What can top brands teach us about e-learning?

3 tips for designing standout programs


Published on: January 2022

Written by: Zac Schnier

E-learning designers are still catching up to what brand differentiation experts have known for a long time. Experience matters.

Consider Bubly, a maker of sparkling water, recently purchased by PepsiCo. Bubly doesn’t try to differentiate at the product level: in a blind taste test between Bubly and LaCroix, participants were unable to tell one from the other. Instead, Bubly focuses on the consumer’s experience of the product.

To begin, there’s the enthusiastic welcome: each can features a pull-tab greeting that mimics text messages – “hey u,” “hiii,” or “yo,” – simulating the kind of playful rapport you might have with friends and family. Next, the product’s peach, pineapple, and grapefruit-toned cans and smiling logo work together to convey positivity, creating a look and feel that aligns seamlessly with its slogan: “no calories. no sweeteners. all smiles.” Finally, Bubly gamifies buying. As writer Elizabeth Demolat points out, no store stocks all twelve flavors at any one time, leading to online and in-person buzz about where to find specific flavors. This strategy, along with the release of a variety of limited-edition flavors, has essentially turned “the act of purchasing a product into a treasure hunt.”

Bubly’s brand differentiation leverages enthusiasm, emotion, and excitement—experiential elements that echo the design pillars of best-in-class e-learning. Here’s how to incorporate each.


  1. Enthusiasm

Find new ways to breath energy into the experience. Take, for example, a short, animated video that uses action film motifs to explore emotional awareness in the workplace.

The sequence begins with an establishing shot of a manager providing constructive feedback to an employee. The action moves quickly into the employee’s brain, which is set up as a command center. A group of intelligence agents, straight out of Mission Impossible, look on with alarm. One more word from the manager on “areas for improvement,” and the emotion-regulating amygdala will be triggered, hijacking the employee’s normal reasoning processes. The intelligence agents strategize, introducing different tools and techniques that can be used to regain perspective, and the learning journey begins to take shape.

Greeted with a fresh, playful take on a critical workplace competency, learners are primed to go deeper.


  1. Emotion

How do you get beyond the rational regions of your brain – the ones that “control language, but not decision-making” – to tap into feelings and emotions? One particularly creative course on human anatomy leverages powerful visuals to reach learners on that deeper level.

Participants begin by learning that there are more nerve cells in the brain than stars in the Milky Way, observing a close-up of the brain’s circuitry dissolving into tiny specks lighting up the night sky. Because the underlying anatomy remains hidden, medical-aesthetics practitioners learn that they will essentially be working in the dark. The stars fade out slowly, one by one, until there’s nothing left on screen but total darkness—a strange, slightly unnerving experience that drives home the importance of understanding anatomical structures on a visceral level.


  1. Excitement

Give people something they’ve never experienced before by challenging the norms of typical training.

Data-protection policies, for instance, are critical safeguards wherever they’re in place, but existing e-learning on the subject is almost always designed as a passive, one-way transmission of information. One exceptional data-protection course takes a different approach, using live-action video and a dramatic soundtrack to depict a privacy breach occurring in real time.

While this can get gimmicky, immersing learners in a volatile environment with uncertain outcomes builds tension, a key lever for creating buy-in.


So, how can we help clients build better learning experiences?


Many clients see digital learning as a product, one that looks a lot like what’s already out there: didactic, uninspired, dull. By nudging clients toward digital learning courses that mirror what they already know about branding, we might just be able to help them build experiences that stand out in a crowd.

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