Brand Check



Develop a workshop to teach USA TODAY employees about the new brand foundations and how to apply them to their work.


  • As part of a national brand refresh I developed a design thinking exercise to help employees understand how to leverage our new brand foundations

  • The exercise was a board game that could be played by anyone and would help them develop strategic ideas grounded in our foundations and our audience

  • To date the game has been used successfully to develop brand experiences, content ideas, and marketing strategies that have reached over 1MM people, drove 300K+ unique site views, and encouraged new ways to solve problems throughout our department.


Brand Check Prototype

As part of a national USA TODAY brand refresh, senior marketing leaders developed new brand foundations to roll out to the company. My team was responsible for rolling out these new foundations across the company. Because of my experience facilitating design thinking workshops I volunteered to develop a workshop to educate fellow employees and help them understand how to use the foundations in their day to day work. The outcome was a gamified design thinking exercise that incorporated business goals, audience benefits, and the new brand foundations.

Understanding the challenge:

My research started off internally by trying to understand the objectives of the key stakeholders. Due to the scale of the project and the rollout, there were a number of stakeholders involved, including the Chief Marketing Officer, the VP of National Marketing, the Marketing Director, Brand and Marketing Art Directors, and the VP of research and strategy. While their goals came from different points of view they aligned nicely and focused clearly around the objectives of the brand refresh and rollout.

Key objectives included:

  • Creating consistency in voice and vision across all departments.

  • Establishing the Brand and National Marketing team as the keepers of the Brand and a trusted partner for other departments in implementing said brand.

  • Wanting people across the company to understand the audience research and how to apply it to their daily work.

Before I started on this project I knew that it was important to give the participants things to do and not just have them listen to a 30 minute PowerPoint presentation. I had previously spent two years facilitating design thinking bootcamps in Memphis, TN and had seen the effect that these experiences had on participants. Particularly, how they always left feeling inspired and motivated to think big and bring this practice to their work. Based on this experience, I believed that design thinking would serve as a strong framework to achieve the desired outcomes.

Ideation and Prototyping:

Early ideas revolved around giving the workshop attendees mock projects to work on to see how the foundations could be applied. As I worked on the ideas for the training projects I realized that it was just as important for employees to come up with their own ideas. So, I switched course and veered into creating a design thinking framework around our audiences and brand foundations.

My goal was to teach people design thinking as a tool for leveraging our new brand foundations and our audience research to help them generate ideas.  Some early feedback from stakeholders made it clear that this was too far beyond the scope of the project. It also would have been too much for employees to learn at once. Participants would have had to learn: what the new brand foundations were; who our audience segments are; how they’re supposed to use these segments when crafting editorial content or marketing campaigns; whether or not an idea fits within the brand foundations; and last but not least, what the heck design thinking is and what it has to do with any of this!

There needed to be a simple way to engage people in the content, lower the barrier to entry, and get them excited about using all of these pieces to help them create better products.

The trick was to teach them what they needed to know about design thinking without that being the emphasis. Ultimately, it didn’t matter if people walked out of the workshop understanding design thinking. It only mattered that they understood how to leverage our foundations and our audience, to create stellar outcomes.

I started doing some competitive research to see there were any design thinking or brand training tools out there already. There were a lot. Most of these came in the form of inspirational or motivational cards that people could use to facilitate a creative group session. While these cards were full of useful and inspiring information, they were too broad for the purposes of our workshop. But, I really liked the idea of creating some sort of card game, so that was the first concept I started to explore.

It worked like this: teams chose a facilitator to be the keeper of the cards. The facilitator would hold 6 different “Phase” cards—Big Idea, Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test— as well as, prompt cards to help players move successfully through each phase. Phase cards let players know what part of the creative process they were in and what their goals were in said phase. When it was time to move to the next phase, the facilitator would play the next phase card, and so on and so forth.

Players were each given three “Brand Check” cards which they could play at any time. These cards allowed a player to check another player’s idea against the brand foundations. Along with the brand check cards, each player was given three tokens indicating how many “lives” they had. Players lost lives when they lost a brand check, but could gain back tokens with great ideas or by taking another player’s token with a successful brand check of their own.


While early versions of the game were received well, a few things became clear: players and facilitators found it difficult to know when a phase was done and time to move to the next phase, the addition of the life tokens to the brand check card made people either super competitive or super conservative, and ultimately the structure of the game was too complicated for players to learn what they needed to learn and apply it quickly. It was clear that it would be very difficult for people to take this game back to their teams and use it later without help.

Stakeholders made it clear that they wanted something simple and effective that people could bring back to their teams.

What the card game was missing was structure. The solve for this was to introduce a physical board that would allow users to track their progress through the process, and see how everything tied together. We didn’t lose the cards entirely at this point, but they moved out of the spotlight to a supporting role. We also removed the whole idea of having life tokens.

The board replaced the phase cards, and instead laid out the entire process for players to see. The phases remained the same and each phase had their own supporting cards. There were big idea cards, audience segment cards, audience benefit cards, define cards, brainstorming cards, brand foundation cards and brand check cards.

Here’s how the game worked: It all started with the ‘Big Idea’. Players could choose a big idea from the deck or they could generate one of their own. Once they had a ‘Big Idea’, players filtered the idea through one of three target audience segments. Players chose an audience segment based on which one most closely aligned to their big idea. During the very first playthrough of the game, players were encouraged to try to match the audience benefit cards with the correct segment to help reinforce understanding of the segment.

Once the benefits were matched and placed on the board, players chose up to three benefits to focus on and move into the next phase. With the benefits in mind, players then worked to refocus the challenge down from the ‘Big Idea’ focusing in on how they would address the specific audience benefits. From there, players brainstormed solutions while checking each other to make sure things stayed on brand. Next, players were encouraged to prototype out their ideas in a very basic way, and finally test the idea against the brand foundations as a final gut check.


After four successful rounds of quick stakeholder feedback and some user testing with my co-workers it was time to build out our first prototype. At this point, I enlisted the help of the very talented Naya-Cheyenne Diaz, an illustrator and designer on our team, to help with the development. It took us about three weeks to design the first high fidelity prototype along with custom packaging.


Once we had the prototype it was time to start testing it outside of the team. The first test was with Giant Spoon, the agency helping us to develop and codify our new foundations. We met at their office, and after a glass of some nitro cold brew coffee straight from the keg, we sat down to run through the game. There were some “oohs” and “aahs” as we revealed the packaging and opened it up to unveil the game. We placed the board on the table with the cards, explained the concept, and we were off! It was a great first test. Everyone from the agency was engaged, and excited about the process. They all saw the potential and they loved the way the brand foundations were being used throughout the experience. Idea validated! It was now time to bring it home.


The following week I went down to our headquarters in Tysons, Virginia to test the game with a few of our internal teams – our video content team, one of our digital product teams, and the other half of our marketing and brand team. I made sure to print out some questionnaires for people to fill out after playing the game to help provide feedback and assess the value of the game. While testing I enlisted the help of one of our audience research colleagues, Leo Dos Santos. Leo had a deep understanding of our audience segments and benefits and could help explain them as we went through the process. This also helped me understand where some of the holes were in the process. During the testing we would make small tweaks and adjustments between groups based on our observations and player feedback.

Here’s some of the testing feedback:

“This game was a great way to put our audience at the beginning of our creative process.” Matt P., Video Product

“This is a great tool to help craft a creative brief to bring back to stakeholders.” Leigh Q., Marketing

“What a fun way to come up with exciting ideas and make sure they are on brand” Samantha J., Product

With the internal testing finished we had one final round of development to address the feedback. We were able to simplify the game even further, and also decrease its physical size to make it easier to transport or bring in and out of meetings.

To get the game produced we actually found a company that specialized in very small runs for game prototypes. They were able to produce the board, the cards, and even the packaging. In the end we got seven games to rollout with.


So far, the game has only been rolled out to a handful of teams across the company and the brand rollout is ongoing. The game has helped to spark constructive conversations between teams and foster a unified vision for our brand and understanding of our audience. It has been used to help with the development of experiences, digital products, and marketing campaigns. For our team the results have promising but difficult to track. On any given project there are a myriad of conditions that contribute or detract from a projects success. But the game has helpful in solidifying our understanding of our audience before and during development and on projects where the games was used the results were positive.

For example, on one project we used the game in the development of an internal brand-marketing campaign for a series of coverage we were doing. The campaign that we developed garnered over 1MM impressions, while driving over 300K clicks to the content. These numbers are significantly higher than most house campaigns we run, and were instrumental in improving our engagement with the content.