Why All Brands Need A Brain Trust

Jerome ConlonJanuary 24, 20186 min

All corporations are operating in a hyper-critical climate today. Public cynicism about corporations and authority figures in media, entertainment, politics and religion is at an all-time high.

In the NFL, it took them months, a twitter war with the President of the United States and a big hit in TV ratings and their pocketbook, to discover that their business is not driven by making political or social statements. In the fall of the 2017 football schedule a considerable amount of reputation damage was done to the NFL. Could this situation have been anticipated and pre-empted before it occurred?

In a larger sense, in the US today we’re experiencing an erosion of the middle class — the chasm that has widened between the rich and all the rest — is leading us into class warfare. So, while we have a cultural war starting between liberals and conservatives, immigrants and natives, and a simultaneous political-economic war between globalists and nationalists, we also have an economic war starting between the rich and the poor, not to mention a respect / dignity war between the sexes, as is trending in the #metoo social movement. So many different, major, overlapping divisions creating conflict assure growing civil unrest for a long time to come with no clear path out. Predictive analytics of internet chatter sentiment has become an important new research tool for companies hoping to stay out of trouble or surf the latest trend. Decisions in this environment are best made with a brain trust.

The Origins Of Brain Trust

Brain trust began as a term for a group of close advisers, often academics, to a political candidate or incumbent, prized for their expertise in particular fields. The term is most associated with the group of advisers to Franklin Roosevelt during his presidential administration. More recently the use of the term has expanded to encompass any group of advisers to a decision maker, whether or not in politics.

The NFL and any brand that operates in the public domain is subject to and swims in the ether of popular opinion, which is a dynamic field of energy and information. Over the past few decades leading brands have established internal brain trusts to act as brand guardians to monitor the strength of the brand with the public. Invariably issues arise that require a swift and sincere response to not only protect the image of a brand but to also anticipate where bridges with key market segments might need repair. For example, Nike in the late 1980’s developed the first pure Brand Strength Monitor, an opinion poll like survey, every four months, to monitor the thoughts and feelings, about the brand, that defined Nikes’ brand character perceptions (positive and negative) and relationship strengths with key consumer segments. This research tool allowed a Nike internal Brain Trust called the Brand Guardians Group to be alerted when red flags were developing in the social consciousness that required some kind of corrective action.

Everything a corporation does contributes to its reputation. Reputation is shaped by the sum of people’s long-term interactions with the company’s products, services, employees and all its corporate and marketing communications. But, reputation is also shaped by opinion leaders, the news media, what people are saying about your brand in blogs, chat rooms and text messages. Word of Mouth is still the most potent form of marketing and when a story breaks with negative connotations, and then goes viral overnight serious damage to the tangible value of your company can occur very quickly.

So, a Brand Brain Trust and brand strength research tools are very good ideas for any company that is focused on protecting and nurturing goodwill and its market capitalization. This is why a positive reputation is considered a company’s most valuable asset.

Besides Nike’s Brand Guardian group (which I was a member of) the best example of the use of a brand brain trust that I have come across in practice was written about by Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, in his book ‘Creativity, Inc.’ Here Ed revealed the role that the brain trust idea played inside Pixar, driving it to its astounding level of success. It’s a story that is relevant to all brands and is certainly worth retelling here.

How Pixar Uses A Brain Trust To Unlock Its Potential

The goal of the Pixar Brain Trust was to uncover how to develop resonant relationships between the story, plot and characters, in a movie under development from the perspective of how it was playing to the audience. It is worth noting that every one of Pixar’s first 11 films were blockbusters, a batting average of 1,000%. No Hollywood studio had ever achieved this level of success.

“Every single Pixar film, at one time or another, has been the worst movie ever put on film. But we know. We trust our process.” – John Lasseter

To get there and stay there it became necessary for Pixar to see beyond the obvious, to uncover and discuss hidden dimensions about plot, characters, story, to help stories progress from broken-to-good-to-great. And every one of their movies went through a story doctoring process to refine it to the highest possible quality. Pixar learned that the brain trust process involved relying on the combined intelligence and instincts (thoughts + feelings) of a cross-functional team, to fully understand how key scenes played and to explore with each other how the entire story was playing. This required a delicate notes process of being intellectually and emotionally honest about personal feelings between the brain trust team members and between how each individual on this team “felt” in their “guts and hearts” the story, scene or character was actually playing. The objective of tapping into their subtle emotional bodies in this way was to create a process of providing story improvement notes.

At Pixar the problem of how to fix an entertainment project that showed promise but wasn’t quite clicking was by using “notes.” Ed points out, “A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense.  A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix a problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But, if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe the only answer. Most of all a good note is specific. ‘I’m writhing with boredom,’ is not a good note.”

Candor is very important, and openly discussing how people feel, as well as what they think, without any one person dominating and controlling a Brain Trust session was essential to Pixar. Ground rules for brain trust engagement set the stage so that all voices and points of view matter and were given consideration. No idea killing on the spot, instead notes were offered to provide encouragement or suggestions for how to evolve weak ideas into stronger ones.

It was the Movie Directors role to sort through all of these notes and to interpret which ones to act upon and how to act upon the suggestions.

The Brain Trust at Pixar accomplished several things simultaneously:

  • It provided an interactive field for intimate communications with the production team
  • It made it OK for people to weigh in with their thoughts, feelings, instincts and intuition
  • It provided ground rules for what constituted helpful or good “notes”
  • It established the ground rules for polishing rough ideas, going from good-to-great.
  • It stayed focused on one external goal – the highest quality entertainment experience
  • This process reduced project risk, increased project quality and tapped into genius group dynamics.
  • It strengthened the success rate ratio to a perfect score, strengthened the internal culture and strengthened brand image simultaneously.

This is the best example I can offer of a well-run brain trust that leads the way to unlocking the hidden energy on the interactive field between a brand and all its key constituents. Not to put too fine a point on it, how could you write a better ending than that?

If your brand needs assistance in setting up a Brain Trust, contact The Blake Project.

These and other insights into brand truth, purpose and deep campaigns is covered in greater detail in my new book, Soulful Branding – Unlock the Hidden Energy In Your Company and Brand. For more about Nike, here’s what I learned working on the Just Do It campaign.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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Jerome Conlon

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