FFF Podcast #03: Ben Pham on branding Essential

FFF Podcast #03: Ben Pham on branding Essential

Since 1999 San Francisco based branding and design agency Character has helped launch, rejuvenate and propel some of the most exciting tech products and startups like Oculus VR, Plume Wi-Fi and the Light camera. In the third episode of our podcast I had the chance to speak to Ben Pham, creative director and co-founder of Character, about one of their latest branding projects for Andy Rubin’s new startup Essential.

Glenn Garriock: Thanks for taking the time, Ben.

Ben Pham: My pleasure, Glenn. I’m a huge fan of FormFiftyFive, so it’s an honour to be on.

GG: So, perhaps we’ll start the conversation with a little bit about your role at Character and this project.

BP: Sure, I am one of the five creative directors at Character and one of the two creative directors that we’re working on the Essential project. In my role as a creative director I’m working both on the positioning side of Essential and also on the brand identity of this project.

GG: Maybe for anyone that hasn’t heard of Essential, you could give us a little intro to what the company is and is planning to do.

BP: Well, Essential is founded by Andy Rubin and for those that don’t know, Andy Rubin is the inventor of Android, the operating system that is in the majority of the phones that are not iPhones. So, most of the Samsungs and other smartphones of the world run Android and Essential, what they’re doing is rethinking the way we as consumers, our relationship with technology companies. The first product that they’re coming out with is a phone that’s a little different than the phones of the past. But also they’re looking at products that can be in your home that are centered around the consumer experience and the users.

GG: For this project that we’re going to talk about today, I guess the focus will probably be on their first consumer product, the phone, because that’s what they’re launching with. I presume that’s probably the product that you most likely were thinking about when you started the branding project for them. What was the brief like for the project?

BP: Andy brought us to Playground, his company that is incubating a lot of interesting innovative technology companies and when he brought us in the room, he told us that simply he didn’t like the current state of technology. One of the things he asked us was when we bought our new phones, what was our process like and we told him we went onto Apple, we selected the carrier and selected our phone and he asked us did we ever question why we had to select a carrier upfront before purchasing a phone? Because essentially it’s our phone, why does it have to be linked to a specific carrier, right? So, the conversation led to the fact that do we as consumer know that we in many ways have a lot of options out there but have less and less choice as consumers and we have more unnecessary features that are cluttering our life and all these products that don’t always work with one another or work with other carriers? So, in many ways, he really stressed that Essential’s about a company that is giving people choice, right? The brief was to help position and craft the brand for this new company, his new company Essential and you’re right, the first product that has been released and has been announced is the phone.

…for us we always find it to be actually a bit easier to position a company in a crowded space then position a product or a company in an entirely new category.

GG: And you briefly mentioned part of the brief was the positioning of the brand. That’s an interesting challenge in as busy market as the cell phone or mobile phone market. How did you even start trying to find that sweet spot where the brand could sit to differentiate itself from all these other brands?

BP: That’s a great question. There’s definitely a lot of phones out there and some very big players with deep pockets that can really go out there and engage a consumer and to be honest with you, Glenn, for us we always find it to be actually a bit easier to position a company in a crowded space then position a product or a company in an entirely new category. Part of it is because we know that with a crowded market, you have the advantage of taking a step back, surveying the competitive landscape, finding gaps, opportunities or what you were referencing, sweet spots that we can actually get our clients to own and to be honest with you, it’s much easier than with new markets and I’m going to give you an example. It’s much tougher with some of the new markets like a couple years ago, we had to launch a company called Think. It’s a wearable device that you wear around your temple that can alter your mood from being calm to giving you a sense of being energized using neuro stimulation. This basically is a new frontier, a new market. So we didn’t have any point of reference. It’s actually like we have to establish that market, get people to understand what this is about and so that was actually much more challenging than with Essential.

GG: The actual phone or the pictures that I’ve seen of the phone, show an unbranded product. How do you create a brand for an unbranded product? Where do you start with that?

BP: As you know, as designers, we always want to see our work to be on everything that our clients put out there in the world so we can tell our friends and our family, look, check it out, this is what I created. We’re part of the team that created this. So, there’s always a nice satisfaction to see it but the challenge here was that and I tell this to many of our young designers so they’re not disappointed when they’re seeing all their hard work not appear on everything that our client is making and in this case the big product is the phone and not to see your identity on that phone is quite hard. But many of the designers are coming straight out of school that are entering Character. Now we tell them that you don’t always have experience to know what the brand is and really tell them that what we create visually or craft verbally is not always the brand. The decisions that our clients are making and how people will perceive them in many ways, that’s the actual brand itself. So, you’re right. Essential deciding not to brand their phones in many ways is making a statement about who they are and going back to some of the things that we’re doing from a strategy standpoint, this is really about people, less about the company that’s making their phones and that’s what really we felt was a way for Essential to differentiate themselves from the competitors which is really getting people to own the brand and it’s not the brand that’s owning the people.

…what we create visually or craft verbally is not always the brand. The decisions that our clients are making and how people will perceive them in many ways, that’s the actual brand itself.

GG: I think that leads onto a nice quote that I read that apparently and I think he’s maybe the technical or the product director (he’s actually ‘Head of Product Architecture and Technology’) at Essential, Jason Keats. He wrote,

Rubin wants the Essential phone to clearly and emphatically state that the person carrying it isn’t won over by marketing, isn’t a fanboy, isn’t driven by trends. Maybe that sort of almost aligns with what you were just saying. — Jason Keats, Wired, 30th May 2017

BP: That’s a good quote and I think Jason knows Andy pretty well. He’s worked with him for many, many years and I must say that there is definitely a lot of truth to that and that’s part of the positioning and making a brand that is centered around people and if we’re really centered around people, we shouldn’t cloud their judgment with marketing. We don’t want people to be fanboys, we want them to make a decision based on is this the right product for me, is this a product that I actually own rather than being tied to let’s say a carrier or having bloated apps already installed in my phone? But to Andy’s defense, he does believe in marketing, he does believe in trend and he’s one of the founders that we have worked with in the past that really love design. He knows about kerning of type, he can look at stuff. It’s like hey, can you guys fix that kerning? He can probably identify typeface just by showing him a few. So, he does really love design but the thing is he asked us not to use design to potentially clout somebody’s judgment when they’re evaluating the product and so it’s an interesting conversation that we had at the beginning which really drove some of how we are positioning Essential.

GG: I think that’s evident in the design or at least the elements that I’ve seen. So, how does the Character team work on a project like this? You’ve touched on some of the younger designers that come into the company, but what kind of team do you put together for a project like this at Character?

BP: Andy was one of our first clients at Character. When we started 1999, Andy started Danger Research that same year and then he moved on to creating Android and we were tapped into creating the Android identity to his bakery to his incubator. So, we know Andy pretty well and he knows he wants to work with a team that understands him. So, that’s part of the reasons why we picked two of, myself and one of the other founders, to be part of the team because we’ve been working with him from day one and then we have a supporting cast of really amazing talented designers. But we can brief them because we know exactly what Andy’s looking for so we kind of in many ways cut away just like the idea of finding a wealth of ideas and solutions and get really focused on the ones that make the most sense for Andy and his new company.

GG: How do you think the brand, the Essential brand, not from a product or technological standpoint, but how do you think the brand will have to evolve in the future? Where do you see it going? Do you already plan that in?

BP: As much as we try to plan everything, I think one of the things that we talk to a lot of our clients about is to make sure that they come up with a mission and then a vision and no matter what happens within the marketplace, stay on course. That’s something that’s an unwavering belief that they have and they shouldn’t change it based on any new products or trends or anything like that and if we think about Essential is centered around people and giving people a choice and really cutting out the clutter and giving people essentially what they actually need, then it comes back to some of the ideas from a positioning standpoint. This should be a brand about people, meaning how do we get people to feel ownership over the Essential brand? If Essential’s not going to go out there to the world and say this is our brand and giving people ownership over that brand, what does that look like and that’s some of the things that we’re working on that we’re excited about that could be real in the future but really the course is to give people a voice. So, potentially they can log onto the site, give a suggestion on how to improve this product and Essential can then meet that requirement.

GG: So, what’s next for Character at the moment? Are there any exciting projects that you can talk about that are coming up?

BP: Yeah, absolutely. I think from a project standpoint, I think we’re pretty excited about some of the upcoming opportunities. One of the areas that we’re really interested in that it wasn’t necessarily sexy at the beginning but based on working with some of these new companies that are changing the world is life science. Life science is an interesting space for us. We recently launched a company called Grail and it’s an early cancer detection company and they’re really well-funded. I think they made a lot of news because I think they got close to $2 billion in Series A funding because this is the closest we’ve ever been to potentially finding a way to detect cancer early enough where it can be treated and we’re like oh my god, can you imagine working on a project like this and it can happen in your lifetime? It’s so cool and then we’ve been doing a lot of technology companies and we love and enjoy working on them but we kind of want to go back to some of our roots and on our roots we’re working with a lot of consumer and lifestyle brands such as the Nikes of the world. So, right now we’re working on a big repositioning and rebranding of Reebok. Super, super smart, amazing products and it’s not getting enough love right now. So, we’re kind of working through that right now.

GG: Well, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me, Ben.

BP: Yeah, my pleasure.


The music in this episode is Zanzibar by Kamaliza

The Essential website was designed by Hello Monday

Glenn Garriock