How to Run a Brainstorm Session

“Creativity is intelligence having fun”  Albert Einstein

Brand LeadershipBrainstorming should be a Regular Part of running your Brand.

To stay in a healthy creative space, I would suggest that each brand team should be having some type of brainstorm (big or small) once a month.  You need a constant influx of ideas–promotions, advertising, social media, naming, new products, events, PR, saving money and of course as part of your brand planning,  They can be a quick 30 minutes as part of a weekly meeting just to get some quick ideas or a whole afternoon to solve a problem that’s been nagging at the group.   Or a team building offsite meeting that goes all day. 

There are advantages to having regular brainstorms:

  • Team will stay fresh and open.  Brand jobs can eat you up, forecasting, deadlines, reports can all make you stale.  Having regular intervals of ideation, helps to disrupt the work flow to motivate and engage the team.
  • Keeps the best ideas near the surface.  At the end of a good brainstorm, you have some great ideas that bubble up, not all of which you can immediately use.  These ideas tend to keep coming up, and that’s OK  Sometimes they are rejected because they are higher risk or resource dependent.  But after a few sessions of getting comfortable with these ideas, you might start to see new ways to make them do-able instead of seeing why they can’t happen.slide125
  • As the Leader of the team, it sends the message that while we are strategic, we win by being more creative, faster, and better on execution. It’s so easy to get stiffer as you move up the career ladder and be the one on the team finding fault with every idea.  Just because you are starting to know right from wrong, doesn’t mean you need to crush every idea.  Having the brainstorming forum allows the newly experienced brand people the chance to bring ideas forward and it sends the signal that you are an open leader and you value the opinions of your junior staff.
  • The process the team learns doing the brainstorms becomes part of their everyday job.   Even on small problems, they’ll come up with a list of possible solutions, use some criteria to judge, narrow down the list to the best idea, and then be prepared with their recommendation.  They’ll be able to show their leader they’ve looked at the issue from all sides, and considered other ideas.  Marketers that fixate on one solution to fix the problem tend to fail more than succeed.
The Warm Up

Every session should have a warm up, either 5 minutes or 15 minutes. It gets people out of the rut of the day-to-day, and opens up the brains.  imagesOne that I’ve used is this very simple innocent photo of the kids selling Lemonade and ask them to come up with as many ideas as they can to the question of “What ways can these two make more money?”.  I offer a reward of cookies to the team with the most ideas and to the best idea.   In 5 minutes, teams should be able to list 50 or 100 ideas.  Gets out of a lot of crap ideas but it gets rid of them rejecting ideas before saying them.   To get to 100, you have to listen to the group and build on someone’s idea.  Eliminate the “yeah but….”   I get them to circle the top 3 ideas for each group, which forces them to get used to making decisions.  One observation I’ll usually make is that the best ideas are usually found in the list beyond 20 or even beyond the 50 mark, emphasizing that you need 100 good ideas to get to 5 great ideas.

Draw out the rule that “AVOID THE YEAH BUT…” because we have a process for ideating and one for making decisions.  With a bunch of leaders in the room, normally you have to re-assure them that they should trust the process.  The alternative to the “yeah but” is building on the idea with “here’s a different take”.

The trick to a good brainstorm is very simple:   Diverge, Converge, Diverge Converge.
Diverge #1:

Divide the room up into groups of 5-7 people.   I prefer to assign one leader who will be writing the ideas, pushing the group for more, throwing in some ideas of their own. A great way for the leader is to say “here’s a crazy idea, who can build on this or make it better”.  But if you catch the leader stalling, debating the ideas, then you should push that leader.  At this stage you are pushing for quantity not quality.  If you have multiple groups in the room, do a rotation where the leader stays put and the group changes.  I like having stations, where each station has a unique problem to solve.

Converge #1:

There’s a few ways you can do this.

  • You can use voting dots where each person gets 5 or 10 dots and they can use them any way they want.  For random executional ideas, this is a great simple way.
  • If there is agreed upon criteria, you can do some type of scoring against each criteria.  High, medium, low.
  • USP 2.0If you are brainstorming product concepts or positioning statements, you might want to hold them up to the lens of how unique they are.
  • For things like naming, positioning or promotions, the leader can look at all the ideas and begin grouping them into themes.  They might start to discuss which themes seem to fit or are working the best, and use those themes for a second diverge.
  • For Tactics to an annual plan, you can use a very simple grid of Big vs Small and Easy vs Difficult.  In this case, you want to find ways to land in THE BIG EASY.  The reason you want easy is to ensure it has a good return on effort, believing effort and investment have a direct link.  


Diverge #2

The second diverge is where the magic actually happens.  You’ve got the group in a good zone.   They have seen which ideas are meeting the criteria.  Take the list from Converge #1 and push it one more time.  Make it competitive among the groups, with a $25 prize, so that people will push even harder.  

  • If you narrowed it to themes, then take each theme and push for more and better ideas under each of the themes  
  • If you looked at concepts or tactics, then take the best 8-10 ideas and have groups work on them and flush them out fully with a written concept, and come back and present them to the group.  
  • If using the grid above, then take the ideas in the big/difficult and brainstorm ways to make it easier.   And if it’s small and easy, brainstorm ways to make it bigger.
Converge #2:  Decision Time

Once you’ve done the second diverge, you’ll be starting to see the ideas getting better and more focused.  Now comes decision time.  You can narrow down to a list of ideas to take forward into testing or discussion with senior management.  You can take them forward to cost out.  You can prioritize them based on a 12 or 24 month calendar.   You can vote using some of the techniques above using voting dots.  Or you can assign a panel of those who will vote.  But you want to walk away from the meeting with a decision.

Turn the Idea into a Project

Trust that the process gets you into the right zone and make these ideas now a project.Once you have a decision on the best ideas, you want to use the energy and momentum in the room to make the ideas  a reality:

  • assign an owner and support team
  • get them to agree upon goals, issues to resolve
  • get them to map out a timeline (milestones)
  • outline potential resource needs (budget, people, outside agencies)

Let Brainstorming bring an energy and passion into your work.

“Love what you do”  Steve Jobs



To read more about how the love for a brand creates more power and profits:

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  2. How to Write a Brand Plan:  The positioning statement helps frame what the brand is all about.  However, the brand plan starts to make choices on how you’re going to make the most of that promise.  Follow this hyperlink to read more on writing a Brand Plan:  How to Write a Brand Plan
  3. Turning Brand Love into Power and Profits:  The positioning statement sets up the promise that kick starts the connection between the brand and consumer.  There are four other factors that connect:  brand strategy, communication, innovation and experience.   The connectivity is a source of power that can be leveraged into deeper profitability.  To read more click on the hyper link:  Love = Power = Profits


Brand LeadershipI run the Brand Leader Learning Center,  with programs on a variety of topics that are all designed to make better Brand Leaders.  To read more on how the Learning Center can help you as a Brand Leader click here:   Brand Leadership Learning Center


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About Graham Robertson: The reason why I started Beloved Brands Inc. is to help brands realize their full potential value by generating more love for the brand.   I only do two things:  1) Make Brands Better or 2) Make Brand Leaders Better.  I have a reputation as someone who can find growth where others can’t, whether that’s on a turnaround, re-positioning, new launch or a sustaining high growth.  And I love to make Brand Leaders better by sharing my knowledge.  Im a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands.  My background includes 20 years of CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke.  My promise to you is that I will get your brand and your team in a better position for future growth. Add me on LinkedIn at so we can stay connected.

Brand Focus: Great Marketers use the word “or” more than “and”

Strategy is all about Choices

“It’s all about choices” is how my marketing professor started every class.  He’d repeat it about 8-10 more times each class, sometimes after someone made a choice and sometimes after someone didn’t.  I still see a fear among many marketers to make choices–whether it’s a target market, brand positioning or strategies or the allocation of spend.  Good decision-making starts with forcing yourself to use the word “or” instead of keep using the word “and”.  

The most important element of Marketing Strategy is the exact area where most Marketers struggle:  FOCUS!

Why should you focus?
  • Every brand is constrained by resources—dollars, people and time.  Focus makes you matter most to those who actually might care.  Focusing your limited resources on those consumers with the highest propensity to buy what you are selling will deliver the greatest movement towards sales and the highest return on investment for those resources.  I was leading a session on a Tourism Region and asked who the key targets were.  The first answer was pretty good–it was some of the regions that were within close proximity.  Then people around the room kept saying “well, what about…” and “we can’t forget…” and “we don’t want to alienate…”   And the President says in serious tone:  “we target everyone, because it could be anyone really”.
  • In a competitive category, no one brand can do it all.  Focus makes you decide whether to be better, different or cheaper.  Giving the consumer too many messages about your brand will confuse them as to what makes your brand unique.  Trying to be everything is the recipe for being nothing.   I was lucky that my first marketing job at General Mills was managing child cereals, where each quarter, I had to do a promotion on 5 different cereals.  So, twenty times per year, I had to work with the 2 x 2 inch corner of the cereal box and put a message that would make a 5-year-old scream at their Moms to buy the cereal.  That taught me a lot about focusing my messaging.
  • Trying to do everything spreads your resources and your message too thin, so that everything you do is “ok” and nothing is “great”.   With a long to-do list, you’ll never do great at anything.   And in a crowded and fast economy, “ok” never breaks through so you’ll never get the early win to gain that tipping point that opens up the gateway to even bigger success.  I once had a director working for me, who kept spinning around never getting anything done.  His team was complaining that every time they started a new project, he’d come up with new ideas.  I sat down with him and asked him to bring his project list for the up-coming quarter.  He came in with 83 projects!!!  I said “how do we narrow this list down to five”.  He looked at me like I was insane.
When You Focus, Four Things Happen
  1. Better ROI:   With all the resources against one strategy, one target, one message, you’ll be find out if the strategy that you have chosen is able to actually moves consumers, drives sales or enhances other key performance indicators.  Did you actually get done what you wanted to get done?  If you spread those resources, you may never see any movement and then figure your strategy is wrong.
  2. Strong Reputation:  When you only do one thing, you naturally start to become associated with that one thing.  With consumers, you get the reputation as the “fast one” or the “great tasting”.   And internally, as people in the company start to align to your one thing, eventually you become very good at that one thing.   Look at Volvo with “safety”.  Every consumer message for 30 years is about safety.   And internally, everyone at Volvo is fixated on safety, coming out with new safety innovations ahead of everyone else.  Yes, Volvo’s have leather seats, go pretty fast, have a CD player and even come in multiple colours.  But they don’t feel the need to have to say it.
  3. More Competitive:  As your reputation grows, you begin to own that one thing and your are able to better defend the positioning territory.  As categories mature, brands start to stake claims and if you’ve got something that’s unique, relevant and motivating, you’ll be able to own it.
  4. Bigger and Better P&L:  As the focused effort drives results, it opens up the P&L with higher sales and profits.  With a better ROI, you get to go back to management and say “it worked” and they’ll say “ok, let’s increase the investment”.  And that means more resources will be put to the effort to drive even higher growth.  As you efficiently drive the top-line, the P&L opens up a bit and becomes easier for a brand leader to work with.
Where Your Focus Shows Up
  • Pick a focused Target Market:  While it’s tempting to sell to everyone.  Focus your resources on those most likely to buy. Realizing not everyone can like you is the first step to focus on those that can love you.  Whether you are a niche player focused on guerilla tactics, or the number two player attacking the category leader having a focused target market is crucial. I see a difference between a “buying target” which is those consumers who currently buy the product naturally without your effort and a “strategic target” of those consumers who you want to get to act–whether it’s considering, purchasing or continuing to buy.   Rest assured that the buying target will not likely leave you because they aren’t in the strategic target–whether that’s in your TV ad or as part of your promotions.
  • Pick a focused Brand Positioning:  Start with the target market you just picked–and assess their need states to see where you can best match up.  Beloved Brands are either better, different or cheaper. Or they are not around for much longer.   There’s too much pressure to be a copy cat brand–your channel might be the first to reject you, but if not, the consumer surely will.  The winning zone is to match up what your consumer wants and what you do best.   Avoid taking your competitor on in the space that they are better than you or you’ll get your butt handed to you.  Where you are both trying to meet the needs of the consumer and are equal in performance, be careful that the leader may win, unless you can find ways to connect emotionally, be more innovative or find ways to provide superior execution.  But even then, this space is a risky place to play.
  • Pick a Focused Strategy:  Brands need to understand where they sit before picking strategies.  Evaluate the health of your brand using the Brand Funnel to understand where you are strong and should keep pushing or where you have a weakness (a Leak) that you need to close.  Where you sit competitively–whether you are the Leader, challenger or a niche player–impacts what competitive strategy you might choose.  I also promote the idea of the Brand Love Curve where the relationship between the consumer and brand move along a curve going from Indifferent to Like It to Love It and onto a Beloved Brand for Life.  The farther along the curve, the tighter the connectivity, which means more brand power and a potential to drive growth and profits.  Where you are on the Brand Love Curve can help focus your strategic choices.   If your brand is Indifferent, you need to establish your brand in the mind of the consumer so they are aware and consider your brand.  If you’re stuck at the Like It stage, you need to separate yourself and drive the rational and emotional benefits into your consumers mind.  If you’ve made it the Love It stage, keep finding ways to tug at the heart of your consumers and find ways to build it into their daily life.  At the Beloved Brand stage, keep fuelling the magic to maintain the love.  Attack yourself before others attack you. Leverage all the power you’ve created to stay in the lead position
  • Focused Activities.  While everyone talks ROI, I talk ROE as well.  Return on Effort forces you to prioritize all your activities.  If you put all the proposed tactics and activities on a grid, plotting the ideas as Easy vs Difficult to and then Big Wins vs Small Wins, you want all your focus to be on the Big and Easy ideas.  If the ideas are Easy and Small then brainstorm ways to make them bigger.   If they are Big but Difficult then brainstorm ways to make them easier.  The Biggest Easiest ideas will drive a higher ROE and in turn a higher ROI.  It’s the point where you’ll see an impact for what you do.
Challenge Yourself to Focus

If I can challenge you in each of the areas.  Push yourself on the target to have a bulls-eye target of no more than 5 years.  Force yourself to have one “shout from the mountain” style main message supported by a maximum of two reasons to believe.  As you’re doing your brand plan, try to narrow it down to 3 key strategies and for each strategy a maximum of 3 tactics.  That leaves you taking your resources and spreading them across a maximum of 9 tactics in total.  Spend 75% of your resources against the top 3 tactics.  That’s much more focused than 5 strategies with 5 tactics per–which spreads your resources and efforts across 25 tactics in total.  None of these are hard and fast rules, just challenges to be more focused.  

Watch what happens when you start saying “or” and stop saying “and”.  After all, “It’s all about choices”.  


I run Brand Leader Training programs on this very subject as well as a variety of others that are all designed to make better Brand Leaders.  Click on any of the topics below:

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If you or team has any interest in a training program, please contact me at



About Graham Robertson: I’m a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands.  My background includes 20 years of CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke. The reason why I started Beloved Brands Inc. is to help brands realize their full potential value by generating more love for the brand.   I only do two things:  1) Make Brands Better or 2) Make Brand Leaders Better.  I have a reputation as someone who can find growth where others can’t, whether that’s on a turnaround, re-positioning, new launch or a sustaining high growth.  And I love to make Brand Leaders better by sharing my knowledge. My promise to you is that I will get your brand and your team in a better position for future growth.  To read more about Beloved Brands Inc., visit   or visit my Slideshare site at where you can find numerous presentations on How to be a Great Brand Leader.  Feel free to add me on Linked In at  or on follow me on Twitter at @GrayRobertson1