Example of How a Branding Brainstorm Works

Little did they know they had already discovered their organization’s future name.

When an organization, whether a small business, corporation, or nonprofit, determines that it needs to sharpen and strengthen its brand, one of the first things everyone wants to do is get together and have a branding brainstorm.

I’ve written in the past about an effective technique for starting that discussion called a forced relationship (or forced analogy) exercise. I’ve found this to be both a productive approach and an enjoyable ice-breaker for a group that might be working together for the first time on something about which they don’t feel naturally comfortable. It allows everyone to express their initial perceptions about the brand in an organized way that eliminates the stress of being “serious and consequential” right from the start.

How it works:

In early 2001, I was approached by a just-formed nonprofit operating under the name Austin Nonprofit Resource Network. Like many new organizations they had started with a name that quickly lost its edge as important decisions were made about the nature and direction of the initiative. They didn’t want to be tied solely to the Austin metropolitan area, so having Austin in the name wasn’t ideal. The rest of the name was reasonably descriptive, but frankly boring, and they knew it. No one wanted to become the lifeless ANRN (nonprofits often gravitate towards acronyms, an approach that drains the life out of their personality).

Step one, the photo analogy.

We gathered one morning in my conference room, Deborah Edward their energized and insightful new director, and several members of their startup board. I began the session by spreading a couple of dozen photos on the table in front of them. These were clipped from photography annuals and included many imaginative and evocative scenes. I told the group that each of them should pick one photo and use it to create their first advertisement for the organization.

These are their photo selections and the words they used to describe the connection between the image and their nonprofit group:

  • Aspirin: Handle things without a lot of pain and still get better.
  • Person kissing a frog: Any group can be loved, cared for.
  • “Go” signs and green street light: Non-profits have a green light to do the best they can do.
  • Figures climbing on a cow: Don’t be in this group [combined with]
  • Child floating in the air: Stand apart from the crowd
  • Withered, dry branches/storm in background: There is light beyond all this; if you reach to us, we can help
  • Quote: “Follow these arrows for perfect sight”: We give a clearer view.
  • Jack-a-lope: We help you look at things differently.
  • Circus animals in acrobatic act: Balancing act.
  • People in a maze: People struggling for direction, also diversity.
  • Big bang: We are the catalyst, place for people to connect, a source of light.
  • People walking on bridges: We help people improve organizational capacity, get them where they want to go.
  • Flowers: We help non-profits blossom, flourish.
  • Globe: “For you, the world.”

As we went around the room each person got a chance to describe their perception and vision for the organization, and they enjoyed the light-hearted approach. Little did they know they had already discovered their organization’s future name.

Step two: If our organization were a…

I next asked them to complete the forced relationship worksheet (idu-forced-relationship), in which they answered the question, “If our organization were a [fill in object or brand] which would it be?” We went around the room and I wrote their answers for the first few categories and allowed them to discuss the insights along the way. The rest of their answers were compiled after the branding brainstorm session.

Their forced relationship responses (answers with an asterisk are the group’s favorites):


  • Quantas: reliable, somewhat quirky, cute (koala)
  • *Southwest (Virgin fits, too): well-run/with attitude, can-do attitude; not boring; creative, fun, cutting-edge, irreverent but effective, local/regional, on-time, fun, accessible, affordable, flexible, safe
  • American: It’s the American way to take care of one another, American thing to do; Local and global connections, links to other places.
  • No airline (charter): create our own destiny.


  • Lexus: well-made, solid, luxurious, first-class
  • Volvo: safety, reputation, evolving
  • Chevy: we’re for everyone
  • Jeep: able to take the hard knocks
  • *Honda: practical, proven, credible, good value
  • Subaru: utility with good mileage

Soft Drink

  • Dr. Pepper: mixture of tastes, distinctive; Texans like it
  • Coke: the best, respected brand name
  • Sprite: refreshing, feel better when I’m sick, bubbly; bubbles and lightness to perk up non-profits.
  • * Lemonade: We turn sour into sweet.


  • Chameleon: many things to many people, slow and agile, good attention to the environment
  • Cheetah: fast, sleek, instinctive
  • Cat: soft to the touch
  • Lion: fight the battles


  • Blue: soothing, solid, pleasing
  • Red: dynamic
  • Yellow: bright, uplifting; shiny light, open
  • Jewel tones: rich, warm

Musical Number

  • *You’ll Never Walk Alone
  • Hooked on a Feeling
  • Happy Days Are Here Again: We solve problems.


  • Sean Connery: reassuring, daring, good-looking, reliable, dry wit
  • * Tom Hanks: likable, reliable, flexible, skilled; high-quality, some “sizzle,” approachable, not egocentric, readily recognized, comfortable
  • Mother Theresa: There’s hope here.
  • Barbara Jordan: wisdom and leadership, people feel part of her circle

Brand of Clothing

  • Levi’s: accessible, affordable, casual
  • *Garanimals: sturdy, colorful, last forever, fun to wear, affordable
  • Gap: We fill it.
  • Dockers: trendy and reliable

Television Program

  • *MSNBC/CNN/PBS News: open, unbiased, competent, solid
  • *Discovery Channel: adventurous, exploration
  • Frasier: enduring, sense of humor, great roles
  • ER: We take care of your emergencies.
  • McNeil/Leher News Hour: insightful information
  • Touched by an Angel: practical miracles
  • *Hollywood Squares: lots of options for money, see who’s involved

Famous Work of Art

  • Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (two hands reaching together): close, human contact, dynamic tension
  • Mona Lisa: smiling enigmatically; not about us—we’re just a calm strength for you
  • *Rodin, The Thinker: doing some of the tough work for non-profits
  • We help non-profits get the big picture.

I always explain to participants that the individual choices are not that important, what we are looking for are the reasons why they have made their selection. This relieves the pressure of someone feeling they made the wrong choice because it doesn’t fit with what others have said. Of course, it is important to watch for large-swing mismatches in how people are thinking of the organization. Such gaps may indicate the group isn’t clear on the strategic direction being taken. Those differences can then be clarified and resolved with guidance from the consultant.

Step three, the elevator statement.

Participants were next asked to imagine they were at a big civic event and found themselves in the elevator next to a person they would really like to influence. They had 10-15 seconds to explain the key benefit of their nonprofit. I asked them to develop elevator statements for several different types of people, as the message would vary by audience. They considered statements for a newspaper reporter, a corporate executive, a community leader, a teenage son or daughter, and a director of a nonprofit in town.

Their elevator statements for a director of a nonprofit:

  • A place for you to get immediate answers to your management questions, to connect with other non-profit organizations, and get access to the best information and tools that can help you grow.
  • Work with you and your staff.
  • The help you have been hungry for—confidential, affordable, and a fabulous chance to get help with those pesky non-profit issues (board, staff, money).
  • Your one-stop source for assessment, confidential consultation, and resource referral.
  • A highly accessible and affordable source of tailored training, consulting, best practices, and other practical information.
  • A place that non-profit organizations of all sizes, designs, and focuses can get confidential, comprehensive, and customized support, advice, and information.

Step four, their vision of success.

As a final exercise I asked them to think about a time two years in the future when they are “popping the cork” and inviting everyone to a gala to celebrate their success. What are they celebrating?

Their envisioned successes:

  • Austin-area non-profits receive national awards and credit us for their success.
  • Lots of members to attend. Awards are given. Wealthy all-star cast comes to us for stuff.
  • We were just endowed by the ____ Foundation, and we are moving into our new building. Our first five clients are here to give their testimonials with the people they’ve assisted. We are front-page on the city-state section of the Austin American-Statesman.
  • Gained a sustaining endowment to ensure excellence in personnel, programs, and services in perpetuity.
  • Worked with ___[#] of non-profits, who improved their servies to serve ___[#] more clients more effectively.
  • Wide usage and high satisfaction level of core programs and services by large, broad, and growing base of renewing members. Recognized and respected leader in the non-profit community. Well-attended, high-profile, highly innovative and creative events at least twice a year. Steady cash-flow and long-term resource base, and some media.
  • Nominated by the non-profit communities as “Organization of the Year” among philanthropic businesses.

As they look back now, eight years later, this group has the satisfaction of having achieved all of these dreams.

Oh yeah, and what about their name?

As mentioned earlier, the idea spark for their new name came directly from one of the phrases used during the first exercise, with the photo of the green traffic light. The phrase used to describe this photo was “Non-profits have a green light to do the best they can do.”

The Austin Nonprofit Resource Network (ANRN) became Greenlights for Nonprofit Success (no acronym required). Greenlights became a metaphor for showing the many pathways to success, opening doors and enabling progress. For more information on this dynamic resource for nonprofits, visit their website.

And good luck on your branding brainstorm. I would love to hear the results of your efforts using these techniques. Please share your comments.

Other Branding Resources:


5 thoughts on “Example of How a Branding Brainstorm Works”

  1. This is great! I’m the new Marketing and Outreach Manager at Greenlights and it’s wonderful to read some of the history behind the name and branding of the organization. I especially like the explanation of Greenlights as a metaphor for pathways to success, opening doors and enabling progress. I love that I now know the story behind the name and brand. Thanks for this great post.

  2. Haila, I’m glad you benefited from the story. I’ve always admired the work that your organization does, and have enjoyed your Crossroads Conference several times in the past.

    Working with that original founding board of Greenlights was a treat…an impressive group of community builders.

  3. Haila and Dave, meet one another! Dave is indeed one of the founding board members of Greenlights, and one of those who brainstormed our name. He is also the donor of the fun and funky primary-c0lored chairs we use in our library, that are oft-complemented! Dave, we’d love to have you over to the new office to ketchup on where we’ve been since last we talked. Great article, Skyler!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s