Brand naming is a crucial step in any company since it strongly dictates how consumers see products or services. Aaron Keller, the co-founder of Capsule, talks about his branding journey with Wonderly Software Solutions and shares the many lessons he learned. As branding has evolved through the years, branding has become more challenging. Aaron shares how to create brands that bring value to the end-user and how designs are a vital part of the brand creation process. He also highlights the importance of working with professionals with regards to creating logo and branding in general.
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Naming The Baby with Aaron Keller
I have Aaron Keller with me from Capsule. Aaron, his team and I worked together on the original naming and branding for wonderly and we’re going to talk about that journey. Aaron, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself and tell the audience a little bit about your background?
I started this firm, Capsule, with a partner. We are essentially a special projects team and we help people launch brands as one of the types of special projects we do. We do a lot of naming work, defining the brands and that kind of work. I’ve also authored a book called The Physics of Brand. It’s because I used the word physics doesn’t mean I’m boring. It’s an interesting word which we can get into if we need to.
One of the things I like to talk about is my journey and being a female tech entrepreneur. One of the first things that I did after I decided I was going to do this whole start–up thing, I had this idea, one of my first stops was thinking about branding. I have been in tech for many years and I’ve seen an awful lot of bad, ugly names and non–descript brands. I knew that if I was going to build something, I needed to be able to stand out in what’s a noisy marketplace. One of my first steps was talking to Capsule about that whole naming and branding process. Why don’t you talk a little bit about why branding isn’t about picking a name? Why it’s not a bunch of marketing fluff that gets done at the tail end of launching your product?
The picking of a name, I can equate it to this, if you’re building a brand, you’re putting a living entity out into the community. If you’re going to put another living entity like a baby or a person on the world, they’re not made up of bones, water, blood and their name, they’re greater than that. They’re more valuable to the community. Having something with deeper meaning. We do things like metaphors and archetypes and we do a bunch of exercises. You went through a journaling exercise. You fill it out thoroughly in grave detail to find what you wanted in the future.Building a brand equates to putting a living entity out into the community. Click To Tweet
It was fifteen pages at least.
It inspired our team to come up with a wonderful list of names of possibilities although it’s coming from you, it becomes bigger than you over time. We wanted to have your personality, plus all the great things about you and even more. That’s what wonderly is becoming.
One of the fascinating parts of this journey, as I was prepping for the show, I was thinking back to when we started all this work in August of 2017, those first conversations. I was talking about things that were important to me personally because we were building this off of where did I want to go and who did I want to be? That the whole idea of values and what you value as a brand was an important part of the conversation. I had never thought about walking into it. Can you talk a little bit about where brands are headed? How have things been changing in the last several years for brands and where they’re headed?
The trendy word is transparency or at least it was. You can see right through, you can see what a brand is doing, all their behaviors and what’s being put out in the world. The farther you go into it, the deeper relationship you have with that brand. The more you want there to be meaning, the more you want there to be a why. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Why should I engage with them? Brands are prolific. There are a lot of options we have available to us. A lot of ways to solve the problems that we have in front of us or a particular need. There has to be something else. That’s why values have come to the table in a big way.
Some of the old brands still haven’t figured it out. They still haven’t caught up and realize that it’s important to have an origin story. It’s important to have a set of values that you live by that people can see and can call you on if you don’t live by them and put it out in the world. It’s valuable to hear that feedback and to know, “I missed it on that one,” to be human, to admit it, come out and say, “We didn’t live up to our values. We’re going to do better. We’re going to be a better brand as a whole.” Those are impressive moments for brands versus the ones who try to hide and run away from it to cover things up, evade the government and whatnot.
One of the things we uncovered at the beginning, even though I’d been in tech for many years, I’ve been in more enterprise tech and it was part of the big behemoth, a big machine, which is what a lot of it can feel like. We uncovered some of my values around being close to customers. It took me probably even almost a year after we did the work to put the language around a human-centered design, which I talk about all the time. I have tended to find that in the software world. There’s not as much human-centered design and when I wouldn’t initially say, “We’re using human-centered design. It’s one of the values for the company.” People would say, “We do user-centric design.” No, that’s a part of agile. That means you think about your users.” Speak a little bit in the design world about human-centered design and some of the philosophies. Talk a little bit more about that because I have found that’s been unique for me in walking my software journey.
It’s something that the design world is brought to the table thinking about people as people, not as consumers or users. Thinking about those users, it minimizes their role in the world. If they’re only a person when they show up on your site or in your software, that doesn’t make any sense. It minimizes their dimensions and who they are as people. It doesn’t allow you to innovate around their needs broadly. What are the things they have going on in their lives? They are people, they’re not users and consumers. They’re more than that. It’s an important discipline. It does make you ask the question, “User-centric design, what has design been centered on? How is it not centered on users or people?” That doesn’t make any sense, but it isn’t.
There are a lot of cases when if you look at things in life, and when you start to peel away the layers, you notice that things that are not designed for me. That’s designed for efficiency, for a distribution system, for the manufacturing process, for the programmer. That’s designed to get me to buy it but not designed to get me to want it long–term. It’s not designed for the planet. There are all kinds of things that things are not designed for, which is why we have to get to intention. When you’re doing any design, you have to get to intention, which is back to values. What is your intention? What do you want to do with this? At least we can focus, give you something that matches that intention.
To your point about who was this designed for? I often have found as I had a lot of conversations in the process and in walking through human-centered design, that this journey isn’t worth it for me unless I’m walking the road with my customers. I could stay in ERP Land and implement for the Fortune 500 for the rest of my life. I’m good in the industry I was in but if I can walk that road for customers and listen to what they needed as part of the human-centered design and build what they needed, it requires a lot of check your ego at the door. That meant I had to take that position that I didn’t have all the answers. I might have some of them, but I didn’t have all of them.It’s important for a brand to have an origin story and a set of values to live by and put out in the world. Click To Tweet
To your point of who made those choices, what was it designed for? We talked about the manufacturing process or was it because the program thought it was more efficient to do it that way. Someone had a grand vision, but they never talked to anybody about it and they brought it into the world that way. For me, it was important to say, “If it’s not going to make a difference in the lives of the people using the tech, then what am I exactly here for?” Getting into that process allowed me to say, “I’m embedding them everywhere in my process.” Our whole conversation about values helped me uncover how to operationalize it then. Looking back all that way, I could have never known that’s what we didn’t cover. This process of journaling, this process of having your team go through and say, “What are you saying here, Amber? What does that mean you want to build and how that means you want to go about your start–up?”
That to me was honestly fascinating. I think back as to how it all played out. It planted all of these seeds for where and how I was going to go out into the world. The one other thing that I’ve thought of since the time that we started all that exercise, we’ve seen a lot of companies that have popped up. They’ll do the name for you overnight for $50 or whatever it is, “You get an automated logo too and it’s all great and you’re done.” People choose to do that, that’s fine, maybe that makes sense for wherever you are for whatever reason. Speak a little bit to why or what you should know if you were to make a choice to do things like that.
There’s always a cheaper way to do anything. It gets all the way down to nearly nothing. You do need to pay for, which is the old adage and an important one, but there are other more important things that relate to that. Sometimes when it comes to names, getting the trademark and be able to own the trademark is a critical thing. It’s hard to get to a name and you don’t own the trademark. Later on after you launch it, that can be expensive. The cheap name would not be cheap. You don’t own it until you’ve started to build the brand and someone sends you a letter and says, “By the way, you don’t own that, somebody else does.” That’s an expensive name indirectly. It also more than likely doesn’t represent you because you don’t spend the time thinking about it.
You don’t spend the time deeply looking at, “What would reflect me, who am I and what am I building?” You’re slapping something on it. Basically, it’s saying this doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what my name is as it represents the brand that I’m building. It doesn’t matter what I name my child. It doesn’t matter with all that stuff. Where do you stop that line of it doesn’t matter? It doesn’t matter what we program in the software, it doesn’t matter what we put in the package, it doesn’t matter what we sell in our stores. When does it matter? I say start from the beginning. Everything matters. If you want to have a good relationship, everything matters. You want to go to the relationship between your brand and people. It all matters. You’ve got to do that. You’ve got to think about it deeply.
The logo is yes, you can have someone design it in India or basically copy something else, recrafted in software and send it over to you. The problem is it probably doesn’t represent who you are. It’s a piece of art from somewhere else also has potential trademark issues. The other big expense that people forget is the fact that if a logo is designed for three colors, it only represents itself in three colors and you print anything forever. Whenever you’re going to print that, it’s always going to be a three–color logo. Every logo should be able to go down to one color and still represent itself. It’s a basic fundamental but there are always cheaper ways to do things. It’s not as well thought through and more than likely what represents you. We see it all the time. We have clients who say, “Why would I spend on you when I can get this for $300 and ours is a hundred times more than that?” We talked it through and we go, “I get it. I get why that makes sense.” I always recommend having a conversation with someone who does this professionally.
Ask them why and see what they’ll tell you as well.
They’ll give you a good answer hopefully in their case. Somewhere down the road you’ll pay for it then you’ll either have something you can’t protect or something someone else’s owned and you can’t even use or in some way it doesn’t represent you. You’re going to be changing in a short period of time. There are a lot of other pieces that go with that. There are a lot of other risks that are associated with it, but the basic thing is the amount of effort you put into it. If it matters, then it matters. You’ve spent resources and time on it.
I remember one of the key things for me around some of the naming that we talked about early on as part of the name was about being careful how you approach that name. For instance, I had some ideas, a lot of times you’ll see things that represent the software itself that is descriptive of the software. You made a comment to me that had me step back and say, “No, that’s not a good idea,” because as an entrepreneur, what if I pivot? What if the software survives in the wild the same way you build it? The minute you have users and the people that are going to do things with it that you would have never imagined. Had we not stepped back, looked at values, looked at who I was trying to be and where the organization was supposed to go, I could have picked a name that described the product that could have been a huge problem later, which is back to your point.Planning for success looks a lot different than planning for failure. Click To Tweet
When you first approached me, you already had a name idea.
I did and it was a joke. It was bad and intentionally I was playing.
You end up in a much better place. When you think about it more, spend some time on it and it’s working with people who professionally do what they do. There’s a certain amount of time that people spend in the space doing what they do, but they know it well. It’s almost like if you’re going to interview anybody doing a job of any sort, see how much they’ve done, how many hours that they put in as a human being or as a team into doing whatever it is. They say 20,000 hours is the level to get to professionalism and to expertise. It’s an important thing to know that they’d done this a lot. They’ve seen all the big bumps down the road and they can warn you, “This is going to come.” Especially, if you over–describe what you’re doing and you pivot. If you’ve come to Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing and you’ve got to be 3M because you’re not in the mining business anymore.
For International Business Machines, that’s now IBM or my favorite Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC. For a long time, they were KFC and they went, “We‘re going to be Kitchen Fresh Chicken.” They went to KFC, Kitchen Fresh Chicken. I don’t think you can do that soon. It has to be KFC for a very long time before people give up the Kentucky thing. Plus, own the Kentucky thing. It’s cool. It’s an important thing to consider thoughtfully because it’s something you’re putting out into the world to represent you and to represent your legacy. It’s the thing that brands live beyond you. It’s hard to think about that but as these build, as you create all this value around this, other people come to work for you and it becomes this gargantuan organization and brand lives far beyond you. You want to go to look back and say, “We created that.”
Ever notice where it starts so that it can link beyond you. What if that day comes when I want to sell it to someone else? If I haven’t branded it, what are they supposed to pick up?
If you think about the planning process of, “Let’s do the minimum we possibly can,” it’s almost planning for failure. It’s probably not going to make it anyway. Let’s give it no names. Let’s give it no logo. Let’s not spend a lot of money on it because it’s not going to go anywhere. It’s almost like you’re planning for failure. The way we look at this is we’re claiming for success. If this becomes incredibly successful and you got a name you can’t own, this could impede your success. If you’re incredibly successful and you’ve got a logo that you stole from somebody, but someone redrew it in India, you’ve got a problem that’s going to impede your success. Plan for success looks a lot different than planning for failure. A lot of people in entrepreneurship plan for failure as sad as that sounds in that perspective of, “I don’t think it’s going to make it anyway.” They might tell you otherwise, but that’s that behavior showing up, which is interesting.
The intentionality of what you’re building and that was when I started, I had a lot of intentionalities. The practical engineer part of me that says, “We thought about this process and if you’re going to go through it, go through it.” Don’t give it a short trip but go through it. It’s the opposite of that. Move fast and break things and slap something out there. That’s serving us well.
You have this, which is a hard thing to do as an entrepreneur, have a point of view. You have to have something that is you and put it out there. You have adopted this human-centered design approach which means you take inputs from other people. You have your point of view, which might be in conflict with other people’s points of view. It’s not an easy thing to overcome. It’s the basic fundamental of being an entrepreneur, you have a point of view, you put it out there and say, “I’m going to build this thing,” or you’ve got a different point of view than I do. I’ve designed this, you don’t like it or you don’t like that part of it. I have to accept that. It’s not an easy thing for an entrepreneur to do. It is definitely a good indication for a future successful entrepreneur.Branding comes with numerous risks, but what matters is the time and the resources you put into it. Click To Tweet
A part of it is I went through this and the human-centered design process of showing my initial UX designs and I did this review process with 30 people. As part of that, if you ever want to get rid of systemic bias and you’re loving your baby, talk to 30 people about your baby. By the tenth or eleventh one you’re like, “Here we go. Is my baby ugly? Tell me if it’s ugly.” That’s one of the toughest things as an entrepreneur, you’re starting this new venture, you care about and it is your baby. Having to then get over that whole idea of I know the way this baby’s supposed to go out in the world, what is supposed to happen, all these additional pieces to it, and nobody else is allowed to inform that. That’s not how the whole child rearing and kids growing up process works as one of the things that are informing the parent.
While I might be the parent, there’s a lot of other input that’s going to come from the people around me and that makes it a stronger product in the end. It informs my point of view. It educates me on things I couldn’t possibly have known about and reinforces that whole idea of why it’s a good idea. Even if you make the choices as a founder with how you’re going to go about doing it because we don’t have unlimited budgets, we have to make choices. At least you’re informed about the choices you’re making and why you’re making them. You can support them and be able to explain why you are making those choices. I’ve tended to find that makes people a lot more comfortable when you say, “I know things are missing,” and you can describe some of the things you are missing, but you can talk about where it is in the world. It goes back to that concept of being transparent, being authentic and telling people, “I’m not perfect.”
There’s a lot of moving around vulnerability, putting yourself out there and be willing to do that. That’s coming up in leadership styles and a lot of ways, which is valuable and important because sometimes you see leaders as being not even human. They’re superstars. Jobs and the inhuman nature of who he was, all the legends and lore and everything else. We look at him and go, “Was he all that?”
There’s a lot more to it than the legend and lore.
There’s other stuff behind the scenes we all don’t get to see. There’s more tendency now to put it out there and say, “This is who I am. I’m not perfect but I’ve done everything I can and I’ve worked in best of intentions in everything I do in whatever I’m building.” You’re definitely doing that, which I love.
Thank you for joining and being with me. How can people find out more about Capsule or follow you if they want to?
They can go to Capsule.us, they can email me at AaronKeller@Capsule.us. They can also read a column I write for the Twin Cities Business Magazine. That’s every month in that magazine and you could find that on newsstands and in the digital world, all over the place.
- The Physics of Brand
- Twin Cities Business Magazine
- @Beingwonderly – Twitter
- LinkedIn – Amber’s LinkedIn
About Aaron Keller
Aaron is the Co-Founder of Capsule, author of The Physics of Brand, Columnist for Twin Cities Business, and investor in five startup ventures.