Dennis Hahn makes brand culture by Swarming
Dennis Hahn is Chief Strategy Officer at Liquid Agency, a brand experience, strategy, marketing, and design agency with offices in San Jose, Portland, and New York. Dennis is responsible for the methodologies Liquid uses to address the strategic challenges of clients like John Deere, HP, Microsoft, Motorola, Nasdaq, PayPal, and Walmart.
During the episode, you’ll hear us reference this 2013 video of Dennis talking about brand experience:
Dennis and I discussed the dimensions of brand experience he mentions in the video, as well as Liquid’s approach to creating a brand experience for clients, which includes a proprietary workshop approach they call “Swarming.” Dennis describes Swarms as follows:
Swarming is our workshop methodology, essentially. It’s designed to attack a problem from a number of angles and unleashing the power of simultaneous collaboration between agencies and clients. It’s really a co-creation model, and that’s where we use the design thinking and lean startup principles to guide clients through that co-creation process.”
We also spent some time talking about a related concept Liquid focuses on these days, brand culture, which Dennis says is “the best possible relationship that a brand can have with its customers and employees.”
To learn more about Dennis, visit the Liquid site, where you can find his bio, some blog posts he’s written, and more information about the agency and its approach.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB MEYERSON: Dennis Hahn, thank you for joining me.
DENNIS HAHN: Thanks, Rob. Great to be here.
R: On the Liquid website, I see the words, “Brand Culture Makers.” I’d love it if you could just start by explaining that tagline or that line. What is brand culture and what does it mean to be a maker of brand culture?
D: That’s a great question. That’s actually the question that we’re trying to answer and I feel like we’ve been working on this for about a decade. Probably the most succinct way I could say it is the brand culture is the best possible relationship that a brand can have its customers and employees. It’s really an outcome and I think that’s an important thing to understand. It’s not a thing you necessarily are actively building, but you’re building toward.
R: I see. So, it’s sort of success. It’s a way to measure success of all these other things that we do like brand strategy and we’re going to talk about brand experience as well.
D: Correct and the makers part really comes from the fact that we’re not just as a strategic firm, but Liquid also makes things. As you know, there’s a big gap between strategy and the execution of that strategy. Sometimes, things get lost in the translation, so I think being able to bridge that gap with some things that you put into the world that are evident to the strategy, are really important.
R: I spoke with Marty Neumeier last season and I know he’s a big proponent of prototyping and things like that in order to demonstrate the implications of a strategy. Of course, he’s with you there at Liquid so it makes sense that you guys would be of like minds on that front.
D: Yeah, we definitely have a strong design thinking heritage here at Liquid for sure.
R: There’s also a graphic on the site and since this is an audio format, I’ll have to describe it. It’s a triangle with Brand Values at the center and then Company, Employees, and Customers on each of the three corners of the triangle. Another layer out from that there’s Service Experience, Employee Experience, and Customer Experience on the outside. Can you explain that? What is that graphic or that model? Is it something you actually use with clients? Or is it more than just a visual to demonstrate the thinking behind brand culture?
D: Yes. It’s exactly that. It’s a model that we use when we talk about what brand culture is and how you get there. That’s the model we tend to show clients and use. And it only took 10 years to make that triangle, by the way. It’s insane.
R: It takes a long time to get to something so simple, I guess.
D: It does and I think what it illustrates for us is that the relationships between the company, its employees, and its customers, that they’re all bound together by brand values or what we also call beliefs. When these are all in alignment between the company, the employee, and the customer, we say like a circuit of authenticity gets completed and that’s what creates the brand culture. In other words, it’s what you say, backing it up with what you do, getting people to understand what they’re buying into, and is my interaction with this company and brand authentic? Doesn’t ring true.
R: But is that graphic just a depiction of the approach or is it actually something you bring into a workshop and fill out with a client? Or maybe that you would deliver to a client is, “Here’s the version of this diagram with your brand values in the center”? Or is it not really intended for that?
D: It’s not. It’s really more to describe the philosophy and the relationships. Because I think when you say the word culture, people either think of pop culture and as for the advertising business goes, or people think of workplace culture. But when you bring brand and culture together, the customer and the employee, it’s an unusual pairing of audiences in the same model. That’s why it’s so important to the work that we do.
R: Related to that, I want to understand the connection between brand culture and brand experience. I agree, a lot of people would hear brand culture and if they’re thinking workplace culture, they’re thinking employees, primarily. A lot of people hear brand experience, and right or wrong they think mostly customer experience, which is I suppose different but related term. I don’t know if it’s depicted by that triangle or not, but can you explain how at Liquid you think of brand culture and brand experience being connected to one another?
D: That’s a great question. I guess we see brand experience as the sum total of all experiences a person has with the brand. That person could be an employee or a customer. We think of it less customer-centric and more broad. Those experiences can either be good or bad, or intentional or unintentional, meaning every brand has an experience.
R: Whether they want to or not.
D: Correct, but we think of brand culture as the more aspirational state, a sort of nirvana relationship between a brand and its audiences. So, brand culture is brand experience on its very best day.
R: And you mentioned design thinking as something that you guys make use of at Liquid. Are there any other methodologies or specific steps that you would use to create a brand experience for a client?
D: Yeah. We have that heritage in design thinking that I mentioned, but also growing up in Silicon Valley, we have really applied a lot of lean startup type principles, how fast the valley moves, so it all gets expressed in one of our methods we call swarming.
Swarming is our workshop methodology, essentially. It’s designed to attack a problem from a number of angles and unleashing the power of simultaneous collaboration between agencies and clients. It’s really a co-creation model and that’s where we use the design thinking and lean startup principles to guide clients through that co-creation process.
R: I’m just curious about how different agencies create these workshop methodologies. Is there a binder or a file somewhere on the server at Liquid of different exercises that you might bring into a swarm?
D: That’s a great question. Yes, there is a place where people can go, a repository with all the exercises that we do. We call them activities, but all the activities that we put clients through are all in one central place.
Now, swarming, because it’s a method, we can swarm anything; can swarm any problem. We can do messaging swarms, we can do brand strategy swarms, culture strategy swarms, brand activation swarms. When we say we’re doing a swarm, everybody has a mental model of, “Okay, we know we’re going to do this thing.” A typical swarm sprint is about two days, but we have done them in as few as two hours or as long as up to an entire week. So, it’s very scalable.
It’s modular, so basically if you’re going to do a brand strategy swarm, for example, there’s about five core activities we do with clients over those two days. You can go there and pull onliness from our book Brand Gap and Zag, which you’re probably familiar with Marty. Onliness is an activity that we do, as one of the design thinking activities. That’s one.
We do a cover story which gets that brand aspiration. We have a new one that we’ve created recently called, Ideal Brand Experience, which we’ve only been doing for a number of months now but with pretty good success.
What’s great about it is everybody knows how those things run. They know how the exercises work, they know how a swarm gets put together, so we can plug all kinds of people at Liquid into the swarm. We just have to get the clients understand how to do it.
What’s great about it is it gives us confidence in continuity and our work methodology, but it also doesn’t box us in because it is flexible. We can add new activities if we want, we can extend the length of a swarm or even change the subject.
R: You mentioned a new tool that you’re using called ideal brand experience, I think. Can you tell us anything more? I know some of this is proprietary, but is there anything you can share about what’s involved in that piece of a swarm?
D: Sure. I would say six or seven years ago, we started stumbling on this need, with working with brands like Skype, when we rebranded Skype or Nordstrom. The experience that their customers have are the things that actually have the most resonance with what the brand is about, the meaning of the brand versus the communications or the other things you might find in a typical brand platform.
So, we started to include a hook into the brand platform for experience. We started with experience principles, which makes a ton of sense because you need principles that guide the experience. But we found that putting the experience principles in the brand platform alongside of expression and tributes gets a little confusing because you have two lists of things and sets of principles. If you know these things, people have a hard time, “What do I do with these? What I do with those?”
So, we evolved it and instead, we have an aspiration for the experience, a higher level thing we call ideal brand experience. At the end of the day, this is what the outcome is. This is how we want the audience to feel as a result of having the experience with this brand. That sits at the top of the food chain, if you will, for experience.
R: Is that a written statement or something like that?
D: It is, but we also pressure test it through scenarios. We will often run customer scenario through that lens or employee-based scenarios around different experiences to try and get at the core essence of what kind of experience this brand is intending to deliver.
We’ve built a follow-on framework which is an experience principles framework. Once we’ve identified the ideal brand experience, it sits at the top of that framework. Then, if we have customers that want to go deeper on really designing experience principles, in getting to expressions for either employee experiences or customer experiences, we have a whole way of getting them there.
R: You mentioned that some of this thinking started about six years ago, I think. I wonder if that’s where this video comes from that I found of you online. It’s funny because when I decided this season was about brand experience, my mind pretty quickly went back to the studio that I remember seeing you talking about Liquid’s way of thinking about brand experience. Now, this was six years ago, so I’m not sure that it’s still up-to-date, but you mentioned that you like to break brand experience up into digital, employees, product, and/or service. Do you still use that grouping for different aspects of a brand experience?
D: More or less, yes. Today, instead of brand experience we just say brand culture and we activate through four key dimensions. Communications, which is where the brand communications need to tell the story, it’s the customer experiences, the employee experiences in what we call the products and services.
R: Got it. Then underneath each of those dimensions, once you’re trying to prototype based on an ideal brand experience, are there some go-to experiences or touch points that you want to prototype or does it really need to be tailored to what exactly is this brand, what do they do, what are their customers like? How does that usually work?
D: Definitely the latter because context is everything, as you know. As you’re thinking about experiences for a SaaS software company are going to be very different than that for an automotive company. The touch points that you’re going to be thinking about and the journeys you’re going to be mapping for those customers are going to be vastly different.
We take that into account, so when we do get to that prototyping stage, which we almost always do, we then dial in the experiences that matter for that particular brand, that particular audience or tribe, in this case that we call it. That’s where we start to get very specific around taking these experience principles aside the ideal experience we’re trying to create, and then trying to model that through a number of different experiences, which can be both existing, making them better, but also net new experiences, which is also pretty typical in our work.
R: I love it if you could give an example. I don’t know if there’s a Liquid client or somebody been working with recently, but I’m especially curious. If I’m the client and I’m sitting in one of these presentations from Liquid, where you’re starting to show some of these prototypes, what does that part feel like?
D: Recently, we’re coming off of a six-month engagement with an automotive repair franchise business. It’s a chain of quick service repair shops where they’ll do everything from oil changes to rebuild your engine. They really were looking at the experience for a very limited way through their brick and mortar experience when you come in, drop your car off, gets fixed, and so on.
What we did was we really wanted to bring them on a much bigger journey to think 10 years out. What would this experience start to look like for customers? How would it be different? And give them a road map for evolving the brand into the future and also includes the service offerings and everything that goes along with that. It’s not just physical services but literally digital. What’s the digital service equivalent look like, things like that.
When you’re going through a strategy, as you know, you can get a lot of head nodding, you can get people the green on something, but until you start to make it come to life through prototypes, that’s when the rubber hits the road. That’s when your clients have that aha moment and they say, “Oh, that’s exactly what I was thinking,” or, “I wasn’t thinking of that at all.” That’s that translation part I was telling you about earlier. It’s translating the words on a page to now, what would that really look like?
For this particular automotive company, we identified five pillars of their experience ever going to be really critical. One was around the physical architecture in the spaces. One was around digital. Another was around a new service model, new business model like subscription services and things like that.
So, when you start to get really specific around those and you say, “Let’s walk you through a clickable prototype of what a major repair would look like through a digital interface,” which is completely new for them, they don’t do that today, but when they see it, they go, “Oh, my God. That’s exactly where we think we need to go.” That’s the kind of experience our customers want and we need to find a way to build or deliver those.
R: I’m glad you said clickable interface because I was just about to ask how deep you guys will go into these prototypes. I guess that’s always got to be a question. You can go so deep that it feels like you’re almost building the product for them, but then if you don’t go deep enough, maybe they don’t get it and it doesn’t really help you or help the client envision what you’re recommending.
On something like that, I guess you couldn’t do mock-ups of an app and have it actually be clickable. You also mentioned architecture of the physical stores. Are you just mocking that up or doing renderings or something like that?
D: Yeah. For the physical architecture, we worked with our affiliate in Chile and they have an architecture practice, which is great. They came in and they worked on retrofit designs for existing stores, so what would a retrofit look like, and then what would the net new store look like, kind of like the store of the future.
We actually rendered them on iPads and we did a walk-through experience. That way, the client could hold them up, literally tap, and it literally move around and see the space from outside approach, and then as they walk through the space, what is that actually start to look like. This is all rendered and things like that.
R: I love that you guys did the retrofit on the existing locations as well. That really tethers it to reality. There’s a risk in doing this that it can all be kind of a pie in the sky, but it’s nice to show that you’ve demonstrated some recognition that there are business realities here, that they’re not just going to tear down all their stores and build new ones overnight.
D: Totally agree and for the digital experience, we actually model that using […] vision and you can click through on an iPhone and that’s what the customer sees. So, there’s a customer piece. Then, we did a companion experience on an iPad to show what the employee sees because it’s a connection between a service technician who’s working on the vehicle and a customer whose interface seen from some other location now no longer in the shop where the work’s being done, but in the comfort of their home, or at the mall, or wherever they happen to be. It shows that customer journey and what the actual experience will start to look like from both the employee side and also the customer side.
R: That’s great It brings it back to that triangle and the importance of recognizing both sides of that. Are there any non-clients that you think of when you think of brand experience and just great examples? I don’t know if you might even use them sometimes with clients to just inspire them and get them thinking about what a brand experience could be?
D: Yeah. Those examples are always really helpful because I think clients need to have a point of reference. In retail, we really love REI. I think REI is amazing, that building what we call brand culture. The reason we like them is because they really get the employee engagement side and how they need to embody the brand, not as like we dub you a brand ambassador kind of way, in a false way.
They want their employees to be just what their customers would do like, “Hey, grab this kayak and take it out this weekend. Try it out, use it, bring it back, and tell us what you think of it. These are employees that know the products really well. They use the products. They’re the customers, too, and that’s amazing. So, when a customer does go in, they’re getting to interact with a store associate that has real hands-on experience and knowledge. They know their stuff. They know what they’re talking about. They’re living and breathing this brand just like the customer is on a day-to-day basis, so they really got that nailed, I think.
R: Great. One of the other things that you mention in that video from a few years back, and it’s also I guess just common sense, is that to create a great brand experience, you really need to do some brand strategy or positioning work first. You need to understand the meaning behind the brand.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you do that piece at Liquid? How you would document […] there are all kinds of models and frameworks out there, some of which we’ve explored on the blog. I’m just curious if Liquid has one that you guys like to use or how you approach that?
D: Absolutely. We all have our secret sauce or method of getting there. I say there’s three major steps. First is really discovery research and that’s looking at it from the customer perspective, the business perspective, and a market perspective. We need our inputs and I think that’s something that is a very important step. We do a lot of quant research to identify the tribe and make sure we know who the customer is we’re actually designing the brand for. That is a big part of our process. We spend about anywhere from 4–8 weeks in that phase of work before the clients really see anything. That’s an important first foundational step.
Then, we build that into what we call a perspective. The perspective is really the synthesis and the distillation of everything we found. In this […] findings, I’d say it’s more insights, themes, and patterns. What are we seeing? So what of all this stuff? We use that to start to frame up positioning territory, so how might we position the brand given everything we learned.
Then we go into the brand swarm, which we’d typically spend two days. We level-set all the participants on what we learned to their perspective and then we take them through, like I said, about five activities that gives us input that we can then take away, distill later, and then put into the brand platform. The brand platform is the thing we’re trying to end up with.
For us, we have five main components of the brand platform. There’s the brand position, which is the most important element, is the thing in the middle, the thing you want the brand to stand for in the minds and the hearts of your tribe. There’s aspiration of the brand which gives it that future proof, that headroom so it isn’t limited to today. Brand promise, which is very important for messaging and setting up the value props, the ideal brand experience which I mentioned earlier. Then the expression attributes, which is really that look, tone, sound, and feel of the brand.
R: Got it. So, that’s where you get to some of the personality aspects of the brand.
D: Yeah, like the tone of voice and things like that, for sure.
R: Great. In each of those five areas, are you typically writing out pithy statements, or paragraphs, or bullet point list of words? Or is it just a mix of those types of things?
D: It’s totally a mix and the activities we’ve designed over the years and developed, we get out these things in different ways. We do what we call one level of abstraction from the actual thing itself. We don’t say, “Okay client, we’re going to have you write out your positioning statement,” because that is almost impossible to do as you know, especially in a pressure situation. You’re in a workshop and you’re trying to nail that statement. This is not going to happen.
We use our exercises or activities to get them thinking about it but in a different way so they’re in a roundabout way addressing these questions. For brand position, we use onliness and they have to write a simple construct of what makes them the only brand in their category. It’s a very deceptively simple question and we have a whole worksheet that they work through together to get at it.
R: And then you would take that so you wouldn’t be delivering back to them the—I don’t want to say correct—sort of final version of that onliness statement. Instead, you would be taking all of those as inputs and delivering back something that fits within that brand platform you described earlier.
D: Correct because it’s not a one-for-one necessarily. We don’t do a brand promise activity because we found that other activities we do actually get to the brand promise in a different way. Sometimes it’s through a brand archetype exercise we do, sometimes it’s through the onliness, sometimes it’s both. It just emergence and it becomes evident to us, but the clients would probably never recognize it.
R: Do you feel like you guys at Liquid are maybe less precious or wordsmithy about those types of statements because of the way you lean on design thinking and nestling start up idea of, “Let’s just get the words down on a page, do some prototyping, and then if we have to iterate we can, but let’s not spend weeks or months trying to get the phrase right that sits at the top of this framework”?
D: Yeah. That is a thorny question in a way. The reason I say that is, yes we tend to focus on the concepts and what they mean, and we’re less concerned about the language we’re using. This is internal language, anyway. It’s not like it’s going to be your tagline or whatever.
Our clients though, we have found when we do bring it back, that word choice in language can be a barrier to acceptance of a simple idea. One word can be the blocker for the concepts. If we get the word out of the way that they object to, we might still find the concept is correct. We have found ourselves tailoring language just to help with the selling of the concept itself.
R: Sure. It’s always striking that balance between selling the idea that you know is right for them but also getting past the selling stage and getting to the doing stage.
R: Great. I have a couple of wrap-up questions for you. You talked a little about REI. I usually ask about some favorite brands or brands that you think are doing a great job. Outside of even just thinking about brand experience but just in general, are there any other companies that you think of when you think of great brands?
D: Sure. There’s a lot of great brands. I think the one that I’ve mentioned before, Alaska Airlines, is really getting it in the airline category, which is not a category that generally people love those brands. Southwest I know is pretty classic. I think people either love Southwest or they hate it, which is the hallmark of a great brand.
R: It all comes down to the boarding. Comes out of that boarding policy of no assigned seats. I think either you love that or hate that.
D: Yeah, but I think it’s a great brand that can do that because you don’t want to be everything to everyone. For Alaska, I think they’re trying to take a different approach, but I think the acquisition of Virgin America really has rubbed off on them in many ways, and I think in many good ways. And I see that brand is starting to develop its own voice, it own take on airline travel, and making it actually a pleasant thing to do and not a drudgery, which is what most of it is today.
R: It’s funny. I think one of the other interviews I’ve done, so many mentioned loving Virgin and being a little disappointed post-acquisition. But that may have been a while ago. Do you feel like Alaska has slowly started to improve itself? Are you seeing a trajectory since the acquisition?
D: Completely, I’ve seen it, but I was always an Alaska flyer, so I have a different point of view. If I was a Virgin American flyer and that was being taken away, of course I’m going to object and say, “Wait a minute. What happened to my brand? I loved all these things about Virgin that made a quirky, fun to fly, and all those things.” What’s interesting is that the acquiring brand, in this case, Alaska, is their brand being influenced by that acquisition? Some […] I think positive ways.
R: Interesting. Do you have any book recommendations? It doesn’t have to be a branding book, specifically, but anything that’s influenced your work or they think is relevant for people who do brand work to read?
D: Yeah. I was thinking about that. It’s funny when I got into this business, in the branding business in particular, it was about 2001 coming off of the dot-com explosion and all those things. I had an opportunity to go to this agency called ID Branding in Portland. It’s a very small agency and I thought, “Oh, I know branding.” I got there and I realized I didn’t know anything about branding. I really didn’t know because it’s such a very specific discipline, as you know.
So, I just started reading a lot of books. The first book that really resonate with me was a book called, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. You might remember it. It’s a classic though. It’s Al Ries, Jack Trout. I still like that. I start to get what position was about and this idea that it occupies a space in your mind. Then years later, when I read The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier before I was working with him, it was like, “This makes sense to me. Now I totally get it,” and it’s actually much simpler than all the academics have written about.
Those are some foundational books, but today I’d say a good book is Fusion. I don’t know if you’ve read that book.
R: I haven’t. Is that by Denise Lee Yohn?
D: Yeah, Denise Lee Yohn and it’s interesting because she’s writing about integrating brand and culture to create really powerful brands and companies. Now, I might quibble with how she thinks about some of these concepts, definitely different than we do here at Liquid, but there’s there’s a similarity. I think […] that’s writing on the subject. I’m kind of a fan right now because they feel like these are the stories that need to be told and I feel like that’s a good point of reference for today.
R: I’ll pick that one up. Last question, Dennis. I know that you have a graphic design degree and that was your background, your education. I know you’ve also taught strategy at Portland State University. I guess on two fronts, both as a designer-turned-strategist—I’m curious your take coming from that angle—but also as someone who’s taught, has certainly led students, help them understand concepts, and maybe even given them some career advice, what advice do you have for either junior people in your agency or other agencies, or people that aren’t needed in the industry yet, but are just interested in trying their hand at this thing we call branding?
D: Well, the first thing I would say is get smart on the subject. When we think of branding, that’s a very broad term. You think you might know it, but it’s a very deep […] subject and I think getting a handle on it is really important. The thing I would recommend is actually work with people that know what they’re doing, which I’d say in almost any field. Really get good mentoring, see how it’s done up close and learn it if you can in a hands-on way. If you can’t do that then the next best step is to read about it.
I would say those are some things. We’ve actually just created a really great intern program at Liquid, We’re debuting it this summer, called The Dive Shop. It’s a chance for interns to come in and actually have that hands-on experience. It’s a 10-week program. They come in, they do it together as a cohort, we have seven divers, we call them, and they not only get to learn about the principles of of brand culture that we use here at Liquid, but they also are going to work on a real client. They actually get that experience to get to apply it. It just feels like any chance anybody can get to actually do it is always going to be the best.
R: That’s great that you’re able to have such a large number of interns as well because it feels like they will, like you said, a cohort, they’ll be able to bounce ideas off of each other. It’s a real shared experience for smaller agencies it seems like. They’re usually looking more for two or three, but seven is a really, really good number.
D: Yes. It’s also spread across a couple of our offices so they get a cross-office experience and we get to bring in different disciplines to work together. So, it’s not just all creatives or all strategists, for example. That’s a little bit of everybody. It kind of works together.
R: That’s great. I look forward to hearing how that goes and I hope it’s something that you guys continue.
D: We do too.
R: All right. Dennis, thank you so much for making time to chat today. I hope we’ll talk again soon.
D: All right, Rob. I really appreciate the opportunity.