On 13 May 2019 a workshop on the topic of card sorting for brand values was run by content strategy consultant Margot Bloomstein at FH JOANNEUM, offering practical lessons for the participants.
At first glance card sorting is reminiscent of language learning games from early classroom days. The idea is to take a series of adjectives lying scattered over the table and sort them into prescribed categories. This method is actually designed to provide answers to the key challenges of corporate communication: How do you communicate properly? What values and messages does the company represent? How can we embed these in a well thought out content strategy and successfully communicate them to the target groups in order to strengthen our brand identity?
The term “card sorting” originates in web design and describes the development of a clear website structure as a means of enhancing usability. Margot Bloomstein uses card sorting to define a company’s key brand values, and has developed a card collection of 150 adjectives for the purpose. They serve to develop a so-called message architecture, which is used to define how the company successfully communicates its values and messages to its target groups; the tone used, the channels, the scale, etc.
The card sorting method was presented by Margot Bloomstein during a workshop for the Master’s degree programme in Content Strategy(https://www.fh-joanneum.at/content-strategie-und-digitale-kommunikation/master/), in cooperation with the Styrian education network (“Bildungsnetzwerk Steiermark“), at FH JOANNEUM on 13 May 2019. Together with the participants from adult education institutions in Styria, the card sorting system was practised using real examples drawn from their own professional experience. The participants were arranged around large tables in groups of 6 or 7 where they uncovered the 150 adjectives. One person in each group took on the role of facilitator and applied the method to their respective adult education institute, with the others acting as consultants.
The first step is to assign the adjectives to one of three categories.
Who we are (How do we think the brand is currently perceived?)
Who we’d like to be (How should the brand be perceived in future?)
Who we’re not (Which terms should not be associated with the brand?)
After ten minutes the “Who we’re not?” category is removed from the table.
Phase 2: Filter
In the second phase, also around ten minutes in length, the adjectives in the “Who we are” category which should still apply in the future are moved to the “Who we’d like to be” category. The other cards are put back in the box.
Phase 3: Prioritise
After a short discussion the third phase begins, and deals exclusively with the cards remaining in the “Who we’d like to be” category. This is a second opportunity to remove unsuitable terms. Finally, the adjectives are arranged in groups and ordered by priority. A maximum of three terms from each group of adjectives are then selected and used to create the message architecture. But rather than being communicated externally, these are then used for the purposes of internal communication which, according to Margot Bloomstein, is just as important as external communication. The brand consultant’s final advice to the participants: “Understand what you need to communicate – and why.”
As a member of the PR & Marketing team at FH JOANNEUM I was very interested in attending the workshop because, like most of the other participants, I deal with professional communication and public relations in my daily work. During the practical card sorting exercise I had the chance to talk to several of them in depth. What was interesting in my group was that assigning and rejecting particular terms during the first phase was relatively easy, while restricting ourselves to just a few in the last phase was comparatively difficult. Margot Bloomstein describes this as a company’s “brand core”. It needs to be defined in order to communicate clearly, and forms the basis for the messages, the design, the typography, etc.
The translation of the English terms into German wasn’t always clear as, depending on interpretation, they allowed for several meanings. One such example is “value-oriented”: does this mean value in the economic sense, i.e. (key) indicators, or the ethical and moral values for which the company stands? And does “trendy” mean hip, young and modern, or just being in tune with the times, irrespective of generation? This stimulated some lively discussions, with Margot Bloomstein noting that it was necessary for each participant to decide for themselves how to translate and interpret the terms depending on context.
Personally, I regard the card sorting method as a good opportunity for companies to critically look inwards and reflect on their own internal communication using the “Who we are“ and “Who we’d like to be” categories. If you have the feeling that you’re communicating over the heads of your stakeholders, then you can use this method to explore why. Equally, you can also ask if you’re on the right path, or whether perhaps you should take a different route.
“If you don’t know what to communicate, how will you know if you succeed?”
Margot Bloomstein, brand and content strategy consultant
Margot Bloomstein is a brand and content strategy consultant of international repute. She works with companies in various industries, helping them match their content to their specific brand. Margot Bloomstein also teaches her card sorting method at various universities, including the Content Strategy Master’s degree programme at FH JOANNEUM where she is a key lecturer. The focus of her workshops lies on the message architecture which serves to translate brand values into specific content. Margot Bloomstein is the author of a book on the topic titled “Content Strategy at Work”. She is also engaged in political and ethical issues. For more information, visit her website.