Sprint thinking: smarter branding in the age of urgency

07 March, 2018 Share socially

In our recent work defining strategies and creating connected brand experiences for a wide range of organisations, we have witnessed tectonic shifts in the way they perceive, approach and solve problems.

By and large, these are a product of the application of different methodologies across domains – be it industrial design or software development – and the work of some prolific writers, ambitious leaders and influential consultancies. What’s for sure is that these shifts have changed the way in which branding companies like FutureBrand and all manner of marketing and communications agencies work in this changing landscape.

The knowledge shift

There’s now much greater importance and understanding of what it means to have design at the heart of an organisation: that design isn’t constricted to how products may look, but that it constitutes a focus on the user and the connectedness between different touchpoints to support that experience, whether it’s an interface, an industrial design or how information is conveyed.

Importantly, organisations now understand that achieving this connectedness isn’t merely a matter of willing it to happen, but instead drastically redesigning organisations as they are – from the very way they’re structured to how they behave on a day-to-day basis.

With this knowledge and understanding of the importance of design, many organisations are now brimming with information. Most large organisations have a constant supply of market research, customer journeys, personas and guidelines that can be readily applied, rarely are knowledge gaps left unfilled for long.

The process shift

As these organisations become more ‘designerly’ in their approach to initiatives, so too is their process and drive to ensure that everything they do is aligned. Any significant organisational initiative is no longer restricted to representatives from a single function, but instead a round table joins  participants from people and culture, CX, marketing, transformation and technology, and even the CEO assessing the repercussions of a new idea on everything that an organisation might do.

Collaboration is no longer a bonus, it’s a bona fide business necessity. 

The gear shift

In an environment where ‘transformation’ has become the new norm, even large corporations are expected to be as nimble and responsive as start-ups. Start-ups and ventures themselves are formed, acquired, valued and sold or need to achieve scale in the blink of an eye. In this age of urgency, time has become a scarce, almost depleted resource, and the business world has had to shift up another gear to keep pace with ever-increasing expectations from all quarters.

At the risk of stalling, organisations are now under extreme pressure not only to minimise time but also cost and complexity. 

Brand’s new relevance

Put these three shifts together and you will see a picture of how connected, transparent, collaborative, information rich and responsive today’s organisations have become. All of which begs the question – especially when the trend is for organisations like these to re-absorb tasks as broad as CX design, communications and branding in-house – what will become of the role of the branding company in this present future?

Branding as a discipline is more relevant than ever.

What organisations often need to respond to today’s challenges is clarity and impetus for change, as well as an understanding of how to deliver this clarity as a real experience. For that reason, brand is increasingly perceived as perhaps one of the strongest driving forces to guide an organisation’s efforts, whether it’s a large enterprise looking to recruit the right people and improve their digital experience or a start-up hoping to frame their proposition in the best way to get investment from venture capital.

However, the potential that a branding or creative company can bring to an organisation can remain untapped if they don’t work in a way that responds to these three tectonic shifts changing the world under their feet – the knowledge shift, process shift, and gear shift.

It’s for these reasons that many creative firms have begun to adopt the same processes of their clients and of influential design consultancies worldwide – working in ‘sprints’: intensively, iteratively, collaboratively, to achieve more tangible, more immediate outcomes.

In many organisations, sprints have met with success in various contexts, designing tangible products, developing improved software or creating new revenue streams for example. However, there are risks we have found in applying sprint techniques and tools to branding programs, largely as a consequence of the pivotal and socially complex role that brands play within an organisation.

Get it wrong and sprints quickly become bogged in long and increasingly unproductive periods of engagement, or result in the over-simplification of a situation and solutions that don’t measure up to the scale of the challenge.

Part of the challenge lies in the fact that the very name can be a misnomer, misleading people to think that sprints equal speed. Doing things faster doesn’t necessarily navigate the increased complexity that the process shift brings, nor does it leverage the wealth of information that more knowledgeable organisations now have at hand.

There’s a real opportunity to work in a way that enables a more panoramic view of situations, while meeting the commercial requirements of the gear shift.

At FutureBrand, we have been exploring ways in which to apply sprint thinking to our own process and our clients’ brands . Applying them in contexts as broad as branding a technology start-up wanting to expand its regional footprint, rebranding an established office solutions organisation with the largest market share in its industry, and giving a consolidated government agency a more compelling narrative.

We’ve learned from each one, and have settled upon what we believe are the four defining characteristics of any brand sprint. These inform how we detect – or even create – the right conditions for applying the methodology. Plus, how we reconcile the tensions that any sprint typically surfaces for an organisation mid-way through the process: tensions between speed and rigour, extensive engagement and urgent outcomes, immediate needs and future ambitions. All in the name of building brands made better by how we manage the process, not simply its product.

The four characteristics of any brand sprint:

#1. Immersive

Sprints sound fast, but the real value lies in their smarts. We don’t sacrifice substance for speed, so we start our work even before the sprint begins, fully immersing ourselves in all available information held by an organisation, be it customer journeys or market data. We synthesise this information into meaningful insights and validate those with leaders across the organisation within a week so that there are meaningful proof-points and parameters to guide the remainder of the sprint.

When a private equity firm recently purchased an established ecommerce business in Australia and New Zealand, we were faced with having to rebrand the organisation within a timeframe so urgent that the pace of a ‘typical’ large-scale rebranding project simply wasn’t feasible.

We had to find a way to understand the business inside out as well as ascertain its leaders’ ambitions within the space of one week, then turn it into a brand strategy and naming prototypes the next. To do this, we amassed four years’ worth of information, grouped this into actionable insights and validated those with executives and, more importantly, customers, both current and lapsed.

This meant that after three weeks we had already formed a basic and more or less fixed platform, backed by empirical evidence, from which to iterate the creative concepts for the new brand.

#2. Connected

The branding company’s role isn’t just to produce great strategy, creative or experiences.

We’re often there to connect the dots as more organisations use branding as a lens to improve entire systems and the connections between them – how culture links with digital experiences or how corporate strategy manifests in the employee experience, for example.

We’re there to ensure that the potency of a brand idea transcends any single touchpoint or interaction and threads itself through the day-to- day life of an organisation, its employees and, ultimately, its customers. With this in mind, sprints provide a platform and a forum through which relevant people from the various parts of any organisation can share and build their own inputs and outputs.

Often times these are people collaborating for the first time. What’s more, when you create something, it means more to you, thereby enhancing the likelihood both that you will reach the right solution and that the organisation will own and action it.

In working with a government department created from the amalgamation of several different government services, each with their own rich and valuable legacies, many people inside and outside of the organisation naturally identified more with these individual service lines than they did the entire organisation. Consequently, creating an overarching narrative to unite and inspire these service lines and guide brand expression was an arduous task.

To resolve this, we facilitated a series of engagement sessions, each comprising a mix of people from across the organisation, from call centres to case workers, to explore our emerging hypotheses and get their input and feedback. We knew the ingredients for the solution, but we needed their help to create the recipe – an approach that came to be known as the ‘kitchen sessions’, based on the cooking analogy we applied.

This way, the result was more than palatable to everyone. 

#3. Commercial

All projects ultimately aim to create clarity but typically begin with anything but – as you look to see the bigger picture, you can sometimes create a bigger mess as you inadvertently expose a wider range of issues and problems that need to be fixed. This phenomenon often derails even the best-organised sprint. It’s important not to get bogged but remain focused on the commercial outcomes that the project was initiated to achieve. This might involve streamlining deliverables to focus on the things that matter most and will make the biggest dent.

This focus on commercial outcomes enables us to match that applied by a private equity firm or a venture’s founder to meet tight deadlines without any loss of fidelity.

When we worked with a start-up founded to disrupt its industry and scale across Asia Pacific after securing a record level of investment, the scrutiny of investors meant we had to do it in a way that yielded immediate outputs in a short period of time. Accordingly, we focused our analysis, strategy and creative on telling the most salient aspects of their story as simply as possible, something we validated with leaders in the organisation within the first workshop.

We provided shortcuts via verbal briefings instead of lengthy PowerPoint decks, and provided only the visual and verbal assets required for launch – as part of a progressive approach that matched the brand’s evolution to the business’s future growth curve. 

#4. Creative

Building brands to transform organisations and redefine industries demands creativity. As markets become ever more urgent, it can become increasingly difficult to foster an environment in which creativity can thrive. What’s more, doing anything new takes courage because it can sometimes feel uncomfortable.

In other words, in a sprint, all the forces seem to repress the creative impulse and reinforce the status quo. So it becomes all the more important to establish from the start that the sprint is meant to challenge norms and stretch thinking as far as possible, even more so than a conventional brand project.

In financial services, a client organisation of ours had established a strategy to transform its business from a focus on products to a focus on customers. However, significant legislative hurdles and policy restrictions meant that any evolution of its brand to demonstrate this strategic transformation would face challenges from inside and out.

Consequently, we pushed them towards the boldest forms of customer centricity and developed strategic concepts that always weighed more on the side of creative courage. This meant that even when legislative or policy constraints pulled them back, the end result was still uniquely creative, from design to language and ultimately experience

These inform how we detect – or even create – the right conditions for applying the methodology. Plus, how we reconcile the tensions that any sprint typically surfaces for an organisation mid-way through the process: tensions between speed and rigour, extensive engagement and urgent outcomes, immediate needs and future ambitions. All in the name of building brands made better by how we manage the process, not simply its product.

In conclusion...

Smarter, not faster

At FutureBrand, we know that the process of branding is as important as its product. In this age of urgency, speed is but one response. In fact, by exploring the big shifts driving change within organisations – the knowledge shift, process shift and the gear shift – we have discovered that the best response is not simply to do things faster. It’s to do things smarter, by being more immersive, connected, commercial and ultimately creative.

But perhaps the most important outcome from our research and experience so far is the fact that the biggest shift in branding in the age of urgency is not about us but them – those organisations who have become more informed, integrated and inspired than ever before and demand the very same from the people they select as their partners.

Richard Curtis is CEO Australia, New Zealand & South East Asia, and John Corleto is a strategist, at FutureBrand.

To discuss our brand sprint methodology in more detail you can contact your local FutureBrand team here.