In what has arguably been the most divisive, unpleasant, polarized and extraordinary presidential contest in a century many Americans wonder if and where common ground exists in a spectacularly divided country.
At a recent workshop held at Carbone Smolan Agency (CSA), a design led branding firm in New York City, the search for consensus was the goal. CSA, for over forty years has been designing enduring brands for world-renowned organizations from around the globe. The agency ran a proprietary workshop with a political twist: six Clinton supporters and six Trump supporters to test the idea that even the most polarized groups can come together.
Bigger Twist: No one in the room knew who was who.
Led by CSA’s Managing Partner, Paul Pierson, and Executive Director of Strategy David Mowers, the four-hour workshop examined America as an Enduring Brand. CSA’s proprietary workshop usually defines an enduring corporate brand through five key attributes: Adaptive, Focused, Self-Aware, Distinctive and Principled. The workshop employs a series of discussions and exercises with the goal of creating three statements that an entire group could endorse. The antagonistic groups were invited to create one set of ideas that are fundamental to making America an Enduring Brand.
Both facilitators made one request of the participants which profoundly shaped the hours that followed. The participants were told that their most important job was simply to listen. While sharing thoughts and feelings were integral and necessary for the workshop, the success of the workshop hinges on the ability of each individual and the group as a whole to listen.
The workshop had five key components that the group systematically worked through: a warm-up, a debate around archetypes, collaboration on a poem, personal storytelling, and an endorsement of the key statements.
The warm-up focused on objects that each individual felt embodied America. The group was split into pairs and the participants were asked to share the story of their object as a way to introduce their partner’s to the rest of the group. The room full of New Yorkers from different walks of life respectfully listened to stories of a grandfather’s toolbox and a coach’s whistle alongside light-hearted stories of a talking Benjamin Franklin doll and a nostalgic 90s video game poster of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out.
To concretize the idea of America as a brand, the group was next asked to pick an archetype that best represented America. The debate had individuals vocalizing their skepticism, intensely defending their choice as ‘right,’ and others indecisively abstaining. The archetype Revolutionary was chosen as a representation of power, forward movement and the perennial search for a better life. In the first signs of unification, the group agreed these characteristics are a cornerstone of America since its inception over 240 years ago.
Collaboration between group members grew with the creation of a poem using the words, statements and feelings expressed by the group on how the Revolutionary personified America. The words idealistic, obsessed, evolving, restless, revenge, and freedom were used in the poem which had an undercurrent of both violence and optimism. A passionate reading of the poem shifted the energy of the group from skepticism to genuine curiosity and interest in what was to come.
Following the poem the five attributes of an Enduring Brand as defined by CSA were introduced. The facilitators used Oprah Winfrey as an example of an archetype called the Sage. Oprah, as a brand, has successfully embodied each of the Enduring Brand characteristics which has resulted in a powerful, vibrant and important brand for over thirty years.
Perhaps the most personal and moving part of the evening came when participants were asked to pick one of the attributes of an Enduring Brand and tell a personal story of when America truly embodied the attribute. In the room of New Yorkers stories of the minutes, hours, days and weeks after 9/11 took hold of the conversation. Stories of connection, trauma, loss, and even humour served as examples of how the country, in one of its darkest hours, manifested the attributes most sincerely.
Facilitators carefully listen and capture the phrases and sentiment expressed in each individual’s story. Over thirty phrases were placed up on the wall in the room ranging from statements such as “We finally started to live up to equality,” “We are both terrifying and beautiful” and “There’s a relationship between love and survival.” The statements were tested for resonance as each member endorsed two phrases and rejected one in a structured exchange.
The climax of the session comes in a debate at the wall. Of all the statements endorsed, only three can remain. And they must remain unanimously. After a respectful, energetic and opinionated conversation the group decided on three statements that were examples and ideals of why America Endures.
The result is a set of American Principles that 6 Clinton supporters and 6 Trump supporters wrote in collaboration, and endorsed by consensus: America Endures because, We find out who we are in crisis. You have to focus, it’s a survival instinct. Even though I’m not your brother, you want to know that I’m your countryman.
Stress testing the work involved a final revelation of the divided make up of the group. Participants agreed that the harmony, hard-work and mutual respect they had earned through creating something together had created a consensus that outweighed their differences. They felt genuine surprise that they could agree on core ideals and principles of what America is and what it strives to be. They also expressed a profound sense of accomplishment and enjoyment from the evening.
More than a conversation about brands, the largest take-away from the workshop at CSA was how listening is the building block to consensus. Truly listening to one another allows us to accurately challenge the assumptions of others and at the same time challenge our own. This demonstration of consensus building offered a moment of clarity and comfort in our chaotic election conversation.
About CSA CSA is an independent design-led branding agency that has been designing enduring brands for 40 years. CSA combines strategy, content, design, and technology to create differentiated brand systems for the physical and digital worlds. We work with our legal clients to solve large, complex, and highly creative challenges.