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Brand Thinking and Design

with
Debbie Millman
The Most Practical Guide To Brand Strategy

Table of Contents

  1. What is a brand?
  2. Branding best practices
  3. Why design matters?
  4. The future of branding
  5. Conclusions

1. What is a brand?

Arek Dvornechuck:
What's up branding experts! — Arek here at Ebaqdesign. And welcome to On Branding Podcast - The only podcast where I interview branding experts to give you actionable tips on everything branding and beyond! In this episode, I interview Debbie Millman, and we talk about Brand Thinking and Design. Debbie is one of the most influential design minds of our time. An author, educator, brand strategist, and she's also the founder and host of Design Matters - which is the world's first and longest running podcast. And Debbie then co-founded the world's first graduate program in branding at SVA; which is School of Visual Arts in New York. So, Debbie has worked in the design business for over 30 years where she has overseen the redesign of over 200 global brands. She is a design visionary whose ideas have shaped the branding of Pepsi, Gillette, Colgate, Campbell's, Burger King, Hershey's, Häagen-Dazs, Tropicana, Star Bucks and many, many more, but Debbie is also the author of six books, and one of which is called “Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits” and this is the book we're going to talk about today! Hello Debbie, thank you so much for taking the time to join us on our podcast.

Burger King, Hershey's, Häagen-Dazs, Tropicana, Star Bucks and many, many more, but Debbie is also the author of six books, and one of which is called “Brand Thinking” and other noble pursuits, and this is the book we're going to talk about today! Hello Debbie, thank you so much for taking the time to join us on our podcast.

Debbie Millman:
Oh, my absolute pleasure! Thank you so much for having me. It's a real honor.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Thank you! So, in your book, you basically compiled interviews with some of the world's top brand thinkers, and you get them to talk about branding and identity design, marketing and basically all related disciplines, right? So, obviously you have strong understanding of different perspectives that people have on branding in the industry. So, I wanted to make this podcast actionable for our listeners and just cut through all the empty jargon and buzzwords and so hopefully, we can just walk away with some clarity on how to go about branding or just become more articulate about how brands work… because you know in this ever-changing dynamic landscape everyone must speak the language of brands. So, first of all, the word ‘Brand’ has so many meanings and it can mean many different things to different people – so, talking from your own experience, how would you define the word ‘Brand’? What is a brand?

Debbie Millman:
I think that a Brand is manufactured meaning. It is something that humans create in an effort to define and designate what something means, and you then communicate that via deliberate differentiation.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Manufactured meaning, right? So, how is that so many people… you know people sometimes they tattoo logos on their bodies, and we actually fall in love with brands. Can you explain from your perspective, how does it happen? Why we love brands?

Debbie Millman:
Well, brands are ways in which we can telegraphically communicate our affiliations, our beliefs, and when we encounter either someone or something that is communicating some of the same values that we share, or allows us to feel better about ourselves through the sheer engagement of that thing, we feel happier, we feel at least for a brief period of time we get a dopamine hit and we feel either recognized or fulfilled. And we've been doing this really since the beginning of time. We started to record our reality on the walls of let's go - the caves in France; thousands of years ago. We did this in in an effort to communicate our reality to be able to preserve our memories, to recreate our experiences. So, they were our first storytelling devices and our first shorthand to be able to communicate to others something that we were experiencing. And that evolved to our creation of Marx to indicate our beliefs in the supernatural; whether that be Judaism or Christianity or Muslim - we created marks to signify and telegraph what we believed into others, and so this allowed us to feel safer and more secure in groups of like-minded believers. We did the same thing by creating flags - our first flags were used on the battlefield to designate which side of the battlefield you should go on or you should fight on because there were no mass manufactured uniforms. And then we created mass manufactured uniforms and then put the logos on the uniforms. So, we've been doing this really since the beginning of our time as modern humans on this planet.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right, so, throughout your book we can read quite a lot about humans being packed animals, as you mentioned wanting to belong to a tribe and to a group of people who share similar values and opinions, right? And you mentioned that your definition of a ‘Brand’ is manufactured meaning. But also, you mentioned ‘Storytelling’, and I realized that you've interviewed so many big names in our industry and most of them would agree. Would you say that most of them would actually agree that brand is about telling a story? Is branding about telling a story?

Debbie Millman:
That is one of the ways that you can communicate your brand, but brands themselves aren't telling stories, it's the people that create the brands that do. People somehow have conflated brands with souls, and there's a really big difference. Brands don't have souls. They aren't alive. Yes, a person can try and be a brand, but people are messy and inconsistent. You wouldn't want those brand attributes for any brand at all. Humans are constantly evolving taking risks, experimenting. Brand managers don't want to do anything to jeopardize the market share of their brand. In fact, they're they have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders not to do that. So, I think that storytelling is a device to be able to engage an audience. But the brands themselves aren't the storytellers.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right. So, a brand is not a logo…

Debbie Millman:
It's just a fancy word for communication. It's just a fancy word for a type of communication.

2. Branding best practices

Arek Dvornechuck:
Yes right, so, just for our listeners. The word brand is derived from the old Norse word ‘Brender’ which means to burn by fire. So, it started as marking kato about 4,000 years ago, and you and talk about that in your book and you told us a different story about creating marks in case, and things like that. But nowadays, a brand is something intangible. It's about our emotional connection to a company or a product or a service. So, it's not just a logo, it's not just about visuals because many people are confused about that, and they think that you know logo is their brand but it's actually not, it's much more than that. So, since we know what a brand is and what is not, I wanted you to talk more about branding and the process of branding because branding is a process. So, if a brand is something intangible, it's our perception or meaning as you said about a product or service then branding is the process of shaping that perception or creating that meaning. So, can you speak to that a bit what is your definition of branding and perhaps some of the best practices when it comes to branding?

Debbie Millman:
Well, as I said, I think that branding is a process of meaning manufacture. And design is the communication of that meaning, and it begins with sort of big bold ideas and works its way down to the tiniest detail. And as I said, the way in which you are able to communicate what the way you should be able to communicate what your brand is through very deliberate differentiation which is the result of very intentional strategic positioning. I think the positioning is a journey to branding; which is the result of that journey. The components along the way include; cultural anthropology, behavioral psychology, economics, creativity and design and all of those disciplines combine to create the result, which is a brand. But you don't a brand isn't something that you just create overnight. It is created through positioning, and then the communication of that positioning in the minds of an audience is results in a brand.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right, right yeah. I think you articulated that well. Can you give us some examples perhaps about like some of the biggest brand so we can all relate. So, in your book you give those examples like; for example Coca-Cola is about optimism, it's about happiness and it's about connection.

Debbie Millman:
That's the way they position the brand. I mean, if you didn't know what Coca-Cola was and you gave it to somebody that landed on this planet not knowing what Coca-Cola was, they would not drink Coca-Cola and think ‘happy. That is the positioning that the marketers have created that give you the sense that you can feel this way, it's not born that way.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right. So, branding is the process basically of attaching some ideas to a product or service, right? So, next time we come across, we engage with that brand or we buy that product or use that service, and as you mentioned, through communication to advertising strategist and designers or entrepreneurs they try to create that meaning - that differentiation and the positioning so next, so for example like with Coca-Cola - when we buy Coca-Cola, it's just in our mind through; advertising and communication we know that you we have this sense of buying happiness, right?

Debbie Millman:
Well, again that's manufactured meaning. You are being told that this could make you happy. You're not going to be happy because you bought a Coca-Cola unless you know that that's what Coca-Cola wants you to feel. It's not something that's going to be elicited naturally. It's not a drug that's going to transform your mood.

(Now, we are going to take a quick break here but we will be right back. Listen! My mission is to help people design iconic brands; so whether you're a business leader who wants to be more intentional with branding and all of its aspects, or you are a creative who wants to attract powerful clients and truly be able to help them with branding, then you need to start with a discovery session and then develop a strategy that will inform all your creative work. And everything you need to learn how to do that, you can find in my online courses at ebaqdesign.com/shop; where I share with you my worksheets, case studies, video tutorials and other additional resources to help you feel safe and strong about your process. And now let's get back to our conversation with Debbie Millman)

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right, yeah. So, it's about that attaching that meaning, so, next time we see the red color you see that a distinctive bottle shape and Spenserian logo we have an idea what that brand is about.

Debbie Millman:
Right, but we're trained to believe that. We are trained to believe that somebody living in the middle of the woods that has never watched television, never seen an ad, never been to a supermarket, never ran a magazine again they're coming upon …and there's a great movie I don't remember what it's called but it is a movie about a tribe in Africa that come upon a an empty coke bottle and then what happens, and it's brilliant. But that's not something that is going to be naturally occurring in nature.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right, so this gets us closer to talking about the design. So, since we know what this brand is and we know what is the process of branding - now, design it's really important. So, let's talk about that the power of design, so why design matters?

Debbie Millman:
Well, everything Arek, everything is designed. Everything! Everything in our lives is designed, every experience, every product, every way in which we engage with the world now is something that is designed, and the condition of design - I believe the condition of design and of branding reflects the condition of our world. And so, if we're not making deliberate choices about what we make, what we create and what we buy, we lose the agency in our own lives. So, everything is a choice now, and those choices are created by deliberate differentiation through design.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right, but design is not only about the aesthetics, right? Design is not art it should serve…

Debbie Millman:
It can be, it can be it depends on the designer. There are some designers whose work elevates into art I believe, because if it's conceptual quality, because of the craft. I think people like Paul Sayer, Marion Banshees, Stephan Sadhmeister's work - their work really does blur into art. Not all designers do that, Paula shares work also blends into art and she does both. She is both; a designer and an artist and she brings a lot of artistic craft to the process of design. So, I think it really depends on the practitioner.

3. Why design matters?

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right, but what I really wanted to convey is that, you know because as designers we are obsessed about how things look and how brands look and perhaps sometimes we even like over hopeful when we care about design, but it is critical but it needs to come from stem from the strategy. Like, for example with Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola you use red color Spenserian font to a distinctive bottle shape to create that differentiation so every aspect of the design should serve some kind of a purpose. It's not about something subjective, it's not that we think that it looks cool or it looks beautiful and that's how it's supposed to design that brand. But it should come from the strategy.

Debbie Millman:
Oh, absolutely, I absolutely agree with you. I spend a lot of time thinking about strategy, teaching strategy and I always rely on the work of the father of strategy - Harvard business school professor Michael Porter who first wrote that ‘strategy is choosing to perform activities differently or to perform distinctly different activities than rivals’, and that's really what you need to be able to uncover and articulate, which is really, really hard. I mean, if you think about it and break it into its individual pieces, choosing to perform activities differently, that's a little bit easier than the second part because you can say; okay well Starbucks did that, there were lots and lots of coffee shops all over the world before Starbucks, they came in and fundamentally offered a different experience. But there were coffee shops before, so they did it differently. They chose to perform activities differently. And then if you think about what iTunes first did for Apple, they changed the way we engaged with our entertainment. And so, while there were a lot of mp3 players before the iPod apple was the first to integrate that device with a platform like iTunes and really distinctly performed different activities than rivals. And so, that's really what I talked to my students about; whether they be branding students or design students. Before you design anything, you have to determine what your strategy is, what is the reason for being, the world doesn't need another bottle of water, the world doesn't need really another flavor of Oreo cookies. So, what can you provide that no one else is providing because people don't want a brand with just another flavor or another form. They want brands that make a difference in their lives, and so being able to determine what that is and then to be able to communicate it. I think is really at the heart of all of our work.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right. So, designers use iconography type look and feel and your color to culture specific feelings and then convey those feelings to the world - to the audience. So, design is not just about decorative creations and just looking cool or modern or just winning awards, but really - it should stem from the strategy and our main objective should be to help our clients sell more stuff or create that meaning so that's more and more people can engage with our brands.

Debbie Millman:
Absolutely! Beautifully said.

4. The future of branding

Arek Dvornechuck:
Thank you. So, now I want to talk about the future of branding. So, you know what do you think about the current state of branding and the future of branding - How the future would look like? Do you think that there's going to be more brands or less brands? Because of brands like Amazon, so some small brands may go out of business, we have so many acquisitions, how do you anticipate the future of branding in the upcoming years?

Debbie Millman:
Well, I think that there'll always be more brands because as long as brands make money they will be made. People want to make money and so they'll create brands in an effort to do that. I think that the control of branding has shifted whereas, the control of brands really were under the purview of a corporation. Now, people, humans, citizens have learned to be able to take the very tenants of branding that were once solely owned by the corporation, and use them to create movements to be able to change the world. So, it's not just about money anymore. There was a time when corporations owned operated manufactured advertised designed promoted and distributed brands, pushed them down to the consumer. They had a responsibility to their PL and an expectation of an ROI. Now, these tenants of branding, these disciplines of branding have been appropriated back by the people who first created the symbols of religion and so forth. So, it's not like we aren't familiar with these things in our history and are using them now to create movements. We started to see that with occupy wall, street now we see it with ‘black lives matter’, we see it with ‘me too’, ‘time's up’, we are using the tendency of branding to make a difference in the world not just to make a different product.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right, so, branding basically has become more user-friendly word - politicians use it, schools use it, individuals use it, we use it for causes to champion and things like that. So, would you say that brands are going to be even more entrenched in our lives, and how would you address because people have now showed attention span and world becomes more cluttered. Do you have any perhaps tips on how we should approach branding to be able to survive in this competitive world?

Debbie Millman:
I think that we have to look outside and see what's needed before we make anything new. I think that if we're making brands because of internal financial goals, we are approaching this discipline in the wrong way. Look at the world and what is needed, what can you contribute that will make the world better as opposed to making it dirtier or worse. And so, that is the fundamental question of everybody working in branding now do no harm as Milton Glazer would say.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Right, and I also noticed that many brands now want to be purpose-driven brands. Want to be like Dior or Patagonia for example. The other day I watched shark tank and there are a lot of startups and most of them - at least half of them I would say, they try to associate their brand with some kind of a coastal champion; whether it's social cause or environmental friendly cause, what do you think about that? Do you think that more and more brands…?

Debbie Millman:
I think that most of the brands - unless the brand is taking a risk by asserting a belief that isn't already popular, and not only popular, but widespread and accepted then they're just writing a bandwagon of somebody else's belief and trying to ride the coattails of that belief. There are very few brands that are willing to take a risk in the marketplace because of a belief. Nike did it with Colin Kaepernick. Patagonia has been doing it for years. But there are very few that are really taking a risk with their audience and their market share to stand up for their beliefs and it makes sense that they don't, they have a financial responsibility to their shareholders, but those that have are changing the world with their beliefs, but they're by no means widespread yet until everyone feels like it is okay to take a knee during the national anthem of a sports performance in the United States, or people feel that climate change is indeed real. They're still taking a risk by asserting their beliefs through their and with their brands. Other than that, there are very few brands that I can think of that are doing that honestly and authentically because they aren't taking risks, they're just writing a bandwagon now of primarily accepted beliefs.

5. Conclusions

Arek Dvornechuck:
Sure. So, I wanted to wrap this up with this question for our listeners. How to become a branding expert? What advice would you give someone who is starting in branding?

Debbie Millman:
Have a big curiosity, try to learn about as much as you can, and read. Read a lot of books about branding and potentially take some classes. It's a long road of learning, but it's one that I is really meaningful because of the way that everyone pretty much all over the planet now engages with brands and uses them to make our lives.

Arek Dvornechuck:
So, curiosity, read a lot, take classes.

Debbie Millman:
Train, the same way anybody would train to be good at anything. Do it every day. Learn something new every day. Stretch your goals every day. And practice.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Like with everything we want to in life, we need to practice if you want to be really good at something, right?

Debbie Millman:
Exactly!

Arek Dvornechuck:
Awesome! So, as we are approaching the end of our episode, please let us know how we can find more about you and the work you do and how to get in touch with you and I will include all those links in the description.

Debbie Millman:
Well, I’m @debbiemillman on Instagram and Twitter, and my website is debbiemillman.com.

Arek Dvornechuck:
Thank you, thank you very much for coming on the show, I appreciate that.

Debbie Millman:
My absolute pleasure and I look forward to hearing the episode.

Arek Dvornechuck:
So, this is it for today's episode and make sure to go and check out the Debbie’s website and follow her on social media. And you can find all the links on this episode's page at ebaqdesign.com/podcast/13. So, thanks for tuning in, and if you enjoyed this episode please subscribe to my podcast for more tips on branding, strategy and design. This was Arek Dvornechuck from Ebaqdesign.

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