Ep. 218: Debbie Millman – Identity and Impact

Debbie millman

Ben (of Ben & Jerry’s) was in the room. He needed a logo.

Debbie Millman just started her agency. She was competing against the best ad agencies in New York City.

She lost. So she moved on to Burger King.

“Why do you think you lost?”

“We didn’t have insurance,” Debbie said. “We didn’t have the big, global brand experience to show them.”

“I’ll never forget this,” she said. “When we got to Burger King headquarters, we got into a fairly small elevator with the Senior Vice President of Market Research. The door closes. He looks at us and says, ‘Don’t get your hopes up.'”

This is important. Because Debbie Millman never describes herself as an entrepreneur.

But she’s the perfect example.

Entrepreneurship is about putting your all into something, getting rejected and going back into the next room.  

Data is taking over. Data is replacing thinking and driving the direction of the future. Data sells confidence. And that’s what the brands wanted.

Burger King tried changing their logo 7 times in the decade leading up to Debbie’s success.

So she did focus groups. And studied eye-tracking on the original logo. “We wanted to know what people thought,” she said. “We wanted to get a sense of why this was so beloved?”

“People do not read first. First and foremost, they see color. Then they see numbers, then shape, and then, if you still have their attention and they understand what you put in front of them, then they will read.”

A logo is a message. Even if you don’t read it. You can recognize logos visually without reading. Our brains know.

Then we choose who we belong to. And that’s our tribe.

Debbie was changing the face of an iconic brand. And change causes fear, which strikes up all the stress hormones in our body.

“In order for us to create an identity that was evolving from the original, we had to keep some of those iconic elements.”

You’re original. As a baby, you were a blank canvas. No logo. No brand. No name. And no identity.

Then you went to school and made friends and things happened to you. Someone asked me, “who will you always be? Who’s James? When you’re 4, 14, 24, 34, 44, 84, what parts of you will always be there?”

That’s what Debbie had to figure out with her brands. She did it with Tropicana, Star Wars, and eventually, she won Ben & Jerry’s over too.

But after all of this data, all of this color, all of this branding, at the heart of it is the essence of who you are. What is the logo of your heart.

Debbie figured out hers. And created her life around it. Figuring out who we are is the key to having an impact all over the world.

That’s what Debbie taught me on this podcast. That’s what I try every day to create in my own life.  


Links and Resources:

Also Mentioned:
– James mention’s Debbie’s interview with Milton Glaser
– “The Ten Ways To Design Hell”
– Tim Ferris’s interview with Debbie “How To Design A Life

  • Angie Clark

    Hmm. Has your perspective about branding changed? An article you re-posted recently blasted Coke for their branding efforts, and you argued against personal branding. Now you seem to be in awe of brand power. Regardless of creativity or good intention, branding is manipulation. It shapes perception and influences activity (adoption or purchase). Branding does serve a purpose and not all has negative influence. I would argue though that brands are for institutions, products… and robots. When an individual identifies him/herself as a brand, the “identity” caters to public popularity. Being part of a brand tribe isn’t necessarily a good thing either. Do we want people to be popular personas or human/real/authentic? Also, the power of our modern brain (and knowledge) is that we can learn how not to be influenced by branding and tribalism and many other innate behaviors. We are not victims of our brain!

  • Boris Is

    There seems to be confusion. You’re discussing high level branding with Debbie and yet the podcast is promoting 99 designs. The branding process is not exactly a commodity, its not like we as designers and brand strategists are selling rice here. There’s a difference between hi-fidelity sound speakers and that crap you get at Target. You get what you pay for. We loose value in the process on both sides of the spectrum. TRUE VALUE OF BRANDS TAKES MORE THAN A 24 HOUR TURN AROUND.

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