Evaluating TEDx as a brand strategy

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Brand and community balancing on a see-saw


A big part of my day job is to help organizations with their brand positioning and strategy (I also write about brand strategy quite a bit over here).

So when I read the article in the New York Times this past Sunday about TEDx, the relatively new (and incredibly popular) offshoot of the legendary TED conference, I thought it might be a good opportunity to take a closer look. The issue?

Clearly TEDx has been a smart community-building strategy, but will it ultimately prove to be a smart brand strategy as well?

Let me take a few steps back. If you are not familiar with TED (seriously? have you been camping in Siberia?) you can learn more here.

The main TED conference is a place where smart people (with big $$ and a personal invite) go once a year to hear other smart people give short talks showcasing how smart they are. The rest of us poor, unconnected folks wait patiently for the nice TED people to release the TED talks one by one, teasing us like a painfully-slowly dripping faucet teases a man dying of thirst.

And that's the way it worked. Until last year when, in June, TED announced a new program called TEDx that would allow anyone to organize their own TED conference anywhere in the world.

The New York Times article tells the story of what has happened with the TEDx program in a little over a year:

...there were 278 events last year in places as near as New Jersey and Florida, and as far as Estonia and China. There was TEDxKibera, held in one of Africa’s largest shantytowns in Nairobi, Kenya. And there was TEDxNASA, which had space-themed lectures.

Already this year there have been 531 TEDx events. Another nearly 750 are to take place this year and beyond.

Wow. Now that is community-driven innovation on a grand scale. From one event per year with a small number of people attending at a very high cost to almost two TED events per day, held around the world, and almost every event is free. All that in a little over a year.

I'd call that a smashing strategic success. A soon-to-be-classic community engagement story.

But if we look at the decision to create TEDx from a traditional brand or intellectual property point of view, would it also be viewed as a good strategy?

Traditional brand strategists might question whether TED will be able to maintain control of the TED brand in the long term or if, by allowing 100s or 1000s of local organizers around the world to use the TED name, they will dilute or, even worse, lose ownership of the TED brand name.

Brand strategists love to point to examples like asprin, escalator, and zipper that were originally brand names owned by the companies that invented them (here's a really good list of genericized brand names on Wikipedia), but later lost trademark protection because of inadequate defense by the companies that owned them.

I'm no stranger to this issue, having spent ten years managing brand strategy for open source software company Red Hat.

And I'm also no classic brand strategy guy. I played a role in many decisions over the years that went counter to the traditional brand practice of tightly controlling your brand story, including providing an assist on the strategy around the Fedora brand and trademarks, the decision to license Red Hat's videos under a Creative Commons license, and the decision to do the same with content right here on opensource.com, among other things.

My view? When it comes to choosing the right brand strategy for our current 2010 world, we need to weigh two opposing forces tugging mightily at each other.

On one side, we now live in a world where openness and sharing have, in many corners, become the standard operating procedure. Because of this, some organizations are beginning to cede control of key elements of their brand to their audiences. Sometimes they do it on purpose as part of a smart community engagement strategy or experiment. Sometimes the audience simply hijacks the brand whether the organization likes it or not. The flat world of the Internet makes the latter situation more common than ever before.

On the other side, we have a legal system still heavily steeped in a long tradition of brand protectionism. The law is woefully behind when it comes to understanding the changing state of our connected world. Organizations that do not protect their brands in this legal environment may be taking great risks with some of their most valuable intellectual property.

Which brings us back to TED. So did the folks at TED make a good brand strategy decision by giving some of the TED brand ownership to their community?

I think they did.

Now granted, TED is taking a big brand risk. But brand strategy is all about taking calculated risks that may allow you to extend your brand in new and interesting ways.

I think TED did mitigate some of that risk by not allowing the community to use the main TED brand itself (which remains tightly controlled), but instead giving them their own (albeit dangerously similar) brand in TEDx.

In addition, the TEDx strategy has helped TED fix one of its main brand weaknesses—the perception that it is elitist. In one year, TED has transformed from a brand that you can "see but not touch" to a more open brand that allows anyone to participate.

It is truly amazing to see how the TED community has embraced the new approach. Just take one look at the page listing all of the upcoming TEDx events. Staggering.

The one place where I worry most for TED is in the experience of the TED brand. With 700+ events being held in one year, will everyone who runs a TEDx event do an equally good job in the caring and feeding of the brand?

My guess is, without some sort of TED or TED-community-based oversight, there will be a few bad brand experiences in that bunch. Hopefully the large quantity of good experiences will drown out the bad ones.

So to sum things up, was TEDx a brand risk in the traditional sense? Yes.

But in my view, the risk is so heavily outweighed by the community and brand-extending benefits that it was absolutely a risk worth taking.

I believe it will pay off in spades over the long term, and I predict that TED will become (if it has not already) one of the most important leadership brands of our time.

Who knows, maybe I'll submit a proposal to discuss the TEDx brand strategy at an upcoming TEDx event near me.

I shouldn't have any trouble finding one:)

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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)tidelift.com


TEDx is no worry. It's not only an idea to extend the brand but also one of talent discovery for big TED; you were good, come on up to the big leagues.

The idea of tightly controlled brands are important if they lack transparency. TEDx on the other hand, is highly transparent so if a few of the presentations are loose and boring it's only a reflection on the organizer of the local event and the presenter. I don't see big TED losing luster any time soon.

I like the way you articulated that Bruce, TEDx being the minor leagues where new talent is discovered, and clearly TEDx is a great community-building (and content-building, to your point) strategy-- think there's little doubt there.

I do wonder what the impact is on the big TED brand over time. I've heard people saying things like "I went to TED last week" when they were actually just talking about a TEDx event. Why? Maybe b/c they don't understand or care about the difference, or maybe because they like the idea of associating themselves with the big TED brand.

Over time, this will have an impact. I still haven't decided whether I think that impact will be positive or negative, though:)

I was lucky enough to attend TED3 in place of my boss when I was at Hallmark. There really is no comparison between the two events other than there are smart people standing on both local and global stages and we get to see a 20 min video of them. TED3 filled my senses with "cutting edge" everything for 3 solid days and evenings.

I've heard the same as you. My take is that both, ignorance of big TED or desire of association with big TED is a good thing. Not that ignorance is good but in this case it's a temporary condition.

It's a great farm system yet the big TED even is an opportunity to mingle with the smartest of the smart and powerful - that brand image won't die easily in my opinion.

I had the pleasure of being a speaker at TEDxCairo earlly this summer. The event was a remarkable "phenomenon" in it's high level of professionalism, tight organization and fiery. enthusiastic participation of an incredible number of youths.
The event was especially remarkable in breaking so many societal taboos all at once: for one, it was totally organized by a group of young engineering students seniors, that manage to put together a group of highly intelligent, successful and innovative group of artists, scientists, thinkers many of them were several years their senior! An unusual and radical move in a society that is typically organized from the top down and where the young are traditionally "organized" (or in reality are simply ordered to follow) the elders of their community. TEDxCairo was such an exception to the rule that the very act and process (and extreme success) of it's organization became the story-within-the story .... a pilot project, an experiment to be emulated and potentially cloned in other venues and silar experiments.
This bottom-up approach, so alien to Egypt's traditionally paternal (and maternal) society was so revolutionary, that watching four twenty-something "kids" instruct a group of forty or fifty-somethings in how to be disciplined and economic and stick to the strict TED format, was I'm and of itself a mini TEDx-before-the-TEDx!
I don't think the TED people should at all worry about their brand, on the contrary they should be so pleased with the new dimensions that most of the TEDx events have added to the TED brand name. No one could have predicted the new "brand" powers that they may have unintentionally unleashed. The Jinni is out of the bottle and there is no returning it - at least not that Jinni that came out one spring day in May 2010 in Cairo (punn intended)........
Tarek Naga

Wow, what an amazing story, thank you so much for sharing it. Think this is probably another interesting angle to the TED brand/cultural strategy... how by mashing up the TED culture with "X" culture you can create a whole new learning experience-- for both sides.

TEDx Raleigh: Oct. 15, 2010


Hey Chris,

your article comes with a very interesting timing for me personally!

About a month ago, I let myself follow a dream about a global conference where children and adults would come together to discuss how to change the approach to some of the problems we are trying to fix today and ensure a better future for our kids. It was a dream of a platform for partnership rather than isolated effort to get few smart kids a stage to speak up -- something that's already been done many times.

Anyway, being lured by the openness of TEDx I decided to experiment with Twitter and build a community to lobby TED to organize TEDChildren (something akin to TEDWomen http://mybin.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/call-for-action-childrens-conference-at-ted/). In less than two weeks, I've met TED marketing! The message? We must protect our brand!

The experience made me think about the value of brands in the world of 2010 and beyond, I guess not dissimilar to what you're doing with your article here. If you have time, I invite you to check my conclusion at http://mybin.wordpress.com/2010/09/20/the-participation-train-arrived-mind-the-gap-when-boarding/

TED marketing didn't like it, though that was not my intention!

Now I am off on a new adventure, trying to find a way to turn my dream into reality with my own muscles! http://mybin.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/call-for-support-kids-as-partners-in-the-future/ I wonder if I'll have to revisit the brand question again along the way? ;-)



One aspect of TEDx that generally goes unnoticed is the immense support that TED provides to TEDxers. I host TEDxHuntsville and while we are "an independently organized TED event," we build our event through a web of interconnectedness, guidelines, and communication with both TED and other TEDx hosts around the world.

For example, TED supplies a 45 page "branding guidelines" to hosts. Our partners, presenters, press releases, and publications must all be approved by TED. As you can imagine, this is an immense task and TED has devoted an excellent team for us. There are also community forums, which I find A most useful resource, where TEDx licensees can post thoughts, questions, documents, protocols, etc. Official TED conferences now have TEDx host workshops. The one at TEDGlobal featured presentations from members of the TED team, including Chris Anderson himself, as well a several short talks from TEDx hosts (TEDxDubai, TEDxLondon, TEDxOilSpill,+) about their events.

I agree that TED took a risk opening up the power of ideas worth spreading to the world. I also agree that they do a great job mitigating associated risks through a myriad of behind the scenes mechanisms. In my opinion, it is a raging success. TED speakers are sometimes "discovered" at TEDx events; mass marketing from the local level is taking place all over the world; and most importantly, they are allowing passionate individuals to expand TED's belief that ideas truly have the power to change the world.

Thanks for the post. I found it on Chris Anderson's Twitter, FYI

Amy-- thanks for this insightful info! Do you happen to know if all materials need to be approved by TED for all TEDx events? Or was yours in a different category?

Having been in the brand policeman role at times in the past, I can't imagine the internal infrastructure required to approve signage, materials, etc. for 700+ events per year-- that must be astounding.

As far as I know, each TEDx event falls under the same guidelines. One brilliant branding caveat that I neglected to mention - and this is significant - is that TEDxes with audiences over 100 people must be hosted by someone who has attended TED (not just a TEDx). This maintains a great deal of brand integrity. There's really no substitute for the experience when it comes to understanding and recreating what "TED" is. I think all of this is on their website.

On another TEDx note, I do know that the TED team was somewhat astounded by the widespread success of their opening the TEDx initiative. To paraphrase Chris, TED anticipated maybe 30 small events, rather than hundreds of major conferences, in the first year. It amazes me how well they've managed to make - or let people make - it work.

Interesting article Chris!

On sept 5th I attended the TEDxFlanders conference #tedxfl here in Antwerp, Belgium (http://www.tedxflanders.be/). What has started with a first small gathering of people in a university auditorium has grown exponentially to this third conference at the lovely 'marble hall' of the Antwerp Zoo (you can get a taste of the atmosphere here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hans_stockmans/sets/72157624770183807/). This year they received backing from the city and lots of committed people and companies. There even was a video wall in the nearby trainstation and live streaming on the website of the national tv.

It shows that trusting local people - who are passionate about the spirit of 'Ideas Worth Spreading' - to organise a similar 'user experience' does work! And because of the strong guidelines and support of the TEDx team at TED I believe TEDx is a welcome enhancement to the TED brand.

I like the mayor league / minor league metaphor Bruce used.

I also found my way to this article through the tweet by @TEDchris

Hello Chris!

This is Lauren, the Branding Manager at TEDx.

First, thanks so much for writing this.

Second, while we do have a set of 'Branding Guidelines' that TEDx event organizers must follow -- that lays out how their logo should look (and gives them design files), some TED/TEDx language that must be present on their website and the placement of sponsor logos on their website -- I (as a person) go review these web properties and help organizers make the correct changes.

So while it's a time-consuming process, it hopefully helps organizers better understand the guidelines and know that there is a real person there to help answer questions.


I noticed today that both Raleigh and nearby NCSU are both having a TEDx event withing days of each other.

It occurred to me that while TED won't be diluted by the extension of TEDx, the extension itself may become worth less as more events pop up.

We are really talking about two brands aren't we? It's like the jeans that a high end brand sells in boutiques compared to the jeans from the same company that is sold at chain stores; everyone knows the name but the quality isn't exactly the same.

I don't mean to belittle any of the speakers at TEDx but we are dealing with perceptions; can there be that many "expert geniuses" with something to share in one small town in one week's time?

Local music acts who perform live twice weekly in the same town had better be performing in a large town if they plan to draw a crowd and maintain anticipation. I think the same may hold true for TEDx.

Just a thought.

Hi folks-- Make sure you check out the follow up to this conversation from a legal POV here:


We just had TEDxNCSU today (NC State University), and it was a wonderful event with thought-provoking, inspiring speakers. Yes, it was one week away apart from TEDxRaleigh, but none of the speakers were the same. And yes, in a city like Raleigh, and an area like the Triangle, where you have 3 major universities, and lots of innovative industries, it is possible to put up quality TEDx events. In our case, we had professors, alumni, students, and others as speakers. The Research Triangle Park is not "a small town" :) I think the most important issue is one that was raised earlier- that TEDx organizers need guidance and experience from folks who have attended TED before. For TEDxNCSU, the TEDster was a 2009 TED Fellow, and I believe we were faithful to the TED spirit, with many TED "moments".

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