The blood, sweat and tears story behind the Brand Thinking Canvas

It took me ten years to know how to draw it, but the journey was worth it. Through the Brand Thinking Canvas, I’ve worked with over 2,000 amazing individuals and companies and trained 32 brand professionals to use the canvas in their own practice.

The Brand Thinking Canvas is not a complicated model. Several rings, a few subcompartments, two pages with simple questions: ‘who are you?”, and “who is your audience?”. But it took me ten years to understand how to draw it*.

That’s because it’s not just a model: it’s also a process of co-creation and ideation, and a compass for implementation. It answers three major issues I struggled with throughout my early career:

How can we bridge the gap between strategy and design?
How can we close the divide between agency and client, theory and application?
How can we promote the idea of brand as a holistic driving force behind both action and communication, instead of mere cosmetic surgery?

Answering those questions took ten years of experimentation, failure, and smaller and bigger successes hard-won. It tested my love for my profession, my relationship with both designers, strategists and clients, and my sense of identity.

This is the story of how the canvas came to be, in six acts.

Act One: the (mis)education of a designer

Within a year of landing my first job as a designer at a renowned brand agency in 2005, there was a generational shift. At twenty-five, I found myself in the unexpected position of leading a team of designers through the re-branding of one of the largest companies in the Netherlands.

Overnight, I became the sparring partner for the company’s head of brand, a young-ish business talent in immaculate pin-striped suits, who spoke in marketing jargon and thought in models. I was now the designated person to translate his strategies to tangible design.

I could not have been less prepared.

The piles of documents on my desk grew. There were 140-page customer insights reports and various brand models with missions, values and USPs, brand keys with insights, and brand proposition charts. “You will use these to brief the team?” my client asked optimistically.

I knew my team and I knew myself, and it was clear those models were not going to fly.

My education as a designer at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, just completed the previous year, had consisted of courses on color grammar, user advocacy and visual literacy. We discussed the work of Carel Fabritius, Stefan Sagmeister and Anton Beeke.

We studied with master practitioners who pushed our design skills, training us in the best tradition of Dutch graphic design. I spent two years drawing letters by hand for specialization in typography. Steve Jobs made the case for this skill years later, but in 2001, anyone beyond our school bubble would have thought it positively medieval.

First-year typography assignments (2000–2001)

Brand strategy, effective communication, and marketing were not on our radar, and if they came up, they were certainly not positive blips. My graduation professor Gert Dumbar used to stand up from his chair and announce after a dramatic pause that marketing was the devil, and sit back down.

It was a wonderfully eccentric education towards our faculty’s vision: designers who deserved a seat at the table. It left us students with the task of acquiring all the grown-up stuff ourselves: business skills, professionalism, and knowledge of the real world in which our lofty design work would need to exist.

Fast forward to 2005 and here I was: the sparring partner ofone of the most prominent brand managers in my country. I had my seat at the table and no idea what to do with it.

Though the brand and marketing jargon the manager sent my way set off all the alerts my education had instilled in me, the models were fascinating. There was clarity and intelligence that appealed to me. Little did I know I would one day be making brand models and methodology for a living.

Act Two: attempting to bridge the gap

I knew I could not take these documents back to the team as they were, and some intermediary step was needed.

Luckily, we found a practical project within the vast rebranding process that was ideal in bringing the strategic documents to life: the redesign of the brand’s stores, where customers would need to experience all of that mission-vision-values stuff in real life.

Together with an older colleague specialized in typography for wayfinding (yes, that’s a thing), we drew a new model that tried to bridge the world of strategy and design. We jokingly referred to it as the ‘pudding model’, for its three layers and plumpy compartments.

A model with three layers: at the top the strategic elements, in the middle identity, at the bottom customer experience
A model with three layers: at the top the strategic elements, in the middle identity, at the bottom customer experience

My colleague and I were proud and giddy. We could do this strategy thing too!

At the top were the elements from their brand key model, then came the visual and verbal identity layer that we would provide, and at the bottom were the elements of the store experience.

Our giddiness was quickly quelled.

We had naively expected that the strategic brand elements, such as values, would extend to the actual products and the store experience. We had expected for instance, that the value ‘transparency’ could be translated to clear product price labels that compared product features on equal terms, like oranges to oranges. We envisioned the value ‘personal’ to mean a host would greet you at the entrance, instead of customers pulling a ticket from a machine.

But the brand manager quickly made it clear those interventions were not within his mandate. Our place to play was communication, marketing and interior design. The value ‘personal’, he suggested, could become a photo of a smiling family on the store window.

Now here was a lesson.

The models thought up in the board room wouldn’t always trickle down to all departments. A brand manager could only touch the communications side, not the product. And designers had to stay in their box.

In the next years, the separation of ‘brand’ and product became an ongoing frustration. It was the age where every client walked in asking us to make them the next Apple, but no one knew what it took to be Steve Jobs.

The constant effort to bridge the gap between the client’s strategies and the creative team’s designs, and a constant sense of disappointing both sides, left me in an identity crisis. I wasn’t singular enough to be a designer, and I wasn’t educated to play with the big strategy boys either.

In the first of a series of unsatisfying job switches, I made the leap to another brand agency, where the CEO invented the title ‘creative strategist’ for me. We all had to figure out what that meant.

Act three: a designer changes her stripes

By 2009, ‘strategy’ was becoming more and more important in the world of Dutch design. Dozens of great new brand agencies were popping up, and it was no longer good enough to be great at design: you needed to have the brains too.

At my new agency, as with most design focussed brand agencies, the visual identity processes had always run in a fairly straightforward way: 2 or 3 concept directions, one final concept fully developed, a brand manual to document, and some role in implementation. In this new stage, we started to play with what could come before it: the big idea.

This first phase became the domain of the ‘creative strategist’.

We would define the principles at the core of the brand and find lots of creative ways we could help clients grow and deliver on their mission. We could help clients to see branding as a more holistic concept that includes the product or service.

This new ‘creative strategy’-phase proved to be a great improvement, however, it had several clear downsides. The consultancy format was not a good fit for this type of work.

A client would come in and brief us, we’d sit and think hard for a few weeks, and then we would present back to them what the major principles would be that would drive their organization.

We worked for clients in a crazy wide range of sectors, and always on modest budgets.

Exceeding a clients’ knowledge of his own company and market from the outside in a matter of days was a herculean task that left us drained.

It will not be a surprise to you that our presentations were not always the smoothest of conversations, or that many of the ideas were lauded for creativity, but shelved as impractical.

The outside-in consultancy work, even if applauded by the client, would rarely be adopted in practice. Manuals and brand books were quickly forgotten or cast aside.

Things were not going so great in the team either. With these new ‘creative strategists’ on the team, the old guard of designers understandably felt pushed into the role of visual executors.

I felt defeated and, once again, out of place.

Act four: cleaning the slate

While all of this was going on in my agency life, I had started teaching at the world-renown Design Academy in Eindhoven in 2008. Cheered on by the visionary heads of department Garech and Declan Stone, I was able to create assignments that seamlessly combined strategy and design.

The financial crisis and the Arab Spring were in the air, and these societal issues made for the perfect backdrop of assignments for a socially engaged generation of students.

I crafted assignments that challenged students to design a revolution, to design the new bank, and to design their career.

One student developed a concept for a crowdfunding platform for revolutions and built the funding model, brand identity and online platform in a matter of weeks. Another designed a green banking model, the brand, and a two-minute explainer video that was picked up by local media as the real thing.

I had always loved Marti Neumeyer’s five questions approach to brand, which became my teaching mantra. To this day, if I meet a former student, they tease me with it: who are you, what do you do, why does it matter, who needs to know, and how will they find out?

Students seemed to have no problem combining strategy and design, and I could see they were not bothered or conflicted by the old dichotomy as I was.

Yet how could I teach students to believe they could shape the action AND the communication of brands if I could not get that done in my own working life? I did not want to set up my students for the same disillusionment that I had experienced.

Act Five: if you can’t beat them, join them

My last try at touching both strategy and design, action and communication, within the agency world, came in the shape of a new role as Creative Director at a large international brand agency.

Their commercial business mindset and strategy heavy, pre-defined process meant that where I was previously pegged as the buttoned-up strategist at design agencies, I was undoubtedly the free-thinking designer in this new context.

The company had an impressive array of strategic tools and methodologies and an amazingly talented team of mostly left-brainers.

Whereas at my previous agency, the strategy-to-design ratio of a process was 20/80, the projects here were the opposite.

Now it was my turn to feel like a mere executor of the strategists. The imbalance between the months, sometimes even years invested in strategy, compared to the few weeks I had to capture and translate all of that work with best-of-breed design and innovative experiences, felt out of balance, to say the least.

200-page documents that were endlessly picked apart word by word for months in meetings with a dozen top executives and high ranking externals, served as briefings for a mere six-week process with a tiny creative team.

Any strategic talent that I had displayed previously seemed to evaporate under the pressure, and it turned out I had no brain for commercial B2C brands. I simply wasn’t able or willing to come up with a reason why a customer should choose one drugstore over another drugstore, with the same product at the same price, if my client didn’t know that reason either.

I was at an all-time low in every way.

I was either going to accept that I did not belong anywhere and re-train for a new profession, or I would have to craft my own way. I chose the latter, quit my job, and went independent.

Act Six: pave your own road

For nine years I had experienced what didn’t work for me or my collaborators. Now I was on my own with no one to pull me one way or the other, I wanted to develop a process that would work for everyone.

A brand development process where the strategist, the entrepreneur and the creative could collaborate.

Where we would shape the core of the brand, and translate it to an identity that would fit like a glove.

Where we could think up all the ways to bring the brand to life through great experiences. Experiences the entrepreneur or leadership and her team would love to bring to life.

That left everyone feeling like they owned the brand and had a firm grasp on how to live it every day.

In 2011, I started experimenting with different co-creation processes and self-made models. My first guinea pigs walked through a 30-page paper prototype workbook which helped them answer Marty’s five questions: Who are you, What do you do, Why does it matter, Who needs to know, How will they find out?

I quickly realized, thirty pages are too much. More sessions with other entrepreneurs followed, through which I distilled all those pages back down to one model.

After several iterations of interlocking circles that visualized how core, identity, and experiences were corresponding vessels (a big improvement on my pudding model from 2004), I was ready to test what would become the Brand Thinking Canvas, at THNK, a creative leadership school, in 2014.

Prototyping the Brand Thinking Canvas at THNK festival in 2014

Within the first session, I realized: this is not a model to create on your own, this is a co-creation model, and a workshop format is a perfect format to deliver it.

Using a ‘canvas’ in this way was nothing new, as the Business Model Canvas had shown. But it was new to me and my context, and the elated responses from others quickly confirmed I was onto something.

The beginning

I’ve since worked with over 2,000 individuals and companies with the Brand Thinking Canvas.

It’s been translated to Arabic, German, Korean, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

I’ve witnessed small miracles, big eye-opening moments, and equally big fights between founders. I still swear by the tool to this day.

The Brand Thinking Canvas was translated into six different languages by passionate volunteers in Europe, South-America and the Middle East.

I realize I must have looked pretty lost to anyone following my career.

And in a way, this is a letter of thanks to everyone who had patience with me while I tried to figure all of this out, and to my 25-year-old self: everything will all be ok.

I spent ten years and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears crafting my own place in the world of branding.

I did not know it then, but the deep sense of not belonging, the failures and the embarrassing experiences were needed to get to where I am now. They were crucial in shaping the company I run today, and the tools and brand development methodology at the heart of it.

The best thing to have come out of this all is that I’ve found there are thousands of others like me out there: entrepreneurs who think like brand strategists, brand strategists who love to get into the design domain, and designers with a talent for strategy. The Brand Thinking Canvas is here for them all.

Do you share the challenges I’ve faced? Do you have tips, suggestions or questions! I’d love to hear from you.

*This opening line is inspired by the brilliant designer Paula Scher, who famously said: “It took me a few seconds to draw it, but it took me 34 years to learn how to draw it in a few seconds.”

More on the Brand Thinking Canvas

Try the Brand Thinking Canvas yourself.

Explore the full brand development process documented in my book: Brand the Change: a full guide to building brands.

Are you a brand professional looking to use the canvas in your own professional practice? Take our Facilitation Course. Take it to the next level and become a Certified Trainer.

Read more about my journey to start an education company and become ‘The Brandling’.

Check out my TED Talk: how branding can help accelerate social change

Working to see the day when organisations with positive social and environmental impact outperform traditional ventures. Weapon of choice: branding.

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