Monday, April 21st, 2008

Turning the tables on Debbie Millman

Turning the tables on Debbie Millman
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Few designers haven’t tuned-in to Design Matters, Debbie Millman‘s podcast that engages the brightest design minds in discussion. She’s a partner at Sterling Brands in New York, and recently released her first book “How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer.” Today Debbie’s on the other side of the table, and it’s my great pleasure to have her here for a brief talk about her work and thoughts on branding.


Eric: Debbie, I was first introduced to you at a talk in Vancouver a few years ago. During that presentation, you spoke at length about your history with brands. For those who haven’t heard it, could you share the story of how your love affair with brands began?

Debbie: My love affair with brands began when I was in the 7th grade. I looked around and everyone in school was wearing really cool pants with a little red tag on the back pocket and polo shirts with little crocodiles on the front right section over your heart. Levi’s and Lacoste. But they were expensive and my mother didn’t understand why we had to pay more money for the little red tag and the crocodile when clothing without them was the same quality, only cheaper. Furthermore, she was a seamstress and her compromise to me was an offer to make me the very same clothes and stitch a red tag into the back pocket of the pants and glue a crocodile patch from the Lee Wards craft store onto the front of a perfectly good polo shirt from Modell’s. While that plan didn’t quite suit my aspirations of being a seventh-grade trendsetter or at least voted the best dressed girl at Elwood junior high, I eagerly pored through the racks of Lee Wards desperately searching for a crocodile patch to stick onto the front of my favorite pink polo shirt. Alas, there were none. Nothing even close. The best I came up with was a cute rendition of Tony the Tiger, but that really wasn’t the brand look I was going for.

I rode my bike home from Lee Wards dejected and mopey and when mom found out I wasn’t successful, I could see she felt sorry for me. She then took the matter into her own hands. The Lacoste shirts were too expensive, but there were indeed some Levi’s on sale at the Walt Whitman mall and she bought me a pair. Problem was she didn’t get me the denim kind like everyone else was wearing, she found me a pair that must of been from the triple mark-down racks…they were a pair of lime green corduroy bell-bottom Levi’s. It was with a mixture of horror and pride that I paraded in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, ever-so-slightly sticking my butt out so that I could be sure the little red tag would show. So what, I was wearing lime green corduroy! They were Levi’s. I was cool. My reign of logo worship had begun.

Eric: That story has stuck with me since I first heard it. In one respect it’s sort of a sad story–the idea that these brands are so powerful amongst the young. What’s your feeling on this?

Debbie: We are now living in sensory overload: we determine our beauty factor by comparing ourselves to airbrushed super-models and surgically enhanced celebrities, our intelligence by answering questions correctly on Jeopardy, our sports acumen by watching and applauding steroid abusers, our bravery and leadership by delusional war-obsessed leaders. It is a really perplexing time in our universe! This lack of personal privacy and mass consumption of information has changed the way we relate, perceive and live. So easy answer: yes, it is sad that a polo shirt and a pair of dungarees could make me feel better about myself. But I quickly learned that the feelings were elusive. After acquiring the polo shirt and dungarees, I moved on to something else. Better living through consumption doesn’t stop when you’ve consumed everything you covet. Unfortunately, these “things” are elusive and don’t keep you happy for very long.

Eric: You’ve been in the industry for 25 years now. Tell me about how you feel the perception of brands has changed over that time.

Debbie: I think that packaging and brand design are not just about design anymore. There is no more “mass market” in which to target a product. There is no one demographic picture of the planet. I recently saw cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken speak, and he discussed how while lifestyle typologies expanded to first 3, then 6, then 9 and then 12 typologies—there is now too much variation and we have reached categorical exhaustion. As a result, I have come to believe that the term brand design ultimately undermines the job we do as brand consultants, marketers, designers and strategists. Brand design is not only about design. It is the perfect, meticulously crafted balance of cultural anthropology, behavioral psychology, commerce and creativity. It is about cultural anthropology because what we do in our culture—whether it is an obsession with reality television or weapons of mass destruction, this has a major impact on the brands around us. It is about psychology because if we don’t fundamentally understand the brain circuitry of our audience and really know what they are thinking—and why they are thinking it!—we will not be able to solicit their imagination. It is about commerce because understanding the marketplace and the messaging impacts and influences perception. It is about creativity because if we don’t create a compelling package, then consumers won’t notice it and buy it.

Eric: Can you tell me a little about Sterling Brands and your role there?

Debbie: Sterling is a branding consultancy with offices in New York and San Francisco. Our New York office is in the Empire State Building, smack in the middle of greatest city in the world. We also have affiliate offices in London and Singapore. Sterling started out in 1992 with ambitions to build an entrepreneurial agency with a strong and unique work culture based on honesty, energy and creativity. Sixteen years later, we have over 100 professionals worldwide and are growing by double digits every year.

We do two things really well – brand strategy and brand design. In every case, we work to deliver fresh, inspiring, and (what we hope is) high quality work. We provide a passionate point of view, what we consider to be intelligent guidance and measurable results. I am President of the Design business and I have been there for 13 years. I run and manage the day-to-day objectives of the Design group, and I am also the chief rain-maker and bottle washer.

Eric: Okay, a more personal question here, and you’re free to just disregard it if you choose to. You’re highly brand literate and of course are well aware of the importance of design. So, why is the Sterling Brands website so… ummm… crappy?

Debbie: No excuses. It IS crappy. Really crappy. I was going through our site the other day and realized it contained white papers that were over three years old. That being said, we are currently in the process of redesigning it. So watch this space!


Eric: You’ve worked on some rather high-visibility efforts. The redesign of Burger King‘s logo is one that immediately comes to mind. What was that project like?

Debbie: Tough. Diageo, the company that owned the brand at the time, had recently purchased the business. (They’ve since sold it.) The CMO at the time was a progressive visionary, and she wanted a brand platform and identity that was very revolutionary. But the work also needed to appeal to, and be accepted by, the franchisees. Needless to say, it was extremely challenging. But fortunately, we were able to create a logo that appealed to consumers around the world, and that we are proud of. Ten years later, it is still the brand mark.

Eric: Which brand strategy project are you most proud of your involvement in?

Debbie: I am particularly proud of our work we did with Unilever and Ogilvy & Mather to create a global road map for growth for the Dove brand. The work resulted in a new vernacular defining “real beauty” and is the centerpiece of all of the advertising on the market today.

Eric: What obstacles do you consistently face in rebranding these large established institutions?

Debbie: Branding without a cohesive, strategic plan for greatness. A great package design in isolation is easy. A great vision in isolation is easy. A great strategy in isolation is easy. It is having all three work seamlessly together that is the extraordinary and daunting challenge.

Eric: Tell me about the Sterling Brands process. What differentiates your method from similar firms and large ad agencies?

Debbie: I am not exactly sure! Maybe our passion, our intelligence and our honesty? Maybe our talent? Maybe our funny personalities and alarming wit? Maybe you should ask our clients. I think they are more qualified to answer the question.

Eric: What should a client expect to invest in a brand strategy or corporate identity exercise with Sterling Brands?

Debbie: Rigor. Challenging, heart-felt discourse and dialogue. Robust conversations with loyalists of the brand. Fun.


Eric: What is it that most companies get wrong in their branding?

Debbie: Branding that fails in the marketplace is often, though not always, the front face for an idea, a product or an organization that is badly conceived, articulated and marketed.

Eric: What do you see as the most interesting developments in the brand space?

Debbie: User-generated content excites me more than almost any other development since I started in the business. When Time Magazine chose “YOU” as Time’s Person of the Year in 2006, I knew that branding would never be the same.

Eric: What large company do you think is in the most dire need of a new identity?

Debbie: Off the top of my head: Blockbuster. Britney. Verizon. The United States Government.

Eric: And one last, somewhat unrelated, question (Design Matters listeners will be very familiar with this question): What defines you: your drink or your drive?

Debbie: My drive. No doubt about it. But sometimes my drive drives me to drink…

Eric: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!

Debbie: Thank YOU!


We’re very excited to note that Kevin Roberts from Saatchi & Saatchi will join us next at ideasonideas, for a talk about digital media, losing their bid for Blast Radius, the end of traditional agencies, and a heck of a lot more. See you then!  :-)

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