Journeys in brand learning

Over lunch a few months ago, a client said something that stuck with me:

“I saw this thing grow and come to life. I get it, and it’s so exciting to me. But no one else does, and it’s so frustrating.”

For an off-hand comment between mouthfuls, this was a piercingly sharp critique of the way that many new brands are introduced internally. Our client had been working with us for months - we’d gone on a journey together. Exploring ideas, stewing them, poking in interesting directions, and generally exploring what their company really was. At the end, we produced some bullet points and PDFs.

I have a confession to make: our industry writes too many bullet points and produces too many PDFs. We’re paid for such output, but the journey too often falls aside along the way. Clients then preach our pillars, purpose, experience principles, and proposition to their people, but rarely share what got them there. We are all brand stylites without the back story.

So what happens next?

Workshops and eLearning modules are created. A chance to learn the brand, be given new purpose, and then click through ten questions at the end. You’d imagine a graph is produced somewhere: ‘brand per employee squared’ or some such. Sometimes we give them a new mug.

But no one really learns. Sure, they’ll chant the words if you ask them, but we’ve taken them to the output; they haven’t gone on the journey.

They don’t “get it”, and they certainly aren’t “excited by it”.

From the learning of brand to learning for brand

I’d like to propose a different way. To focus on learning for a brand, rather than just of a brand; to create experiences that evoke the journey our client spoke of, not the bullet points at the end.

Over the past few years, Wolff Olins has worked on projects that we’ve deemed as “learning”, or “change” projects. That we’ve never quite settled on a single, crisp and punchy descriptor that speaks to the subtleness of what we’ve found along the way; that it’s not corporate training in a way that most people would consider it.

Instead we have explored ways of provoking exploration, experimentation, and reflection in creating learning for brand. To create the space, conversations and opportunities for participants to “get” the journey that goes into our brand work.

We’ve made travelogues, rather than just postcard photos. Shared stories rather than bullet points on a slide.

We’ve helped organisations gain new perspectives on the way they lead and manage through the brand, given people a chance to explore their personal links to their company’s purpose, and sparked conversations between employees and the public about what a brand stands for.

Here are three things that we’ve found along the way.

Travel together

Scale and togetherness rarely go hand-in-hand in traditional corporate learning.

To reach enough people, we tend to degrade the experience to the most scalable option. Really digging into a concept becomes a video. The chance to stress test your own understanding becomes a multiple-choice quiz. Diversity of ideas gets a little bit bruised in search of what everyone really has to know.

However, if we accept that brand is a social construct—a means for people to change how others think, feel, and do with an idea—then we might see brand learning similarly as a fundamentally social act. It involves spending time—a journey together if you will—to explore and reflect on ideas that will interact with and mediate the way you work with colleagues and customers.

As it happens, these experiences scale extremely well, and benefit from it, rather than sacrifice because of it. Technology lets us bring companies together across geographies and hierarchies to share ideas and have the impassioned arguments that move minds.

"This is crazy. It’ll never work."

"Oh really? Here is how it is working for me right now."


When thinking about what we actually want people to gain through learning, it is extremely easy to fall into a world of “they should understand x”, and “know y”.

Getting it.

Most educationalists would rightly balk at this. How will we check if they do understand this? How will they themselves ever know that they did? To find where we are actually going, we instead need to attack our expectations with honesty and precision.

If we really hope that someone would be able to use a new tone of voice in their work, then we can design learning that helps them do just that. But it may even be that in reality, all we can hope for is that they can reflect on how they write now in relation to a new story, or language. It turns out that it is perfectly okay for the end-point of a learning intervention to be just the beginning of something entirely bigger.

This honesty also allows us to accept, and sometimes even just say out loud, that “it is okay if you don’t ‘get this’ straight away.”

It’s a journey after all.

Sometimes this means we can admit that maybe an hour-long workshop isn't enough. That a few weeks of lower intensity learning might be more fruitful; time to soak in what’s around us; look at things with new eyes.


I suspect my problem with bullet points is that they are rarely as interesting as what is around and behind them. In our search for the pithiest way of teaching an idea, we often skip over the little moments and things that made us care about learning it in the first place; we race for the monuments.

We need to think about what people need to do, not to learn the brand, but to be able to. The fringe debates, the polemic issues that gave rise to it. The stories that Jim in the other office tells that bring it to life. Things that go beyond the brand guidelines, and cast iron definitions of pillars, and things that simultaneously put those in the context we otherwise strive to remove them from.

How can you ‘get’ digital transformation without spending some time thinking about privacy and data ethics? How can you live your company’s purpose without understanding what others are doing in the world?

Sometimes a wander is better than a map.