Five Effective Brainstorming Techniques

Brainstorming can be one of the most inspiring and fruitful exercises a group or company can do. However, it can also be the most frustrating. Unfortunately, “it’s all been done before” and “there are no more new ideas” are often heard most when a mental wall hijacks the process.

When all hope appears to be lost, here are a few tried and tested tricks that can help spark new thoughts. While the below might not be appropriate for every situation, hopefully these techniques will result in more valuable brainstorming sessions:

The Sticky Note

Move away from the white board and give participants a stack of sticky notes. Set a time limit to write down the first things that come to mind on a given topic. Possibly propose a new topic (what you did last weekend, where to go on a vacation) to help inspire more creative thinking.

That Sucks

Come up with the worst idea for the topic (e.g., how do we sell fewer products, provide worse service, etc.). This might seem a bit contradictory, but the exercise of thinking of the worst idea can often produce one or two that have some legs.

What Would Jiffy Lube Do?

I learned this one from storyteller Jenne Fromm. Just as the title says, ask yourself what a company like Jiffy Lube would do and start hashing out ideas. Feel free to insert other companies for additional ideas (e.g., Walmart, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Best Buy, etc.).

Expand Your Horizons

Point to a random word in the dictionary and use that word during the brainstorm. This serves two purposes; first, it helps generate new ideas and second, it expands vocabulary.

Walk Away

If ideas are simply not flowing, just walk away. Often times the brain will stay active on a certain topic while you’re thinking about something completely different. If you have a 2-hour brainstorming session, think about breaking it up — one hour on the first day, the second hour a week later. The key here is to make sure participants write their ideas down throughout the week.


Charlie_WellsHaving worked in marketing for more than eight years, Charlie Wells enjoys the challenge of brand strategy, particularly pulling insights from customers and consumers to develop smart, effective work. Between stints in advertising, he spent a total of five years in the restaurant business managing and running different establishments. When Charlie is not at his desk at KCG, he enjoys kayaking, camping and losing video games to his 6-year-old son and newborn daughter.

What is branding?

To truly understand branding, explore how branding first came to be. The term “brand”  literally came from the mark cattlemen would put on their cattle to identify each heard to distinguish their unique position in their competitive marketplace (as a former cowboy, I love this). Anyone who has ever seen a John Wayne film understands how competitive the cattle market really was back in the day.

Examples of common cattle brands (some even with their own language) include:


cattlebrands

That same concept of branding still exists today. The traditional cattle brand has been replaced with a logo and companies use them with the same purpose; replacing leather with media.

The difference today is how much more the word “brand” means. It’s no longer simply a mark to identify ownership. The brand is what you stand for as a company. It tells your unique story, it defines your competitive advantage, it reveals your personality and it inspires the masses. Hopefully.

The assumption above indicates the company controls the brand. Marty Neumeier offers a different opinion and shatters the mental model for most brand managers. In his book “Zag,” Mr. Neumeier writes:

What exactly is a brand? HINT: It’s not a company’s logo or advertising. Those things are controlled by the company. Instead, a brand is a customer’s gut feeling about a product, service or company.” He goes on, “It’s not what you say it is—it’s what THEY say it is. The best you can do is influence it.

When I first read this, I had to disagree. I mean, everything I knew about a brand was that the company had complete control and told us what the brand was.

But the more I thought about it, it started to make sense. I have my own feelings about what a brand is, based on personal experience and those feelings do not always jive with people with which I interact.

A great example of this occurred during my college marketing classes. The professor was playing a word association game, saying a brand name and asking the class to say the first thing that came to mind. When she said Mercedes, my immediate response was “crap.” The reason for this was personal experience—no, I did not own a Mercedes in college—but my dad owned one when I was in high school and that thing was in the shop more than it was in our garage. Needless to say, the professor was not impressed with my response, but it drove home Mr. Neumeier’s point.

The key phrase at the end of his excerpt is this: “The best you can do is influence it.” I completely agree and think it is the main differentiator between companies doing branding well and those doing it poorly.

Why should you care? Well, if the only thing a company can do is influence the brand, who do you think is responsible? Yes, you.

A company’s employees, the people on the front lines, are the ones who have the opportunity to influence the brand on an hourly basis. Your actions and behaviors are a constant reflection of the brand—from face-to-face interactions, to phone conversations, to emails—what you say and how you say it reflect back on the brand image. It might seem minor in the grand scheme of things, but it can have a profound effect on how your brand is perceived.

If you don’t know what your brand represents, ask your marketing manager. They should be able to help clearly visualize the brand. And then, it’s up to you to help live it out every hour of every day.


Charlie_Wells Working in marketing for over 7 years, Charlie Wells enjoys the challenge of brand strategy, particularly pulling insights from customers and consumers to develop smart, effective work. Between stints in advertising, he spent a total of 5 years in the restaurant business managing and running different establishments. When Charlie is not at his desk at KCG, he enjoys kayaking, camping and losing video games to his almost-5-year-old son.