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How to run collaborative brand projects like a pro

All Chief Marketing Officers know strategic branding projects are high stakes projects. You’ve received the executive leadership team’s blessing and secured a budget. Now the real work begins.

A new brand, you recognize, has the power to help your company grow and scale—not to mention surpass revenue goals. Clear, compelling, and differentiated messages and visuals tell potential customers what you do in a true and simple way, and help you stand out against competitors.

Whether building a brand from scratch or refreshing what you’ve already got, any CMO should start by asking themselves, “how can I ensure this branding project is a success?” Do you hire an outside agency? Bring on new team members? Look to freelancers for help? Shut out the world and boldly push forward as a team of one?

At New Kind, we believe that the most successful brand projects happen when they are done collaboratively and openly—and this applies to working with both external vendors and internal teams. This is especially true for technology companies, and obvious for open source ones.

Effective collaboration allows teams to move more quickly, shortening cycles between iterations (a huge benefit in the fast-moving world of tech). Opening participation to a wide group of contributors allows for a diverse range of perspectives to impact the eventual outcome, whatever it may be. Done right, an open, collaborative approach results in a more authentic and effective brand when it’s all said and done. And isn’t what it’s all about?

But collaboration doesn’t come without risks and challenges. We’ve seen brand projects flourish. We’ve also seen them go off the rails. Collaborative brand projects take careful planning, time, and patience throughout the process.

Easier said than done? Doesn’t have to be.

In this post, we’ll outline three steps any CMO can take to help ensure their brand project is set up for success.


1. Identify Your Decision Makers Before the Project Gets Started

This is a big one. It might sound easy at the surface, but don’t be fooled. Skipping this step comes with major consequences. Let’s consider two scenarios:

Scenario 1: as CMO, your CEO trusts you to own and run this brand project from start to finish. They want you to make all decisions along the way. All they want is to be kept informed of the final decision.

Great news, right? You’re free to use your best judgment and incorporate input from the rest of your team as you go. But at the end of the day, you make the final call on how to move forward—which logo direction to pursue, what the main brand message should be, etc.

Scenario 2: You have been tasked with leading this brand project but your CEO, President, or other members of executive leadership wants to make the final decisions for the brand.

This scenario is no less great than number one, it just requires more of your help managing stakeholders and navigating the process slightly differently. With more decision makers who have busy schedules and competing priorities, it’s likely for them to only want to be involved at critical decision points of the project.

But without involving them throughout the process—from kickoff to strategy planning, from reviews of prototypes to guidelines delivery—they will lack the context to make data-driven, team-aligned decisions along the way. Fast-forward to what you thought was the finish line and you’re likely to hear, “wait, how did we get here?” It might mean starting over.


The New Kind Recommendation

Before you schedule a project kick-off, work to clearly define who the decision makers are and discuss with them how and when they will be expected to participate in the project process. Help them see where they fit in the overall project plan. Explain how feedback cycles will work and in what format feedback will be collected. Go ahead and hold time on their calendars if you already know when and where crucial milestone meetings will occur (it never hurts to get on an executive’s calendar sooner than later).

We recommend defining between one and four decision-makers at the start of the project. More than four runs the risk of inviting a decision-by-committee. Try also to develop a decision-making team that brings a diverse range of perspectives to the table. This will help ensure every area of the company has an advocate at the top level.


2. Define Your Core Working Group

Let’s say you’re part of a 300-person organization. It would be impractical (downright impossible) to try to involve every single person in every single project phase, milestone, review, and decision.

Maybe if you wanted a project like this to take 5 years, but more often than not you barely have five months (if that).

That said, you know how important it is to gather input from people across your organization who know your brand best. Employees want to hear their ideas reflected in the company brand, they want to feel like they are a part of the process so they can help own it once it’s out in the world.

Every project needs a small subset of your entire organization to serve as your core working group. These select contributors actively participate and share sharing their ideas throughout every milestone. They are tasked with providing feedback on which messages resonate with them, or which logo direction they prefer and why—but remember, they aren’t accountable for the final decision.


The New Kind Recommendation

Establish a core working group comprised of 6-12 people, in addition to your decision makers we talked about above. You want a representative sample of your organization, as well as participation from as many key departments as possible. A few stakeholder groups to consider:

  • Marketing and design — These team members will be responsible for bringing the brand to life once the final guidelines are delivered. They should have a say, from start to finish.
  • Sales and customer success — These team members are invaluable for understanding the voice of your customer—their goals, pain points, and personality—since they talk to them every day.
  • Product and engineering — These team members know the ins and outs of your product better than anyone (after all, they built it). They can help the rest of the team understand what your company is delivering from a technical perspective so that you can uncover and articulate the value more clearly (and help you avoid overpromising on claims the product can’t yet deliver).
  • Detractors — Anyone who might be opposed to this brand project from the start. There’s no better way to bring them along and help them reconsider the value of completing a project like this than if you’re including them throughout the process.
  • Veterans and Newbies — Regardless of department, seek to include long-tenured team members who will bring valuable historical context to the table. At the same time, don’t be afraid to invite a youthful perspective. Junior team members at the entry level can bring a fresh perspective that doesn’t always make its way to the board room.

No matter the makeup of your core working group, take care to set expectations from the outset. Express gratitude for each person taking time out of their 9-5 responsibilities to help shape the future of the company. Cut any tension or intimidation early by creating an environment that’s safe for frank discussions. Let the room know what the road ahead looks like, and how you plan to get there.

Most of all: have fun! This is your dream team.


3. Build Consensus as You Go

You’ve identified your decision makers, you’ve established your core working group—now the real work begins. Start developing new messaging and exploring new logo options and all of a sudden your once-fuzzy branding project starts to feel very, very real. New ideas are put to the test, nothing feels familiar, you begin to question what you always thought you knew—seriously scary stuff.

New Kind President and Partner, Jonathan Opp, writes about the importance of bridging the familiarity gap for naming projects, and the idea rings true for brand projects as a whole.

Leaders of any creative project will tell you only about 20% of their time is spent actually creating the work, whereas about 80% is spent building consensus and selling the work through internal teams. And most of that consensus building time goes toward playing facilitator, assuaging unfounded fears, and creating positive momentum to keep moving forward.

As you move further along in the process, it can be easy to question if a new direction is working or not. In these moments team members naturally revert to giving more negative feedback than constructive contributions.

So how do you avoid this from happening to your project?


The New Kind Recommendation

Show the math. At every step, it’s critical to reference back to where you started, where you were at the last milestone, and how you’ve arrived at this point. It might start to feel old to you, but I promise it’s not. Not everyone on the working group is as tuned into all of the project details and decisions as you are. And that’s ok! You just have to help them remember.

Give new ideas space to marinate. Maybe at first glance, a new logo feels like the absolute wrong direction to take. Instead of discounting the idea based on one person’s feedback, mock it up in context of where you’d see it, give it space to sit and settle. Ask your team to imagine, “could I ever see this working? why or why not?”

Finally, teach your team how to share productive feedback. This is hard, but it’s key. Negative feedback can set the tone for the rest of a conversation. Instead of accepting a response such as, “I don’t like it,” ask your team member, “can you tell me more about why? What parts of this don’t feel like they’re working? Are there other parts that are working better?”

Or ask for initial feedback in a way that makes team members think about what excites them, what is working well, even if it’s not the final approved concept.


Parting Thoughts

Leading a collaborative brand project at any organization, especially a large enterprise tech company, can be a hugely rewarding exercise for any CMO. The simple steps outlined in this post will help set yours up for success.

Here at New Kind, our open source origins mean we specialize in guiding collaborative brand projects that require participation from many different stakeholder groups. We work as an extension of our client’s teams because we know that as an external agency, we’ll never know as much about your company as the people who are in it all day, five days a week.

If you have a brand project you think we could help with, get in touch here. Or, subscribe below to receive more Insights posts like this one directly in your inbox.

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