Improv and Branding: A Recipe for Wildly Captivating Ideas
Every once in a while, a new brand comes on the scene that is so captivating that you can’t help falling in love. Even more rarely, an old, formerly unsexy brand comes out with a fresh message or story that makes you fall in love again.
Two brands that stand out for me recently are Edgar, and Always.
Edgar is a relatively new social media application that introduced a time-saving and effort-conserving concept that quickly became the darling of every organization that uses it. But what really makes Edgar special is Edgar’s unique, funny, interactive voice that hooks users and turns them into loyal fans. “Edgar” isn’t just an application—he’s an adorable little octopus whose personal emails to users are a fun read, and who responds to love letters with energy, wit, and occasional distributions of fun swag.
Unlike Edgar, Always is not a new brand, and they’ve never sent me free swag (hello? Waiting on my t-shirt, folks?). A manufacturer of feminine hygiene products, the company has been around since the time that I became a member of its primary demographic. Even when new, it was never exactly a producer of the sexiest products on the market.
Yet, in the past two years, Always has managed to overcome its stodgy, utilitarian image to capture the imaginations of girls—and their moms—everywhere. By allying itself with a movement to empower young women, and creating compelling messages that re-envision old themes (#likeagirl, for instance), Always has become a force to be reckoned with.
While there’s a certain amount of timing and a smidgen of luck that goes into creating a captivating brand, it doesn’t happen by accident. To truly break out, a brand must hit something essential in the hearts of its intended audience. At the core of such a break-through brand are break-through ideas, and break-through ideas come from break-through creative thinking.
Many people think that break-through creative thinking is outside their realm. An activity best left to professionals. The truth is, the creative brain does need training just like any other capability, but anyone can do it. We’ve run creativity sessions with engineers, logistics professionals, CEOs, operations managers, and technology professionals. We’ve seen it first-hand: Each individual has amazing knowledge and insight locked up in their brains, just waiting to be unleashed.
To unleash your team’s creative branding brains, schedule a good, long creative session (two hours minimum, four hours is preferable), and apply the principles and methods we use in leading our client creative sessions.
Step One: Beyond Yes, And
The first place we turn for creativity is an art form called improvisational theater, or just “improv.” Improv is the art of creating collaborative (often hilarious) stories on the spot, without rehearsal, for an audience. “Whose Line Is It Anyway” with Drew Carey is the most famous example. Second City in Chicago is a the best-known live improv venue, where many of today’s best-known comedians got their start (Amy Poehler, Tina Fey).
Improv’s fundamental rule (“yes, and”) was popularized for business by Tina Fey, and is also a powerful concept for unlocking creativity. Let’s take a look at it in action.
When you “yes, and” someone in an improv scene, you accept whatever they have given you—an invisible object, a quality you supposedly possess, an idea, a line of dialog—and you respond to it exactly as it is, without attempting to deny it (that’s the “yes”), plus you add your own layer to it (that’s the “and”).
A typical “yes, and” scenario goes like this:
Player One: Susan, I’m sick of having to look in the pantry for the car keys.
Player Two: I’m sorry Jack, but I’m always hungry when I get home. Do you want me to starve?
Player one has posited a scenario: Player Two, whose name is “Susan,” keeps putting the car keys in the pantry. Player two, instead of denying or trying to control the scene, simply accepts what she’s been given (yes, I leave the car keys in the pantry), and then adds to it (and, because I can’t wait to eat long enough to put the keys away).
From such a scenario, any number of things can happen—maybe the players get into an argument about why Susan feels that her needs are more important than Jack’s, or perhaps we discover that Susan has a compulsive need to create nonsensical excuses for putting Jack’s things in odd places. Wherever it goes, we know that Susan and Jack will take us somewhere interesting.
By contrast, here’s a typical scenario you might see between two inexperienced performers:
Player One: There’s a snowman in the refrigerator.
Player Two: There is? I didn’t see it when I looked in there.
In this scenario, Player One has offered a fun gift—a snowman in the refrigerator. But instead of accepting the gift (yes) and adding new information (and), Player Two denies the gift (“I didn’t see it”). There’s really only one way this conversation can go, and it’s not pretty: We’re headed for an argument about the existence of the snowman. Boo-oring.
Here’s how the scene could go with a “yes, and”:
Player One: There’s a snowman in the refrigerator.
Player Two: I know, Jeremy. You can’t expect me to just leave Mr. Snuggles in the living room. He has needs too.
And now, we’re off on a rollicking good time—all from the same initial gift.
The “yes, and” principle works because it shuts down the critical portions of our brain to allow the creative portions to flow. In a creative session, responding to ideas by shutting them down or criticizing them will tend to shut down the entire process. When, instead, you respond to an idea with a “yes, and,” you open the door for incredible creativity.
Learning to truly “yes, and” your creative partners takes time and practice. Most of us have been trained all our lives to look constantly for what’s wrong and fix it. Critical thinking is essential to business and good functioning, so it’s no wonder we’ve gotten so good at it. Creativity, however, requires training our brains also to do the opposite.
While it takes training and practice to get as good at creativity as the stars of Second City, you can unleash the power of “yes, and,” even in the course of a single session, by utilizing the same warm-up exercises that performers use to unlock their brains. Want to try? Scroll to the bottom of this page and download our Improv for Branding: Session Leader’s Guide for instructions on leading the same fun exercises we use with our clients to stimulate their creative juices.
Step Two: Add Physicality
The next time you go to an improv show (or see an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?), watch the players very carefully. You’ll notice that in most scenes, the players don’t just stand on the stage and talk to each other—they do things with their bodies. They wash imaginary dishes, type imaginary letters, and dance ridiculous dances.
Why? Well, it’s fun to watch for sure. But improv-ers use movement in their warm-ups and performances, because they understand that body movement dramatically increases creative thinking. And it’s not just about arms and legs. When you engage multiple senses—smell, touch, sound, and vision—you amp the amount of creative energy available to you.
Here are four ways to engage your body and senses:
Stand up! The body is intricately inter-wired with the brain, and when the body is still, the brain tends to do likewise. Even just standing up and stretching can increase alertness and creativity. For wild creativity, bring your whole body into gear. Dance, do silly imitations, mirror each other’s actions. Check our Improv for Branding guide (at the bottom of this post) for some fun, improv-based movement games sure to get the juices flowing.
Laugh. Laughter is not only good medicine—it’s good brain science. A dose of laughter increases levels of dopamine and oxytocin in your system. Both are powerful feel-good chemicals that also open up creativity centers in your brain. So, how can you inject laughter into your sessions? Try one of the exercises in our download, of course.
Use the white board. YES, you’ve already been doing this. Go, you! Getting up and using the white board increases blood flow, adds in some movement, and puts words up where everyone can see them (visual stimulation!), which improves your ability to collaborate. Supercharge your white board work by using multiple colors, and giving yourselves permission to draw silly pictures. Link ideas with arrows. Write upside down and sideways. Circle important concepts and then draw related ideas around them. Give everyone a differently colored marker, and encourage them to get up and expand on each other’s ideas.
Blank paper and crayons. While movement, laughter, and white boarding gets everyone in sync with each other, you want to also give everyone the space to do some thinking for themselves, and to explore ideas outside the fray of what everyone else is doing. Make sure everyone has ample supplies of blank (not lined) paper to take notes, draw doodles, and connect ideas. The smell of old-fashioned Crayola crayons has been shown to amp up creativity all by itself, so hand everyone a pack, tell them to take a deep whiff, and go.
Step Three: Set the Parameters
So far, everything we’ve talked about has been aimed at freeing up the creative brain and getting ideas flowing. This is absolutely critical to a wildly creative session… but alone, it won’t guarantee that your session is productive. Since your end game is not simply entertainment, you’re going to have to add some parameters to ensure the session yields what you’re looking for.
Here’s where we step away from improv, and remind ourselves what we’re about. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the fun in step four…
Take a few minutes to review and update your audience profiles. You can do this as step one, if you prefer, to avoid interrupting the flow of creativity, but I like it as step three because our freshly unlocked creativity helps us look at our audience through new eyes.
For this portion, make sure everyone can clearly answer these questions:
What are the audience’s primary pains?
What are they afraid of?
What do they hope for?
What obstacles can stop them from engaging with your brand?
When that’s done, review and update your primary value propositions as related to the audience, as well as the goals of the specific session.
How does your product/service align with your audience’s needs?
What are your session goals?
New brand name?
A messaging hook?
A story to tell?
By setting the parameters up front, you tell your subconscious brain what you want from it. Once done, don’t let the parameters overly limit your exploration. It’s okay if the rest of the session goes a little wild, as long as you periodically return to these fundamentals for guidance. Now, back to the fun…
Step Four: Go
You’ve set the stage, you’ve opened the floodgates for creativity, and now it’s go time. This portion of your creative session may feel a little strange at first. That’s okay. Give yourselves permission to feel awkward and a little silly. It’s normal, also, to start feeling like you’re wasting time or never going to come up with anything worthwhile.
Just push through those feelings. Trust the process.
The precise details of how your session will proceed from here depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Regardless, the goal of the next portion of your session will be to generate as much raw material as possible with which to work.
Notice that I did not say “good” raw material. The moment you start worrying about whether your ideas are “good” is the moment your creative brain shuts down and your critical brain kicks into high gear. Avoid it at all costs. Same goes for other people’s ideas—at this stage, even the silliest, craziest idea can be the trigger for something else that eventually leads to the break-through idea.
(Example: Our partner’s award-winning short film “Clocking Out” originated with someone’s idea about a professional landscaper who loved dandelions… the film has nothing to do with dandelions or landscaping… but without that weird idea, we would never have arrived at the winning one.)
If you’re coming up with a brand name…
You want to generate a large pool of words and phrases, looking for one or more that resonate with your audience while communicating what you want to communicate—and that isn’t already taken by a competitor.
Start by making a list of words that capture the primary benefits of your product—for instance, “clarity,” “control,” “precision,” “value,” etc.
Write the list on the white board. Keep writing until there’s an awkward pause when everyone realizes they’re out of ideas (and don’t worry, there will be lots of awkward pauses, especially early in the session—this is completely normal and will turn into excitement as you get warmer and warmer).
At this point, a word association game can be useful in generating additional raw material. Here’s one to try:
Pick a word you’ve got up on the white board as a starting point. Have everyone say it together. (It’ll feel silly, and it’s supposed to—do it anyway.)
Have one person say the word again and point to someone else in the group.
The person who has been pointed to says the first word that pops into their mind, then points at a third person.
Have someone designated to write the words down as they tumble out.
Keep going until you make your way back to the original word. Don’t try to force your way back—it will happen naturally if you’re all paying attention and participating fully.
Another useful exercise is to look for metaphors from other fields of expertise. For instance, if you’ve identified “Clarity” as a core concept for your brand, try to think of things in nature that make you think of clarity: Diamonds, mountain streams, the smell of mint. Then try animals, or building concepts, or sports terminology. If you’ve got linguists in your group, have them tell you words from various languages that mean similar things. Tap into the expertise in your group—whether it’s engineering, technology, literature, woodworking—every area of expertise has its own terminology that can be brought in to create more raw material. The more hobbies, interests, and areas of expertise your group brings, the better.
If you’re working on hooks and stories…
Do the work above for brand names, and then branch out to include more specific ideas and concepts.
Use the words, phrases, and concepts generated in the brand name exercises to generate story ideas that might appeal to your audience.
Don’t be afraid to step away from the beaten path. Who would have thought a baseball theme was a useful idea for a feminine hygiene brand? Yet that was the winning idea for Always.
Consider story types that touch the heart: Rescues, generosity, empowerment, friendship.
Consider story types that touch the funny bone: Irreverence, surprise, topical humor.
Whatever you’re working on, good creative sessions all have a similar flow. There’s the awkward getting started phase during which it feels silly and unproductive. If you’re doing it right, you’ll warm up as the ideas start to flow, and it’ll start to feel fun.
There will be periods where the conversation slows again, and that’s okay. Sometimes you need a quiet pause for the next breakthrough.
At some point, if you relax and let the process work, you’ll experience a sudden “Aha!” moment. You’ll know when it comes. You’ll get an excited feeling and everyone will want to pitch in and play off the Aha! When you hit one of these moments, let it flow. Write everything down. And make a note.
Then continue on. Just because you’ve hit one Aha! moment doesn’t mean you’re done. Sometimes we come back to an Aha! moment later and realize there’s an insurmountable problem with it, and sometimes we have an Aha! moment once and then an even better one later. Keep going for your designated time, no matter how sure you are that this one is the “right” idea.
Remember: Let your other hobbies and interests intersect with the creative work. If you love football, don’t hesitate to bring in a football metaphor. If you read cookbooks, bring those cooking references. True creativity happens at the cross section of multiple disciplines. You can tweet this by clicking below.
If you’ve brought in one of our creative teams to run your sessions and produce a deliverable, the next thing that will happen is you’ll sit back and let us work for a while. If you’re doing this yourselves, the next thing that will happen is you sit back and let your unconscious brain work for a while.
Our brains process on many levels, conscious and unconscious. The unconscious brain takes what we feed it consciously, and processes it. This takes time, and often works best when we leave it alone. If you’ve ever gone to sleep worrying about something and woken up knowing the solution, you’ve seen this concept in action.
After a few days, or a few weeks, come back to the material with fresh eyes. Review all the juicy raw material you created as a team, and match it up with the stated goals and audience. Winnow it down to a few best matches, based on which ideas generated enthusiasm on the team, and which match well with your audience.
If necessary or desired, take those few ideas and iterate them by applying the creative process again. Your goal is to land on one or two ideas that your entire team feels confident will be winners.
If you’re working on a brand name, you may also want to include matching domain search in this portion of the process, and you certainly want to include comparative research. In other words, this is where you start thinking about—and researching—whether other, similar brands have already used your brilliant idea. If so, don’t despair—that’s why you have lots of creative material to work with. Keep working it until you hit something original and unique.
Step Six: Polish and Launch
When you’ve got one or two winning, unique, resonant ideas, bring it back to the full team. Iterate as necessary to settle on the one idea that everyone wants to see executed. Now it’s time to bring in your execution experts—design, scriptwriting, video, etc.—to meet the needs of the project. And… execute!
I can’t guarantee you’ll hit a home run every time with this process, but I can guarantee you’ll have a lot of fun and, with practice, produce winning ideas with the power to captivate your audience.
To help you get your first session going, we’ve put together a guide sheet with instructions for leading some of our favorite improv exercises for branding. Download it below.
Or hey, you can hire us to lead your sessions and deliver winning ideas. Our creative sessions are led by professional improv performers, and our team brings knowledge from a wide variety of spheres (literature, philosophy, psychology, French, German, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, brain science, biology, pop culture, sports, film, marketing, storytelling—to name a few) to intersect with your own expertise in generating wildly creative ideas. Get in touch.
Heather Head is an author, as well as the founder of Scopcity. When she is not writing, running the business, or chasing down bad guys on Twitter, she enjoys hiking, snuggling with her husband and three boys, and avoiding the kitchen.