On How Brands Are Built, branding professionals get into the details of what they do and how they do it. Other podcasts about branding focus on news, opinion, and high-level theory. They can give you a 30,000-foot view of branding; How Brands Are Built is where the rubber meets the road. In each episode, Rob Meyerson, a San Francisco-based brand strategist, interviews other strategists, designers, writers, namers, and researchers to help you understand how brands are really built.
Season four wrap-up: How brands (and branding professionals) can do good
It's the summer of 2021—one year since the murder of George Floyd. And if you’re wondering what that has to do with the season-four wrap-up of a podcast about branding, let me tell you: in early 2020 I had a plan for season four of How Brands Are Built. But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and protests around the world, my plan changed a bit. 2020 was already a pretty awful year for most people, and it just seemed to be getting worse and worse. So I started thinking about whether there was a way I could use this little platform of mine to do some good—or at least talk about something positive.
That led me to reach out to my most diverse set of guests yet, starting with Dr. Jason Chambers, who talked about the origins of racist brand names and what to do about them. I talked to female agency founders like Dava Guthmiller of Noise 13, Sunny Bonnell of Motto, and Emily Heyward of Red Antler about how they got started and the role of diversity in their agency cultures. The season ended with a two-part episode featuring Brian Collins and his agency's design apprentice, Diego Segura, who told me about one way to create opportunities for talented, but less privileged, designers and strategists. And along the way, I talked to Armin Vit of Brand New, Alina Wheeler, author of Designing Brand Identity, and Nirm Shanbhag of Sid Lee.
While I talked to guests about their agencies, books they’d written, or other topics specific to their areas of expertise, I also asked nearly all of them about what brands and branding professionals could be doing to improve the state of the world—in light of COVID-19, in light of racial injustice, and just in general. Are brands a force for good? Can they be? Should they try to be?
At the end of this episode, which features clips from every interview this season, I boil everything I heard and learned down into five ways brands—and branding professionals like you and me—can make the world a better place (sorry):
Be selective (and stick to your values) Walk the talk Wield your influence Proactively pursue diversity Don’t underestimate the power of your work In the episode, I break down each of these ideas in detail.
Diego Segura goes through the doors that open
Diego Segura is a design apprentice at Collins, an independent strategy and brand experience design company with offices in New York City and San Francisco. In this episode, Diego describes how he discovered graphic design, his decision to drop out of high school, and what it's like being an apprentice at a prestigious branding and design company.
This is the second part of a two-part series; the episode begins with a continuation of my conversation with Brian Collins in part one. Brian shares his side of Diego's story—how Diego first got in touch, how he became a full-time employee, and why, on one of their early days together, Brian took him out to run errands throughout New York City.
After a short intro from Brian, the interview with Diego begins. I was eager to get Diego's backstory—it's fascinating (and inspiring) to hear how he got from a small town outside Austin, Texas to Collins in New York City. Along the way, he emailed with Michael Beirut, did multiple remote internships, and wrote The Dropout Manifesto (a chronicle of [my] crazy junior year).
We also talked about the importance of agencies and design studios looking outside the traditional design schools, like SVA and RISD—schools Diego wasn't even aware of when he was in high school—for new talent.
I'm telling you now: If I was out to start a studio today, I would practically build it solely on young ambitious people led by a really great creative director, head of design. Because the level of talent who reaches out to me personally, because they see I'm the design apprentice on the [Collins] website—the level of talent is insane. They are so, so, so good. ... There's no doubt they can add value. It's just, they didn't come from the same places that all the other designers came from, and we've gotta be okay with that."
– Diego Segura
To learn more about Collins visit their website. You can learn more about Diego (and see some of his work) at diegosegura.me and you can follow him on Twitter. If you're interested in checking out Diego's book, The Dropout Manifesto, it's available on Amazon, as is his second book, To a Man Much Like Myself.
Alina Wheeler has a doppelgänger named Blake Deutsch
Today’s guest is Alina Wheeler, best known as the author of Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team, now in its fifth edition. One of my favorite memories of this book is seeing it on a desk when I arrived to my first day on the job at Labbrand, where I worked in Shanghai. I already knew the book, but seeing it in use, so far from home—that's when I really understood how influential of a book it is. In fact, it's been translated into Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, French, and other languages—and it's used by brand, marketing, and design teams, undergraduate and graduate students, and brand and business consultancies all over the world.
I wanted to get an idea of why Alina wrote the book and what she was doing beforehand (around 2003). Along with being an author, she's a designer with over 40 years of experience working with teams in the public and private sector. She’s led the development of integrated brand identity programs, sales and marketing strategies, and design and communications systems.
I was excited to have the opportunity to talk to Alina about her career, the book she’s created, and what the future holds for Designing Brand Identity. During the conversation, I learned that there will be a sixth edition but she won't be the author (!!!), how she gets case studies and quotes for the book, and the true identity of the mysterious Blake Deutsch. (It's hilarious—listen to find out.)
Toward the end of the conversation, I asked Alina whether there's anything she'd like to support and ask that others check out, and she talked about Simon Charwey, a brand identity designer and anthologist on indigenous African design systems and African Symbology. Simon's work includes the African Logo Design book, a compendium of 1,000 unique symbols inspired by indigenous African design systems, symbols, and culture. And off the air, Alina also mentioned Certified B Corporations, something else she’s passionate about and recommends everyone checks out.
I found the conversation both enlightening and inspiring, and I hope you do too. To learn more about Alina and Designing Brand Identity, visit designingbrandidentity.info. Of course, the book is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. Alina’s also active on Twitter and Instagram.
Nirm Shanbhag sees brand architecture from the consumer's perspective
Nirm Shanbhag is the Chief Strategy Officer of Sid Lee USA, an international creative company. He’s also my old boss. Back in 2012, he was running the San Francisco office of Interbrand, and he hired me as Director of Verbal Identity. Before Interbrand, Nirm earned his MBA from London Business School and worked in advertising, at firms like Mullen and McCann. He also ran his own, independent agency, Notch Strategy, for about six years between his roles at Interbrand and Sid Lee.
Nirm and I have worked together quite a bit—first at Interbrand, then as independent consultants. We’ve been called in on brand architecture projects a few times, and Nirm is one of just a handful of people I consider an expert on the topic. Since I haven’t had too many (any) episodes focused on brand architecture, I was eager to get Nirm to share some of his insights into brand architecture—what it is, why it matters, and how it should be done. Throughout the conversation, Nirm came back time and again to the idea of keeping the consumer’s journey front and center, considering their motivations and approaches to decision-making.
We also talked about brand purpose, and whether brands are good or bad for society (heady stuff). At the end of the conversation, Nirm recommended two very different books: The Experience Economy (“a seminal work and … one that not a lot of people know about”) and A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking.
I’ve probably read [A Brief History of Time] four times in my life. The reason I think it’s worthwhile is because, yeah, it’s about physics, but at its heart it’s a book about perspective and recognizing that your perspective can change.”
– Nirm Shanbhag
To learn more about Nirm and Sid Lee, visit sidlee.com. I also recommend you check out some of Nirm’s blog posts on the Notch blog.
Emily Heyward builds brands that inspire obsession
Emily Heyward is co-founder and and Chief Brand Officer at Red Antler, the leading brand company for startups and new ventures. Red Antler is the branding firm behind brands like Casper, Allbirds, Keeps, and Burrow. They also work with established brands like American Express, HBO, Google, and Gap.
Emily was named among the Most Important Entrepreneurs of the Decade by Inc. Magazine, and has also been recognized as a Top Female Founder by Inc. and one of Entrepreneur's Most Powerful Women of 2019. She's also the author of a new book, Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One.
I asked Emily what makes Red Antler different from other branding firms and what makes it, in the words of a 2018 Adweek article, one of "the surprisingly small group of branding shops behind today's top challenger brands." She says Red Antler was "the first creative services company that was designed and built to work with startups" and, as a result, "we've thought about brand in an incredibly holistic way … with obviously a particular focus on digital."
Next, we turned to Emily's book, Obsessed.
"The book really came out of 12 years of running Red Antler, launching new, disruptive businesses into the world, and seeing the ways in which brands’ relationships with consumers are shifting. … The rules are not the same as they were, certainly 20 years ago, but even six years ago. Things keep changing.”
– Emily Heyward
Then we turned to the events of 2020, and I asked Emily for her take on how brands should respond to racial injustice, as well as the COVID pandemic. Lastly, I asked Emily some wrap-up questions, including a brand/initiative she recommends checking out (the 15 Percent Pledge), a book recommendation (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), and her advice to you people in the industry:
"Be curious. I think that so much of what we do is a response to the world around us—to culture and trends and what makes people tick. And when I meet with someone that doesn’t seem like they're passionate about what's happening in the world, and what businesses are out there, and what they're seeing, and what they're loving—for me, that's an immediate red flag."
– Emily Heyward
To learn more about Emily and Red Antler, visit redantler.com or emilyheyward.com. Obsessed is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
Armin Vit has a little grid in his mind
Today’s guest is Armin Vit, co-founder of UnderConsideration, a graphic design firm, and editor and writer for Brand New, the leading site for reviews of corporate and brand identity design work. Born and raised in Mexico City, Armin—along with his wife and partner, Bryony Gomez-Palacio—have created multiple other design blogs, co-authored books, and organized events like the annual Brand New Conference. I was excited to talk to Armin about design trends, blogging, and the pros and cons of being a professional critic.
The conversation started with some ancient history, going back to a blog called “Speak Up,” and FutureBrand’s 2003 redesign of Paul Rand’s UPS logo, which gave rise to Brand New.
I asked Armin how he selects which work to review on Brand New, and he said he has a "little grid" in his mind. The more people are likely to be familiar with the client, the more likely he is to write about the work. If the client is small and unknown, the work has to be groundbreaking. Much of the work he sees is "fine"—but work that's just fine is actually less interesting than work that's terrible.
I meet other designers [that] will joke that they are always wondering ... what I might say. They're always thinking about, 'Oh shit, I hope this doesn't make it on Brand New. Or if it does, I hope it goes fine.' It just increases that level of stress ... but in a positive way that I have to make sure that what I'm saying is valuable to as many people as possible and doesn't put down anyone just for the sake of it.
Armin and I went on to talk about a design trend he's seen lately: a stampede of wordmarks featuring geometric sans fonts, like Airbnb and Google, and the backlash against them, epitomized by the Chobani logotype.
Next, we discussed how design and branding can make a positive impact on the world, his experience as a Mexican-American immigrant and how it influences his thinking as a designer—especially given some of the Trump administration's rhetoric and policies toward immigrants and Mexico in particular.
I asked Armin for an example of some work he's seen that's making a positive impact, and he mentioned IBM's "Be Equal" campaign, which repurposes a bee designed for IBM by Paul Rand, highlighting an equals sign in its stripes.
To close out, I asked for Armin's book recommendations (he likes Branding: In Five and a Half Steps, by Michael Johnson) and his advice for young designers and people in the branding industry: "Look at a lot of brand design ... It's really about building your palate for identity design, how colors work, how typefaces work. It's not about copying anything, but taking bits of pieces from different places, and how you will apply that to your own lens, to your clients, or to your work. It's consuming a lot of identity design and letting it simmer in your subconscious." But honestly, he says, that's not just a pitch for Brand New.
To learn more about Armin, visit UnderConsideration, from which you can find Brand New as well as design work by Armin and Bryony, books they've written, like Flaunt, and events like the Brand New Conference.
This is a MUST LISTEN. Loaded with knowledge and an awesome guest list. Rob's podcasts are a pleasure to listen to and easy to learn from. As a seasoned industry expert, he knows the important questions to ask, he doesn't just keep things surface. He gets into the nuances of practice but breaks things down for all levels of experience to understand. This podcast has increased my awareness of the Branding/Naming industry and has truly fostered a renewed sense of inspiration and ambition to pursue the field(s) even further. I wish this was around years ago when I was unsure of what professional avenue to pursue. Thank you Rob for all your efforts and knowledge. I am looking forward to many more episodes.
Don't miss it!
I came for the incredible assembly of guests, but I stayed for the multitude of learning opportunities! (Seriously, you don't want to miss his episode with Sunny Bonnell... SO good.) Rob has created a podcast that expertly balances fascinating perspectives from the marketing sphere with insight that can immediately benefit listeners. I'm a fan!
A must listen! Top talent, top conversations
Rob does a brilliant job on lifting the curtain on what it takes to build a brand, sharing his own insights as well as facilitating conversations to get golden nuggets out of his top tier guests. JUST give it a listen and you’ll be hooked.
- Jacob, JUST Creative