends far beyond trademark registration and protection to require a more holistic understanding of brands as well as matters involving marketing, finance, brand valuation and evaluation, and corporate social responsibility, among others.

Andy Stalman is considered one of the world’s leading branding experts. He is co-founder and CEO of TOTEM Branding in Madrid, Spain. He has more than 25 years of experience developing brand strategy and has led branding projects on five continents. He is also currently serving as an Advisory Director on INTA’s Board of Directors.

Mr. Stalman will deliver the Keynote on Sunday, May 1, 4:30 pm–6:00 pm EDT, at the Opening Ceremonies of the upcoming 2022 Annual Meeting Live+. The Opening Ceremonies will take place at Live+ (in person + virtual) in Washington, D.C., and they will be livestreamed on the virtual platform for Virtual Only registrants.

In an interview with the INTA Bulletin, which also serves as a fantastic primer for his Opening Ceremonies presentation, Mr. Stalman sheds light on what “brand” means today, how brands can effectively engage consumers in the 21st century, and how brand professionals can play a more central role in the life of a brand.

A quick Internet search for “brand” produces varied results, exemplifying how complex and multifaceted the term has become. How do you define “brand” today?
A brand represents what people feel, say, and think about your company, your organization, your institution, your city, or your country, for example. So, in general, brands are mainly about the perception they generate among their stakeholders. But it’s also about the new role brands have in society. In the last two decades, with the evolution of the Internet and social media, brands have become more omnipresent (and not just omni-channel) in our lives. It’s impossible to imagine a day without brands.

In this sense, INTA and its members are in the business of helping to develop, transform, and build brands that have an impact in our daily lives, because brands today exist to build a better society for us all.


In the last two decades, with the evolution of the Internet and social media, brands have become more omnipresent (and not just omni-channel) in our lives. It's impossible to imagine a day without brands.

Social media represented a paradigm shift for brands in the Digital Age. Quite quickly, consumers were given the means to talk directly to brands and with each other about brands, and to do so publicly. Generally speaking, what does social media offer brands?
Some are going to say social media is too much pain for too little gain. I totally disagree with that. This is still a territory that has not yet been fully explored by most brands. Social media and the digital ecosystem as a whole are still a vast territory to be discovered, and it could be more profitable than many brands imagine. With a clear brand strategy that truly reflects what the brand stands for and what the brand looks to achieve, you can build a community on social media.

Importantly, social media and the digital ecosystem have introduced a more efficient way of establishing a relationship with people. Relationships are more important than transactions. The expansion of the physical world into the digital world is a fantastic opportunity, depending on how you view it, your mindset, and your relationship with change.

While this should be viewed as a positive change for brands, a major challenge many brands face is addressing IP infringement on social media, often in good faith by their loyal customers and fans. What advice would you give to brand professionals whose job is to protect IP?
Many people think social media and the digital world are about coders, engineers, or programmers. But, at the end of the day, it’s about people. It’s about psychology, sociology, anthropology, because it’s about people trying to connect, and not only communicate—some want to express themselves, some want to share, some want to participate, some want to sell.

It’s not enough for brands to understand the technology and tools to be successful in the digital ecosystem. They must understand people. So, success is about bringing together those who specialize in human relations with those who specialize in technology.

I always say that the 20th century was the century of the “or,” [as in] legal or branding, marketing or technology, north or south.” The 21st century should be and must be the century of the “and.” It’s legal and branding, it’s marketing and business, it’s technology and communication. When we adopt the “and” instead of the “or,” we make a big leap of faith and we become successful.

It’s the same thing with IP and legal. It’s not about having one department working alone to protect IP and then another department working separately on marketing, communication, or branding, for example. Rather, it’s a permanent interaction, bringing together the best of each expertise. The more we work together—technology experts, IP experts, branding experts, communication experts—the better the outcome will be. This idea extends to IP protection.


Relationships are more important than transactions.

Global consumers truly believe in, admire, and trust such brands because they have transitioned from aesthetics to ethics, from saying things to doing things, from talking about sustainability to becoming sustainable, from understanding that people are not data or algorithms and understanding rather that people are stories, feelings, and emotions.

One of the very big game changers here is the idea that the Digital Age is about making everything digital. Yes, everything that can be digitalized could be digitalized. Everything that can be automated will be automated. But everything can’t be treated this way. Fortunately, human emotions and human feelings cannot be digitalized, at least for now! The human connection between brands and employees, shareholders, clients, users, and consumers is where we make the biggest difference. This is the game changer.

Consumers have also evolved and become more sophisticated. How can brands effectively engage consumers and convert them into loyal customers and ambassadors?
Brands are occupying a new space, not only in the marketplace but in the minds and hearts of consumers worldwide.

Brands that are really creating a positive impact on society, on the environment, on the economy, and that are leading positive change, no longer have employees or consumers or clients. They have believers: people who believe in the brand genuinely doing good—not talking or thinking about doing good—because the only thing that brings about transformation is action. These brands are earning people’s trust.

Humanizing brands in the Digital Age is becoming a very profitable business. I know it sounds contradictory to talk about humanizing in the Digital Age, but the more digital we become, the more we need the human touch and human interaction.

Increasingly, consumers are aligning their values with their purchases, looking for brands to assume greater social responsibility. Can brands put purpose ahead of profit in such a way that it’s actually highly profitable?
There are many business cases that show that purpose-driven companies are outperforming profit-driven companies. This is a fact!

Once again, I’m thinking in terms of the “and” instead of the “or.” There are four legs on the table of successful brands in the 21st century. The first of the four legs is “people.” Without people, everything else is meaningless.


Humanizing brands in the Digital Age is becoming a very profitable business. … [T]he more digital we become, the more we need the human touch and human interaction.

Then you have “purpose.” Why does the brand exist? Why is the brand relevant in people’s lives? Why is what your brand says and what your brand does relevant? Why are people going to pay attention to your brand? Purpose today has a more evolved meaning. It’s not about selling a product or offering a service. That’s the “how.” The “why” is about improving the planet or improving people’s lives, for example.

The third leg is “profit.” If you don’t make a profit, it’s hard for you to hire people, pay dividends, invest in innovation and research, etc. Profit is not an evil! If you do good things in a transparent way, the profits are well earned.

The fourth leg is, of course “planet.” I don’t mean saving a floating rock moving through the galaxy! I’m talking about saving the home of our civilization. The planet can take care of itself without us; it will outlive humankind. That’s not the issue. The issue is how we take care of our home while we are here and that we pass it to the next generation in better shape than we received it.

Combine people, purpose, profit, and planet in the right formula and the outcome should be a successful brand in the 21st century.

We’ve spoken a lot about “change.” Indeed, today it seems we’re living through constant change, be it good or bad, be it social or technological, be it gradual or quite sudden. How can brands navigate change and operate effectively in an environment defined largely by uncertainty?
Change is not new. If you look back at 5,000 years of human history, you will see that change has always been there. The issue with change today is that we are more knowledgeable with greater access to more information. Consequently, we find change is more disruptive today. However, like never before, all data indicators show that humankind has never lived better than it does today.

But one might say, “You’re crazy—there’s a pandemic, war in Ukraine, supply chain issues, inflation….” Fair enough, but this is only a moment in our history. We must look at this moment as only a small part of our history, and if we have learned anything from our history, it’s that crises are opportunities to evolve. And, during a crisis, there are two kinds of brands: those that remain steady and slowly disappear, and those that embrace it as an opportunity to change. We know that change is inevitable, but it’s not mortal.

At TOTEM, we work on innovation processes and projects daily. We have learned that changing and making a mistake is cheaper than doing nothing at all.


Human change is the most important of all changes because humans change the planet. Society, the economy, the market, etc., are, above all else, human!

At the end of the day, embracing change is about understanding the opportunities that change is bringing. If you look at the last 100 years, you will see how brands or companies that have invested in marketing and branding through recessions and through crises have emerged from those recessions and crises stronger, more innovative, with a better market position, and outperforming the competitors that have saved their resources for better times.

You’ve advised countless brands around the world, helping their leadership and creative teams to define their brands and develop brand strategy. Why, in your view, should brands’ leadership and creative teams engage with IP legal teams?
Let me answer this question by drawing on personal experience. At the top of TOTEM’s leadership are three profiles. There’s the CEO and there’s the Executive/Creative Director, whose background is mainly creativity, design, and strategy. The third has a legal background because we believe that understanding the legal opportunities and the legal challenges is key to developing successful branding projects.

This comes back to how we began this conversation. Brands are not only visual; brands are also about how we listen, how we smell, how we touch, how we taste, and, of course, how we feel inside. And, eventually, with the digital ecosystem and the smartphone which is already sleeping with us and eating with us as an extension of our body—technology will become our sixth sense!

So, the question becomes: how can we embrace the protection of IP but also the opportunities to develop a brand that is not only visual but extends to the other five senses? In a way, legal will have a fantastic opportunity if they start expanding the legal knowledge to the brand strategy, to operations, to the brand’s future development. And, on the other hand, the more they [as the IP legal team] understand the brand, not only about the law so to speak, but how the brand operates, grows, and develops, the more important their role will become in the life of the brand.

You’re delivering the Keynote at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2022 Annual Meeting Live+. What do you want registrants to be thinking about ahead of your presentation?
There is something important that is not discussed very much and that I would love them to internalize: We all know the world has changed. Health has changed, geopolitics has changed, the economy has changed, supply chains have changed, technologies have changed, and so on. But no one is talking about human change.

Human change is the most important of all changes because humans change the planet. Society, the economy, the market, etc., are, above all else, human!

To improve society and the world we live in, to make the world a more livable, shareable, enjoyable place to live together, we need to think about human change. That’s a great start!

Learn more and register for the 2022 Annual Meeting Live+, April 30–May 4.

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