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Building Better Brands: the Discovery Workplan

Chris Dickman Mon, 02/17/2014 - 09:37

Excerpted from Building Better Brands: A Comprehensive Guide to Brand Strategy and Identity Development by Scott Lerman. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, F+W Media, imprint HOW. Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.


To build a better brand, you have to understand, completely, both the current situation and the shape of the future. The more thoroughly you investigate each element—identity, arena, positioning, character, and experience—the more likely you are to generate insights that lead to ambitious and profitable change.

You must begin the brand development process with discovery. But you should be familiar with the other elements before you begin. Knowing how you will use what you discover will help you proceed with focus and confidence.

1. Map the Journey

It’s important that you do your homework before developing a better brand. You will be tempted to survey the landscape from your own vantage point, but it’s best to trek through an organization’s chosen arena from the point of view of its audiences.

That means literally following the journey of each audience as they make their way through learning about, considering, choosing, and working with your organization. While there will be prominent features of the landscape that all may see, each audien vce takes its own path and has its own experience during the journey.

What does a prospective customer hear, see, and experience as they seek a partner, provider, product, or service? What about a prospective employee? Or an investor? Your challenge is to “map the journey,” audience by audience. A kind of “year in the life of…” documentary. Once you’ve sketched the routes, go even deeper.

  • Collect marketing and communications encountered along the way.
  • Analyze current strategic plans to understand how they may change
    the landscape.
  • Review research that reveals how audiences are making decisions.
  • Talk to the people who shape the organization, its products, and
    its services.
  • Study peers and competitors.
  • Consider whether there are pending mergers or acquisitions, global
    trends, or cultural upheavals that will shift the balance of power in
    the industry.
  • Weigh how changes in leadership will influence the way the organization
    functions or approaches the market.

A traditional marketing and communications audit focuses on gathering the printed and online materials that are used throughout an organization. A more thorough audit effort will obtain photos of signs and facilities. But you can do better.

Gather materials—not just from your organization, but from primary competitors. And think beyond basic marketing and communications. The goal is to have a clear view of everything meaningful that each audience sees, hears, and experiences over an extended period.

The advantage of approaching this as a journey is that you’ll gather intelligence on elements you’d otherwise miss. For example, what do prospective employees see as they arrive at the interview site? How are they greeted by security personnel or the receptionist? Are they given a form to fill out? What does that form look like? What do applicants do if they have questions? What are they thinking along the way? You get the idea.

By putting yourself in the shoes of employees, customers, partners, channel representatives, analysts, and others you can walk through their entire experience, gathering, annotating, and photographing along the way.

Segment those journeys in a logical way. First, an audience learns about your organization and competitors. Then they collect information about contenders to consider and choose who is the best fit. Once they’ve decided, they interact with the organization and its product or services, including things like instructions for use, repairs, returns, career development, etc. Finally, there are moments of bonding, when a problem is fixed, special rewards are earned, or a relationship is forged that goes beyond a mere transactional exchange.

Learn, choose, interact, bond, it isn’t just a linear journey, it’s a cycle that repeats over and over again.


In this example, the journey was structured by posing a series of questions and identifying corresponding content needs. The team then inventoried existing materials and assessed whether they fully or partially met each audience’s needs along the way.

To catalog the journey of key audiences, it is best to observe them as they learn, choose, interact, and bond with the organization and competitors. You’ll be surprised by how much you didn’t know about their experience. It’s useful to create an inventory for each audience organized by the questions that they need answered like, “How can you help me with my business?”, “Can I buy your products and services as bundles?”, etc. Getting into their heads will allow you to become far more responsive and relevant.

The journey maps you build at this stage will not only be useful now, they’ll prove to be invaluable guides in upcoming stages of the brand development process.

Sometimes the easiest way to map the journey is to trek it yourself. Here, the vast NYC public transportation system was captured through the eyes and minds of the riders—a perspective that spurred a system wide remaking of the MTA brand.

The new brand strategy and identity were tied to substantive changes in the quality of the rider experience and the introduction of the MetroCard®—an electronic fare system that brought a new cohesiveness to moving through the subways, buses, trains, bridges, and tunnels that comprise the MTA system.


It helps to have a workroom with long walls to organize materials. Here, an organization takes advantage of windowed room dividers.

2. Review Strategic Documents

Brands are not just a reflection of the past and present, they are the advance guard of the future.

Your brief is to capture a view of the entire organization’s take on the future. Questions, such as those posed below, can be answered by reviewing strategic planning documents.

In smaller “seat-of-the-pants” organizations you may find that little is written down. Outside sources, such as analysts’ reports or “insider” blogs, may be of more use in profiling the arena and identifying trends, as well as offering plausible speculation on what is to come.

And while we will discuss how to analyze research and interview key people in the following pages—you’ll find that those efforts are very much a part of understanding the strategic direction and goals of the organization.

Don’t be concerned (or surprised) if there are inherent contradictions in strategic planning documents, five-year plans, annual report declarations, and outsider views of the best path forward. The goal of this step in the discovery process is to survey and summarize how the future is seen from each point of view, not to rationalize opposing viewpoints.


This part of discovery is less about the questions you are asking, and more about observing the essential questions the organization and the industry are asking themselves.

3. Analyze Research

Most organizations conduct research of one kind or another: anthropological research that provides an observed view of how people actually behave; qualitative research that provides clues and spurs ideas but offers no statistical certainty; quantitative research that is designed to provide a predictive view of how larger groups think and will behave; and occasionally, census research that attempts to poll each and every member of a specialized group (or cohort).

Whatever the methodology, the intent is to increase understanding of what is and what may be. The more rigorous the methodology and larger the sample size, the greater confidence you can have in the results.

Gather and analyze existing research studies, but be careful. Given the technical nature of research study design, a layperson can easily give too much credence to the findings of a flawed global quantitative study or too little consideration to a small, elegantly fielded anthropological effort. You may need some very specialized help to interpret what you’re reading.

But even if you decide you need a research expert, you can do a preliminary analysis of your own. Remember, you want to accomplish two goals. The more obvious one is to mine the data to understand what they reveal. But an equally important goal is to see the research and its conclusions through the eyes of the organization as a whole.

In research-savvy cultures, reality and perception may be aligned. But in some organizations, research is a poorly vetted, thinly-veiled justification to support partisan views. Part of your job is to clarify whether existing research is sound or suspect.

Whatever the quality or quantity of existing research, pull out the key questions that are being asked. Note how audiences are segmented and described and which “attributes” are being measured—such as “provides responsive services,” “acts like a partner,” and “drives innovation in the industry.” Those building blocks of performance will be important to the brand positioning work you’ll be doing later.

4. Poll Influencers

You may have noticed that we’re working our way through primarily secondary sources—communications and marketing materials, strategic documents, and research—before we talk directly with people. This approach allows us to gain a deep understanding of what exists, before delving into what was intended. Once you meet the people behind what’s happening, you may be influenced by their perceptions of what’s been accomplished.

Before you move to primary sources, take time to listen to the influencers. They are the lions of the industry, the pundits who spin, and the Cassandras, real or false, who preach decline. Their role, often their job, is to shape what happens by predicting the future. The most objective of influencers (often the very best journalists) strive to let their investigations lead where they may. The worst, and unfortunately sometimes the most persuasive of the influencers, have a theme or story line they want to advance. Facts, if contrary, be damned!

As with analyzing research, yours is a dual role. First, search for the truth in what influencers are saying. Where is the industry headed and why? Where are the opportunities and pitfalls? Who is seen as best positioned for the future and why?

Second, describe and analyze the trends and how they have affected your organization and the broader market. What is the mood and what are the myths that are driving people’s perceptions? A cogent synthesis of prevailing opinions is a valuable guide to the forces that are part of the brand landscape.

Beyond superb preparation, here are some keys to great interviews.

Unless the interviewee is the CEO or someone who speaks with complete impunity, promise (and deliver) anonymity.

Ask for a personal view. Tell people that you’ve read much of what’s been published by and about the organization. You understand the official and public view; and you need their unique perspective and insight.

Remember you are there to learn and to build bridges. Both are equally important. An interview should be the first of many conversations, not the last.

Take careful notes with a pen and paper (or at least stylus and tablet). Clicking keyboards are not welcome here. Good notes capture ideas and verbatim statements of import.

You can complete lists and fix spellings of names later. Focus on what’s important. Never take a superior to a subordinate’s interview.

Consider bringing a second, unobtrusive note taker, so you can concentrate on the discussion. But still take your own critical notes. That’s respectful (and prudent). Type up your notes as soon as possible. The same day is best. It will fix concepts in your mind and ensure that notes are legible and accessible for your core team.

5. Interview Key Constituencies

If you have done a thorough job with discovery, you should have learned an immense amount about the organization, key constituencies, competitors, industry, and available information and trends shaping all of those elements. You are now ready to talk with the people that matter most: the leaders, longterm employees, newbies, up-and-comers, and even troublemakers within the organization.

Be confident in your approach. Given your hard-won knowledge, you are no longer a mere petitioner asking for a bit of insider wisdom. You are a source of intelligence and perspective on what’s happening—and what may happen next. An example: Two oil-exploration executives once laughingly asked me why they should waste their time talking to a brand expert—they were doing more than fine. My response? “I understand your company is no longer the first choice for new engineering talent—What’s changed?” It was the start of a candid and productive conversation.

Many interviews are easy. You tell the person you are there to understand the organization—what drives its people, what the firm does like no other, where the industry is headed—and an hour later you’re suggesting setting up a follow-up discussion. Other interviews may start slowly, haltingly. Some people may be suspicious of your motives or insecure in their positions.

The better you know the organization and the background of the people you’re interviewing, the easier it is to find the trigger that gets them talking. Everyone has a trigger. Don’t be afraid to be provocative if you must, but always be respectful.

Get to the heart of what matters with interviews and you’ll gain real insight and supporters. But get the facts right or you will be summarily dismissed.

You should try to ask these essential questions in the interviews.

What is at the core of your organization? How did it begin?

What stories, even myths, have shaped its purpose and culture?

What are the most significant forces reshaping the industry, competitors, and your organization?

Where do you choose to compete and how is that changing?

Who are your key audiences and what drives them to choose you (or competitors)?

Does the organization’s reputation reflect its true strengths?

What distinguishes you from competitors and up-and-comers?

Who are you, how do you act as a culture? Has that changed over the years?

Does the organizational character have to evolve further?

Does the organization deliver on what is promised?

Does the name, logo, design, sound, and style of communications and marketing fit the organization?

Tailor your interviews to the person. The CFO, CMO, line manager, and sales representative will expect you to probe for insight in their areas of expertise. Listen to what they say, adjust your approach and tone to ensure they feel comfortable and get a chance to express their issues and hopes for the organization.

The circumstances of the brand program will also affect the interviews. If the impetus is a pending merger, the focus of the questions will be very different than a brand project spurred by the rise of a new competitor.

Despite the differences in the perspectives of the people you’ll interview, there are a handful of essential questions you should try to ask. The answers will provide a basis for the core ideas that will define the brand.

6. Visit Facilities

If you want to judge an industrial construction company’s ability to manage complex projects, visit its work sites. Are they organized and calm? Need to gauge the ability of a consultancy to scale and endure? Listen to how the power-players, the rainmakers, talk to subordinates (when they don’t know you’re watching). Skeptical of a company’s ability to focus their talent and resources on what’s vital to the future? Hang out in the employee cafeteria for a few afternoons. You’ll soon know the truth.

Get away from the corporate HQ into the hinterlands. Note the language used to describe strategic imperatives. See how things really work. Do the same—as much as possible—with competitors. There’s no substitute for field work.

This last stage of discovery combines elements of all the others. It is the part of the journey that provides a ground-level view of reality. Interviewing people in situ lets people relax and show you how things work.