Forced Relationships, A Fun Brainstorm to Begin the Brand Process

The company founder was a bit sheepish as he gave his answer: a red Ferrari.

Ferrari 250 GTOThis is an enjoyable way to begin the brand discussion with a group, using a forced relationship exercise. It generally creates good discussion, and gets participants out of their normal frames of thought. “Forced Relationship” is basically a technique of forcing yourself to think of your organization’s brand in terms of another product or industry. “If our company were an auto manufacturer, which would it be?” Since we often understand other companies’ brands better than our own, it is a means to start fresh in our thinking. I usually pick three from the list posted at the end of this article, and spend about an hour on the discussion.

This technique, in various forms, is also known as a Forced Analogy, “How is my problem like a (insert random object).” One approach in a forced analogy is to compare a problem or an organization to the various aspects of something else that is familiar to the participants. How is this similar to a shark’s teeth, a shark’s skin, a shark’s living environment, etc.

As I use the exercise, I give the group 2-3 categories drawn from the discussion guide at the bottom of this post. Usually I use at least one category (such as automobile) for which the various brands are well known by most consumers. Automobiles are generally helpful as a category because there is so much advertising done for them that most people have a pretty good idea of what the brand represents. At the very least, people have ideas about how different sorts of vehicles represent different functionality.

Is your team’s brand thinking in alignment?

Years back I conducted a forced relationship exercise with the management team of a young technology start-up. In the room was the company founder, a couple of the leading technologists in the firm, the sales director, the finance guy, and a few others. We began the discussion by asking the question, “If our company were an automobile, which would it be?” I gave them five minutes to consider the question, write down their answer and the reasoning behind their choice. Note that the reasoning is more important than the specific choice.

As we went around the room I wrote their answers on a big chart pad. I purposely left the founder last; I didn’t want his views to sway the answers of the others. The answers began to fill the pad: Buick, dependable but not exciting; Ford, affordable and reliable; Chrysler van, able to fit a lot of needs; Chevy Impala, affordable solution with a bit of excitement; you get the idea, the answers were pretty similar. And then we reached the company founder. He was a bit sheepish as he gave his answer: a red Ferrari, extreme high performance, exclusive and expensive.

That revelation sparked the next hour of our discussion, as we talked about the mismatch between his perception of where the company was headed compared to his leadership team. I can’t imagine developing a sensible and effective brand strategy before resolving fundamental disagreements about audience, product pricing, performance, etc.

The forced relationship exercise is just the first step in that discussion, but for this management team it was the beginning of a much-needed strategy alignment process. My advice to any marketing team, resolve these issues first, then figure out your brand.

Hints on conducting the exercise.

This exercise is most effective with a group of ten or less people. It generally takes about an hour to conduct; I try to plan enough time to avoid rushing through the answers and to provide plenty of discussion time. Remember that the specific answers are not that important, what you are looking for are the reasons why they have chosen that answer.

When I am conducting this exercise with a group I typically do 2-3 questions. More than that is not helpful and is too time consuming.

I gradually stopped using the question “If our company were an airline, which would it be?” I found that everyone wants to be Southwest Airlines, regardless of whether it actually matches their company’s strategy or approach. Good job Southwest.

Be careful on the automobile question. I always remind them that I’m not looking for their favorite car. Yes, you might love your BMW, but let’s focus on your company and its brand perspective.

The most effective categories for me have been automobiles, entertainers, and animals.

If you have tried a forced relationship exercise with your organization, please share the results with us!


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3 thoughts on “Forced Relationships, A Fun Brainstorm to Begin the Brand Process”

  1. Very nice, i like it, i would like to get some advice from you, me and my friends are planning to launch a company, we all are technical ppl, however the ppl we chose for our business team is lacking , they are non serious, so the core development (software) team decided that since i had a business degree in Information System i be in charge of naming the company, building the business side and the brand of the company. I would like some tips on how should i approach building a brand itself. Let me know any help will be appreciated!

    1. Thank you for commenting. Your question deserves a complete answer, but it is difficult to address simply in a blog comment. Some major points to consider:

      — Building a brand is not a separate activity from determining the company’s strategic direction, product mix, customer segments, pricing strategy, etc. In other words, decisions that your colleagues will make regarding technology issues, which go to the level of determining your product offerings and the nature of the customers you serve, will have direct impact on the brand.
      — In the ideal scenario you would access some outside assistance with name development, brand strategy development, etc. This does not have to be a huge expense, but I’ve seen many companies make decisions about naming a company (one activity you mentioned) that have to be revisited later because early decisions were not well thought out. Don’t name your company something that will not be flexible enough to adapt to changing product features or markets. Outside perspective can often help you see issues that are difficult to identify by insiders.
      — While I’m anxious to share tips with my readers I don’t want to leave the impression that it is easy to do without assistance. But, if you are looking for self-help tools, you might begin with The Pony Sheet, which I talk about here:
      — I’m more than willing to share more information along the way. Please feel free to communicate with me by e-mail. dwenger(at)

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