Hold The Cheese — Advance Your Conference Theme

Written by Katie Hansen

I used to think conference themes were cheesy. I don’t mean theme as in an “Under the Sea” ambiance you’d expect at Senior Prom. I’m referring to the attachment of a tagline or slogan to a conference brand identity – and usually one that rotates annually. Maybe my aversion to themes was driven by overexposure of those that were generic and jargon-laden. Or maybe it was because I wasn’t a deeply engaged member of the hosting organization – so the meaning behind the message was shallow-to-absent. Or perhaps the theme did not complement the overall brand system or event experience. Whatever the case, the majority of the time I was giving event themes a big thumbs down in my mind.

This past year has turned me from a skeptic to a believer. My eyes have been opened to the power of well-done event themes. Our team at Mekanic had the amazing opportunity to work on an annual conference brand that required a theme. We followed our normal strategic path of interviewing staff, members, business partners and repeat attendees to determine the meaning they gained from participation in the event. We understood that the organization intended to have the conference act as a catalyst to keep attendees engaged year-round through regular attendance at regional events, volunteerism and thought leadership opportunities. These findings swiftly led us to a winning theme. And this theme served as the foundation from which the rest of the brand system was created – from the visual identity, to messaging, the website design, creative campaigns, event programming and more. Theming actually made the development of brand solutions authentic, efficient and enjoyable.

I still don’t believe that theming is necessary for every conference. You don’t want to force a message or a feeling on people that won’t resonate. Here are some quick thoughts on which types of organizations may benefit the most from theming their conferences.


  • Authentically Member-Driven Organizations – Much like our client, these organizations have members who are truly driving daily collaboration and knowledge exchange by whatever means possible. A great theme can be related to the how & why members engage so frequently.
  • Organizations Serving Academia & Research Communities – Adopting a rotating topical focus area can give thought leaders a goal to work towards (for presentations), staff a springboard for the development of spin-off programs, and attendees content to spark dialogue prior to the event.
  • Organizations Focused on Coalition & Advocacy Work – When facing a long-term complex legislative battle, it can make sense to tackle components one issue at a time in a gradual climb. Theming an associated event can corral the best minds and activists around the prioritized issue – creating strong solutions and action plans swiftly that can be pounced on with fervor.
  • Technology-Based Organizations – No explanation needed here. Technology is always changing and with each new year comes a new hot topic. Aligning the theme with the lead topic just gets people more amped to attend and engage.

I’m sure there are many other organization types that benefit from theming their conference. The key is that a decision to theme should be driven by authentic attendee value and meaning. If the theme is too hollow and not relatable enough to the broader scope of attendees, it can actually deflate the overall brand experience. If the theme is something you can picture members saying in conversation to persuade a peer to attend, proudly displaying on a T-shirt, and self-creating social hashtags for – then you likely have a winner. These themes can truly anchor the overall brand experience and drive engagement metrics that span across the entire organization, and the entire year.

As always, let us know if you have any other questions about conference branding and happy theming!