Debbie Millman talks about why she is driven by the profound psychological, economic, and cultural components of analyzing brands and their purpose. Learn what’s behind branding and being a brand consultant. Create intention to differentiate one brand from another. Understand the motivation, find the soul, and discover the language.
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- Let's change directions a little bit: branding. - Yes. - You work for Sterling Brands, you're the president have been for more than 20 years. - Well, I have been the president for nearly 20 years. I celebrated my 20th anniversary at Sterling a few months ago but I've recently been promoted to chief marketing officer. - Congratulations. - Thank you. So rather than just look after the design business, I'm now looking at marketing the entire business which includes design, strategy and innovation.
So that's a really new and exciting development for me. It also gives me the opportunity to continue to do a lot more of my self-generated projects, which I'm doing more and more and more and more of. - You've worked on more than 200 rebranding projects with huge clients like Kraft, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble to name a few, Pepsi-- - Yes. - So when one of these massive clients comes to you and says we want to reimagine our brand or freshen it up, where do you even begin? - The first thing I generally ask is why.
Why do you want to do this? There are times where an organization wants to do something because somebody new has come in and it's a signal of some new leadership. That's often not the best of ideas unless there's a fundamental change in philosophy. There's also the opportunity to redo something because it's not doing well, but again, the same question: why? Because if it's not doing well, chances are the branding isn't really going to make it do any better. All it might do is temporarily increase some trial, but it's not going to create any long-term sustained growth.
So the first question always has to be why, because you need to understand what the issues are that you're trying to address via the identity redesign or the package redesign and ultimately the redesign, or any design is only going to be as good as what the product delivers. People will very quickly forget how pretty something is if it smells bad. You really need to figure out what the motivation is and what the criteria for success is and then begin a project.
I define branding as deliberate differentiation. Every brand wants to be different from each other, every person wants to be different from each other, but this is a way of very specifically creating intention about how to do that. How do we want this brand to be different from this? What is the reason that this brand exists? What is its essence, what is its purpose, what is its DNA? What is the soul of this brand and how does it connect with other people? - Are there times that, after that conversation, the client says, "You know what, you're right? Let's just not do anything"? - Occasionally it happens.
If there's an intention to do something there's usually a reason why it needs to be done. That doesn't necessarily mean that that's the right specific thing to do. So a lot of being a brand consultant is also being a psychologist, a behavioral psychologist and a cultural anthropologist and an economist and a designer. Paula Scher once said something I thought was brilliant: People that ask us to design the big identities and the big packaging redesigns aren't paying the big bucks because of the size of the brand.
They're paying us the big bucks to navigate through the big-time politics. (laughs) And I think that's very true. - So is there any part of the brand design process that you enjoy more than another part? - I enjoy the analysis. If I really had to pick what part of branding I like best it's the psychology. I am endlessly fascinated by why people choose the things that they do, why they want things in their lives.
People aren't really interested now in a different flavor, or a different form, or a different structure. What they're really interested in now and this is what makes this discipline particularly exciting at this time in our culture, is that they're interested in what kind of difference is this going to make in my life. That's pretty profound. I think that branding in many ways is a manifestation of the human condition, and I think that the condition of branding reflects the condition of our culture.
I think we use branding to help understand construct, to understand intention, to understand motivation, to understand people, and I think it's a language that we rely on now to signal our affiliations, to telegraph our whims, and to, on its worst day, project ideas about who we are who we want other people to think we are and on its best day it helps us connect with like-minded people with like-minded vision and like-minded values to feel part of something bigger than we are on our own.
- So what are the biggest changes you've seen in branding during your career? - The biggest change is the way we connect with technology. I would say that if you look at the advent of modern branding, so from the Trademark and Registrations Act of 1876 till now I really see five major waves of brand evolution. The first was very much about consistency very much about safety. The first Drug Safety Act, the Food and Drug Safety Act, the FDA, came out to really guarantee that consumers have products that didn't kill them or make them sick.
You were legally entitled to products that were safe. So that's probably from 1876 to I would say about right before the Great Depression. And then you went into a period of what I call brand anthropomorphization, where you saw lots of "me too" brands. And this is the big great gold rush of branding from 1876 to around 1920–29. Then you saw all the copycats. You saw a lot of brands that really couldn't differentiate from each other because the products were essentially the same or very close to being the same so they differentiated through character and metaphor.
So you see the little Morton Salt Girl or Tony the Tiger, or all these characters that were really creating the first consumer engagement, the first personality. And then we move into the more modern '50s time and then it was very much about an experience. You saw lots and lots of brands that were talking about experience and you're talking about a transformation and then now we're talking about brands that are helping us connect.
And we're doing that through what I call limbic brands and the limbic brands are brands that help facilitate human connection. I don't think that people are really in love with the brands, per se, that help them connect. What they're in love with is the feeling that they get in that connection through the brands that they're using so we're seeing a lot of that via social media social networking, through technology but we're also seeing that in farmers' markets and really sort of going back to a lot of wave one branding where it was much more about what the product was and that connection to the owner.
All those original brands, the Kelloggs and the Johnson & Johnson, all those were created by real people. Their companies were based on the values that they brought to the marketplace and so we're seeing a lot of that again now. Tom's is a wonderful example of a brand that's being created with purpose and meaning that's inspired by the owner. So you're seeing a lot of cyclical trends that are happening as well now too. - And what in branding hasn't changed and is probably not going to change? Those enduring qualities that are branding DNA? - This is a really interesting, interesting question.
What hasn't changed is the bit of dopamine that we get in our brains when we get something new, when we experience something new for the first time which gives us that buzz that we always want, over and over and over again. So we end up often being on a hedonistic treadmill that we're looking for more and more and more and more to fulfill an otherwise fragile center.
That's where that slippery slope is with branding as Dan Pincus said, if you're idea of happiness is a flat-screen TV you're playing a fool's game. There's always going to be a bigger, flatter screen. So it's really about how can these augment your life as opposed to fulfill your life. - You say that we live in a 140-character culture. - I do say that. We do live in a 140-character culture. - And how does that affect the work you do? - I think it affects the work everybody does because everybody has become very impatient.
Very impatient with success, very impatient with craft. I think anything worthwhile takes a long time almost all the time. A lot of my students see the very young success of some really really exceptional, special people and then they feel that somehow there's something wrong with them if they aren't able to achieve that success by 30. Those are the rare exceptions. The more common success comes after 10 or 15 or 20 years of doing something and practicing the craft and really really getting good at it.
I'm concerned about this instant gratification that we all require now, that dopamine hit. The dopamine hit, we get that same hit when we're looking at our cell phones hoping for another Instagram like or another email or a Facebook like or a retweet, and that's what's dangerous about this. We're now moving into a new generation we're going from the millennials to what's being called Generation Z. But people are also calling Generation Z, Generation D, D for depressed because this generation is basing their sense of self on what others think and how they engage.
And so, because we are so carefully curating our own positioning in this media people are ending up feeling really lacking in comparison. It's a very interesting time in our culture and it'll be interesting to see where this takes us. I'm hoping there will be a backlash to that and that we'll be able to figure out, because there always is, that pendulum goes back and forth, back and forth, and right now we're looking at very outer-centric, external ways of validating sense of self, so it'll be interesting to see where it goes next.
The brand that is able to come up with that, how do I really create an internal sense of self-worth, even if it's just a dopamine hit that isn't externally driven, that will likely be the next big success. - Are there people out there who are looking to do branding and they're looking to just say "How can we give those people that dopamine hit?" regardless of whether or not it's honest or not? - There always are, there always are. There always will be in every business there are always the charlatans.
The good thing about that is that, again, in this 140-character culture, we find out really quickly. We find out really quickly. The power right now is all with the consumer with the audience, with the people. You can't spray marketing on people and get them to believe it for very long because there are plenty of people that are willing to tell the truth and really willing to expose the charlatans so that's a really really positive thing. The consumer, the audience, the people are holding brands to a much higher standard than they've ever been held before in our history.
That's amazing. - Right, with social media now, brands have to be more honest because when they're not they get called out quickly and publicly. - Instantly. And then it's over. Happens with politicians, it happens with brands it happens with everything. - In your interview with Massimo he talked about the difference between clients coming in who often could articulate their wants. But they didn't often know what their needs were. - Yeah, I think it's a really interesting conundrum.
I think it was Henry Ford who said if he had asked consumers what they wanted at the turn of the century, the last century, in terms of transportation, they would have answered "a faster horse." And Steve Jobs also talked about not giving people what they want giving people what they need. But in order to be able to do that you have to understand fundamental human behavior. You have to understand what needs aren't being met in order to create the need for something new. That's not easy, that's not an easy thing to do.
That's why you don't see that many ground-breaking, game changing, world-changing brands. They're mostly iterations and that's also a good thing because things build. All the greatness stands on the shoulders of the giants behind them. But every now and then you do get that spectacular breakthrough and that's what makes everything exciting.
In this exclusive interview from the 2015 AIGA Design Conference, our own Kristin Ellison sits down with Debbie for a discussion of her award-winning podcast, Design Matters, her approach to rebranding (which starts with the "why"), and the attitude toward branding in the social media age. They also talk about truth telling in branding and the power of education, which led Debbie to cofound the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts with Steven Heller. Debbie also reveals advice to her younger self; talks about the inspiration for her books, Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design and Self Portrait as Your Traitor; and her deep connection to New York City.