Every company needs a rebrand these days. When it happens, customers and bystanders flock to mock the results.
Rebranding your company has become a spectator sport.
Is it really necessary to constantly reinvent yourself? I think for the most part no, but there is an important reinvention side effect that, as far as I can tell, is often overlooked. And guess what, I’d love to tell you about it…
Once upon a time, way back in 2007, my good friend Alexander Aghassipour called to ask that I help design a quick brand identity for his new start-up, called Zendesk.
Back then, designing a start-up identity went sort of like this:
Alex: “Hello. We are making this new product. It’s a cloud-based help desk. Ordinary on-premise help desks are shitty and confusing. Ours is fresh and simple to use. We are going to call it Zendesk.”
Me: “OK. Sure, I can bang something out in a few days. Let me go through my typeface collection until I hit something that looks killer for a logotype.”
Alex: “Yeah. I was also thinking we should have a cool character, sort of like the Mailchimp monkey. Maybe a buddha?”
Me: “Sure. I’ll pop a headset on him. You know -… because that says ‘customer support’.”
After going over a few type options I handed over the finished work. We went with a poppy sap green color, the buddha, (later known as The Mentor) and a logotype in the style so very popular at the time, the cool “Thick’n-Thin” treatment, accompanied by a peculiar heart shaped cog-like logo. It looked like this:
Brand identity design as a discipline has been refined through the ages, but in Silicon Valley there was no time to sit around fiddling, waiting for thoughtful iterations and fine-tuning. There were bucks to be made, market share to be conquered and very little budget to spend.
I brought the Zendesk project into Cuban Council, where we were also working on a new logotype for a company called Thefacebook. Back then, we were sharing offices with eco-design pioneers Futurefarmers, who were working on another brand project in the room next to us. Their young Swedish designer, Linda Gavin, was feverishly tweaking the original wordmark for Twitter.
“Noah Glass, one of the founders contacted Futurefarmers when he had a budget to replace his own graphics for Twittr. He’d been a fan of the work of Futurefarmers for a long time and said it was a dream come true for him to work with us. We had 3 days to complete the project. I had about half a day to make as many logos as possible. Noah picked one of them with the motivation “It’s perfect!” and didn’t see the point of wasting more time on it as we also designed feed pages, profile pages and brand elements in lightning speed.
It really bothered me that I didn’t have a chance to perfect the chosen logo, but we had to move on to the more important stuff. Users in the Twitter community complained about the makeover and said it looked like a Japanese teenage community but Noah loved it.
We didn’t make the bird. I believe that Twitter got it from a stock site later on.”
Most entrepreneurs had neither the time nor the budget to engage Interbrand or Wolff Olins. The same was true for the three Danish founders of Zendesk, and so began the story of their shiny new logotype — set conveniently in Klavika — the same typeface as Facebook.
I went on to become the caretaker of the Zendesk brand through the next 10 years and witnessed what happens with a brand identity as a company transforms from a vaguely formulated problem statement to a massive public company with hundreds of thousands of customers and offices all over the world.
The first few years at Zendesk were fun and weird. There was not much to lose — in fact, the weirder, cooler and more clever, the better. We knew people were drawn to this new breed of “cloud computing” and were actively looking to buy products from this new generation of cool companies who were not afraid to set a distinct, bold tone.
Our website went through a million iterations, but the buddha was always at the center. He was the best. You would show your buddha business card and people would light up — he represented a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale, corporate and sad on-premise customer service industry. He was incredibly effective at signalling a new way to do things — customer support could be cool again! We put him on everything.
Warning signs began to pop up. The homemade bootleg buddha t-shirts, the frightening buddha cakes, the hellishly deformed buddha vodka ice sculpture. Even worse, my team was growing, but the only thing my designers did all day was to put a buddha on things. On stickers and billboards. On key rings, coffee cups and soccer shirts.
Seven years later, in 2014, the buddha was adorning the NYSE stock exchange on Wall Street. At this point we were also acquiring multiple companies to add to our product portfolio; they too needed to live seamlessly inside a Zendesk brand system.
It became clear to me that our brand identity was not scalable.
I began to gently float the idea of phasing out The Mentor. The reaction was panic.
Our sales team could not fathom a world without the buddha business card. Some employees told me point blank that the buddha was the only reason they took the job in the first place. Without him, we’d be just another soulless, generic tech company.
Our brand had been brushed up through the years, the logotype redesigned and simplified, the logo refreshed. But the buddha was here to stay.
Using a character such as The Mentor is tricky. We had to put restrictions on his usage— nobody was to alter or animate him. He’d remain in that one frozen pose, smizing at you everywhere you looked.
We were stuck — everything stopped at the buddha.
We had so many stories to tell. My team was bursting with ideas with no outlet. Our creative energy was instead diverted towards playing with the “zen” theme. Like we did with this radio ad.
We began to get ourselves confused with spa and wellness brands, and perpetually treading a delicate path appropriating zen metaphors completely unrelated to our product. Our copywriters were writing about Japanese zen gardens, Samurai and meditation. It was time to shut it down.
The Curse of Quirk
Meanwhile, out beyond Zendesk borders, other companies were feeling a similar kind of pain.
Many companies with ramshackle brands went on to have enormous success — including Craigslist, Airbnb and, perhaps most notoriously, Google.
The whimsical search engine was at breakneck speed becoming a mega-corporation. It was assumed that their terrible brand identity was the very reason for their success, when in fact its limitations were starting to hold them back.
This is what often happens with brands born out of a flicker of a dream and a handful of good intentions.
To begin with, young startups create brand identities that end up being, at best, a vague guess of who they intend to be, not who they actually are or what they become. The budget for this endeavor is next to nothing and the work is usually executed by the founders themselves or that one family friend. The objective is often “we want to look like these other cool brands that we admire” as opposed to anchoring the identity in the qualities and uniqueness of the actual company itself. Which makes sense, since at this point the company has no history to draw from yet.
A messy rebirth
By 2015, Zendesk had plenty of battle scars and some colorful history . Our product was well established, so much so that we were finally competing with enterprise giants like Oracle and Salesforce.
I booked a meeting with our CEO, Mikkel Svane, to argue, again, that we had outgrown our Mentor and that his cartoony style was no longer a representation of who we were and what we were building.
As we were about to launch a host of more specialist customer support products (later to be known as Chat, Talk, Explore, etc.) we agreed to use this opportunity to redesign everything: to build a new design system that could scale and truly represented both who we were and where we wanted to go.
Our design team embarked on a long journey to rebrand Zendesk, retire the buddha and replace him with something awesome and less offensive.
To add to the complexity of the challenge we also had to devise a brand system that contained our new product sub-brands, with more additions waiting in the wings.
The entire team was involved from beginning to end — but we also made sure to invite in many more people outside our group, particularly in the early stages.
A lot of ideas were discarded and in the end one concept stood out — Relation Shapes; a flexible, shape-based system developed by our Creative Director Erin Pinkley. You can learn more about it in the video below.
The process was cathartic and marked a new chapter not only for our team but for our company.
We had all contributed to this tiny new creature and now shared the responsibility of guiding and raising it. We were all equally invested in wanting it to succeed, to explore its possibilities and shortcomings. This newfound sense of co-ownership unlocked a new level of engagement and the quality of our work instantly improved.
And this is (finally) my point: A well-executed redesign is not just about making your brand more modern, or polishing your look’n feel.
A redesign is not cosmetic: it’s a culture revolution from within. It resets and rebuilds. It’s a rallying cry. It galvanizes.
Redesign as a revolution
Since our redesign, each of my designers has had the chance to add their DNA to the gene pool. Even better, people from all sorts of backgrounds at Zendesk see themselves reflected in the brand because they were a part of building it. Peculiarly, the brand is now starting to take on a life of its own, to gently guide the way. It has been set free.
When you hire incredible designers, their expectation is to put their talent to full use in their new job, to be challenged and to invent new and better ways. The word “design” does after all mean “to make a mark”. Doing away with your old junk identity gives your designers the space to do just that. This practice of being challenged and putting your talent to full use then permeates across the entire company.
Redesigning your identity is much more than a self-centered vanity project. It’s a cathartic reset, a new beginning.