If there’s one thing that’s become clear from years of mentoring at 500 Startups, it’s that your story matters. A lot.
Your story and your brand are what users connect with. It’s the big, giant sign posted outside telling them “this is the place for you.” But maybe even more importantly, it’s your own North Star. Your story reminds you of your mission as a company. It gives you clarity, confidence, and creativity. It’s what compels you to wake up every morning excited to forge ahead.
So why do so many companies still muddy up their story? Or worse, stick to some sort of corporate speak and bland branding because they think that’s what their customers want to hear?
With competition heating up in pretty much every industry, niche, and market, your brand is now one of the most important tools you have for success. In fact, a recent study found that 94% of consumers say they’re likely to be loyal to a brand that’s transparent and authentic.
A brand isn’t just a logo, some common colors, and a tagline. It’s how you represent your values to your users. And it’s only getting more and more important. So what do you do if you feel like your brand is “blah?”
Whether you’re starting from scratch, or looking to do a major overhaul of your brand, a brand sprint is a fantastic way to develop a clear, concise, and compelling brand position and story that will bring your team together, define your unique value, and even increase your conversions. Best of all, with the right resources it only takes 3 hours.
Need help getting your brand off the ground? Going through a re-org and defining your team identity? Sprintwell helps companies like Springs Global, Capital Group, 1Huddle, and Scopio hone their core message and build exciting brands. Find out more about our unique brand sprint methods and how we can help you.
What is a brand sprint? And why should you do one?
A brand sprint is a streamlined process for turning the hundreds or thousands of abstract ideas you have about “your brand” into something more concrete.
By working through a framework of several exercises, you’ll end up with a shared vision and language that lets you make confident choices around how your brand looks, sounds, and acts with users.
Now, before we go any further, it’s important to be clear that a brand sprint is not your brand assets.
In other words, you’re not going to come out of a 3-hour sprint with a brand new logo, slogan, and marketing copy. (You should run far, far away from anyone who promises you that!) What you will have at the end of the session is a clear and concise document that outlines your brand story and how you talk to your users. It’s a foundation that sparks direction for your brand assets and storytelling.
This might not sound like much, but it’s an incredibly powerful tool to have.
That story is what users connect with. It’s the unifying quality between everything you put out, from your logo to your tagline to your content to even the way you talk about your company.
As Ben Horowitz, co-founder of one of the world’s most successful VC firms, Andreessen Horowitz, explains:
“The company story is the company strategy.”
A brand sprint isn’t a replacement for the hard, ongoing work of creating your brand assets and telling your story. But the work you put into creating this “brand cheat sheet” will make that work so much easier.
A step-by-step guide to running a successful 3-hour brand sprint
As the name implies, a brand sprint is an intense exercise. In just 180 minutes you’ll work through seven different 15-20 minute exercises that will take you from “who are we?” to “this is our story.”
This probably sounds a little crazy. But the time constraints are actually the brand sprint’s secret sauce. Rather than spending too long getting caught in the weeds, the sprint’s fast timeline forces you to make decisions quickly and get decisive about what you stand for. Here’s a handy phrase to keep in mind: Clarity through constraints.
So if you’re ready, here’s everything you need to do in order to prepare for, run, and find success in a brand sprint:
Before you start: Get prepared (and make sure you’re actually ready)
Just like the outcome of a design sprint is often determined by the prep work you do, a brand sprint needs a bit of up-front legwork to be worth your time. Before you block out a conference room and send 3-hour meeting invites to your senior team, you need to answer some key questions:
- Is it the right time to run a brand sprint? As former GV Partner Jake Knapp explains: “Don’t run a Brand Sprint unless you really have to.” If the results aren’t going to be used right away, the sprint can be a waste of time. Instead, wait for a good “Trigger event” like needing to name (or re-name) your company, redesigning your logo, going through a team re-org, or hiring an outside agency.
- Is everyone available for 3 hours? The brand sprint will take a full 3 hours and needs to happen all in one sitting (you should take a break in the middle. But don’t break the exercise up over multiple days). You’ll also need a full commitment from the 2-6 participants, including your CEO and one or more other senior teammate such as a co-founder, head of marketing, and head of product or design. You’ll also need a Decider (the final brand decision maker. Usually the CEO). And a good Sprint facilitator (like Sprintwell!) to tease out your essential mission and keep things moving quickly.
- Does everyone know the ground rules? There are only 2 rules you need to follow to make sure the brand sprint goes well: No devices (except during a brief break in the middle). And stick to the time limits for each exercise.
- Have you done your homework? The sprint will go by quickly. And it can be a good idea to share the exercises with people beforehand to get them thinking. This is optional, but recommended if you want to keep on schedule.
If it’s the right time to do a sprint and you’ve got buy-in from everyone you need to, it’s time to move into the specific brand sprint exercises.
Part 1: Your Mission
Think about some of the world’s most popular brands: Coca-Cola, Apple, Nike. These brands haven’t changed much in decades. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have to. Their brands are timeless and trustworthy.
It might seem like a lofty goal to become the Apple of your industry. But it’s important to take the long-view when it comes to your brand. The first few exercises you’ll go through as a group will start purposefully high-level, digging into your “why” and looking way down the road to when you’re a household name.
Exercise 1: Sketch out your 20-year roadmap
Time Limit: 15 mins
A brand isn’t just about what you’re doing now. But what you’re going to be doing in the future. Nothing dates your company more quickly than focusing on some buzzword or trendy design. To break out of this thinking, take a step back and think about where you’re going to be in the far-off and unknown future.
Start by drawing a timeline on your whiteboard with a few key dates: 5, 10, 15, and 20 years into the future.
Now, start to think about what you might be doing at each of those dates. The point here isn’t to map out a 20-year roadmap. But to start thinking big about what your brand means and how it will evolve and develop over the next few decades.
To make this run smoothly, you’ll be using a technique the team at GV calls Note-and-Vote, which allows you to get input from everyone (not just the loudest person in the room). Here’s how it works:
(Pro tip: We’ll be using Note-and-Vote throughout the brand sprint so pay attention to its basic principles.)
- Each person individually writes down their predictions for each date
- As a group, take turns reading out your answers while the Facilitator writes them on the whiteboard (there’s no discussion yet. Just get your ideas out there.)
- Silently, each person looks at the list and writes down their favorite options
- As a group again, take turns reading our your votes as the Facilitator marks them down
- Discussion time! Take just 5 minutes to discuss/argue/debate the choices (this is a hard 5 minute max. Use a timer and don’t go over.)
- The Decider chooses their favorite items for each date
Once you’ve gotten to the end, take a photo of the whiteboard and add it to a new slide deck. This is your simple brand guide.
Exercise 2: Break down your What, How, and Why?
Time Limit: 20 mins
Remember that crazy stat I mentioned earlier about how customers are more loyal to brands who are transparent and authentic?
Well before you can be transparent and authentic, you need to know why you’re in business in the first place. This is your motivation. Your mission. The reason you do the things you do and talk to your customers the way you do.
Look at companies like Patagonia with their unflinching commitment to environmentalism. Or Buffer with their radical transparency (even their salaries are posted online). These decisions weren’t made haphazardly. They stemmed directly from the company’s why.
To define your why quickly, we’re going to take 30 minutes and use author Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle exercise. Here’s how it works:
- On your whiteboard, draw three concentric circles:
- The outside circle is What: A phrase or sentence that describes your primary business. For example, “build websites” or “consult early-stage startups.”
- The middle circle is How: An explanation of the process or tools you use that set you apart from the competition. For example, “bespoke design” or “24/7 customer access.”
- The inner circle is Why: The core reason your company exists to do the things you do. For example, “make the internet more beautiful” or “support the next generation of business leaders.”
- Now, use the same Note-and-Vote system as before to fill out each circle. Remember to start by silently and individually writing down your ideas, before coming together to share, vote, and discuss.
- Once you’ve put your answers in the circles, the Decider again makes the final call
It’s hard to express just how powerful this exercise is. Back when I worked with the team at Scopio during their time at 500 Startups, they were struggling to tell a consistent story in their sales meetings, website copywriting, and overall brand positioning. However, we pushed through. We dove deep into their original mission and teased out their why and turned it into a clear story they could tell.
Two weeks later, they closed their biggest deal ever. And in record time. The difference, as they told me, was that they “were all finally telling the same story with conviction.”
Once you’ve finished this exercise, again, take a photo of the whiteboard and add it to your slide deck. This is your “Brand Mission.”
Exercise 3: The 3×3 Walkthrough
Time Limit: 20 mins
Now we’re getting somewhere! At this point, I like to push hard on the why and start to connect it to your product and the message you tell your users. The best way I’ve found to do this is with a 3×3 Walkthrough—a simple illustration that explains your product, why it’s unique, and your value to users. Think of it as the first experience someone has with your product. If they don’t get it (and you) right away, they’re going to get frustrated and probably leave.
Here’s the process as described by designer Tom Cavill:
Start by drawing three boxes on a whiteboard, each with three lines underneath.
Now, sketch a simple illustration in each box and then write three words on the lines underneath:
- What: What does your product do?
- Why: What’s the benefit to the customer?
- How: What’s your differentiator?
You’re in a good place to do this based on all the work you’ve just done so far. But it still won’t be easy to distill these down into such short statements. As Tom explains:
“Make no mistake: It’s hard. But that’s the point. By constraining yourself to an extreme level, you’re forced to boil down your product to its bare fundamentals. Your use of language has to change. Do away with determiners and adjectives and concentrate on verbs and nouns, whilst avoiding lists and maintaining a semblance of a sentence for each panel.”
Once you have your core statements completed, it’s time to elaborate on each one.
Go through each illustration and 3-word combination and soften the language for a user. Keep it short and succinct. Remember, you’re using this as the first time someone experiences your product and your brand.
At the end, you should have a very simple “this is us” walkthrough for anyone unfamiliar with your brand. Take a photo and add this to your slide deck. This is your “Core messaging.”
Part 2: Your Value
Behind every great brand are company values. Yes, I know this sounds like some motivational poster BS, but the truth is that we all know when a brand lives and dies by their values.
Think Apple’s relentless dedication to design. Or BMW’s commitment to quality. When your company’s most important values are clear, it doesn’t just inform your branding, but your product as well. Your values become your “decision-making principles,” or guiding principles as we call them at Sprintwell.
At this point in the brand sprint, we’re going to move away from the higher-level mission conversation and start to connect with more practical guiding principles.
Exercise 4: Define and rank your top 3 guiding principles
Time Limit: 20 mins
Company values can feel a lot like like dating advice. The more you have of them, the less meaningful they become.
That’s why we prefer to focus on guiding principles. When times are tough (or great) in your business, can you look back at your guiding principles and say you’re operating in alignment with them?
Examples, you ask? Think Facebook’s “fail fast and break stuff.” LinkedIn’s “Dream Big. Get Stuff Done. Have Fun.” And one of our guiding principles at Sprintwell is “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
While it’s great to list out tons of values you connect with—honesty, luxury, data-driven, simple, trusted, reliable, etc…—at a certain point you need to get serious and think what your number one, most-important guiding principle is.
This is your North Star. It’s who you are and what sets you apart from the competition. But it’s rarely easy to figure out which guiding principle truly deserves the top spot.
So, what do we do? Note-and-Vote!
- Each person individually writes down their list of company guiding principles. Go crazy. List as many as you’d like.
- As a group, take turns reading out your guiding principles while the Facilitator writes them on the whiteboard. (Again, no discussion at this point. Just get them out there.)
- Silently, each person takes a few minutes to look at the list and pick their top 3 guiding principles.
- As a group again, take turns reading out your top guiding principles as the Facilitator marks them down.
- Discussion time! Take just 5 minutes to discuss/argue/debate the choices (Remember, this is a hard 5 minute max.)
- The Decider takes a few minutes to pick the top 3, and then, most importantly, the top guiding principles.
This isn’t an easy decision, so make sure to give your Decider time to make their choice. At the end, take a photo of the board (making sure to highlight your top choices!) and add it to the slide deck. These are your “Brand Guiding Principles.”
Exercise 5: Define and rank your top 3 audiences
Time Limit: 30 mins
Just like you need to prioritize your values, you need to prioritize who you’re talking to. As the old saying goes: If you’re selling to everyone, you’re selling to no one.
So ask yourself, whose opinion do you care about? Who are your customers? Your potential partners or clients? What about the press or advertisers or new hires? All of these people could be your main audiences.
Again, we’re going to use the Note-and-Vote system to pick our top choices.
- Each person individually writes down their list of potential audiences. Again, go crazy.
- As a group, take turns reading out your audiences while the Facilitator writes them down on the whiteboard (no discussion!)
- Silently, each person takes a few moments to read the list and write down the two audiences they think are most important.
- As a group again, take turns reading out your choices as the Facilitator marks them down.
- Discussion time!
- The Decider makes the final call, writing down their choices for the top 3 audiences (in order of importance).
One thing that can be confusing during this exercise is whether to write down broad categories (like “marketers”) or segments (like “SEO specialists”). The truth is that it comes down to your company and who is most important to you.
At the end of the exercise, take a photo of the whiteboard and add it to the deck. This is your “Brand audience.”
Part 3: Your Landscape
It’s a huge mistake to think of your brand in a vacuum. How you talk to your audience will often be in reaction to other companies in the space. And you need to have a clear understanding of how you stack up against the people and organizations already out there.
At this point in the sprint, we’re going to move away from just your company, your mission, and your story, and look at how it relates to what’s currently out there.
Exercise 6: Personality Sliders
Time Limit: 30 mins
How you fit into the competitive landscape starts with having an opinion. In this classic branding exercise, you write down two “brand extremes” and then decide where your brand sits along a scale between them.
In GV’s original brand sprint guide they used spectrum ranges of:
- “Friend” to “Authority”
- “Young & Innovative” to “Mature & Classic”
- “Playful” to “Serious”
- “Mass Appeal” to “Elite”
These are great starting points. But they might not make sense given your specific market.
This is where doing your homework is so important. If anyone has serious objections to the extremes you’re looking at, bring them up now before the exercise starts.
When you’re ready, we’re going to use a modified Note-and-Vote system to share our opinions about the brand positioning. Here’s how:
- Draw a diagram on the whiteboard with a line between each of your extremes
- Give everyone a printout of the diagram
- Silently, each person takes a few minutes to mark on their own diagram where they think the brand sits.
- As a group, each person takes turns going up to the board and marking their choices (make sure to initial them so you can tell who said what)
- Discussion time! Go through and talk about any major disagreements (i.e. did someone mark you as mostly “playful” while everyone else said “serious”?) Keep this to just 5 minutes.
- The Decider makes the final call and plots the choices.
Take a photo and add this to your slide deck. This is your “Brand Positioning.”
Exercise 7: Plot competitors and your company on a Competitive Landscape Quadrant
Time Limit: 30 mins
Now that you have an understanding of who you are, it’s time to see where that positioning fits against the competition. To do this, we’re going to go old-school and use a 2×2 matrix to plot out all the companies in your space.
- Draw a 2×2 matrix on your whiteboard with “Classic” to “Modern” on the x-axis and “Expressive” to “Reserved” on the y-axis.
- Each person individually takes time to write down a list of all other companies in the space.
- Silently, each person takes a minute to pick the one or two most important ones on their list.
- As a group, take turns reading out your choices. The Facilitator writes them down on sticky notes.
- Using one sticky note at a time, briefly discuss where they should go on the matrix. Repeat for each.
- Once they’re all up, the Decider makes any final adjustments to the positioning.
- As a group, plot your own company on the matrix.
Once you place yourself, look back at all the other exercises you’ve just gone through. Does this placement make sense based on the work you’ve just done? Once you’re happy, take a photo and add this to your slide deck. This is your “Competitive Landscape.”
Congrats! You just finished your first brand sprint.
We’ve got all these great resources. Now what?
Like all sprint activities, you don’t want to end the day with a high-five and then toss the results into a drawer never to be seen again.
When you finish your brand sprint, return to the trigger that set it off in the first place. How can you use what you’ve learned to answer that question or solve that problem?
Go through each of the photos and make sure they’re in a format and place that’s accessible to everyone at the company. This is you. And the more people who tell the same story and connect with the brand, the better you’ll be able to sell yourself and create authentic, transparent, and awesome experiences.
In pretty much every case, we don’t love a product. We love a brand. There’s a reason people forgive their smartphone maker of choice when they ship a product with an annoying feature or two. Or don’t instantly switch to a competitor when a bug gets missed during the release of their favorite software.
Brands build trust. They tell your story. They connect with customers and give you the benefit of the doubt that even when you make a mistake, you’re going to do everything you can to fix it.
With a brand sprint, you get to clarify your messaging not just for users, but for everyone on your team. It’s a guiding light both for the people buying your product and the ones making it.
It’s one of the most powerful ways I’ve spent three consecutive hours on Sprintwell and the business leaders I’ve mentored over the years.
Need help getting your brand off the ground? Going through a re-org and defining your team identity? Sprintwell helps companies like Springs Global, 1Huddle, Capital Group, and Scopio hone their core message and build exciting brands. Find out more about our unique brand sprint methods and how we can help you.
CEO & Co-founder, Sprintwell
After 20 years designing for Google, LinkedIn, and global startups, I burned out. I believe there’s a better way to work. At Sprintwell, we’re on a mission to help innovators like you build your business without burning out – and work with joy while you’re at it.