Spacing Out on Creativity Part Three: Promising to Be Different
S01E02c: Expressing Your Inner-space Through the Brand Pyramid
👋 Hello, personal mess-makers!
This section (Part Three of the ‘Space’ Trilogy) is a slight departure from constructing a mobile workspace (Part One) or shifting into the headspaces (Part Two) of various Creative Modes. Part Three is about inner-space and ventures into far more personal territory. It's an exploration of the messy and imperfect aspects of our inner-space. Writing about this topic has been challenging, evident from the extra week it took to complete this post.
"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." —Ralph Waldo Emerson
You are a mess. And that’s okay. We all are.
Growing up in a farmhouse surrounded by endless prairies, I had a peculiar habit. While my brother would return home covered in dirt from head to toe, I would remain spotless, meticulously untie my shoes, and wash my already clean hands. Some might label this behaviour as "uptight" or "neurotic," but for me, it was simply who I was. The lack of physical evidence that I had interacted with the world did not negate the rich imagination underneath the surface where thoughts were spilling over each other and creating a beautiful mess of their own.
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Inner-space encompasses the essence of what makes us unique. It's about embracing our contradictions, accepting ourselves, and expressing our purpose. It combines acceptance, defiance, awareness, and unconsciousness, all converging to form a relatable human experience.
However, creative expression is not solely about ourselves. It's a form of communication—an innate desire to be seen, understood, and share something new with the world. On the other side of the equation is the participant, the one who consumes our work and interprets it through their own lens. Their interpretation may inspire them to create and share their own work, sparking a ripple effect of inspiration.
The complexity of this process goes beyond one article or explanation. It's messy, convoluted, and ever-evolving. In this edition, I aim to share the tools I've discovered along the way, which have helped me navigate and articulate my inner-space. These tools attempt to organize and tidy up the inherent messiness, allowing us to better understand and express ourselves authentically.
Being creative for companies is slightly less messy, and often less effective (albeit more expensive). It has been estimated that almost two-thirds of the global advertising budget (which is over a trillion dollars) is ineffectual, doesn’t break through the noise, doesn’t communicate a purpose that is seen or related to.
“Researchers Rex Briggs and Greg Stuart tackled the myth directly in 2006, publishing their book What Sticks: Why Most Advertising Fails and How to Guarantee Yours Succeeds. After examining more than $1 billion of marketing spend for one million consumers by 30 major corporations, they discovered that the marketing spend in question had an overall effectiveness rate of no more than 37 percent.”
—Woolley, D. (2019, Sept 4). Which half of my advertising is wasted—and it is only half? MediaVillage. https://www.mediavillage.com/article/which-half-of-my-advertising-is-wasted-and-it-is-only-half/
This messiness is mitigated by marketers and strategists armed with tools and rules to define a brand’s voice, its tone and manner, its personality, its beliefs. This attempted consistency gives people a way in, an avenue to arrive at, appreciate, and eventually spend money on the company’s offerings.
I know you didn’t ask for a simplistic lesson on commercial creativity, but it’s what I know. And it’s the lens (for good or for ill) through which I see the world. And believe it or not, many of these codified methods for finding a brand’s voice can also assist in effectively articulating your own. Enter the Brand Pyramid.
📺 Sharing Stories
In 2015 I flew from Toronto to Winnipeg, Manitoba, the sprawling prairie city where I was born, and met with the stakeholders of APTN, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. They were looking for an on-air visual corporate rebrand, a modern and updated look-and-feel that matched their brand promise. But what was their brand promise? I was there to coax it out of them. After reading Jennifer David’s Original People Original Television: The Launching of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, I knew this would be the challenge. How does one middle-aged white guy distill the broadcasting promise of the Inuit, Metis, and more than 50 First Nations? By first acknowledging my own biases and blind spots, and by listening very closely to everyone involved.
In my first meeting with APTN stakeholders, I told the room that I wasn’t there to prescribe or tell them anything they didn’t already know. I was there to absorb and reflect back on what I heard. I was there to distill and articulate what already existed. First, there was an insightful introduction from then CEO Sky Bridges, who explained that they were an extraordinarily diverse group, who even had different views on the word ‘aboriginal’. Some preferred Indigenous, some First Nations, and still others First Peoples. Words, especially English words, were open to misinterpretation or worse. With this in mind, we went through the Brand Pyramid exercises (and many sticky notes), and I listened to the myriad of voices. Everyone was filled with such passion. They believed in what they had to say. Everyone’s voice mattered. How could we possibly come to one conclusion, one consensus?
🔼 The Brand Pyramid
The Brand Pyramid is like hopscotch: there are many different ways to play the game, but each tries to get you to the same place. I learned about the Brand Pyramid from my first Creative Director, Peter Munck, who taught me that strategy is the bedrock of execution. In other words, if you know who you are, if you know your purpose, then you’ll know how to communicate in a more direct and powerful way that lines up with your beliefs, your personality, your strengths. This is crucial for brands, because inconsistency only creates confusion.
I believe this is also important for people. There’s a new old adage that goes something like this: “Brands want to be human, and humans want to be brands.” In a shallow sense, we can see that this is true. Coca-cola wants to be your friend on Instagram, and your neighbour desperately wants to become a household influencer on TikTok. Topsy-turvy-land!
This isn’t a cynical take. I think there’s a lot to be learned by turning these traditional marketing tools in on ourselves, and trying to understand who we are, what we’re trying to say, and why. If anything, it might broaden our perspectives. So, if you’ll indulge me, let’s play with the Brand Pyramid and see how it might work with a human being.
My version of the Brand Pyramid (and there are many) consists of 5 layers: from the differentiating Attributes at the foundation of the pyramid to the Personality (abbreviated with a winky emoji) expressed at the top. Benefits and Values fit in-between, with the Promise taking up the middle. Let’s examine each of these in turn along with how this can be used for self-discovery (tapping into your inner-space).
In a workshop with a client trying to understand their own brand, I would ask them to list all the features of their product or company that are exceptional, that stand out. For example, the workshop with APTN revealed five standout features that few (if any) other broadcasters have:
They are the world’s first Aboriginal broadcaster
They have programming in multiple aboriginal languages
Eighty percent of the programming at the time was acquired by independent Aboriginal producers
Roughly seventy percent of their staff were aboriginal
They had a growing roster of Aboriginal writers, producers, directors, actors guests, technicians, animators, editors, camera operators, etc.
On the brand pyramid, these are called differentiating Attributes. But how do you discern your specific attributes or strengths when it comes to individuals? Perhaps you are incredibly self-aware (or deluded 🙃) and already have a long list, but most people find this difficult to articulate or confirm.
That’s where strength assessments come into play. They ask you a series of questions to objectively coax your personal strengths. Two effective and insightful tests that I’ve used (both of which cost roughly $20 to start) are CliftonStrengths (the most comprehensive and leadership-focused survey, created by Gallup), and the Strengths Survey (a more general survey created by the VIA Institute on Character).
On the advice of business book publisher Todd Sattersten, I took the CliftonStrengths test over a decade ago (when it was still called StrengthsFinder 2.0) and I can say, without irony or hyperbole, that it’s the most useful personal test I’ve ever taken (and I have taken everything from the Enneagram to Myers-Briggs, from IQ tests to the Love Language Quiz). It’s different from all of these tests because it feels totally comprehensive and data-driven (exactly what you’d expect from Gallup).
CliftonStrengths focuses on identifying and developing an individual's unique strengths rather than trying to fix or improve weaknesses. This positive psychological approach completely changs the way you look at your own skills and the trajectory of your career path.
I had always thought I needed to become a better graphic designer, but when I took this test, I discovered my top five strengths were strategic. That’s when I began working on applied creativity techniques to help people and companies understand themselves in order to communicate more effectively. This allowed me to focus more on my Futuristic, Strategic, Ideation, Learner, and Intellection strengths, and made me a far better (and more strategic) Creative Director.
These results provide valuable insights into one's core differentiating attributes, empowering individuals to harness their innate abilities and leverage them for personal and professional success. People can excel in their chosen fields, projects, and organizations by understanding and embracing these unique strengths.
If you’d like a broader perspective on your strengths, the VIA Institute on Character Strengths Survey offers a less business-oriented approach, making it easier to relate to for most people. Rather than emphasizing leadership strengths, this survey expands the scope to encompass empathic qualities and general traits. In my test results, the strengths are 'warmer' and exhibit a greater degree of personability. This test is likely more appealing to creatives who are not preoccupied with leadership roles.
Every distinct Attribute should have a Benefit (just like every Tom Cruise movie should have a running scene). A Benefit is essentially how your strengths manifest themselves through you. For example, one of my Attributes is Strategic. CliftonStrengths points out that a benefit to the Strategic strength is “the ability to think of alternate pathways to success” or “recognize relevant patterns.” Some additional benefits from other strengths include predicting what might happen next (from Futuristic), helping people see things in new ways (from Ideation), and being at the cutting edge of creativity and technology (from Learner).
Look at your differentiating Attributes and ask yourself what sort of unique Benefits arise from them. Think of the result or the outcome that wouldn’t be possible without these attributes.
For example, one of the major benefits of APTN is providing a mirror for communities that don’t regularly see themselves in the media. Their unique perspective and talent base create original (and award-winning) programming, encouraging more First Peoples community participation and further broadening their prospective talent pool. This builds a virtuous cycle.
Understanding Our Core Values: An Exercise for Individuals and Teams by Colin Breck
If we are moving up from the bottom of the Brand Pyramid, Promise is next in line; but we will save the hardest part for last and skip up to Values first. Values are the tenants you live by, the beliefs you espouse. They are the rules that shape your actions. They are your drivers.
As Brené Brown puts it, “I can’t think of a more powerful way to double down on ourselves than getting clear on our values and the behaviours that support them.” Values shape what we do and how we do them. Once you articulate your values, it’s much easier to see if your actions, creative or otherwise, align with your beliefs. Alignment with your values is the key to your sense of purpose, to your value fulfilment.
If you’ve never done this before, you’re in for a treat. Social scientist and researcher Brené Brown has a simple, powerful worksheet for coaxing and distilling your core values.
Note: After scouring the internet for additional life-drivers, I have added quite a few values of my own. Feel free to include Abundance, Activism, Co-creation, Competition, Diligence, Fulfillment, Heritage, Impact, Objectivity, or Perspective in the ‘write your own’ section of the Living Into Our Values worksheet.
While the worksheet is fairly self-explanatory, software engineer Colin Breck breaks it down in a truly insightful fashion. In his article Understanding Our Core Values, Breck emphasizes the importance of understanding and sharing one's core values, particularly within a team setting. Identifying and expressing these values improves self-awareness and fosters a deeper understanding of colleagues, strengthening the foundations of a psychologically-safe and high-performing team.
Exploring and sharing values is a vulnerable experience but crucial for building trust and connection. This exercise allows teammates to respect, celebrate, and support each other's values, fostering an environment that encourages growth, creativity, and meaningful work. But you can also do it solo. Breck explains in detail how he chose, ranked, and organized his own values into sets and sub-sets, eventually ending up with two core values that he could now articulate with greater nuance and detail.
For a brand, it is important to keep everything aligned—to act in a unified, intentional, and consistent way. After hours of conversation, discovery, and workshopping with APTN’s leaders and employees, their core values were described as “sharing our peoples’ journey, celebrating our cultures, honouring the wisdom of our Elders, and inspiring our children.” These four values are so strong that they are called out on their homepage as their primary mission.
The final tip of the pyramid, the first layer, is Personality (I use the winky emoji because ‘personality’ is such a long word for such a small space). It is the most visible layer (like the tip of an iceberg), it is what people see and hear. It is the public-facing or best version of yourself or your brand.
For your own exploration, pick your top three or four most impactful and obvious traits (or ask your friends or colleagues to pick them for you). If you need more help, there’s a tool (similar to Brené Brown’s list of values) called the Brand Deck. It is filled with a series of descriptive cards that you place into three main columns: things you are, things you are not, and things that do not apply. In the end, you rank the applicable traits in order of intensity or importance and keep the top three or four.
These three or four traits should permeate every piece of communication you put out. They should encapsulate your voice and how you present yourself to the world.
After the brand pyramid workshop, APTN’s personality was boiled down to three simple words: original, authentic, and engaging. As someone described in a work session, “APTN is kind of like my friend Charlie. He is 58 years old, a simple, real guy who lives connected to the land yet is media savvy and critical. He went to residential school and his experience guides his values.” It’s not hard to imagine Charlie as an original, authentic, and engaging human being. My interactions with APTNs stakeholders also reflected this personality within themselves.
The soft gooey middle layer is always left for last: it is the Promise—sometimes called a Purpose—that is made (and hopefully kept) for the desired audience. Many artists don’t want to think about their audience because they believe it equates to ‘selling out’ or not creating for the sake of creation. I respectfully disagree. You can still keep your promise to an audience of one: yourself.
Knowing your strengths and their subsequent benefits, knowing your values and your personality traits, all coalesce around your Promise. And here’s the thing—this Promise doesn’t need to be for anyone but yourself. It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) become a tagline or repetitive dogma. Instead, it should be the measure by which you judge your efforts.
It is a fantastic filter to ask yourself, “Does this project follow through on my promise?” If the answer is yes, you have a greater chance of attaining meaning and value-fulfilment in your pursuits. And if you are a brand, you have a greater chance of investing in endeavours that strengthen your brand position instead of diluting it.
Peter Diamandis calls this your MTP, or Massively Transformative Purpose: “…a clear statement that guides, empowers, and inspires you. It helps you decide what to do, and more importantly what not to do. It’s both your fuel and your filter.”
In exchange for an email address, Diamandis will send you a free 10-session email course that guides you through his method for unearthing your own unique promise. I used it to come up with my Promise, or Massively Transformative Purpose:
Unlock the world’s innate creative potential
This promise is the expression of my life and career so far, but also a more focused mantra to venture into the future. And once you have a purpose, you can ask yourself how you might deliver on it. In my case, I asked myself what creativity meant to me: The act of connecting things in exceptional ways. Action, connection, and exception. Doing, thinking, and being. Therefore, to unlock your innate creative potential, you must do more (action), think better (connection), and be different (exception). And my mission is to expose you to tools and exercises that do just that. Of course, this revelation was over a decade in the making, but I hope you can see its value regardless of how long it takes to formulate.
And remember, you can always start somewhere and revise it as needed. Consider it a ‘living’ promise that can grow, shift, change, and evolve with your life. At APTN, my first draft of their brand Promise was to “share the stories no one else can tell.” When I revealed the Promise for the first time to APTN, when I first spoke it out loud, the room was silent. Now I was filled with fear and doubt. Had I not overcome my own biases? Had I not listened effectively? Had I somehow offended the room? Slowly, and thoughtfully, CEO Sky Bridges described how the promise felt slightly negative and exclusive. He wondered if we could play with the language. “Of course,” I said, my mind finally clicking into what he was saying. “How about ‘Share the stories only we can tell’?” The rest is history.
Turn your Inner-Space into an Outer Voice
Authenticity is doing what you promise, not "being who you are" —Seth Godin
In a world that often pressures us to conform and suppress our true selves, embracing our inner-space and finding our authentic voice is an invaluable accomplishment. Here, we have explored the Brand Pyramid as a tool for self-discovery and understanding. From Attributes to Benefits, from Values to Personality, each layer has provided insights into our unique qualities and, finally, purpose.
By recognizing our strengths (through various assessments like the CliftonStrengths), we gain a clearer understanding of what sets us apart. These strengths become the building blocks of our personal expression, guiding our actions and shaping our creative endeavors. We have seen how organizations like APTN harnessed their Attributes and Benefits to create a strong brand identity that resonates with their audience.
Our exploration of Personality and Values reminds us that authenticity and meaning are key to connecting with others. We can present ourselves genuinely and build meaningful connections by identifying our most impactful traits and beliefs. Just as APTN embraced their authentic values, we too can cultivate a personal brand that reflects our true selves and allows us to thrive.
At the heart of it all lies our Promise, our purpose. Whether it is a promise we make to ourselves or to the world, it serves as a guiding light for our endeavours. It helps us make decisions, prioritize actions, and measure achievements. Just as APTN refined their promise to share the stories only they could tell, we can also refine and redefine our Promise as we grow and evolve.
Throughout this journey of self-discovery and authenticity, we must remember that it is not about conforming to an ideal or meeting someone else's expectations. It is about embracing our messy contradictions, unique attributes, and core values. It is about staying true to ourselves while engaging with the world and making a positive impact.
As we tap into our inner-space and express our true voice, we become catalysts for inspiration and creativity. Our work has the power to touch others, spark conversations, and ignite change. By sharing our best selves, we create connections that transcend boundaries and resonate with the diverse perspectives of our audience. Join me in unlocking our creative potential and becoming agents of transformation in our own lives and in the world around us!
What’s your Promise? Let us know in the chat (or in the comments). The more ideas we share, the better we know ourselves.
🤑 While I may earn a small affiliate fee for some of the links in this newsletter, none of the products or services mentioned are paid advertisements and were hand-picked independently by me, Jason Theodor.
The Creative Algorithm (+>≠) is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This article has it all—relevant information, humor, insights, entertaining (and meaningful) anecdotes, and a sprinkling of bright and attractive illustrations. I give this a WOW.