Samuel Stenberg
Aug 14, 2018 · 9 min read

As organizational thinking is evolving, communication processes and branding strategies are sadly not evolving along with them. Is your brand a guiding star showing the way, or an anchor slowing you down? I draw inspiration from how startups organize themselves to help organizations evolve their communication and branding in the pace required today.

Unleashing power. Photo by Lopez Robin on Unsplash

When my colleagues and I deconstruct and rebuild our clients’ communication processes, we’re inspired by forests.

Forests are massive systems. A billion organisms reside in them, from the microscopic fungi to the towering trees. The cooperation happening here is complex. Let’s say winter comes early to a forest near you. When that happens, the ecosystem will adapt in a seemingly coordinated process between the species, even though no one is actually in charge. Every part of the system knows its purpose and acts accordingly.

How would change happen if the forest was a hierarchical organization? After the sudden arrival of winter the tallest tree, the “forest CEO”, would call a meeting where the message would be to not panic, sit tight and wait for the CEO tree and its closest tree buddies to come up with a plan. Once their plan is done it’s communicated from the trees down to animals and further on, eventually reaching the smallest worms and bacteria.

By then, spring has already come again.

In his inspiring and influential book Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux proposes a new type of organization for a new time: the evolutionary one. According to him, we need organizations that evolve organically, much like a forest, instead of being carefully constructed pyramids. Other thinkers in the field have proposed similar ideas based on the same analysis: organizations today are in desperate need of different ways to think, work and organize.

The fact that our dynamic times require new ways to work is especially true for communication and marketing departments. But in my experience, few brands have been able to shift to a more modern way of handling their communication.

Springtime. Photo by Tim Schramm on Unsplash

2018 demands communication processes which are not from 2007

Now more than ever, brands need to feel alive, communicators need to be quick on their feet and strategic moves need to be executed swiftly but with precision. A brand that really does what it should, acts as a locomotive pulling the organization forward, showing you where you’re going.

Yet this is probably the most forgotten aspect in today’s change-eager culture at large organizations. Companies that have sworn to become “innovative” and “agile”, often somehow fall back on old tricks when they want to evolve their communication: “We need a new brand strategy!”, “We need another communication plan!”. Or my favourite: “Our website needs an overhaul!”

An anxiety is growing, an anxiety felt by an increasing number of C-suite people who know deep down that they really don’t have a great grasp of their branding, marketing and communication.

These classic measures have good intentions but come with issues: they equal drawn-out processes, tons of documentation, many consulting hours, and — worst of all — the effects are unclear. All that work for unclear effects? That’s fatal.

As organizational thinking is evolving, communication processes are sadly not evolving along with them. This, I find, has left room for an anxiety to grow, an anxiety felt by an increasing number of C-suite people who know deep down that they really don’t have a great grasp of their branding, marketing and communication. Some dusty brand strategy is lying around but people don’t use it because they don’t have time, it’s not up to date or it doesn’t play its part as a useful tool for communication. That ideal situation with the brand as a locomotive? Most organizations are pretty far from it. Instead we’re most often talking about an anchor tying organizations to the muddy seafloor of the past.

So what do you do? Either you strategize, document and plan your way into oblivion. Or you choose to replace outdated practices with communication processes that are modern and effective.

A new process for innovative communication

To find new ways of working with communication issues, we need look no further than to the hugely successful startups of the last decades. The great success stories of the 21st century so far show us new ways of working, ways that counter the problems of pyramid-style hierarchical organizations. Companies such as Facebook, Google, Netflix and Spotify display an agility and an ability to evolve that so many others yearn for. And whether these 21st-century organizations are situated in Silicon Valley or not, they all more or less follow a philosophy which has evolved there:

“Think big. Start small. Scale fast.”

These three statements together form a sort of credo, the headline of a philosophy of work born in and fit for an age of unpredictability. Even if the credo is mostly talked about in relation to product and service design, I’ve seen it used to great effect in branding, marketing and communication.

I suggest an entirely new way of working with any type of communication project, a way which follows the startup credo.

Think big. Think Burj Khalifa. Photo by Divjot Ratra on Unsplash

1. Think Big

Your communication must be driven by a vision

The main driver behind your communication development must be a powerful vision. Either you first have to establish it, or you need to revisit and update an existing one. This is what will turn your brand into a locomotive instead of an anchor. The vision is the engine, it’s what gets your communication going.

Every startup has a vision it’s working towards. The vision encapsulates the problem their customers have and the dream of how the startup are going to solve it. This clear why shows them where they’re going and they’ll stop at nothing to reach that goal, working within the time and money limits that investors and other outside forces have set.

This clear why is needed to drive communication development today. Think back to the animals in the forest; they understand intuitively what they should do, they need no orders or directions. Your employees should understand in exactly the same way where you’re headed with your brand and why. If they need to refer back to the rules or need to check with the boss before every decision, change won’t happen.

With the why fueling your communication, the inherent power in all your communicators is unleashed, instead of forcing them to change. A client that I started to work with last year is spread out across Sweden with over 20 regional offices working under the same brand. The local office hired my agency and once we started analyzing and getting a grip on their current situation, we realized they didn’t have a commonly shared idea about who they were and, more importantly, what they wanted to become. So to set the stage for change, we painted a vision in the form of a story to show where the brand was going to be in 3 years. The future vision answered questions such as:

  • How will your organization communicate?
  • What will clients think about you?
  • How will your brand be positioned on the market?
  • What will your internal processes be?

The vision doesn’t have to be complete (what would even constitute ‘complete’?), because it’s going to change. It has to. But it does have to be attractive, enough so to provide energy and clarity.

Small beginnings. Photo by Toni Cuenca on Unsplash

2. Start small

Communicate in prototypes and iterate on them

The next step is to not let the vision overwhelm you, by starting small. What’s the first, smallest possible step we can take towards the vision, today? What’s the step after that? And so on.

The startup world provides us with tons of useful variations on this wisdom. We have learned that if we can gain one true fan, we can gain a hundred and then a thousand. We have also learned that we should build minimum viable products: instead of starting nine-month projects, we should build a simple prototype in nine days that we can put in the hands of people and have them try out, react to. Then we can learn, iterate and be a bit better next time.

It’s in precisely this way we propose that our clients develop their communication. For the client with 20 offices across Sweden, the initial analysis showed their brand needed to change. But had we started by changing the brand nationally, trying to get all the offices on board, we would have been looking at one of those nine-month processes — at least.

Instead, we developed a prototype brand. With it, we tested a new way to talk about the brand only on a regional scale. We gathered insights and would later report our findings to the other offices. So the project became about just trying something out, not rebranding.

This way, no nine months were needed for the organization to begin changing. In a mere six weeks — after interviews with employees, customers and some diving into trends and changes occurring in the world — we had a prototype brand in place to start using. Perfect? Absolutely not. But good enough for the local employees to start experimenting. They put together some new presentation decks, changed the way the introduced themselves at events, tested a new pitch at meetings with potential clients. It was enough for them to gather insights, get back together again after a while and develop the prototype brand further. And most important of all: it was enough to make things happen.

Projects dealing with communication tend to swell and get too big. So start small.

Time to scale. Photo by Tim Easley on Unsplash

3. Scale fast

Do more of what works, with your sights set on the vision

To simply do more is easy. Many organizations already do that. It’s easy to hire another public relations officer, communicator or web manager, post more on social media, send out more press releases, arrange yet another event.

“More” isn’t the insight we’re supposed to take with us from the third pillar of the startup credo. To scale fast is about taking what works (as proven in the “Start small” phase), making sure you’re aligned with the vision (from the “Think big” phase) and then scaling it up bit by bit, measuring and learning all along. You’re supposed to scale up what really works (in terms of taking you closer to the vision). Again, my experience is that organizations often choose to simply communicate more out of sheer desperation.

Insight and proof are vital for scaling fast. Otherwise you can’t align a large organization around a brand idea and message.

Let’s go back to the prototype brand we developed. For this client, we’re now seeing the first small signs of this change having the intended effect. The organization is getting a new, more relevant type of feedback, attracting a slightly different audience. Once it becomes time to truly start scaling up this brand, which has to involve the other 20 offices, that will be possible because we have the clear idea and the tests from phase 1 and 2 backing up our reasoning. If we had simply tried things randomly and suddenly produced a presentation that caught on or a Facebook post that really resonated — what would we have to share with the other offices? “Write more posts like this one, they seem to work!”?

Insight and proof are vital for scaling fast. Otherwise you can’t align a large organization around a brand idea and message.

And then you do it again and again

One more thing: Be prepared to never be done with anything concerning brand and strategy in the future. It sure is nice to be “done”, to get to check the box in your task management system of choice and say “nice, now we’ve changed our brand, what’s next?”. This is not how the world works. Especially not in 2018. (And I think it never was, even if organizations for the longest time have acted like that.)

As the philosophy of Silicon Valley-esque startups has already identified, nothing is ever done. In a world of constant change, you have to be constantly changing as well. You need to gain the ability to constantly improve and innovate, to always be in motion, to never let the world change without you being able to change with it. This concerns not just which products and services you offer, but how you communicate them and how your brand as a whole reflects where you are.

So, does your organization need a new communication strategy?

No. What you need is the ability to constantly change so that you’ll never need a new communication strategy again.

Samuel Stenberg

Written by

Designer and UX Writer @ Uppfatta, a branding and communications agency in Sweden.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade