Start building your brand book with a visioning workshop

To be effective, each element of your brand’s ethos must be authentic. Your values must be aligned with your identity, your mission must match your purpose and your vision must be a moonshot that resonates with your team, your customers and, perhaps most importantly, with you as the founder.

A true ethos can’t be prescribed or copied. It must be extracted from the people building your company (sounds painful, I know). That’s where the visioning workshop comes in. A visioning workshop sequesters key players on your team in a room to dig deep into your collective motivations, inspirations and ambitions. It’s a collaborative, generative experience that surfaces the concepts that matter most to your brand and company.

Here’s how to do it:

Let the founder or CEO drive this process to signal the importance of the work. An outside facilitator could help you keep things on track, but the whole workshop can be DIY’d if budget is a concern.

Skipping ethos work is a costly mistake that produces a disjointed and rudderless brand, directly and negatively impacting the growth potential of the company.

You should select five to six stakeholders for the working team, ensuring a cross section of perspectives in the room. Most early-stage companies will find it practical to include department leads and members of the founding team. This team will do most of the heavy lifting and is responsible for bringing insights from their respective areas.

Then, gather the team (preferably off-site to limit distractions) for at least a four-hour session to participate in a series of exercises, both individually and as a group. Make liberal use of a whiteboard (take pictures of the board as you go) and encourage note-taking. You might even consider making an audio recording of the session to reference later.

These exercises should be generative in nature, and you’ll use the results to prompt discussions and identify patterns.

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Here are three of the most effective ones for early-stage companies:

Exercise #1: Is and will

Deceivingly difficult, this one is great to start with, as it tends to inspire productive conversation. Give each team member 10 minutes to complete the two sentences below. Responses should be short, ideally less than ten words total. Then share the responses and discuss as a group for 20-30 minutes.

“My company is…”

“My company will…”

The intent of this exercise is twofold: The first phrase helps derive your company’s mission, which is your team’s daily focus. The second phrase helps derive your company’s vision, which is your direction and purpose.

Exercise #2: Desired end state

There are no word restrictions for this exercise. Give each participant 10 minutes to develop their responses to the question below using the prompts provided. Then come together as a group to discuss for another 20-30 minutes.

What will the desired end state be when your company succeeds?

“A world with…” (Example: A world where every working woman feels confident in her clothes.)

“A world without…” (Example: A world without stigma for those needing mental health support.)

This exercise focuses on your company’s vision, helping to surface the ultimate impact you hope to have in the world. Comparing these responses to those from Exercise #1 should reveal some consistent themes.

Exercise #3: Attributes

This exercise is intended to derive the company’s values by assessing which attributes resonate with your team. I suggest you work in pairs, discussing each question as you go. Then, come together as a full group to share your answers and identify common values.

Think of the last time your company had a true win. Which attributes did you bring to the table that helped bring about that win? Now think of your last true loss. Which attributes were present then?

Think of the most competent, capable person you’ve ever worked with. What qualities do you admire about them? Now think of the least capable person. What qualities do they lack?

Think of a leader you admire. What qualities do you admire most about them? Now think of a leader you don’t admire. What traits do they lack?

Think of a brand you personally spend money on. What characteristics do you appreciate about that company? Now think of a brand you won’t spend money with. What characteristics are lacking?

This exercise helps surface actionable core values — the philosophies that guide employees’ interactions with customers, partners and the wider world. These attributes give you the means to pursue your mission and realize your vision.

After these exercises, you’ll likely see some consensus around certain aspects of the ethos. Identify any ideas, themes or pieces of language that resonate strongly with the group. Before you break, determine who the strongest (or most eager) writer is in the room. That person has homework.

Your designated writer is in charge of developing the first draft of your mission, vision and values. Use a shared document to solicit feedback from the working group and iterate until you get to a final version.

Once you have a final version, ask each member of the working group to consider whether they stand by this ethos and can commit to building a brand and company founded on these ideas. Once those commitments are made, you have an ethos.

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Putting an ethos into action

After the visioning workshop, you’ll be armed with a handful of small but mighty pieces of copy articulating your mission, vision and core values. Your next move is to put your new ethos into action right away.

First, formalize this important framework by adding it to your brand book. Your brand book is the governing document for those on your team charged with creating user- or public-facing products, support or content. These elements serve as guard rails as you define the other parts of your brand such as positioning and brand persona.

Next, roll the ethos out to the entire team to educate them and gain buy-in from all sectors. Do this during a dedicated companywide event — an all-hands, lunch and learn, or off-site. Again, this session should be helmed by the CEO or founder to signal the importance of this work, but you can also signal broader support by having each workshop participant contribute to the presentation.

In addition to serving as the foundation of your brand, there are many tactical ways to utilize your new ethos language throughout the company. It’s the natural intro to a company handbook for new employees, worthy anchor text for careers pages and job descriptions, and even a great framework for peer reviews and setting objectives. Finding highly visible real estate within your office to display the mission, vision and values is a great way to provide a constant reminder of your company’s operating philosophies.

Today’s most powerful brands are the ones that spent time in their early days reflecting on their mission, vision and values. Collectively known as a brand’s “ethos,” these crucial elements can be deftly leveraged to generate real connections with employees, customers and the broader public.

I’ve seen startups spend heaps of money on growth marketing, sales and PR before bothering to set this essential foundation. Skipping ethos work is a costly mistake that produces a disjointed and rudderless brand, directly and negatively impacting the growth potential of the company.