Dan Lewis and Jeff Pulver at BrandsConf 2010

A rabbi, a psychic, a poet, “Harvey Milk” and a seventh-grader from Tanzania all took the stage in New York City last week to discuss… branding.

Where else would you find such a diverse and eclectic group of speakers but at BrandsConf, Jeff Pulver’s conference devoted to “exploring the humanization of brands”?

The premise: the world of branding is changing.  And people are the heart and soul of it all.

Despite the amazing range of speakers, which also included representatives from 30-plus brands including Coca-Cola, IBM, Estée Lauder and JetBlue, there were some common threads woven throughout the day’s rapid-fire sessions that are worth considering for our own brands, businesses and lives.

Own your story

The need for brands of all shapes and sizes to convey “authenticity” was a common theme of the day. Author and founder of Intent.com Mallika Chopra (daughter of Deepak) prompted audience members to close their eyes and reflect on the questions “Who am I?” and “How can I serve?” Chopra then explained that intent is an important self-discipline that could be applied to brands serving their customers.

Musician and writer Mike Errico noted that not all brands benefit from full disclosure. In his talk on rock star mythology, Errico explained that the real-time Internet (i.e. social media) can compromise a musician’s carefully-cultivated brand if he or she isn’t careful.

“There’s only one Slash,” he said, referring to the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist, “and I’m not sure I need to know if he went to the dentist and needs a cleaning.”

Perfect is boring

What is authenticity, anyway? According to Andrea Syrtash, Oprah.com contributor and author, it’s the real you – “warts and all” – that people will really connect to and find believable. She added that a flawless façade is not only something people won’t relate to, but that “perfect is boring.”

For NBC News, this has meant encouraging its journalists to bring more of their own personalities into their reporting, said Ryan Osborn, Director of Social for the network.

Similarly, Savvy Auntie founder Melanie Notkin implored brands to “be normal and don’t put on a show.” The result can be deep connections and relationships with people in ways that matter in their lives.

Information flows through people

Whether you’re an entrepreneur with a mission like Tony Heffernan, whose “Bees for Battens” brand is raising funds for a disease that has transformed his family, or a large corporation like IBM, every brand is ultimately a human brand.

Gilad Lotan of Social Flow can back this up with data.  He illustrated how conversation connects people and brands by analyzing complex social media data, which he presented in a series of infographics.

Lotan’s data tells the story of how “information flows through people,” as he put it.  Maintaining a dialogue with these people is the key to a healthy, thriving and “living” brand.

You gotta give ‘em hope

Business-savvy psychic Monte Farber explained that his process relies on an understanding that the stories people receive and tell are the ones that make “their lives mean something.” The lesson here is that brands should tell people a story that’s empowering, hopeful and fulfilling.

In one of the event’s more touching moments, Leah Albert, a seventh grader from Shepherds Junior School in Tanzania, took the stage and proclaimed “I am more important than money.”

Leah is one of two students representing a school that was “built through love” by founder Mama Lucy Kampton with the support of Epic Change.

The lesson is particularly relevant for non-profits and cause marketers who need to consider the impact their story can have on the recipients of their work. Does the story communicate a message of limitation or great personal possibility?

Brands should aspire to create content that inspires people, or in the words of Chris Bartlett who personifies the legacy of @HarveyMilk on Twitter, “You gotta give ‘em hope.”

Brands still have a long way to go

The day’s very first presenter, Ogilvy’s Rohit Bhargava, characterized BrandsConf as a small “fraternity” of people who really care about brands being human.

And while Katie Richman of ESPN noted that brands have “come a long way” in accepting social media as part of the landscape, I got the sense that there’s still a long way to go for most brands to serve people in an authentic way.

In an age where people don’t trust easily, Bhargava noted, “unexpected honesty might be the solution.” So Jeff Pulver’s tribe may be exploring “the state of now,” but I think it’s really an indicator of what business will look like tomorrow.