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Process Beats Talent: A Case Study on Divergent Thinking, Company Culture, and Branding

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  • Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn are co-founders of Historic Agency, a brand strategy, innovation, and design shop. They’re also authors of Culture Built My Brand: The Secret to Winning More Customers Through Company Culture.

Brainstorming session

Few teams have a genius sitting in on their brainstorming sessions. You know the type of person we’re talking about: the brilliant thinker who outshines the rest of the team in innovating product solutions and generating inspired ideas that win repeat contracts.

The good news is you don’t need a rockstar on your team to design incredible solutions and products.

What you need is a culture that rewards innovation and a process that inspires divergent thinking.

A Process That Consistently Yields Brilliant Results

Divergent thinking is a pathway for innovation. It forces teams to think differently about a project—whether they’re designing a new product, identifying solutions, or coming up with a new name for a rebrand. Divergent thinking pushes teams outside of their lanes and into different mediums to find inspiration for products and solutions.

It’s also a reproducible process. And the process beats out talent every time. 

At our agency, we discovered a scalable, reproducible process that inspires creative thinking and has become our sure-fire method to yield more innovative results. Our team doesn’t have to wait for inspiration to strike. Instead, our process fast-tracks brainstorming by generating the inspiration they need to come up with brilliant ideas and better solutions.

No need to keep waiting for a unicorn team member who’ll come up with the most inspired ideas. A divergent-thinking process can create the inspiration and innovation your team needs to produce better outcomes faster––and this process starts with one thing you might not expect.

Why Process Should Begin With Culture

As soon as they announced their merger, the leaders of CORHIO and Current Health—two leading organizations in the health information exchange industry—hired a marketing firm to work on their rebrand and renaming process.

But the agency’s work resulted in a name and identity that CORHIO and Current Health felt didn’t represent the organization.

With time running out, they reached out to our agency as a last-ditch effort.

Instead of going straight into digging up spiffy new names, we dove into their organizational culture. If we didn’t build on culture, we knew our work would be wasted. We’d end up offering a one-sided rebranding solution (one that could be slapped onto any other organization in the same vertical) instead of a name and identity that uniquely aligned with the brand and set it up for sustained success.

Phase 1: Crafting an Aligned Culture

The challenge was, CORHIO and Current Health didn’t have an internal organizational culture. They had two separate cultures that needed to merge together—or be completely reconstructed. 

Picture a newly blended family, with members on both sides wondering, “Are we going to move into their house? Or are they moving into ours? Do we have to learn a new set of household rules? Or do they have to learn ours?”

This is something product people encounter often––mergers and acquisitions suddenly force two teams together and often mean brands, products and services also need to merge. If the team leading this effort isn’t brought into the vision and guided by a set of principles, it can lead to serious performance complications down the road. 

With this in mind, we knew we’d need to start with the culture-building process––crafting a shared culture that both sides could buy into and that would align with the brand to drive it forward. 

We start this phase by leading them through a process that helped them shape and define a new mission, audience and purpose that everyone agreed on. Through in-depth workshops, we helped the team operationalize their values into clear, behavior-based statements that inform their employees’ daily actions and decisions.

Our framework for this process is built on the five pillars of brand.

The 5 Pillars of Brand

We believe brand is best understood as the sum of five parts:

  • Culture: who you are—the convictions, values, and behaviors defining your brand
  • Story: what you say—the brand and marketing narrative communicating who you are to your audience
  • Service: what you do—simply put, the product you sell or the service you provide
  • Experience: how you feel—the physical or digital touchpoints of your brand
  • Identity: how you look—the visual and aesthetic qualities of your brand that your audience sees first

While identity tends to be the pillar most people associate with brand, the pillar of culture is what most determines and sustains success. 

Culture cascades into everything a brand does. Like glue binding the brand together, it frames the other pillars into alignment and stabilizes them into a single entity that makes an authentic promise and consistently delivers on it.

Doing this culture work first allowed us to see rebranding options we may not have otherwise seen. It moved us beyond one-dimensional thinking and out of CORHIO and Current Health’s vertical so we could approach the problem from other points of view.

With the first phase of internal alignment done, now we could tap into their culture to find the solutions to their rebrand.

Phase 2: A Naming Process That Wins Every Time

Three, two, one, go! For two minutes, our team huddled over brightly colored stacks of sticky notes, furiously scribbling down whatever nouns came to mind—any nouns, whether or not they related to CORHIO and Current Health.

At the end of two minutes, we posted our notes on the whiteboard. Then we went for another two-minute round, this time with verbs. In the following few rounds, we wrote down emotions, places, and animals––yes, animals. 

The point of these rounds of exercises wasn’t to come up with words that we’d actually try to use for a name. The purpose was to push ourselves out of our normal lanes in pursuit of completely different perspectives and concepts.

The next step in this divergent-thinking process was to look for patterns and group all our notes into the categories that appeared, such as care, movement, weaving, and clarity. With these groupings, we started brainstorming actual names, drawing inspiration from the sticky notes or whatever trains of thought the divergent-thinking exercise had opened up.

By the end of the session, we had identified two solid names. We mocked up two sets of logos, crafted accompanying narratives, and presented them to CORHIO/Current Health. Their team instantly fell in love with one of the naming options.

Then their legal department rejected it. It was too similar to another healthcare organization’s name. That’s when we realized just how challenging it was going to be to come up with a new name in healthcare, one of the largest industries in the U.S. Nearly every name imaginable is already taken. (Think we’re wrong? Try coming up with a good name for a healthcare company and Google it to see if it already exists.)

So, we went back to our divergent-thinking naming process. After several more naming sessions, we developed an original name in the health industry: Contexture. We crafted a clear narrative and visual identity that reflected the brand and aligned with the culture. The CORHIO/Current Health team loved it, and it sailed smoothly through the legal review.

The Twin Tactics of Culture and Divergent Thinking

This divergent-thinking naming process has been successful with every one of our clients. It wins out every time against the work of other agencies because it’s detailed, thorough, and gets to the heart of a brand’s culture.

Imagine your team needs to create an emotional connection within an app’s user experience. You can use divergent thinking to get your team out of your normal lane and draw on other mediums to find solutions and inspiration. Have your team address the problem as if they were designing a greeting card, a first-class in-flight menu, or a landing page for a diaper service. 

Divergent-thinking processes help teams approach problems from completely different angles, helping them land on solutions they might have otherwise missed. Process beats out talent every time.

Some people might wonder if divergent-thinking processes are risky. Could they lead a team off-brand? Sure. They might. But that’s where culture comes in. 

When aligned to reflect the brand, culture acts like a guardrail keeping creative teams on target. An aligned culture ensures that teams have the freedom to innovate and attack problems from different angles while staying on-brand and contributing to the larger brand narrative.

If you can tap into the twin tactics of culture and divergent thinking, you’ll be able to deliver on a promise that none of your competitors can match.

Author

  • Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn are co-founders of Historic Agency, a brand strategy, innovation, and design shop. They’re also authors of Culture Built My Brand: The Secret to Winning More Customers Through Company Culture.

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