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James Gibson of Relic: “Brand awareness issue”

It’s hard to judge your own brand when you don’t have a holistic view of how your brand is currently perceived. It’s dangerous to make altering decisions to the brand if you don’t have comprehensive, third-party data giving you a decent look at where you stand with your target demographic. Ask “Are you making these […]

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It’s hard to judge your own brand when you don’t have a holistic view of how your brand is currently perceived. It’s dangerous to make altering decisions to the brand if you don’t have comprehensive, third-party data giving you a decent look at where you stand with your target demographic. Ask “Are you making these alterations based on your own singular vision of what you think the brand currently is and anecdotes that you’ve heard?” Or, “Are you basing it off research where chances are, you’ll get a different perspective?”


As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview James Gibson.

James Gibson, art co-director at Relic + EKR, has a strong, foundational background in animation, illustration, and graphic design. His work has won numerous industry awards including Marketer of the Year in 2017. His expertise and passion lie in creating comprehensive brand strategies and effective creative campaigns for tourism destinations.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The idea of a specific career path has always terrified me. There are so many creative avenues and I want to explore them all. I think that’s the heart of a creative personality. Creatives are constantly driven towards seeing the world in a new and, hopefully, transcendent way. There are so many options to pursue and I think many creative professionals fear missing out on finding something they truly love if they dedicate themselves to one thing. It seems irrational, but logic usually isn’t the primary driving force in a lot of creativity.

For example, I remember when I saw “Finding Nemo” for the first time and was awestruck by the beautiful world they had created. The music made my spine tingle with delight and I fell in love with Thomas Newman as a composer. The director, Andrew Stanton, showed me the power of a story when it’s told well. I came out of the theater with a feeling that I had witnessed something special. I felt better after watching it. I had a more pleasant disposition. I realized that creating something truly beautiful has a real effect on someone. I adamantly thought that recreating those feelings in everything I did had true value. That would become my purpose for getting up in the morning for work. My next step was to learn everything I could about the animation process.

A couple of months later, I was struck again by something else. During an art history class, I encountered Robert Delaunay’s “Champ de Mars.” My mind was blown. In the painting, Delaunay portrayed a scene of the Eiffel Tower through simple shapes and lines that transformed reality into a beautiful alternative. It was a fascinating, new way to see the world and I loved it. I fell in love with shape. From that point on, I pursued illustration as another love.

Later, I began to study the work of Sagi Haviv and Charley Harper. I was mesmerized by how they transformed complex shapes and ideas into refined, simple concepts. The method of distilling something complicated down to its simplest form is beautiful. It’s almost like the carving of a raw stone into a perfectly cut diamond. There’s nothing superfluous there, only the most important elements.

There are too many of these moments to write about, but I became torn as to what I should dedicate my time to. Branding has provided me the opportunity to pursue every creative avenue I desire. Whether it be film, animation, illustration, logos, visual identity, or writing, they all have a place in branding. The medium may vary, but the end goal is an authentic connection.

With that freedom to create, I set my goals as a professional to connect with people on a genuine level and show them what is beautiful about this world. Life is extremely hard for everyone. So I asked myself, “What could I create that shows people all the hard aspects of life worth it?” The business jargon for that would be, “How do we solve peoples’ pain points?” No matter how small the problem is, you’re making peoples’ lives easier.

Some may say making the world a better place has a minimal place in business, but I firmly believe that if a creative project connects with the target audience on a genuine emotional level, that project will always generate more revenue.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Like many creatives, when an idea starts to brew in our minds and our imagination starts to give form to a concept, we get excited. Ideas scatter out in all directions and then you fall in love with an idea that appears perfect.

I recall a specific scenario in my early career where I was tasked to create three concepts for a logo. I was so attached to one of the ideas, I went into a focus zone for hours perfecting every little detail about it. At the end of the process, I was mentally and creatively exhausted. However, I still needed additional concepts to present. I managed to assemble two more executions that took roughly thirty minutes. I wasn’t concerned about these two because, in my mind, my initial idea was overwhelmingly good.

From my perspective, the choice for the client was simple. One logo required thirty hours to complete and the other two took thirty minutes. I’m sure you can guess which one the client chose.

The client’s face had no reaction at all other than a simple nod when I presented my “thirty-hour” version. However, when I switched to the next slide for the “thirty-minute” versions, the client gave a clear, “Wow!” At that moment, I knew my love for the initial concept was dead in the water.

That day, I learned that a good logo is a good logo, no matter how much time was spent on it. If it took thirty minutes or thirty hours, it doesn’t matter. What matters is if it accomplishes what it was designed to do. I altered my process that day to offer general, visual directions first before I delved into minute details of an individual concept. That would eliminate any possibility of me making the tragic mistake again of spending hours on a concept and hoping the client likes it. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made for my process.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

For many branding agencies, I think there is a temptation to keep client relations to an account/project manager and for the creative to focus on creative. It sounds simple on paper and I’ve seen it work in many different scenarios, but the process can easily get halted if there’s one small misstep in the pipeline. It can turn into a game of telephone where information just gets lost in translation and frustration develops on both sides.

When I started taking an active role in client communication alongside the account manager, there was a significant increase in not only the quality of work but also satisfaction on both sides.

On my side, I felt I was not just creating something for client X, but also for a person with whom I have developed a real relationship. I knew their needs on a personal level, not through a report. When I presented to them and explained my thoughts behind my decisions, I saw their appreciation for the effort I put in. It varied, of course, but I began to notice the quality of work was commonly in direct correlation with the quality of the communication and relationship with the client. As a designer, I was excited to serve them because of that relationship and I knew exactly what to do since there was no guesswork in the communication.

On their side, they felt the relief of their problems being solved and the reassurance of their needs being understood. That relief is an amazing relationship builder. If you take an active role in asking important questions and aligning yourself with exactly what they want, the quality of the work is staggeringly better. If a designer doesn’t feel comfortable developing that kind of relationship, I highly urge you to step out of that comfort zone. If you’re able to communicate and understand exactly what the client wants and needs, it will only help you in the long run.

The logo, colors, or brand guide may be some of your deliverables as a professional, but the most important product you’re delivering is the process. The process is what keeps clients returning to you again and again.

Some questions you can ask yourself to gauge your client relationship as a designer are:

  1. Do you feel the client is comfortable enough to be completely honest with you? If not, why?
  2. Do you feel like you know exactly what the client wants? If not, why?
  3. What are you doing to let your client feel like they are a priority? If you can’t think of anything, that’s a problem.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m in the final stages of rebranding Bear Lake in the Utah/Idaho area. It’s known as the “Caribbean of the Rockies” for its mesmerizing turquoise waters. The destination has become a symbolic place where generations of families reunite together. Everything in our decision from making the logo down to the color selection has been focused on keeping that concept alive for generations to come. The idea of someone’s grandkids associating the beautiful memories they make in Bear Lake with our logo and creative is an awesome feeling. It makes me believe there is true value in what we’re creating.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

I highly recommend watching footage of a Michelin-star kitchen. There is much to be learned about communication from a professional restaurant. The execution of creative work has to be held to a very high standard of quality, all under the pressure of product being made to order. I’ve copied many restaurants’ methods since our projects are “made to order” and require professional quality in a short amount of time.

Clear and concise communication from the head chef is the nucleus of the process. The creative director acts as the head chef in our environment. If designers and marketers understand with a military-like precision what their role is and how it fits into the overall strategy, it will make your end product higher quality in a shorter amount of time. It is the leader’s role to establish that dynamic.

That process is how professional restaurants thrive under the scrutiny of Michelin judges and how any marketer will thrive in a competitive, free market. Burnout occurs because of the back and forth between revisions and poor communication. Having a leader who communicates clearly and simply to both sides will eliminate those revisions significantly.

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

I break it down simply where product marketing is all of your collective efforts to sell your product/service. Branding, however, is what people actually think and feel about your product/service. As Marty Neumeier says, branding is your “gut instinct” about a company.

So in turn, brand marketing is designed to influence that gut instinct. Branding makes it easy to see how building a relationship of trust, associating your product with positive emotions, and providing joy through solving a problem can influence how you feel about a company. The stronger that relationship or brand is, the easier it will be for a customer to go through the marketing funnel.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Right off the bat, there’s the brand perception issue. If your target audience doesn’t trust you, then it will be incredibly difficult to sell anything to them. Trust is a major element in peoples’ decision to purchase something and branding is designed to build that trust.

Think about the ancient technology of CDs. The music industry found that when listeners developed a strong relationship with a band, the listener wouldn’t need to listen to a newly-released CD to purchase it. Trust reassured them the product would be quality.

Secondly, there’s the brand awareness issue. If you find very few people are aware of your existence, trying to sell anything will be extremely difficult. If you can gain awareness by building a strong brand, you’ve already gained a significant advantage by simply being in people’s minds. If you aren’t being considered, it’s going to be hard to sell.

Branding also establishes the core of what you’re actually selling. For example, Simon Sinek uses the example of how Apple doesn’t sell computers or technology, it sells innovation. John Deere doesn’t sell tractors, it sells reliability and putting food on the table. Dewalt doesn’t sell tools, it sells craftsmanship and quality.

That’s why branding is so powerful. When you see an apple logo, your instinct tells you there was a large amount of thought in “how can this product change the world?” Which company would you rather buy from? The company that “sells nice computers” or the company that “tries to change the world with everything it makes?”

The sad truth is there is a large number of marketers who don’t see the urgency of this issue. If you’re not giving an extremely unique reason for people to care about you, then you will be ignored. Simple as that. Messages under this umbrella can be distilled into, “We exist. We make stuff. Buy it today.”

There’s nothing worse than a boring brand. When making films, Andrew Stanton uses one question to know if a scene is effective. It applies to all creative marketing. Ask yourself, does this make me care? If not, you’ve got nothing. If your brand makes people care, then your marketing efforts will be exponentially easier.

Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?

I run into these almost daily. Here’s what it comes down to. Your brand is a reflection of you and how you do business. With a first-time customer, they’re taking a leap of faith in a purchase because they have no experience with your product or service.

They’ll look at reviews, ask friends, and do research online because they want to know if they can trust you. If your logo, colors, layout, design, values seem off or unprofessional, it can easily be assumed that your product or service follows the same suit.

For example, I have seen many examples of companies where it doesn’t see the need to have a professional logo, style guide, or website. The honest truth is first impressions matter and your visual identity and brand values are what people will use to get a sense of what they can expect from you. If your logo looks like a child designed it, then a potential client has every reason to believe your product or service is of the same quality. A question arises of if they weren’t willing to invest in the first touchpoint a customer has with a company, did they invest in the quality of the product as well?

Remember, your brand is people’s gut instinct about your company. If potential customers look at your visual identity and it looks outdated, inconsistent, and unprofessional, then they will associate those qualities with your brand. If you let that dynamic happen for too long, you will fall out of relevancy in a constantly changing and updating modern market.

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?

Rebranding is very dangerous. Your target audience has built strong relationships with what you’ve established over time. If you rebrand and get rid of everything your audience has developed a bond with, people could be upset. That will always be the case, even if you have objectively good reasons for every decision.

A good example is the Instagram rebrand. The logo and visual identity were so different from what people had developed a bond with that there was an immediate backlash. The problem was that the logo people had grown used to was simply not going to work in the future. Instagram built a solid system for the rebrand and trusted that time would heal all wounds. The company was right, and now it’s hard to imagine Instagram under any other logo

With brands, equity is key. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Some companies feel the need to refresh or update its brand every couple of years in order to stay modern. However, every time you make changes to the brand, you lose a bit of brand equity and in some cases, have to start all over.

A fresh start and a completely new perception are what some brands need, so a rebrand is the perfect solution. There are companies like Coca-Cola, Nike, Apple, and Marlboro with years of brand equity built up that any change at this point would hurt them more than it would help.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.

1. It’s hard to judge your own brand when you don’t have a holistic view of how your brand is currently perceived. It’s dangerous to make altering decisions to the brand if you don’t have comprehensive, third-party data giving you a decent look at where you stand with your target demographic. Ask “Are you making these alterations based on your own singular vision of what you think the brand currently is and anecdotes that you’ve heard?” Or, “Are you basing it off research where chances are, you’ll get a different perspective?”

Remember, research from surveys and focus groups are far from perfect. Biases and inaccuracies run rampant, but it is worlds ahead of trying to make decisions from one singular point of reference.

A proper experiment to see if you fall under the umbrella of myopic brand vision is to first take a poll of those who have been deeply invested in the brand’s creation and history. Ask them on a scale where the brand stands as far as looking professional, communicating brand values, looking unique, having personality, etc. Then poll a large group starting at 20 who have no personal association to the brand. I’ve seen that there has always been a large discrepancy between the two. It is essential in opening our eyes to the aspects of a brand that may be hurting it.

2. An important question to ask is, “Do you know the core of your brand — your “why?” Ask yourself why is your brand important. What are you trying to do besides generate revenue? Generating revenue is an essential part of the business and is necessary to grow. However, if your target audience’s gut instinct about you is that your most important priority is to make money, how do you think that affects its trust towards you?

“People don’t know what you do, they buy why you do it” is a common phrase tossed around the marketing world, but it’s more relevant now than ever. In order to stand out among your competition, marketing messages that present a logical argument of why you should buy X,Y, Z will fall to the wayside and those brands that establish trust and connection through positive emotion and brand values will gain significantly more attention.”

This is incredibly easy to see with Tesla. Tesla’s brand is essentially a master class on how branding is essential in generating revenue. The company’s valuable stock price has directly been influenced by its why. The company’s “why” is simply to create the world they would want to live in. You can even feel it when you step into a Tesla vehicle versus an average competitor. You can see how each design decision was made with the thought of, “Wouldn’t it better if we approached it this way?” That kind of brand essence is absent in other car manufacturers from a surface point of view.

3. A third question to ask: “Does your brand have a personality?” If it was a person, how would it talk? What are its character traits? It is a temptation for many brands to have a standard, almost impersonal method of communicating because it’s safe. You’ll never alienate anyone if you have a neutral brand personality.

However, you’ll never garner any attention either. The modern-day brand is expected to have something to say that’s unique. If not, the market will simply ignore you since there’s nothing special about your approach. Remember, branding is essentially building a relationship and if you don’t establish a brand personality that resonates with your target audience, you’re giving them minimal reasons to care about you.

This is evident in the brands of AT&T and T-Mobile. AT&T has struggled from a growth perspective and the lack of a clearly defined brand personality is a major factor. Just like Apple’s version of PC, if AT&T was personified into a human, it’s hard to imagine it. Its generic and safe approach simply makes the company appear like an impersonal, monolith robot asking to be ignored.

T-Mobile however is taking AT&T to school in that arena. The company has identified its target persona down to the smallest detail. The younger demographic resonates well with its messaging and most importantly, the company seems human. The brand has grown significantly strong and has cut a large portion out of many telecom titans’ market because of it.

4. If you want your brand to be memorable, you need to incorporate a story. It’s a trope we’ve all heard before, but let’s explore the basis for it. Our brains focus on information much more when it’s in narrative form.

Take the world memory championships for example. People from around the world will memorize thousands of numbers in a sequence in a small amount of time. How do they do it? They translate the sequence of numbers into a language and then create a story out of the numbers. Our brains are much inclined to memorize the narrative than the list of numbers.

So ask yourself, what story is my brand telling? If your brand has none, then it will be just as memorable as that list of numbers.

5. Finally, the most important question to ask is, “Do your brand efforts make you feel genuine emotion?” Having your target audience resonate on an emotional level is the end goal, but to get there, you need a starting point. If your brand makes you have an emotional reaction, whether that be laughing, crying, nostalgia, fascination, entertained, enriched mentally, physically, spiritually, you’ve got the basis for a solid brand.

We are not robots. The decisions we make, whether they be small or large, are heavily influenced by the way the outcome of that decision makes us feel. That genuine emotion will engrain a positive association with your brand that is invaluable.

When we have a genuine emotional reaction, the emotional center of our brain, the amygdala, triggers a reaction in our memory center, the hippocampus, like gasoline on a fire. If your brand generates a positive emotional reaction, your hippocampus will sear that emotion into your brain and associate your brand with everything that’s wonderful about that memory. The dangerous part is negative emotions will have the same effect but in a tragic way. The more consistent and positive those emotional experiences, the stronger your brand will be.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Branding is especially important with sports. The relationship fans build with franchises is real. Each team has values and personality that reflect not only the team and players but also the home city. Brands and visual identities are an encapsulation of what makes the team, players, and city remarkable.

The brand that did not understand that concept for a very long time was the New Jersey Nets. Growing up in New Jersey, I’m very biased in this regard. Nonetheless, it’s a perfect example. If you look at the brand as a whole before the team rebranded to the Brooklyn Nets, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Overall, the brand had a feeling of, “There is no reason you should care about me.” The name is probably the most generic name for a team other than the “basketballs.” The colors were low in saturation and had no vibrancy to them, almost showing a lack of life. The logo was a typical execution of the nineties of over-the-top, 3D perspective shapes. Everything from the visual identity to the culture to the message screamed, “Please, ignore me.”

In the biggest turnaround that I’ve seen in sports branding, the team moved to Brooklyn now parented under Jay-Z’s brand. A genius move for a start. Instead of trying to build a relationship over time, the team simply piggy-backed off of Jay-Z and immediately gained brand equity. Gone was the unsaturated color-scheme and in was the high-contrast black and white. The team said goodbye to the forgettable logo and brought in a vintage New York-style basketball design. It felt like a brand that was appropriate for the mecca of the sport. It was even so successful that the team’s brand is arguably more powerful at the moment than the New York Knicks. That thought would be blasphemous 10 years ago and now the team is the king of New York.

The biggest lesson one can learn from the team’s example is to audit your brand. If anything appears generic, eliminate it. Generic messaging and branding tell your audience to ignore you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Making significant goals for your life as a whole will help you more in your career than making goals simply for your career.

To back this up, a study was recently done where two groups of people made goals for themselves. One group made goals specifically pertaining to the career. The other group made significant goals for their lives as a whole. In every aspect, the group who made significant goals for their lives were more productive.

The study simply shows that your purpose crosses boundaries and will influence your life no matter what you focus on.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve always resonated with the thought that “life isn’t about happiness, it’s about meaning.” There’s a common paradigm that everything that we do should be about the pursuit of happiness. To me, this paradigm is woefully inadequate. Life is tough, and many times in our lives we will experience trials that will push us to the limit of what we think we can endure. There’s a probability that during those times, a person is not going to be happy. So does life only have meaning during moments of happiness?

When tragedy hits you, is it the idea of being happy that will get you out of bed to continue on? Probably not. What gives you meaning will be the thing that gets you out of bed. A sense of purpose that makes the tragedies of life not only bearable but also something you can overcome. I believe responsibility and the drive to become the greatest good that you can comprehend provides that meaning.

How can our readers follow you online?

Email: [email protected]

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/james-gibson-44451189

Instagram: www.instagram.com/jerms_gerbsern

YouTube: www.youtube.com/dijiarttutorials

Relic Projects: www.relicagency.com

Personal projects: james.gibson.info

Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.

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