Forced relationships, a fun brainstorm to begin the brand process


Is your company a Ford or a Ferrari? You might be surprised that your managers and employees aren’t on the same brand wagon.

This is an enjoyable way to begin the brand discussion with a group, using a forced relationship exercise. It generally creates good discussion and gets participants out of their normal frames of thought. The exercise is basically a technique of forcing yourself to think of your organization’s brand in terms of another product or industry. “If our company were an auto manufacturer, which would it be?” Since we often understand other companies’ brands better than our own, it is a means to start fresh in our thinking. I usually pick three from the list posted at the end of this article and spend about an hour on the discussion.

This technique, in various forms, is also known as a forced analogy, “How is my problem like a (insert random object).”

One approach in a forced analogy is to compare a problem or an organization to the various aspects of something else that is familiar to the participants. How is this similar to a shark’s teeth, a shark’s skin, a shark’s living environment, etc?

As I use the exercise, I give the group 2-3 categories drawn from the discussion guide at the bottom of this post. Usually, I use at least one category (such as an automobile) for which the various brands are well known by most consumers. Automobiles are generally helpful as a category because there is so much advertising done for them that most people have a pretty good idea of what the brand represents. At the very least, people have ideas about how different sorts of vehicles represent different functionality.

Is your team’s brand thinking in alignment?

Years back I conducted a forced relationship exercise with the management team of a young technology start-up. In the room was the company founder, a couple of the leading technologists in the firm, the sales director, the finance guy, and a few others. We began the discussion by asking the question, “If our company were an automobile, which would it be?” I gave them five minutes to consider the question, write down their answer and the reasoning behind their choice. Note that the reasoning is more important than the specific choice.

As we went around the room I wrote their answers on a big chart pad. I purposely left the founder last; I didn’t want his views to sway the answers of the others. The answers began to fill the pad: Buick, dependable but not exciting; Ford, affordable and reliable; Chrysler van, able to fit a lot of needs; Chevy Impala, affordable solution with a bit of excitement; you get the idea, the answers were pretty similar.

And then we reached the company founder. He was a bit sheepish as he gave his answer: a red Ferrari, extreme high performance, exclusive and expensive.

That revelation sparked the next hour of our discussion, as we talked about the mismatch between his perception of where the company was headed compared to his leadership team. I can’t imagine developing a sensible and effective brand strategy before resolving fundamental disagreements about the audience, product pricing, performance, etc.

The forced relationship exercise is just the first step in that discussion, but for this management team, it was the beginning of a much-needed strategy alignment process. My advice to any marketing team, resolve these issues first, then figure out your brand.

Hints on conducting the exercise.

This exercise is most effective with a group of ten or fewer people. It generally takes about an hour to conduct; I try to plan enough time to avoid rushing through the answers and to provide plenty of discussion time. Remember that the specific answers are not that important, what you are looking for are the reasons why they have chosen that answer.

When I am conducting this exercise with a group I typically do 2-3 questions. More than that is not helpful and is too time-consuming.

I gradually stopped using the question “If our company were an airline, which would it be?” I found that everyone wants to be Southwest Airlines, regardless of whether it actually matches their company’s strategy or approach. Good job Southwest.

Be careful about the automobile question. I always remind them that I’m not looking for their favorite car. Yes, you might love your BMW, but let’s focus on your company and its brand perspective.

The most effective categories for me have been automobiles, entertainers, and animals.

If you have tried a forced relationship exercise with your organization, please share the results with me.

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