Virtual brand workshops: 6 secrets of success

Back in March 2020, I rushed back to London from a workshop in San Diego, following Trump’s announcement of US border closures owing to the growing threat of Covid-19. The date was, you guessed it, Friday the 13th. I sat on the plane and fretted. First and foremost were, of course, concerns over the health of family and friends. But then came a wave of worry about my business. Would clients cancel their projects? Would anyone want to start new projects? And if they did, how would we run them, given an end to face-to-face meetings for the foreseeable future? By the time we landed, I at least had the start of an answer to the last question: a draft presentation called Virtual Brand Strategy.

Virtual brand strategy projects

Our approach built on 20 years of experience of running the brandgym as a fully virtual business. It was designed like this from day one: a global team; no offices; virtual collaboration, via phone/email and then Zoom. Having a clear, confident view on virtual working helped secure live projects and win new ones. Fast forward to today and we’ve run 200+ virtual brand workshops which have proved to be highly effective. Sure, they’re not 100% as good as face to face. But feedback is that they’re 80-90% as good, provided they are well designed and facilitated.

Virtual brand strategy training

In addition to virtual brand strategy projects, we fast-tracked the design and development of our own online marketing training platform: We launched the Mastering Brand Growth program in February 2020 and we’ve now had over 250 people take one of our programs.

In this post, I pull out some key learning from the year of working virtually, including research we did with 100+ marketing directors on the impact of the Covid crisis on brand strategy back in April 2020.

1. Brand strategy work has continued

The seismic shock of Covid-19 required urgent short-term tactical responses. At the same time, 97% of marketing directors agreed it was important to keep working on brand strategy. Encouragingly, over 2/3 of marketers said they planned to continue with brand strategy work or even start new work. From our side, we’ve seen follow through on these good intentions. Almost all existing projects were maintained and new ones started. I’ve been impressed by the determination of teams to keep moving forward strategically and not fall into the trap of only focusing on short term tactics.

2. Companies have focused on the core

Our survey suggested strategic priority one would be growing the core (67% rating very important) followed by brand positioning (50%). This has been borne out in the virtual brand projects teams have briefed us on. Many teams saw the crisis as a stimulus to really sharpen their brand strategy and get in shape for 2021 and beyond.

For some, the challenge has been coping with demand, such as the Verkade chocolate and biscuits team I worked with in Holland. Their brand idea of Tastes Like Home really hit the mark.

Other brands had to pivot to save their business. I posted on here on Liana Collection, a distributor of small, independent drinks brands to pubs & bars. The brand quickly created the Liana Cocktail company. This delivers letterbox-friendly packages containing a kit to make three exceptional, handmade cocktails at home. Portfolio focus was also flagged as important. Here, a recent high profile example is Coca-Cola, who plans to kill of small, ‘zombie brands’ as we posted on here.

3. Brand workshops & training have gone fully virtual

The Covid crisis triggered an online transformation for marketing. We found that 50% of companies shifted training online, inspiring us to develop A further 41% were already using virtual brand workshops. This trend has continued, with pretty much every company we work with by now having experimented with virtual workshops.

I feel like the global marketing community deserves a little pat on the back here. Several years learning was been compressed into a matter of months, allowing companies to keep moving and teams to collaborate.

4. Virtual brand workshops can work

Virtual workshops were rated 70-80% as effective as face-to-face for 48% of respondents and equally effective for 14%. As time has progressed, companies have increasingly got used to the upsides of virtual brand workshops, including savings in travel cost, time and carbon emissions.

However, just over 1/3 rated virtual workshops as just OK or even poor, with challenges including engagement, collaboration and creativity. Our experience on 200+ virtual brand workshops shows these challenges can be addressed. BUT this requires a whole new way of designing, planning and facilitating workshops.

6. Six success factors for virtual brand workshops

Our big conclusion is that the key to success in a virtual world is less about technology and more about smart process design and expert facilitation. Only this week, we sat through a workshop run by a global ad agency with the latest fancy online whiteboard software … but no proper summary or crafting of the ideas shared. It also had hour after hour of dense charts: bad enough in a face-to-face meeting, but definitely death by Powerpoint in the virtual world.

Building on our learning we’ve summarised 6 key success factors for virtual brand workshops:

  1. Efficiency: pre-reads and pre-work to maximise the value of time online
  2. Engagement: short, visual presentations
  3. Participation: manage ‘air time’ and use online voting to get group views
  4. Collaboration: breakout rooms using bespoke templates for feedback
  5. Inspiration: live crafting and visualisation of ideas
  6. Energy: shorter sessions, frequent breaks, energisers
Virtual brand worksop design

In conclusion, the craziest couple of years showed that virtual brand workshops and training can work, provided they use smart design and expert facilitation. It’s definitely not a case of ‘copy & pasting’ what works in the physical world. We do look forward to getting on a plane again and flying to a real-life meeting (remember those?!). But until we get to that point, we start the year confident that virtual working can be effective.

If you’d like a copy of the full research report on Virtual Brand Strategy, simply stick your name and email in the form below. We’ll also send you the news on topical brand growth stories and info on upcoming training programs. (If you don’t find this stuff interesting, you can unsubscribe at any point).

For more insights on brand workshops, you may want to check out the earlier blogposts below:

Unlock your Creativity with Outdoor Workshops: here

How to have Workshops that Work: here

Making Workshops effective, not toxic: here

Embracing Virtual Working -13th Annual brandgym research paper: here

Using Crisis as a Catalyst to Coach Team: here