How to design and lead a brand experience workshop in six steps

pens pencils sticky notes paper workshop office supplies

Most stakeholders aren’t versed in the language of branding. That’s dangerous because word of mouth and first-hand experience have more of an effect on user love than celebrity endorsements or well-toned advertisements. Branding is more important than ever. How do you get stakeholders into productive conversations about it?

Problem: Finding the brand through trial and error

You could take the trial-and-error tack: just make stuff to see how they react, and go through round after round of presentation and feedback, each time learning a little bit more about what the brand is supposed to be. But this is expensive, tedious, and demoralizing. It’s like hacking away at a beehive to make a sculpture. You end up with a lot of stings.

Solution: Get those brand attributes out and vetted with a brand experience workshop

Cooper has faced this challenge with its clients head on for 5 years with a workshop to solve this problem. It’s fun and works like a charm. Here’s an introduction to how it works, followed by some tips and tricks to making them awesome. (Sidenote: We also teach a hands-on Brand Experience Workshop course for folks who’d like to learn by doing.)

A brand experience workshop in six steps

The workshop should feel pretty magical to the participants, and of course that takes some work on your part, but it’s worth it. Find below the key six steps.

1. Prepare

Find a half-day where your stakeholders can join you. In-person is ideal. Get the meeting scheduled and set expectations by telling them they don’t have anything to do in advance other than be prepared for some important (and fun) conversations about the how the brand should be experienced by users.

Then before the meeting, gather together a collection of images to hang on the wall. While there is no formula for an exact number, we’ve usually worked to have around 100 so there’s a diversity of things to talk about.

The 100 images are full of groups of related images around a theme. For example, a theme we’ve included in almost every workshop I’ve done is cars. The cars theme works great because many people are familiar with cars and it’s easy to find beautiful images that illustrate different variations on the theme: e.g., Porsche, Toyota, BMW, Maybach, VW. That short list gives your workshop a chance to talk about whether their brand should feel fast and showy, practical, precise and prestige, extreme luxury, or friendly and reliable. Participants should be able to ask themselves a question like, “Are we more Toyota or Maybach?” and have a meaningful conversation about that.

toyota or maybach car

Be sure to include a theme that is in your stakeholders’ domain. This is where you can get them talking about their competitors and how others are differentiating themselves. Other than that, the themes can be pretty generic and used across different workshops.

  • Cars
  • Soft drinks
  • Beer
  • Celebrities
  • Home appliances
  • Movies
  • Abstract textures & shapes
  • Top recognizable brands
  • Clocks
  • Information graphics
  • Familiar apps and websites

If you are working on a product or service for a sub-brand, include the other sub-brands and images that draw out aspects of the existing master brand: positive and negative.

2. The day of: Hang pictures on the wall

On the day of the workshop, print out the images (we’re working on more green ways to accomplish this) and tile them along a wall that has enough space for participants to gather around.

After introductions and explanations, hand each participant a set of red and green sticker dots. (That’s how you know it’s consultative. There are sticky dots.) The exact number isn’t important, but we usually offer somewhere between 5 and 10 of each color.

3. Have them vote

Then give them 20 minutes to stand up, study the pictures, and put dots directly on the images. Green dots are for images that have something that’s desired, red for undesired.

Don’t get too hung up structuring rules for this part of the exercise. It should be free form. Ultimately the voting is just a way to prioritize and frame the ones you’re going to talk about later. That said, participants will almost always ask two things:

  1. Q: Can they load up multiple dots on a given image? A: Sure, that’s fine.
  2. Q: Can they talk during? A: Sure, but keep an eye on the clock.

I usually give 10, 5, and 1-minute warnings if folks are still milling about.

4. Facilitate a conversation

When all of the dots have been added, facilitate a conversation amongst the group about why they voted the way they did. Start with the ones that had a lot of reds, since people often find it very easy to talk about what’s undesirable. Move to the ones that had a lot of greens to solicit positive attributes.

image of three milk cartons - brand experience workshop

After the greens, segue to ones with a big mix of color. This is where your skills as a facilitator will come in. Solicit input from the red and green opinions and work them through any conflicting opinions.

During all this conversation, a colleague should capture key adjectives that come up in conversation. Write them down on a whiteboard or paper that you hang on some other wall, noting the undesired attributes in a red marker and the desired attributes in green. Keep a tally next to the words of the number of times they are mentioned.

complete axis - brand experience workshop

Wrap the meeting thanking everyone and setting expectations about what’s next. If you used a whiteboard to capture conversation, photograph it multiple times and send it to yourself to make sure you have it backed up. You’ll need these things captured.

5. Synthesize the results

Back in your bat cave, synthesize the results, taking into account things like the competitive landscape, other sub brands, and the master brand, if there is one. Try to get down to a list of 4–5 adjectives that capture the heart of the brand.

Take care to intensify any adjectives that seem hygienic, underwhelming, or won’t differentiate it from the competition. For example, a lot of people want their products to be intuitive. OK. That’s good, but it’s also “table stakes.” Everyone’s products need to be intuitive. What makes theirs special?

6. Share it back with the stakeholders

Once you’ve gotten down to your handful of attributes, it’s time to present them to the stake
holders again. Words can be slippery things, so you need to help your audience understand what you mean when you suggest that the brand should be, say, sharp? Does that mean precise and cutting, or smart and insightful? To convey the full meaning of the words you chose, augment them in your presentation with definitions, images, and/or similar words. Compare these attributes to those of the competition to show how customers should understand the differentiation.

We like to capture the attributes in a “word cloud” that can hang on the wall of the design team and hopefully the main stakeholder while you’re working on the project.

Fancy Brand Word Cloud - Brand Experience Workshop Guide

You may have one or two rounds of iteration, but push through to get them right. At the end, you want everyone to feel that you have the right ones because you’re going to use these as guidelines for visual style studies, a touchstone for the final chosen style, and a measuring stick for the final results. The attributes are an agreement that helps you ensure that this is the way that the user understands the brand when they use the product or service.

Five quick tips
  1. Sometimes (not always) you’ll need to pay special attention to the HPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) or the brand steward in the room. To do this without cow-towing, we treat the workshop as egalitarian, but mark his or her dots slightly with a marker so that we can go back during synthesis and identify those images that spoke to them.
  2. Remind people while they are voting that it’s not about what they like or don’t like. This is about their company’s/product’s/service’s brand promise. The CEO may like, say, the smell and softness of marshmallows, but that might be antithetical to their security brand.
  3. While facilitating, encourage dissenting opinions. Participants may feel shy or defensive if they’re the only green in a sea of red, but assure them that this is how we understand the edges of the brand.
  4. Don’t be a slave to the words on the wall. Just because you left the workshop with them doesn’t mean you have to stick with them. You may have to explain the process of how you got from there to here, but evolve those words to be differentiating and aspirational.
  5. When selecting your attributes, it’s useful to have some tensions for visual designers to play with when toying with options. Secure and friendly are possible in the same brand, but a given style study may emphasize one over the other.
Behold the power

Now you have a set of attributes to reference. Our visual designers use them to structure their initial style studies.

And though most decisions for interaction designers come down to a question of logic and staying goal-directed, we keep the word cloud on the wall in our war rooms, too, for those moments when the brand experience needs to make the call between different design directions.

When you show later work to stakeholders, remind them of these attributes upfront by having these words available. They are something you can point to if they say they don’t like it. You can say, “Understood. But will the personas perceive it’s in brand?”

So now you know the basics of running a Brand Experience Workshop, and you can help a team get to words so they can design a target for how their experience should feel.

There’s more, of course:

  • To learn even more about facilitating conversation and synthesizing results, attend our 1-day Brand Experience Workshop. You’ll get hands-on practice and coaching around developing and leading Brand Experience Workshops inside your organization. You’ll also learn many more strategies for facilitating conversations and decisions about brand.
  • If you’d like a professionally run workshop, you can of course always hire us for great design consulting.
Chris Noessel

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