As a logo designer you’ve probably been approached by companies who have names that are far from perfect… they’re too long, hard to say, or just don’t properly represent the brand. You’ll likely want to help them improve, but where do you start? What does an expert brand naming service look like?
Books & Resources Mentioned
- Sticky Branding – Website | Instagram | Twitter | LinkedIn Group | Facebook
- Brand New Name – Buy on Amazon US | Amazon UK
- Sticky Branding – Buy on Amazon US | Amazon UK
- 4 Disciplines of Execution – Buy on Amazon US | Amazon UK
- Lords of Strategy – Buy on Amazon US | Amazon UK
- Playing to Win – Buy on Amazon US | Amazon UK
- Any book written by David Aaker – Buy on Amazon US | Amazon UK
- iWantMyName – To check domain availability.
- KnowEm – To check brand name availability on over 575 popular social media networks.
Jeremy Miller Interview Transcription
Ian Paget: Although the podcast is primarily focused around logo design, I find myself in a situation where clients want or need help with their company or product name, and I’d imagine listeners will be facing the same situation. So I thought this would be a really great topic to do an episode on. And since you’ve just released a new book on naming, I thought you’d be the perfect person to shed some light on this topic.
So as a starting point, what would you say makes a really great brand name?
Jeremy Miller: Well, it’s a challenging question because it’s strategic that … I don’t think there is a universal answer to what makes a great name. I think what makes a great name is it fits the brand it fits whatever it is, the company, the product, the service, the system, whatever it is, and it creates meaning.
So it’s in that realm of capturing the essence of what that thing is. So that can mean different things for different situations and … but you take a name like Twitter. Twitter stands out immediately amongst social networks, but it’s also a suggestive name. It gives you a sense of what the platform is like. It’s like a lot of tweeting birds. It’s short snippets of concept.
And when it was used, that metaphor was just such a beautiful answer to what the platform would be like. So some names are suggestive, some names are descriptive, but they just seem to have that way to capture what you’re going to get and it fits the brand that creates that immediate emotional connection so that someone knows it and then they can keep moving and breathing life into it. The name is a vessel.
Ian Paget: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Well, the name and a logo essentially is. And I think it’s one of those things when you get it right, like Twitter as an example, you just know straight from the outset, that is perfect for that particular brand.
Well, I know as a logo designer, or someone working on brand identity, working with clients, we are occasionally approached by a business that has a name that is … that just … that sucks. I have worked with a number of people that approached me and they’ve had almost like a sentence as their potential name. What would you advise as the best way to inform that client that their logo isn’t right?
Jeremy Miller: Their logo, or their name or all of the above?
Ian Paget: Sorry, their name, yeah.
Jeremy Miller: Well, I think that’s going to be stylistic to the organisation. Now in my practice, at Sticky Branding, we don’t actually get into brand activation. So we’re a strategy consulting firm at our core.
So as a consultant, I have found being blunt is one of the most effective tools. I often say, “Don’t dumb it down, blunt it up.” So if a client’s brand identity sucks, I think it’s incumbent on us to tell us … tell them … Now, you don’t have to be mean about it. You don’t have to go, “Look pal, you’re finger-painting with faeces here. This is just horrible.”
Well we can be gentle and say, “How does this affect your client, and how does this affect your reputation in the marketplace? How does this define where you want to be five years from now?” And I think what we have to recognise when we are on the creative side of the table is what we can visualise, what we can see isn’t actually common for most people. Most people don’t have the ability to visualise or imagine the possibilities. That right brain of theirs isn’t as developed as say, yours and mine.
So part of what we have to do is break it down into a way that they understand they identify with. But we also have to balance that. Then there’s the other side of this, is that maybe there is some kind of connection to this brand identity or this name that they’re completely enthralled with. Their son or daughter designed it for them, named it for them and there’s some backstory to it. And you might be like, “Oh my God, this is horrible.”
And if that’s the case, I think the choice is yours. Do you want this person or this company as a client? Because if you can’t have that kind of balanced relationship where you create value, I don’t know, that to me sounds like it might be a signal not to work with them.
Ian Paget: Yeah. Something that I did yesterday, I actually had the instance where I had a client come to me and they had a company name that was literally a sentence. It was like five-words-long and it took so long to say where it was ridiculous as a potential name. And what I did myself was I just literally counted the number of syllables, and it’s advice I got from Marty Neumeier.
He says that if a name is more than four syllables, it’s going to be reduced down to some kind of acronym, or it’s going to be reduced down. And that’s what I did in that instance. But I do think you’re right, being just blunt.
Jeremy Miller: You also gave them some logic too. You said it’s over four syllables, it’s five characters, it’s not memorable. They probably knew that their name was terrible, they just didn’t have anything better. And that’s the hardest part of naming is that it’s almost a game of compromise that you put all this time and effort into it and you can’t find any of the dotcoms, you can’t find any of the names and you’re left going, “Ah, screw this. I’m just sticking with this one because I can at least move forward.”
So if you can help point out there’s a flaw and then show them how to move forward, now you’re bringing a brilliant designer and adviser.
Ian Paget: Yeah, very true. I think acknowledging and pointing out a flaw is the easy bit, but actually coming up with a better name is challenging. But I know you can help because you just launched a new book on the topic. So I’m wondering if you’re happy to share with us how you would go about creating a company name? What does an exercise look like to help clients to rename their business?
Jeremy Miller: Sure. Well, I’d be happy to. So the new book is called Brand New Name, and it came out in North America on October 8th 2019 and it’s coming out in the U.K. and Europe on October 24th 2019. And what the book shows you how to do is … or what it is, it’s a proven step-by-step process to create an unforgettable brand name in two to four weeks.
And what’s totally unique around my approach to naming, and my approach to branding in general, is rather than assuming that the naming consultant or the agency has all the answers, my assumption is inside every organisation is immense creative potential. And what the process involves is a model of employee co-creation. We get the client fully embraced and engaged in the naming process.
And what we do is it works in three stages. Stage one, we build a naming strategy. What does it take to stand out? What are the criteria for success? How will you know you’ve got a great name when you get to the end of the process? Stage two is a five-day naming sprint, and this is included all in the book so you don’t have to go and reinvent the wheel.
But what we try to challenge ourselves to is I’ll provide you a creative exercise, we’ll give you some stimulation in terms of ideas and inspiration and I challenge you to come up with five good names per day for five days. Now, on your own, that will generate 25 names. If you’ve got 10 people in your organisation involved, that’s going to take you to 125 names. If you combine agency services and client services, again, you’re just creating exponential growth.
And the way the exercises are designed is they actually build on each other so that you’re growing. So each exercise on their own might not seem all that remarkable. But as your thinking evolves, you will come up with more ideas. And I will come back to the reason for the five days in a moment. The third stage is a set of techniques and tools for testing, selecting, shortlisting and finding their name that’s right for you, tying it back to the strategy, seeing what connects to market.
And what I’m trying to do in the book is just give you a proven methodology that you can build on. As an agency owner, you can take the method and use it with your clients. And actually, Sticky Branding supports a number of creative agencies so that they can deliver the methodology of their clients, or the client can take on the method and use it themselves.
And either way, what I think we’re trying to say is the key to great naming is great process, that coming up with one great idea isn’t the hard part, it’s finding enough ideas that you can actually overcome the domain and trademark issues that we have, that we are actually in a naming drought right now where the hard part isn’t coming up with a good idea, it’s finding an available name.
Ian Paget: Yeah. I know I’ve done naming in the past and I worked with a couple of other people and we spent days and days. I wasn’t working through a proper process. It was just something that we made to pass hours, but it was so hard. We list down good names, every good name we thought of just wasn’t available. So I’d love if you would be willing to share a couple of the exercises that you’re working on because I know coming up with a name is relatively easy, but these exercises that you’re working through, are those guiding people towards coming up with good names?
Jeremy Miller: So the way we overcome the naming drought is through volume. And what we want to recognise first and foremost from a brainstorming context is I think group brainstorming really works against us. So you can imagine we’ve all been in that scenario where everyone goes into the boardroom, and the and the leader of the group goes, “Okay guys, let’s be creative.” And very quickly, you hit a wall and you don’t find any great names.
So what the method is doing is saying first and foremost, brilliance doesn’t strike when you want it to strike. We need time to allow creativity to percolate. So that’s why I extend the creative sprint over five days is that you … as you work the problem, as you do the exercises, you’re building on your thinking, which is taking you from obvious ideas to breakthrough ideas.
The other piece to this is by getting multiple people involved in the process. We’re creating, like Todd Henry would call it, accidental creative, or creative accidents, where two ideas start to collide with each other to create new ideas. So what you are able to see every day is what were the names that your colleagues created and then that builds on it.
So to give you an example of an exercise, one of the things I love to do is go back into history and look at people, places and spaces. So look at geography, look at quotes from books, Starbucks for example is a reference to Starbuck, the first mate in Moby-Dick. Patagonia is a reference to the mountain ranges. We did a project recently with a software startup in the … in Canada where I’m based, and they created a whole bank of 30 or 40 names based on different areas of the world that had a connection to the brand.
And that actually sparked a second date conversation around taking some of those words and making them into invented words, so creating phonetic spellings of them and other things. So they all kind of build off each other.
Ian Paget: And what’s the reason why you do it over a duration of five days? Because to me, I’ve only ever worked on a naming project once or twice in my whole career. What’s the reason why you do it over a duration of five days with lots of different people, because that sounds like an awful lot of time?
Jeremy Miller: Well, if you divide it up across multiple people, it’s no more than an hour or a day per person.
Ian Paget: Right, ok.
Jeremy Miller: So part of my approach to employee co-creation is to create what was … Let’s just go back to the idea of employee co-creation because this is the secret sauce of brand new name. So I fundamentally believe three things. Number one, everybody is creative, provided you give them structure. If I ask you to say, “All right. Ian, I need you to be creative today,” you may or may not be. And if I go to someone who is an accountant, they probably won’t be. But if I give you some process, if I give you some thought starters and exercises, I can kick-start that creativity.
Two, nobody knows your business better than you. So part of what we’re actually doing is building off of an existing organisation’s domain knowledge. And then the third part is inside every organisation is immense creative potential that goes untapped. We overlook people that are not in creative jobs. I worked with one client for example, or I’ve come across this all the time, where you’ll see a person who has a job and maybe they are a painter, a singer, an artist, or doing something else in their free time.
Their hobbies are immensely creative, but their day job is something that’s immensely analytical. So you never know where these ideas may arise. But if we get a lot of people involved, we get structure involved, what we can get to is a whole lot of ideas.
So in the tech startup example I mentioned, they had 45 employees. And over the course of five days, they generated 639 names across the entire organisation. Of that, we shortlisted to 40 viable candidates, we tested 10, we market-tested at five and they actually chose two, one for the company name and one for a product name.
And the time commitment though was between 20 minutes and 90 minutes per person per day for five days. So we’re creating exponential return by getting more people involved in the process.
Ian Paget: And how are you then coordinating that volume of people, because I assume that as a freelancer, if I was to work with that business, obviously, I’d give them some kind of exercises for them to work on? How are you then actually coordinating that with the business to get all of that information back to you?
Jeremy Miller: For sure. So the book itself gives you the full methodology. So it shows you what to do, what each of the five-day exercises are, all the process that goes out there. But you are hitting where my business model kicks in is when you’ve got 10, 50, 100 involved in a sprint, then the administration of it gets unwieldy.
So we have built a set of tools and process for administering the programs from email marketing automation for just the … distributing the exercises to a database tool with testing and selection tools to administer the … that whole side of things. And either Sticky Branding, my company, we will facilitate … our sprint masters will facilitate a client sprint, or we will train and support, so train and certify other agency partners or individuals that want to become a sprint master, that they want to help facilitate naming projects within their clients.
And that, I find very interesting because then, you can blend your processes with my processes, which essentially is saying, “I’m going to blend our approach to naming with a way to fully engage the client in the process.” And now, we’re getting the best of both worlds.
Ian Paget: That sounds really good, and I can appreciate it. There’s probably quite a few businesses out there that need that level of support. So going back to the process, so far, you’ve worked with a wide number of people to generate a large number of potential names over a five-day period. In terms of narrowing that down, what kind of exercises are you carrying out to select the most appropriate name?
Jeremy Miller: Sure. So the first thing we want to do is a shortlisting exercise. So if you’re doing this on your own or in a small team, my recommendation is dot-voting, which is a process used in Agile. So a simple way to run the exercise is you put each of your names down onto a Post-it Note, arrange them all on the wall and then give everybody on your team, say five dot stickers.
And you can put one per name. You could short … or you could put all your names on one Post-it, but what you’re trying to do is get to a shortlisting amongst your colleagues of what you believe are your favourite names, the ones that stand out.
We also will give the decision-maker super votes so that if there are any names that aren’t selected that they want to choose, so if the … you give the CEO a prerogative. So if there’s any names that aren’t there that he or she wants, they can add them to the list.
So that gives you a first short list. It’s a first just … You’re going to take 639 names and call that. So in the example I gave before, we called that down to about 80 names. We then go through … The next step is to find the viable candidates. So that’s going and looking at GoDaddy, checking the trademark registers, Googling it, and making sure there’s not any problems with those names.
If you see a problem, there’s a competitor there, the domain name is taken and that you can’t use it, or a trademark issue. We call them nonstarters. You just get them off the list. You can’t consider them, there’s no point getting wrapped up on them. It might be a brilliant name, but you can’t use it, so you just got to keep moving.
So that will whittle you down. And what we provide in the book, and a bit more sophistication when we’re running it as a sprint, is a name score. And that is a weighted matrix to evaluate each of your shortlisted names based on the naming strategy. So that gives us an analytical score. Hopefully, that gives us an indication of which ones you want to test, three to five, and there’s a set of exercises for market testing.
And at the end of the day, you get a whole bunch of data, you get a clear set of sense of what’s going to work, what’s not going to work. And then there comes that moment, that leap where the teams got to say, “Okay, how do we envision breathing life into one of these names? We’ve got the data, we’ve got the indications, we’ve proven that we can use it.” Then it’s a gut thing. Then it’s saying, “Okay, which one do we believe we want to be five years from now, 10 years from now, 100 years from now?”
A brand name is the longest living artefact of any company, so you want to get it right and have something that has legacy with it.
Ian Paget: Absolutely. I really love this approach, so I’ll definitely read the book to get a deeper understanding as I’m keen to help my clients with this. One question I have in terms of checking the availability of domains and social channels, beyond going on a site like GoDaddy or checking all the social channels directly one by one, is there any useful tools out there to automate this process to speed it up, or is it something that you need to do manually?
Jeremy Miller: There’s a bit of both because again, there’s complexity. Not everybody is going to need a domain name. And I think one of the challenges we also have to recognise as part of the strategy is, do you need a dotcom? That’s been that granddaddy of domains for the last 15, 20 years. But reality is to have a good dotcom today, you’re going to have to spend money for it anywhere for … let’s just talk in U.S. dollars, you’re going to spend anywhere from $10,000 to several $100,000 to get good quality domain names.
So decide, what’s the value of those? So part of the strategy is looking at that. But in the book, we provide some naming resources, and that helps to look at things from a few different angles where you’re going to want to look at, for example, Urban Dictionary. Is there any inappropriate or slang words that are going to be used?
Beyond GoDaddy, there are some excellent domain tools out there. One of them is, iwantmyname, which actually checks a whole lot of top level domains, or knowem.com will actually search all of the vanity URLs of social media sites. So we put those in there. But when you buy the book, you also get access to a tool called the Name Score, which is that survey evaluation tool. And we also are pulling and looking at available … at a high level, the available domain names and social handles at the same time.
Trademarks is the thorny one though. You can look at it, you can even get risk assessments from lawyers, but until you file for a trademark and that piece takes time, that is the one thing. It is a process and there’s not much you can do about it. You’ve just got to go through the process.
Ian Paget: Yeah. I’m curious then on that side of things, because I understand that you’ve also got experience with the actual branding side of things beyond naming. Once you do have a name, obviously, you then file it to make sure it would be trademarked. Would you always wait for it to come back with a yes until you proceed with the logo design and identity?
Jeremy Miller: It depends on what you are branding. So if it is something you have to own the trademark for, then yeah, you probably want to get that … So you need to give yourself … in the U.K., it’s going to be, let’s say, four to six weeks to get a trademark. About 12 weeks … eight to 12 weeks for the E.U. Upwards of six months for the United States.
So you need to give yourself the appropriate time for this. So typically, you want to start your naming projects before … very, very early on. But the problem is most of the time, we start the naming project at the very end. It’s one of those things that from a client perspective, say, “Okay, do we need a trademark? If yes, okay, we need to get moving on this name before anything else and just be really blunt about it.”
But oftentimes when you’re dealing with a product, where you’re dealing with a small business, they’re not even going to file a trademark, they’re going to say, “Can I get the available domain name? Is there any competitors here?” They’re going to look at the search, but they’re probably not even going to spend the money to get an actual trademark.
So I think you’ve got to ask your client what does the trademark mean for them in terms of their priorities, and then build your project plan around it.
Ian Paget: We’ve been able to go through quite a lot of the naming stuff a lot faster than expected. And since I know that you also have a book on branding … Sticky Branding, I’d love to spend the rest of the time we have talking about that. So at the start of the discussion, you mentioned that the name should represent the brand. Could you talk through what exercises should ideally be carried out prior to working on something like a name, logo or official identity?
Jeremy Miller: Well, it’s interesting on that because I look at your visual identity very much as an evolving piece of things. I think the … If you look at many organisations, what we know of Coca-Cola or Starbucks where they’re very locked in defined visual identities, they have grown into that. If we go back to the early era of Starbucks, go back to the ’90s and just the evolution of their logo, their brand identity, the store experiences, et cetera, that was the growth of a small business into a defined user brand.
So many of the times, what we are doing in brand development is actually working not with the mega brands of the world, in some cases we are, but in most cases, we’re working with small and medium-sized businesses or challenger brands. So the question I think we have to wrestle with out of the gate is really two things.
The first one is to recognise “brand is a lagging indicator”. And what I mean by that is the brand, if you take either Marty Neumeier‘s definition, or Jeff Bezos, they will say, “The brand is what someone says about you when you’re not in the room.” Well, if that’s the case, that’s made based on a past experience. But if you’re working with a fast growth firm or someone who is evolving very quickly, then their brand is actually … those past experiences may not reflect where they’re going.
So where I think we need to be open and generous with ourselves is to say, “Okay, what is the strategy? Where are we trying to go over, say the next five years, or what’s our vision for the next 10 years? What’s our growth plan for the next five years? Where is the business and the brand going to go?” And then be looking at what kind of asset stories or customer experiences do we want to create?
Because I think when you start to look at this thing as a living organism that is going to continue to evolve, it gives you a lot more freedom to not only create a brilliant name or a brilliant logo, but to say to the client, “We’re going to keep working on this thing. We’re going to keep growing and breathing life into it because to become a Starbucks, we actually have to go through a fairly substantial evolution.”
Ian Paget: That’s really interesting, and I totally agree that brands evolve. A thought I had, going back to what you mentioned about Jeff Bezos and Marty Neumeier’s description of a brand being that gut feel, even though it is based on past experience, I believe that you can still influence that and change people’s opinions as the business grows. So even with that definition that … the brand could still change and adapt over time.
Jeremy Miller: Well, let’s separate this. I think a brand is … let’s use the Marty Neumeier type example. A brand is based on what your past was. I think branding though is a strategy. Branding is what you’re going to build. So a brand is based on what you’ve done. Branding is driven on what you’re going to do. And in that sense, I think branding becomes very interesting and exciting because it’s no longer static that now, it’s a question of core strategy questions.
What’s our winning aspiration? What do we want and what do we want to be? Where do we play? How do we win? How do we want to be known? And in that sense, now, we’re making clear decisions on positioning, on competitive advantage and on customer experience. And that is actually where I think brand identity, especially from a logo design and graphic design perspective really kicks in because now, your brand identity is helping to tell the story of what you want to become.
And that allows us to continue to evolve that as we grow, as we get more customer experiences, as we get better sense of where we want to go, then you can actually start to say, “Okay, how do I use this asset to better convey meaning and emotion?”
Ian Paget: So when you take this approach, what are you doing at the start of a project to understand those core questions you mentioned so that you can create a strategy to work from?
Jeremy Miller: So this is where my core work kicks in. So the way Sticky Branding is organised is we focused on brand strategy and business strategy. And then we will often refer, because we don’t do the activation sites. We would refer to yourself or in others to do … need a website, need a logo, need a campaign, whatever.
So in my approach to brand strategy, we actually start with a pre-step to strategy, and that is execution. I think the first thing that most of the clients need to be taught and shown is how do we actually move a project forward? And a book I recommend constantly is The 4 Disciplines of Execution, by Franklin Covey. So the first thing I’d actually give to the client is that, is either we’re going to teach you my approach to methodology or just give them the 4DX book.
But once you’ve got that commitment down, I think the first set of questions really boil down to not necessarily asking the client about their vision, but taking them to look at the market. Where do you play? So who are the buyer personas? What is the state of the market? How do they stand out? How do they win? What’s their competitive advantage? What’s their values? Rather than assuming they have all the answers, go take them on a journey to go and look at the state of where their business exists in the marketplace today.
Once you are both on that page, it becomes a lot easier now to say, “Okay. Based on these market conditions and where you are, where do you want to be?” And now, you can start asking those questions of vision to say, “What would have to … Where would you like to anchor yourself on?” And that goes back to what we talked about at the beginning of this podcast interview, which is the client can’t always visualise what they want.
So you have to give them some anchors in order to get into that kind of a right brain thinking. Does that make sense?
Ian Paget: Yeah, it does. It’s interesting to hear different perspectives on branding because personally I … although I have some element of understanding that the business strategy prior to working on any brand identity work, logo design work, website work has only been fairly recently that I’ve started to dig deeper into strategy.
So it was only last week that I actually … I attended Marty Neumeier’s class on the topics so that’s fresh mind. So yeah, it’s interesting to understand how different people are approaching it.
Jeremy Miller: And I think that’s really important too that we actually have different approaches depending on where we come from. Marty comes from much more of a design creative world. My origin story to branding is as an entrepreneur, and so I actually don’t have the classic agency view of a lot of this stuff because I was in a family business, I lost my competitive advantage and I had to use brand as a way to create the growth.
So I actually usually use a more pragmatic view of how does this move sales? How does this create sustainability, whereas … versus more of what does this mean to have standardised colours or identities and things like.
Ian Paget: Yeah. So I understand that you’re focusing primarily on strategy, and you would then work with someone else on the identity, branding and so on. In terms of companies investing in, what are you doing to convince businesses that it’s the right thing to work with you to focus primarily on strategy rather than just jumping straight into the graphic design side of things?
Jeremy Miller: Well, I find clients self-select me. So if somebody is saying, “I need a logo,” they’re going to skip right over me. Whereas if somebody … The question that somebody asks when they are engaging Sticky Branding, at least from the strategy perspective, if someone is saying, “Hey, I need a name,” they’re going to pick up my book, Brand New Name, or they’re going to engage us in a sprint for that, and that’s a clear … it’s like a logo. I need a logo, I need a name and there’s that.
But if you need strategy, there’s usually a question that’s driven there where they realise that creating a marketing asset isn’t going to solve their problem. So what we look at is three horizons of a brand’s journey, and they are starts, so when you are in a launch mode, you’re creating a new brand and that creates a whole set of questions.
The second phase is growth. Once you’ve got your brand, you’ve got your logo, you got your name, you’ve gone to market, you’re making some money, the question then starts to wrestle with how do we grow to the next level? And that’s the evolutionary ratcheting up of increasing market share, brand awareness and just growing a business from say, we’ll use U.S. dollars or pounds, it’s about the same. It’s going from say $1 million to $5 million, $10, $25, $50, $100, each of those steps are different actual business and operation structures and brand structures.
The third stage of brand though is restarts or rebrands that every brand needs maintenance. And if you ignore it for too long, then you’re going to have to do a dramatic overhaul. So as brand marketers, whether we’re on the design side of things or the strategy side of things, the question is where is a client in their horizon? Are they creating something new? Are they in growth mode, or are they restart mode?
And depending on where they are, they’re going to have different sets of questions. And in my case, the questions are often related to the strategy. Where do we play? How do we win? How do we want to be known, or how do we get to the next level? So they’re asking for … it’s like naming. They’re asking for a process on how they can organise themselves and their team to get clarity of what the strategy is and then how to execute on it so that they don’t make any mistakes.
So that’s our method. But if somebody already has a strategy and they need to go right to a logo, go right to logo. If they need websites or campaigns, use the partner that is best for you at that moment in time.
Ian Paget: Yeah. And another question that comes to mind as well, a lot of people listening to this, they are quite likely graphic designers. I’m making an assumption there, but I’m assuming most people listening are on the graphic design side of things. And I think it’s due to the internet and due to a number of groups and YouTube channels and stuff online, it’s becoming fairly common for graphic designers to start to refer themselves as brand strategists.
I’m interested because you’re doing it as more of an independent consultancy business and you’re focused primarily on that. What’s your thoughts and feelings about graphic designers working on some element of a strategy? Do you think that’s the right way or the right direction for graphic designers to be taking their businesses to do some element of strategies as part of the offering?
Jeremy Miller: I would definitely advise it. And the reason why I say that is clients are constantly eroding the skillset and the billable services of graphic designers. And you have multiple forces in your space where there’s the young graphic designers graduating from art school and other places are just paying out their shingle. And they’ve got Photoshop or Illustrator and they can say, “I’m a graphic designer. I’m a logo designer.”
We all know that’s not necessarily the case, but on Google, differentiating one from the other is challenging. So it creates immediate price pressure in terms of how much you can charge for your services. The other side of it is a logo is a moment in time. So the question I would be posing is, how as a professional and a practitioner can you create value for your clients? And again, it’s the question I would ask any client, how do you grow yourself to the next level?
And probably, it’s adding thought leadership to the math … to the process. Is it helping clients better understand the use of brand identity? Is it better and can you provide value in terms of doing brand research or market research to help them understand what it takes to stand out? Maybe you’re providing thought leadership in terms of just design trends.
Whatever it is, how do you create additional value in your practice, is going to be actually how you make more money for yourself.
Ian Paget: Yeah. Very true. And I think an area like strategy, because you are solving the bigger problems, I personally think that has greater value than just simply doing a logo or just simply doing a website or just doing those single assets. So I think that’s good advice.
Jeremy Miller: Yeah. And I don’t see anyone that’s competitive. I think we all can collaborate and work together. I’ve spent 15 years building out my methods in terms of strategy and facilitation and it’s … I’m not necessarily concerned of it from a competitive perspective. I would actually rather train and develop other people that are interested in the topic because I believe we have to, as an industry, be stepping out to help our clients get to the next level.
No one is going to be creating a remarkable brand identity based on going on to a Fiverr or Looker, or Logo Joy or one of these sites and just getting some identity and throwing up on their website. That’s not branding. Branding is strategy. It’s business. How do you build a customer experience for your clients where they know you, like you, trust you and ultimately choose you first?
And as an adviser, you can play a big role in that.
Ian Paget: True. And I do find it interesting. Like you said, the … you spoke about teaching your methods. If you started digging into strategy and you start reading books, everyone is approaching it slightly differently. And I think that’s the beauty of understanding what other people are doing, that that you can take parts of what other people are doing and create your own approach around strategy. And you can be quite creative with it in exactly the same way as a logo design.
On this podcast, I’ve spoken to so many graphic designers and it’s been amazing that every single person I’ve spoken to, even though that the end product is the same thing, their actual approach to it and the methods that they take forward, everyone is working in a slightly different way, and that seems to be the exact same way with brand strategy itself.
Jeremy Miller: For sure. I would argue though that to do this brilliantly, what separates, say a great graphic designer is similar to writing, and that you have to know the rules. So you have to understand the archetypes of design, you have to understand what that is and then you can riff. So if you look at it from just a language perspective, you have to learn grammar before you can break grammar for impact.
And the same thing as in strategy. The strategy frameworks are well-understood. So if you’re really interested in this, there’s a … If the history … You can read the Lords of Strategy, which is a very interesting history of where strategy as a practice came from.
But my favourite strategy book is by Roger Martin. It’s called Playing to Win, and it shows an interesting five-question process that’s used by Procter & Gamble. But it’s too … If you’re serious about strategy, it’s like being serious about design. Know the archetypes in order to be creative. You’re not going to just go create a method just because you … you’ve worked with a couple of clients, there is some academic and rigour … academic elements and rigour elements to doing this kind of practice brilliantly.
Ian Paget: Yeah. Thank you for sharing those books as well. Though, they’re not books that I’ve come across previously, so personally, I’m going to go out and buy them and read them myself. But I’m sure listeners will appreciate that as well.
Jeremy Miller: Well, just on the brand strategy, one on the book … one, Everything, by David Aaker, which is A-A-K-E-R. You have to read it.
Ian Paget: Okay.
Jeremy Miller: He is the godfather of modern branding. His books are hard to read. They’re textbooks, but he is setting out the strategic theoretical frameworks of what is true brand strategy and so that you can read stuff like, mine for Sticky Branding, a Brand New Name to get it from a practical action perspective. Marty Neumeier is doing something very similar in his approach or … but David is the true academic source material. You can go right to the water fountain with him.
Ian Paget: Thank you for sharing that. I did want to speak about your book, the Sticky Branding, because I know … like you said, you’ve mentioned these main primary sources that are barely academic and worth reading. And the books that you’ve put together are more practical and more like … I’m making assumptions here because I haven’t yet read them properly, but it sounds like they are more practical step by step approaches that you can take and apply.
So I did want to ask, because you do have another book called Sticky Branding as well. I wanted to ask you, what makes a brand sticky?
Jeremy Miller: Sure. So sticky brand … So for me, branding isn’t about logos, taglines or colours. And I know talking today, and what we’re talking about in logos that might be a little controversial, but where my take in terms of what a sticky brand is is creating a first-choice advantage. It’s when somebody knows you, likes you and trusts you, they will choose you first.
And if you think of any remarkable brand, Apple, Nike, Starbucks or just even something local, think of your favourite restaurant that you visit on a regular basis with your family, they all have that one thing in common. Their customers choose them first. But to get to that is multifaceted. That’s strategy, that’s positioning, that’s customer experience, that’s brand identity, that’s choosing where you play and how you win. It’s choosing how you promote your brand and be known and create those relationships.
So a sticky brand is a brand that has a first choice advantage. Any company of any size can do that, but it takes work. It’s a multifactorial thing to create a truly remarkable business and brand.
Ian Paget: And for sure, I think you’re tightly right that the best brands are those that you choose first. So I’m definitely going to read your book, Sticky Branding, to find out a little bit more. Just before we wrap up the interview, I’m curious what’s your background? How did you get to the point where your building sticky brands? Could you share with us some insight into your origin story?
Jeremy Miller: For sure. I’d be happy to. So I don’t have a traditional entry point into branding. I actually got into it by accident. In 2004, I joined my family’s business, which was a recruiting company. And what I didn’t know at the time is the company and the industry was going through a disruption. So LinkedIn was two years old, Facebook was just coming online, Google was five years old and recruiting and staffing was affected by these technological changes early on.
Now, I was the director of sales and marketing and I thought I … So my first inclination when things weren’t working was we had a sales problem. But it turned out we had a branding problem. When people were going online and looking at us, we look like everybody else. So that realisation set me on the course to become just passionate about branding. So I had to figure out how to solve this problem. And at the time, I remember just reading all the books I could get my hands on.
And the problem I had was all the branding books were talking about big companies like Apple and Nike and Starbucks. And I was a little company, I had a marketing budget and I had a sales team, but not a vast marketing budget. So were really trying to figure out how to apply the advice and wisdom of big companies down to us.
So we did that, we embraced a digital marketing and search engine optimisation and social media marketing very early, as early as 2005. And my origin into branding was my clients took notice of the work that I was doing and they said, “Could you help us?” And my first start at this was actually from an HR sales perspective. I was providing sales force design consulting services to help companies create lead generation or demand generation departments.
So where brand came in is, as I was working on the challenge to try and find better ways to feed a sales force, I kept coming more and more to topics of strategy and brand and trying to answer those questions of, where do you play and how do you win? And just to ramble for a moment real quick, further just to tie it together, where Sticky Branding came from was in around 2007, I made the decision not to buy out my parents’ business.
We could see the writing on the wall, we could see the transformation happening to the recruiting sector. Recruiting is following a very similar trajectory to say, the travel industry. LinkedIn is to Expedia. So it’s really hurt that space. So what I did is I spun off that sales force design practice to form Sticky Branding. And then I packaged and sold the family business.
And once that was sold, I went out to write the book I wish I had when I rebranded my family business, which is Sticky Branding. And I went out and I profiled over 150 companies from Canada to New Zealand that were all small and mid-sized privately held businesses, challenger brands. And I wanted to understand how does a small privately held business grow a remarkable brand and what would be the playbook for that?
And that was the catalyst that shapes much of my approach. My approach to branding hasn’t been from a design perspective, it’s been from an entrepreneurial perspective. How do you grow a business? How do you create a competitive advantage? How do you make money? And brand actually is probably the best way to drive sales and grow revenue and make profit.
Ian Paget: Yeah. It’s interesting to think that where that came from, it’s based on true experience, actually running your business rather than from a graphic design perspective. So I’d be really keen to read that book properly to understand the perspective it’s coming from and just to see how the approach does different to what say, Marty Neumeier teaches, which being transparent, it has come from a graphic design perspective.
Jeremy Miller: I think that’s what’s so fascinating about our space is that we are all trying to answer that question of brand. How do we create affinity? How do we create loyalty? How do we create engagement? Like branding is all about creating that competitive advantage. And what I love about our market is you’ve got people like David Aaker and Marty Neumeier and Denise Leon and myself, or … you’ve had him on the podcast as well, David Brier, right?
We’re all trying to answer the same question, but we all have different origin stories. Even yourself, it’s a … I put you in the same category. And what we’re trying to do is serve our clients. And I think the best thing that we can all do is not look at ourselves as competitors, but look at ourselves as thought leaders and collaborators that are trying to advance the industry of branding.
And if we all work together, we all bring our ideas together and we don’t think of ourselves like cats competing over something, then we’re going to do something that’s really truly remarkable. Each one of our perspectives adds to the collective whole.
Ian Paget: Very true. That’s one thing that I do really love about our industry, and it’s something that I really notice from doing this podcast over the last couple of years. Everyone, even if they have a product that they want to sell, everyone is so freely willing to give away information, and information has value, but I personally haven’t had too much problem reaching out to people.
And I’ve asked quite complicated questions, like I have with you today that could unravel … you could basically be giving away the secret sauce to how you go about running things. But yourself and other people out there, they’ve been more than happy to share it. And I think like you said, it’s … It doesn’t really matter, does it?
We’re all contributing to the same thing. Everyone has their own approach and it’s just elevating the industry on going and helping others learn in the process. So I think it’s all good.
Jeremy Miller: Yeah. And it builds on … This kind of sum it up a little. Do you remember the meme a few years ago that went around the internet, and I’ll send it to you afterwards. It was how to draw an owl. A simple and creative guide for beginners. So it had step one, draw two circles. Draw one for the head and one for the body. Step two, draw the rest of the damn owl. And it’s a picture of the full owl.
And that’s the thing that I so struggle with in the branding and marketing, but all areas of business, people are like, “This is what it takes to create a great logo. This is what … to create a great brand strategy.” And they show you examples like Apple. And you’re like, “Okay, that’s cool,” but it’s like telling them to draw the damn owl.
And my mission is not to give more big ideas, it’s really to solve that how, and do. So very much, my passion is finding proven processes, finding the need, code … finding solutions, testing them, codifying and building that out. And that’s what Brand New Name does. That’s really what we do at Sticky Branding. And where I try to create weight is by sharing that because the core to my practice isn’t about prescribing or being the smartest person in the room, it’s around how do we unlock the creative genius of teams and employees to solve complex marketing and branding problems?
So by sharing our ideas, by having conversations like this, this is actually how I think we learn to draw the owl is by getting into the process, getting into the roots of the ideas.
Ian Paget: For sure. I’ve actually always been a lot more interested in process and the behind-the-scenes work than the actual final work. So I totally agree with that. And I’m keen to continue to have more discussions like this. And for those keen to learn more insight, it’s definitely worth checking out both of your books and all of those mentioned in this interview. So we’ve all got plenty of reading to do.
Well, Jeremy, this has been a really amazing interview. So thank you so much for your time today.
Jeremy Miller: Well, I really appreciate it and I love what you’re doing. I think you’re elevating the craft of branding and especially in logo design and development, so thank you for the work that you’re doing too.
Ian Paget: You’re welcome. I appreciate that coming from you as well. So thank you.
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