Miriam Stone uses the sticky note method
This week’s guest is Miriam Stone, an independent strategist who works with agencies around the Bay Area, including lifestyle branding agency Noise 13, where she’s Strategy Director. In addition to her brand consulting work, Miriam’s helped create and develop brands from inside the organization, as a Co-Founder of Swing Left, a national political movement, and previously as VP of Business Development for VisionSpring.
Miriam and I first met at Interbrand San Francisco in 2012. Since then, we’ve become good friends and frequent collaborators. She’s one of the smartest, most thoughtful strategists I know. When she told me she’d been working on documenting her process for getting from facts and observations to useful findings and insights, I jumped at the opportunity to have her walk through it on the podcast. This is exactly the “practical and tactical” information for which I created How Brands Are Built. It’s an in-the-weeds conversation, but if you’re working in branding and looking to get more systematic in your approach to insight generation, you’ll want to tune in.
Miriam walked through four steps to insight generation. Her perspective is that, while some parts of brand strategy may require “that little, extra, innate spark or talent,” other parts, like those below, can be approached systematically.
Step 1: Collecting
- Try not to make any judgements until the research is done. Miriam: “Just listen. Read, and listen. … Just be a sponge.”
- Use the “Three C’s” to collect information about the Company, the Category (including competitors), and Customers.
- At a minimum, do a few fact-gathering sessions with the client team and supplement with desktop research.
- One exercise recommendation: Have the client list every competitor, then prioritize the top three. Break into groups and list out points of differentiation between the client’s brand and competitors’ brands—not just product benefits, but brand strengths and weaknesses.
Step 2: Grouping
- Put everything up on the wall with sticky notes—one fact per note.
- Group similar or related facts and findings, without trying to draw out insights yet. Miriam: “I think that takes the pressure off of you as a strategist. It takes the pressure off of the data.”
- At this point, you might have 10 or 20 different groupings, which is way too many to present to a client as “insights.”
Step 3: Synthesizing
- Take a step back and ask yourself what themes you see—what the groupings are telling you on a deeper level.
- Look for points of tension between the themes, ideas that are strongly supported, or anything that doesn’t make sense.
- Ultimately, you should be able to get down to five or six big insights.
Step 4: Storytelling
- Don’t think in PowerPoint. (Credit to Caren Williams)
- Write an outline—what’s the key observation or insight on each slide, and what facts or quotes will you use to back each one up.
- You should feel like your outline is 70—80% complete before you move to slides (assuming that’s how you’ll present).
- The outline allows you to see any holes in the story.
Miriam’s a big proponent of using sticky notes throughout these steps, an approach she learned from Caren Williams, with whom we both worked at Interbrand. Caren is now an independent brand strategist working in the Bay Area. Despite having tried other methods, Miriam finds that sticky notes work best for a number of reasons:
- They “force you to distill as you’re doing your research.”
- “Because you can only write so much, you have to abstract a little bit as you’re writing.”
- “You can move them around really easily.”
- They force you to switch medium (from screen to physical paper).
- You stand up and move around while using them. “I think it does something good for the brain.”
- When working with other people, you can look at the wall together and discuss what you’re finding.
We also talked about competitive audits, getting from insights to a brand platform, what “ingredients” should be included in a brand platform, and what makes a good brand essence.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB: Miriam Stone, thanks for joining me.
MIRIAM: Thanks for having me.
R: You and I have worked together a lot. I know something that you’ve done recently is try to break down the process that you use to get from data that you’ve collected during the discovery phase of a project to the insights that you then use to inform a strategy. Can you talk a little bit about why you took on that project of breaking that down step-by-step?
M: I started thinking a lot about these question as I was training some new strategists to help me on projects. Up until this point, I had often done most projects just completely by myself. I realized I had been sort of developing these methods for collecting a huge amount of data, sort of processing that data, and turning it into insights. When I started working with other people, other strategist, but really younger people who hadn’t necessarily been through this type of strategy before, people who kind of have that raw talent but didn’t have the training.
R: It seems like one of those things that isn’t trained generally. You and I both worked at agencies and I suppose we haven’t worked in all of them, so who knows if this is true of all of them. But it almost seems like the conventional wisdom is that it can’t be trained, that you just sort of get it or you don’t.
M: I think I do have a different perspective on that. I think that there are parts to strategy that can absolutely be trained and that almost anybody can do if they sort of have the will or the excitement for it. I do think there’s a part of strategy that is a little bit more innate or takes certain kind of talent that not everybody is perfectly suited for. But I mean many people are, it’s not some super rare quality, but I think there are certain parts of the process that I think do take that little extra, I guess, innate spark or talent.
But I think there are a lot of steps to the process that are almost a little bit wrought and those are parts of the process that I was really excited to systematize in part so that I could actually have other people help me with them. I started to realize that I was taking on all of the steps by myself and these are the parts of the process that are really time-consuming and really overwhelming. Also, it really helps to have another person dig into the research with you as a strategist so that when you get to that part that’s more about that spark of insight, you have someone to talk about it with who deeply understands it.
R: Talk us through the process a little bit. Maybe it’s best, if possible, if you can kind of do a quick flyover of the steps first and then maybe we can go into some of them a little more deeply. Does that work?
M: What we’re talking about here, I think, is getting from the beginning phases of the research where you just don’t know that much about the brand that you’re working with and need to get an overview and understand it from different perspectives. And then all the way through sort of presenting back to the client, in this case, your findings. Like, “What did you learn and what are the things that you learned, say, about the brand and the potential directions for building the brand?” these are all I think kind of the first steps that inputs the go into a strategy and positioning project. This stuff all comes before you write anything down into brand positioning statement or brand platform or anything like that.
I see it as four key steps. The first step is about collecting and purely collecting. I think one of the things I did as a strategist when I first started was collect and then try to synthesize and judge what I was collecting as I went through it. For example, reading a bunch of articles and then saying, “Okay, I have an insight about this brand.” Or listening to a couple of interviews and saying, “Okay, now I sort of know what’s going on.” Or, “This person said one thing and that’s a great insight.”
I really try hard and when I’m training other people on how to do this, I really encourage them to basically not make any judgement until they have almost all of the research done. Just listen; read and listen. If you’re doing interviews or workshops, just be sort of a sponge and just don’t try to create too many insights.
R: When you talk about just gathering information, can you talk through some of the different ways that you’re collecting the information out there and eventually, it’s making its way into this process that you’re talking about.
M: I typically try to look at it through the traditional Three C’s lens from my business school days. Looking at it through the lens of the company which is sort of really internal things and things that make this brand authentic, through the lens of the category, finding what’s different about them, making sure that we’re really examining the landscape, and through customers which really helps to get at what do our audiences need and how do we be relevant to them. I use those three buckets.
I actually have checklists for this where I’m making sure that all the information that I’m sourcing that I have enough from each bucket. Some pieces of information kind of cross buckets. It’s not really like one thing fits into one particular bucket, but I really want to make sure that I’m covering three of those territories.
For the company, you might want to look at internal documents and make sure you’re doing internal interviews, you might do workshop with the client team. Also, really digging into the brand itself, like studying their website obviously, but maybe even googling and seeing what other people are saying about them, making sure you understand their history and the founding story. You can even look online in places like Glassdoor and see what employees are saying about them, that kind of thing.
R: If a prospect comes in and says they just want to do the bare minimum discovery phase, whether or not it’s ill-advised, is there something that you use as your go-to minimum amount of information in order to build a brand platform?
M: Yes. The situation comes up all the time. People pretty much always want to know what the minimum is, and I think, often clients want us to be fast and they feel like we should just be able to figure it out. I’m often pushing back and saying, “No, we really need more information to create something.” But that said, a minimum would be doing at least a couple of client meetings or workshops. I say workshops, I mean sort of fact gathering sessions from the team. I think having a couple of key people in a room together, taking them through a couple of exercises that really get at some of these key things that we need to learn about, that can be an extremely effective way to get at especially these internal things. But also, you learn a lot about the audience.
Often, clients don’t have budget for a big research project where you can go out and survey or interview lots of people. Interviewing the clients and what they’ve learned about the market can be an okay stand-in. It’s not ideal but it can be a stand-in. and then we might supplement that with desktop research. I love Stylist, we have a subscription to that, and it’s my favorite research tool for audience trends. And then I think understanding the competitive landscaping can be done pretty quickly, so as long as your client is giving you some guidance in terms of who are the top competitors, you can always just survey it through looking at websites and things like that.
R: Since you mentioned exercises in those workshops, do you have one or two favorite exercises you’ve been using lately to get information from clients?
M: One simple exercise that I think is really, really helpful is to talk about competitive points of differentiation. For example, I might have a client or have in a workshop have clients list out every single competitor and then really force them to choose the top three. It’s funny because when you ask them to list out competitors, people can tend to just go on forever, and they’ll sort of say, “Oh, it so complicated. We have lots of different types of competitors.” I think once you’re forced to say like, “You have to distill down,” people can do it. They know who they’re really up against.
I’ll have them choose three and then usually break into groups and do this up the wall either at a whiteboard or those big sticky papers. I’ll ask them to really look at each competitor and their own brand and list out the points of differentiation. I think often people think about from a product level like, “What’s different about our product? What benefits do we offer?” that’s the kind of competitive analysis people always do. I think what we can bring thinking about it from a brand perspective is to say, “Okay, let’s talk about the benefits of your product but let’s also talk about the benefits of the competitor’s product. And then let’s talk about the brand piece. What kind of story can they tell? What kind of recognition do they have? What kind of affinity do people have for them? What kind of perceptions do they have for them whether it’s warranted or not?”
And then same for us and for our brand. “What do people think of us? What kind of history do we have? What’s authentic about us? What story can we tell?” that’s different from the specific competitor.
R: Okay. So, step two.
M: Step two is about, once you really have everything, it’s about synthesizing. The first level of, “Let’s just kind of see what have.” That might mean sort of pulling out some overall themes or overall groupings of the different types of things that we heard. But not necessarily creating any insights out of that yet. I think that takes the pressure off of you as a strategist. It kind of takes the pressure off of the data to say, “Okay, let’s just do that first level of distillation.”
And then I think step three is taking a step even further back and saying, “What is all this telling us on a deeper level? What kind of insights can we drive about the brand and the direction that it should go?” Pulling out these groupings, you can start to take a step back and look at them and see things like points of tension or things that don’t make sense, or things that are coming out really strongly. You can start to put those things together into something more which will be insight.
R: First, you’re taking everything you’ve found and you’re just grouping them around themes, and then you’re taking a step back and looking what those themes are, and maybe starting to draw lines between them either things that don’t match up or things that do and kind of how they’re associated with one another and that starts to get you on a path toward an insight about the brand?
M: Yes. I think that’s a good way to put it. Another way to think about is also even just in terms of numbers. When I first do that second step of pulling out themes, there might be something like 10 or 20 different themes that come out from the research. I think, to me, that’s just far too much, that’s not really distillation. That’s sort of just…
R: Laundry listing?
M: Laundry listing, all the things you heard, that’s right. For me, insights, especially insights that are useful to a client, there should really only be maybe five or six big, big insights. That means pulling all those different groupings together, thinking about what they say at a higher level. One of the things that I’ll often do at this phase is actually, I have these all up on a wall, and so I might especially if I’m working with somebody else, talk about it, out loud, like tell a story.
R: When you say you have it up on the wall, this is where you’re using—I know you like to use sticky notes a lot—is that typically what you’re doing at this point?
M: Yes, absolutely.
R: We should credit our mutual friend, Caren Williams, here with the sticky notes methodology.
M: I still call it the Caren method.
R: Thank you, Caren.
M: What’s funny is I’ve actually tried a lot of different methods. Because I think the Post-It Note method is, it’s quite time-consuming actually—especially to do it really well. But I tried other methods. I’ve tried using Google Docs, I’ve tried using spreadsheets, I’ve tried actually typing out notes and then printing them in some way on a paper and then putting those papers on the wall. I’m all about efficiency and so I really try to make it more efficient. I just kept coming back to this method because it really works.
R: I know you have some rules and maybe these are Caren’s rules as well but the rules of using sticky notes correctly for this kind of work.
M: Yes. I think the reason it works and the rules that make it work, they actually have to do with the form of the sticky note.
R: The classic, square…
M: The classic square, yeah. But I think that it works because the sticky notes force you to distill as you’re doing your research. The idea is to use those small sticky notes—the classic sticky notes—to put one fact on each. Or that fact might be something that you read in an article or that fact might be something that you heard in an interview or something that you heard in a client workshop.
The sticky notes aren’t very big. I also like to use that kind of medium-sized sharpie marker because, first of all, you can see it once it’s up on the wall, but also because you can only write so much on the Post-It Note. Because you can only write so much, you have to abstract a little bit as you’re writing it. You really have to get to the essence of what that quote or that person or that piece of data is telling you.
When you get to that next level of grouping, so step two, you might use for example, a slightly larger Post-It Note. For example, rectangular ones are nice because it sets it apart. That’s where I start to write something a little bit more like a theme or a grouping or a little bit higher level observation. I think Post-It Notes are also great because you can move them around really easily. Once you have them up on the wall, you can now move them into groups, you can switch groups, and they’re also nice because they go on the wall.
I think that there’s something about developing insights and taking your head out of the deep research that you’ve been doing, it’s really helpful to actually switch mediums. Instead of writing or instead of being at your computer screen, you’re standing up, you’re walking around, you’re looking at the wall, you’re moving things around, I think it does something good for your brain. I think we talked a little bit about, but I think this is where you start to go from research and just general insights to the brand. Like, “What are we doing here with this brand?” I think this is the place where you start to ask questions like, “What is it about this brand that’s really authentic? What are the stories that we heard or the things this brand has done in the past or loves to do in the future that make it really authentic and real? What’s interesting about this brand that we can pull out for the future and pull out for the brand that we’re building?”
R: And then the storytelling, I guess, you’re at some point, you need to write this down. You need to write it down, you need to choose not only what are the themes and what are the insights that you drive for them, but how are you going to phrase them which of course can make or break how they’re interpreted by your clients or anybody else who sees them. Can you talk a little bit about that transition from sticky notes on the wall to presumably sentences or phrases that you’ve written that go into a presentation or something like that?
M: Yes. That is step four, in fact—telling a story. I have to credit this quote to Caren Williams once again. She always told me, “Don’t think in PowerPoint.” and I think it’s a really good advice. I think that this last step of getting from your beautiful sticky note wall to a client presentation usually in PowerPoint is a difficult transition. Because I think, often, I feel like I have this very clear story in my head and if I’m working with another strategist, we might just be sort of going back and forth and high-fiving and saying, “Yeah, we got it. We really understand this. We’ve got some great insights.” But like you said, now we have to get it in on the proverbial paper.
One of the things that I started to do is actually write it out in outline form before ever using a power point or any kind of presentation form. I typically now use a Google doc, so I can collaborate with others. I try to write it out what will each slide say, kind of, “What’s the key insight that I’ll talk about on each slide or the key thing I learned, the key observation, how might I back it up,” and I’ll actually start typing out those little facts or quotes that are going to back up my point and then I’ll try to get 70% or 80% of the way there before committing it to slides.
R: That allows you to see the “story” that you’re telling all in one place, right?
M: Yeah, it does. I think once you start doing that, you start seeing the holes that you didn’t notice before.
R: The approach to drawing insights out from competitive research is a little bit different. How is it different from what you’re already described?
M: I think the competitive audit process is, I guess, it’s in the word, it’s a little bit more of an audit than it is just sort of fact-finding and putting them all up on the wall. Typically, what I would do here is, this is an area where I actually do go write two PowerPoint slides. I would create or whoever I’m working with would create a slide or two per competitor. I think that works because you really are needing to look at visuals and messaging. You really are wanting to create sort of a snapshot of each brand, of each competitor brand that you’re looking at. But I think in a way, that’s the fact-finding, so that’s just the beginning.
I think the next step is to take a look at all of them and actually try to bring them all under one roof and be able to say something about the competitive landscape. Again, creating an insight that’s useful for the brand. Sometimes it’s about finding that “white space” which, sometimes, it exists. In a really competitive landscape and a really competitive marketplace.
For example, I did a project for a beer, a craft brewery and they were over 700 craft breweries in California. There wasn’t really white space, white space. It wasn’t like, “Oh my gosh, nobody is doing this.” In those cases, it might be something more like we can tell a particular story about our brand and we can infuse a certain kind of personality that maybe our closest competitors aren’t using. But regardless, I think it’s really helpful to actually put all the competitors, as much as possible, into the same place.
That’s where a perceptual map comes into play. I know that there’s a technical way to do perceptual mapping that’s done through quantitative research. The type of perceptual mapping that most brands strategist I know do is a little bit more of a gut feeling which is fine because I think that in many ways, brands and brand strategy is about that gut feeling, that emotional feel that you have when you look at brands. As a strategist or as a consultant, you do have value to add looking at the landscape for the first time and trying to just put it all in one place and say, “Okay, well, where is everybody sitting in this landscape? Where do we think the brand that we’re working with could or should sit?”
R: Once you’ve gathered all of those insights, some of them are about competitors, some are about customers or consumers that may hopefully be buying this brand, how do you get from these well-crafted insight statements that are going to your presentation? How does that eventually turn into a really focused recommendation for what this brand should stand for?
M: I think it’s important to have those insights and put them aside and then say, “Okay, what is it about this brand that’s truly authentic that we know we need to hit on in the messaging or in the positioning? What is it that we know about our audience that’s most important to them, that’s most relevant to them?” Same thing with the competitive landscape, “What do we know about the competitive landscape, where is that space we want to play in?” I think it’s just one more level of abstraction.
If you can really look at each of those buckets and say one or two key things about the brand whether that’s the message, or the story, or the personality, or the offerings, or the people behind it, or who the audience is, if you can distill down those things and maybe even try to put them into those buckets, I think that’s that first step in crafting a brand positioning or brand platform. I think it’s knowing what model you want to use and really just plugging things in.
One of the things that I actually do is, I go back to the post-its, I take a fresh wall. I might actually take pictures of everything and I might take my original wall down and put up a fresh wall. I often go back to my insights and go back to the presentation and just write down keywords or key phrases or key ideas and put those on post-its. Now, I might have 25 post-its that are just a little bit more abstract, they might be more sort of emotional words or storytelling words, and then I might think about the model that I’m using and actually start plugging those post-its into different parts of the model.
R: You mentioned that whatever model you’re using, we both know there are all kinds of models out there, academic versions and agency models, what are some of the different ingredients or components within those models that you’re almost always trying to populate with some of these words or concepts?
M: I think there’s a couple of really important things that they really have to be in any models for it to be useful. I think something around, I call them pillars, but they might be strengths or something like that, but sort of just, “What does this brand actually do?” I think is really important. I usually like to stick to three, three key things that really sort of root the brand and what they actually do in the market, what’s actually unique about them or their approach, or something like that. Three to four, I would say, brand pillars—I would call them—that’s really important. Some kind of description of the target audience.
Usually, I would talk about this more from a psychographic or conceptual standpoint more so than demographic. You might talk about who the audience is in terms of where they work or something like that or the type of role they have or other kinds of demographic information but I think more importantly, it’s what do they believe, what are those core things, the things that they value that we really want to tap into as a brand.
I think brand personality is really critical. That’s three or four keywords that summarize sort of how the brand will behave, the look and feel of the brand. And then often summing it up with some essence statement or some kind of powerful line about the brand. Almost sounds a little bit tagline-y. that can be really helpful. It’s not always easy to do and sometimes, you don’t get there right away. If it’s more descriptive, that’s okay. Sometimes it can be more sort of powerful and emotional. But some kind of lines would sum everything up is really helpful.
R: I don’t know if it’s just coincidence, the order that you said those things, that does loosely tie at all to the order that you find you often populate these different parts of a model in?
M: I almost always would do that sort of essence line at the end. Because that is really the distillation of all distillations. At least for me, I need to know everything else going into it first, to know whether I’ve got it. I think of it almost like a brand poetry where there’s no words to spare. Every word needs to have meaning, often double meaning, but it also needs to sound good and be powerful. It’s really hard. Again, you don’t always crack it. I’ve had situations, projects that I’ve worked on where we haven’t really quite cracked it and that’s okay. We’ll just use the like that more summarizes the brand and that can be fine. But there are sometimes that it really just pops and those are really exciting.
R: Since we started the conversation talking about training people that are maybe less experienced, when you get to this part that you’re not distilling but actually creating or writing, do you have any rules of thumb or just sort of rules that you use to teach people what is or isn’t a good essence statement or a well-written statement or maybe for any of those other components, how do you describe a pillar or what is a personality trade or what isn’t?
M: This is hard. I think this is where maybe it does help to have some experienced, to have seen what kinds of things clients respond to. It also helps to have outside opinions. Anything I write, I make sure to share with other people. I guess the tip that I have would be, it needs to be a combination of functional, factual, and emotional. I think I’ve seen positioning statements and brand platforms and things like that feel like, “Yes, they capture everything that we’ve talked about or that needs to be talked about, but they fall off flat.”
I think sometimes the missing ingredient is that level of emotion but also, that level of distillation that we just talked about. It’s the kind of thing that you have to write, and then rewrite, and the rewrite until it’s truly as simple as possible. I think you always have to ask yourself, “Are there extraneous words that can go? How can you whittle it down as narrow as possible?” The more words, the more distracting it is.
R: Well, in the spirit of sticking to fewer words, why don’t we leave it there. But I hope that you’ll come back and join me again sometime on the podcast.
M: I hope so too.