How to avoid Brandy McBrandface issues when running projects openly

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How to choose a brand name for your open source project

One of the most common questions I get from people interested in taking a more open, collaborative approach to building their brand and culture is "Where should we start?"

In our work at New Kind, we often help technology companies open up their brand and culture by including employees, customers, and community members on the journey (In fact, our company purpose reads "We bring people together to share in the adventure of creating the future").

There are three particular adventures we have found are great starting points for proving the power of an open, collaborative approach.

  1. Defining or redefining mission and values
  2. Articulating a brand story and positioning
  3. Developing a visual identity

Over the coming weeks, I'll share a series of posts in which we'll explore each of these projects in detail. We'll use examples from our own brand-building work and projects we've seen others run to illustrate how to effectively open up the brand-building process (and highlight common problem areas to avoid as well).

But before we dive into these projects, I thought it would help to share some important basic principles to think through before you open up a brand or culture-related project in your company.

How open is open?

The first decision to make when evaluating an open approach is: "Exactly how open and collaborative do we want to be?"

In some organizations, inviting all of the employees into the process of developing the company mission and values might be a stretch, especially if the company has traditionally made all decisions from the top.

But for other organizations—especially those already operating with an open source ethos—it might seem perfectly natural to expand the conversation beyond employees to include customers, partners, or other community members.

The key is picking a degree of openness that seems natural for where your company is right now. If you've never involved all of your company employees in making a decision before, certainly don't jump right to a project that solicits input from customers, partners, and community members as well. But if you already regularly involve employees in making decisions, you might consider opening the aperture wider and getting feedback from outside the company walls as well.

Each project you have under your belt will teach you new lessons, both about your own style and your organization's ability to work in an open and collaborative way. As you learn these lessons, you'll gain the confidence to open up your process even more.

More open = more time, more complexity (but better buy-in)

Typically the more people you involve, the more complex the project becomes and the more time it takes to complete. You might immediately read this and think, "Well, we need to get this project completed quickly, so I'll keep the group small."

It's not quite that simple. The key to opening up brand and culture projects is to remember that the end goal is typically to have a successful rollout of the organization's mission and values, or brand story, or visual identity—not just to finish the project.

How many times have you seen corporate values that are just posters on the walls outside the restrooms, roundly ignored by every employee? Or a company mission that no one can recite from memory? Or a brand story no one tells?

When people aren't involved in a process, they are often apathetic (or antagonistic, even!) to the final result.

Conversely, in our experience, the effort to include more people in the process often pays off. As we say here at New Kind, "If you invite people along on the journey, they are more likely to embrace the destination."

Think carefully about how much time and budget you have for the project, definitely. But also consider who can help you ensure the final product is embraced internally as you are making decisions about who to include.

When in doubt, go a bit wider and more inclusive. You may cost yourself some time up front. But the investment will likely pay off when those people help ensure the project's success in part because you invited them to participate in the process.

Establish meritocracy, not democracy

Probably the biggest mistake we see organizations make when setting up open, collaborative projects (and one of the biggest reasons executives give for not employing more open practices) is that they mistakenly assume that an open project has to be managed as a democracy.

Basically, the project is set up something like this: "We want to get your input on issue X. We have three choices: A, B, or C. Let us know which you think is the best choice."

And then all of the executives cower in the corner thinking:

"Please don't pick option C, please don't pick option C."

"Oh crap . . . they picked option C."

This misuse of democracy in collaborative projects has a rich and hilarious history. My favorite current example involves the British Natural Environment Research Council's competition to name its newest research vessel.

Over 200 million votes were cast, and at the end of the day, the name the public wanted for this esteemed vessel, thanks to the power of democracy: BoatyMcBoatface.

When the dust settled, the NERC decided to nix BoatyMcBoatface and name the ship the Sir Richard Attenborough instead, against the wishes of the masses. Then NERC threw voters a bone by saying that it would name a small yellow submersible robot the ship would carry on board BoatyMcBoatface instead (aside: wouldn't a more appropriate name for this vessel be SubbyMcSubface? Do we need a re-vote?).

It doesn't have to be this way, and the answer is found in how you set up the project from the start.

Rather than having people vote on a final product ("Do you like visual identity A, B, or C?"), involve them up front, ask them to weigh in at the beginning of the project. Ask them questions about what they see today, what they care about for the future. Have them share examples of what they think success looks like, examples we should try to emulate or use as inspiration.

Make it clear that their role is to provide inspiration and input, not to make the final decision.

Then set up the meritocracy. Choose a group of people with deep experience and knowledge in the subject area to synthesize the input you receive and help tease out the best ideas and bring them to the surface. People with appropriate experience and context should make the final decision and ensure a great direction in the end.

But be sure to credit those original sources for inspiration and ideas along the way. When people see that their own thoughts are reflected in the final product, they are more likely to embrace it.

Getting to work: Designing an open project

In my next few posts, we'll begin to dive more deeply into how to set up projects to design an organization's mission and values, articulate positioning and a brand story, and develop a visual identity using an open, collaborative process.

Along the way, I'll also share some additional principles that will help you ensure your adventure in opening up your company brand and culture is a success.

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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)

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