Branding From the Inside Out: Hawai‘i Style by Karen Kang


(This article was originally published on

I often talk about branding from the inside out—that is, from your core values to how you represent your brand. But, it never quite hit home until I was in Kona, Hawaiʻi, running enterprise branding workshops with 22 social entrepreneurs. Despite overcast skies, our Sheraton Kona hotel was resplendent with flowers, the sounds of Hawaiian chanting and the tastes of the Sam Choy Annual Poke contest.

The enterprises in the workshops ran the gamut from non-profits protecting Hawaii’s fragile ecosystem to for-profit restaurant and food service organizations. All had this in common: a love for Hawaiian culture and a deep desire to help its people and promote island sustainability.

The workshops were organized by Hawai‘i Investment Ready (HIR) in sponsorship with the Kamehameha Schools, the largest landowner in the Hawaiian islands. Lisa Kleissner, HIR co-founder and a dropout from the Silicon Valley rat race, is herself a great example of someone who lives her brand values by helping social enterprises increase their social impact.

I was drawn to this project in part because I have roots in Hawaiʻi. One set of grandparents were born here and another set immigrated from southern Korea to work the sugar cane and pineapple fields in Kauai. My parents were both born in Honolulu.

Love What You Do, the Brand Will Follow

What created the greatest impact for me in Kona was hearing the young entrepreneurs talk about why they were in the business of helping Hawai‘i and its people. Over and over, I heard how the motivation was not money, but love.

Kapaliku “Matt” Schirman and Rick Kapanowaiwaiola Barboza of Hui Kū Maoli Ola are trying to save Hawaii’s fast-dwindling native plants that are key to restoring the island’s groundwater supply. Na’alehu Anthony and Keoni Lee are bringing on-demand programming that promotes Hawaiian culture, history and language to Hawaiians and island-lovers everywhere from their ‘Oiwi television network. Others like Johanna Ventura and Stacy Sproat-Beck of Waipā Foundation are building a community kitchen and poi mill to help economically challenged cottage industries thrive in eastern Kauai. They are not only branding their social enterprises, they are branding themselves in the best way possible—with authenticity.

When we first started our branding workshops, a number of the participants were skeptical. They didn’t feel it was the Hawaiian way to promote themselves and didn’t like the competitive context of market positioning. But when it became apparent that what I meant by branding was not one-way promotion but two-way value exchange, education and engagement, they got on board.

Be Visible to Have Impact

To make the greatest impact as a social entrepreneur, you need to have visibility and to be recognized for your value. Without brand awareness and recognition, you will not have the influence that you need to make a difference. If you can’t do it for yourself, I said, do it for your mission and the greater good.

We worked together on the BrandingPays™ five steps:

1) Positioning. Articulate a compelling and differentiated value proposition for their target audience.

2) Messages. We developed vision and value messages that resonated with key targets. We found a way to tell their story that connected emotionally.

3) Brand Strategy. Here we put together their brand’s rational value and emotional value—what I call “cake” and “icing.” We looked at core values, what they loved doing, strengths, personality, image and brand promise to define a brand strategy that can be represented in a 360-degree way.

4) Ecosystem. The concept of an ecosystem with partners and influencers who can help advocate for you and accelerate your brand leadership comes naturally to Hawaiians where everyone is, or acts like, they are related.

5) Action Plan. For many of the social entrepreneurs, developing and executing their action plans was daunting. They realize that they need to be found on the Internet to maximize their reach and opportunities. A few of them have already invited me to join them on LinkedIn, the largest online professional network, and some have been inspired to start their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Now that they have a strategy, their tactical execution will go much smoother and actually add up to something in the end.

The progress in just two days of seminars was amazing. Each entrepreneur became much more focused and articulate about what they were about and the value that they delivered. Their confidence in themselves and their ability to attract investors rose significantly. They radiated when they spoke of their enterprises. And why not? They were doing what came naturally—branding from the inside out.

Karen Kang is the Founder and CEO of BrandingPays LLC, a corporate and personal branding company that offers consulting, training and coaching. She is the author of BrandingPays™: The Five-Step System to Reinvent Your Personal Brand (January 2013) and a former partner with Regis McKenna Inc., the marketing firm that helped launch the Apple, Intel and Genentech brands.

Karen is a sought-after speaker at leading business schools and professional organizations.  Find her at, and on Twitter @karenkang.