Illustration by Maggie Fowler/Atlantic 57

How to Shape and Evolve a Brand Idea

Unite your teams around common goals and help your organization run more efficiently and effectively.

This is part one in our three-part series on the modern newsroom. Here, we explain how to develop and socialize a mission that takes hold in the world and in your team’s work.

Many organizations make the mistake of trying to be everything to everyone, everywhere. Without a clear focus, content teams can end up rushing to cover all their bases, instead of working together toward a common goal.

Organizations must be methodical about which routes to take. This requires that they establish a clearly defined mission.

We inherently know this to be true, yet many organizations approach their mission in the wrong way. They think about and define their brand very narrowly, thus limiting their potential to grow. And, also importantly, they fail to communicate their brand’s mission to the people who are creating the brand out in the world every day — their employees.

The Atlantic thinks about this differently. It defines its brand as an “idea” — one that can stretch to be expressed in different ways across different platforms, while staying true to its core mission. And, it is deeply thoughtful about how it communicates that brand idea both within the walls of its offices and beyond.

Here, we’ve unpacked how The Atlantic has built, communicated, and transformed its brand idea over its 160-year history, so you can apply a similar line of thinking to your work.

Define your brand idea

The Atlantic was created in 1857 by some of the literary greats of the time — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, to name a few. They created The Atlantic as a magazine because that was the medium they had at their disposal at the time. They were not necessarily magazine enthusiasts or print enthusiasts. Nor were they enthusiasts of any single form or platform. They were idea enthusiasts.

They had a big idea for The Atlantic: To be “of no party or clique,” always challenging the status quo and advancing perspectives of rigor and real consequence.

This notion powered The Atlantic’s recent digital transformation ten years ago. Thinking of The Atlantic as an idea that transcends any one platform allows us to confront change more thoughtfully. If The Atlantic is not one thing — not magazine, or website — then it is free to move across platforms and adapt with the times.

Smart organizations rally around a brand idea that is core to their business. Your brand idea is the intersection between your audience’s needs, your mission, and your unique opportunity in the market.

The following exercise can be a powerful tool to unite teams around a strong brand idea that meaningfully serves audiences. Try applying it to your own organization with this worksheet.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Forming a brand idea is only half the work. For your mission to take hold in the world, you must rally audiences and employees around it.

Familiarize your audiences

The Atlantic has launched campaigns over the years to put its brand idea in front of audiences, attracting new fans and strengthening its relationship with its existing loyalists.

The Atlantic began its Think. Again. campaign in 2008, when the magazine was on the brink of a digital transformation. Digital and social media were becoming the dominant sources of media, bringing with them new upstart competitors like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post.

Atlantic editors went back to the roots of The Atlantic’s 160-year-old legacy to identify what made The Atlantic truly special — beyond the platforms where it lived and forms it took. They discovered a commitment to asking big, bold questions that challenge assumptions and inspire audiences to reconsider their long-held views.

They launched Think. Again. — a campaign that brought the biggest questions from The Atlantic’s archives back into public consciousness.

Print advertisement from The Atlantic’s Think. Again. campaign.

Since then, The Atlantic has continued to expand its brand presence through additional campaigns — all evolutions of that same brand idea. Most recently, it launched Question Your Answers — a campaign created in collaboration with HBO, featuring celebrities like Michael K. Williams and Jeffrey Wright boldly questioning their own assumptions.

Clip from The Atlantic’s Question Your Answers brand campaign, created in collaboration with HBO.

Energize your employees

A brand idea developed in a closed-door, C-suite meeting doesn’t serve the organization if the conversation stops there.

A Gallup study on how millennials work and live urges managers to talk to their employees more purposefully about the company’s mission. By helping employees understand the company’s brand idea and how their work contributes to its progress, managers can help them make their work more meaningful and rewarding.

At an organizational level, the study found that the most successful companies infuse purpose into their daily company culture. This allows employees to see how their day-to-day work adds up to something greater, which in turn creates a more productive, profitable, and committed workforce.

To build a purpose-driven culture:

  • Socialize your brand idea early and often. Discussing your brand idea during interviews can energize candidates and make the job opportunity more appealing. Having that early conversation about what you value will likely also attract employees who share your values.
  • Practice what you preach. Continue the conversation throughout the onboarding process with new employees by relating the work they’ll do back to the greater mission and goals of the company. This approach will set employees up to see value in their work, keeping them more engaged and committed.
  • Make your brand idea impossible to ignore. Some companies emblazon their brand idea on their entryway or office wall, so employees see it every day. Many also distribute designed materials for people to hang at their desks or in their offices.
  • Exercise transparency to unite your team. Don’t make your brand idea a mystery — keep your entire staff in the loop as your organization’s brand idea grows and evolves. This may take the form of a regular email to staff featuring updates on how the company is evolving and how day-to-day work is serving your brand idea. Making it more of a conversation than a closed-door decision will give your team greater ownership over your purpose.

Beyond the brand idea

Successful newsrooms start with a brand idea to align teams on a common purpose. From there, build out the teams and workflows necessary to execute everything the brand idea encompasses. To learn how to structure your team like a modern newsroom, read the second post in our series, “3 Ways to Optimize Your Newsroom.

Strategies of smart newsrooms are some of the many things we think about for our clients at Atlantic 57. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, the Digital Trends Index, to follow our work, and get in touch on Twitter.