3 Activities to Help You Brainstorm Brand Messaging

How to Use Constrained Writing Exercises

Digital Marketing

Nick Pasotti

Brainstorming brand messaging. Fun, right? Frustrating, right?

Many of us have probably worked through a version of the adjective exercise before, where we list adjectives under three columns: who we are, who we’re not and who we want to be. (Marcia Riefer Johnston of Content Marketing Institute wrote an awesome article about this type of exercise and how to do it with a set of descriptor cards.) While that exercise is a great place to start, I suggest a new way to challenge your writing and think about your brand messaging from a different angle.

I’m talking about constrained writing

What is Constrained Writing?

Constrained writing places one or more guardrails on your writing, giving you clear limits to work within. My guess is that you practice constrained writing frequently, especially if you’re in marketing, PR, advertising, UX or any number of related fields.

Do you remember that three-point thesis statement for a five-paragraph essay? Constrained writing.

Those 140 characters on Twitter? Constrained writing.

That one-page quarterly report your boss wants on her desk by EOD? Ditto the above.

Below are a few constrained writing exercises that could help you see your brand messaging in a whole new way. Try a few out, and see what you think.

Three Types of Constrained Writing Exercises

Pilish

Oh, the pilish. Wait, what in the hell is a pilish? 

This quirky—and somewhat difficult—form of constrained writing gives you an endless numerical guide to how many letters each word in a sentence or paragraph should contain. All you have to do is follow the infinite number pi as your roadmap.

3.141592653589793 . . .

The first word, then, will have three letters. The second will have one. The third will have four. You get the picture. For the sake of example, though, I’ll use the segment of pi above to attempt to write about my company. Here goes nothing:

Get a logo, a brand blueprint, an online rehab and smart, relevant messaging. Astound customers now!

In other words, we can design logos, create marketing strategies and brand guides, overhaul and build digital properties, and create relevant brand messaging—all to astound customers.

What this exercise forces you to do, as difficult as it may be, is think about words that you may not normally use. It urges you, with clear constraints, to find synonyms, antonyms and alternate forms of words that describe the products and services you provide. It also pushes you to rearrange the traditional structure and cadence of sentences, which in turn enables you to discover key brand messages that you may not have stumbled upon otherwise.

Pro tip: Skip to ANY segment of pi during this exercise. You don’t have to start at the beginning (those one-letter words are pretty limited). When you encounter a zero, use it as a freebie—choose any word with any number of letters.

Use this exercise to:

  1. Differentiate word choice in your descriptions

  2. Vary sentence structure

  3. Look at what your company does in a unique way

Soft Opposites

It’s common to use synonyms to help you define brand messaging. For instance, you might replace innovative with visionary, resourceful, inventive or imaginative. But rarely do we consciously think about searching for words or phrases that don’t describe our company.

What about the antonyms of innovative?

In this antonym exercise, your challenge is to write full sentences that detail who your company is not. The most positive spin on this exercise avoids using hard (or exact) opposites.

Hard opposites look like this:

practical vs. impractical

Hard opposites force us to the other end of the spectrum in meaning (sometimes by using prefixes like -im), which may not necessarily help us accurately define brand messaging. Instead, try to use what you might call soft opposites.

Soft opposites look like this:

practical vs. visionary

If you’re a practical company, for example, you might provide simple, straightforward, no-frills solutions for your customers. Visionary, on the other hand, might describe a company like SpaceX, which maintains the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. These soft opposites may offer a new perspective on who your company truly is—and isn't.

Pro tip: Try to avoid using exact (or hard) opposites, especially by only adding or taking away a prefix (im-, in-, un-, dis-, mis-, anti-, etc.). For example, don’t use original and unoriginal; instead, try to shoot for original and safe as possible antonyms in this exercise.

Use this exercise to:

  1. Understand your company from a different point of view

  2. Rethink the context behind certain words (e.g., what one person views as visionary, another person might view as unrealistic). Context matters, and so do collaborative discussions about that context.

  3. Differentiate word choice in your descriptions

  4. Set goals for future growth (i.e., Who do we want to be in the future? How do we want to sound in the future?)

Five-letter Challenge

This exercise is meant to help you cut down on jargon-ridden language many companies tend to use in value propositions and other brand messaging. Here’s a made-up example:

We help enterprise corporations enhance innovation through cloud-based applications that optimize and streamline collaboration.

The average number of letters per word in that sentence is just over eight. That’s a big, annoying mouthful. Customers want bite-sized info. Let’s give it to them. Now.

That’s what this five-letter exercise is all about. Here, the challenge is to write a half page or so describing your company, but only use words containing five letters or fewer. As a quick example, here’s the complex value prop from above in its revised "five-letter challenge" form:

We help big firms craft new, great ideas by using our handy apps that make group work easy, quick and smart.

While this would probably not become the final value proposition, it offers a distinct alternative to the original. It cuts through the clutter of vague jargon we saw in the original statement. It simplifies what we want customers to understand.

Pro tip: This isn’t as easy as it sounds, so if you feel the need to give yourself a little extra space, try a six-letter or seven-letter challenge instead. The goal here is only to constrain your writing in a way that makes your company’s message easy to digest.

Use this exercise to:

  1. Make your language more concise, or drill down to the core of what your company does and how it presents itself

  2. Provide your team with alternate words to use—ones that will generally be more accessible to customers

Are these three exercises a complete guide to creating amazing brand messaging? Definitely not.

Are these helpful brainstorming exercises that unleash creativity and unblock writer's block? I think so.

Try one or more of these to see what you come up with. You might be surprised by how a different approach to writing brand messaging can lead to new ideas.

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What can we write for you?