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Ryo Kikuchi of ZeBrand: “Hybrid Literacy”

“One person can change the world — and you can be that person.” By John Maeda This was told to me by my mentors at RISD, but this hasand it inspired me to focus on using my talents and vision for the benefit of the society, . and this reallyIt shaped made me into the person that I am […]

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“One person can change the world — and you can be that person.” By John Maeda

This was told to me by my mentors at RISD, but this hasand it inspired me to focus on using my talents and vision for the benefit of the society, . and this reallyIt shaped made me into the person that I am with the purpose I have in my life now. I believe in these words and this is what I am aspiredaspire to live every single day.


As part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryo Kikuchi.

Ryo Kikuchi is a Founder and CEO of ZeBrand, an A.I. powered brand-building platform helping over 35,000 emerging businesses worldwide, by branding their way to growth. ZeBrand has won TechCrunch Pitchers & Pitches Competition this year, as well as American Express x WeWork pitch contest in Japan, and has been featured in various media outlets including Forbes Japan, ADO by Mini, and GCI Magazine. With ZeBrand’s vision, he wants to continue creating new values within the branding market, to pursue a world where people and businesses are able to freely express who they are, to thrive with the unique brand that is theirs and theirs alone.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in Japan, but my turning point was my study abroad experience at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The idea of ZeBrand came to me about three years ago, when I was at RISD studying graphic design and digital media. I noticed an overwhelming need for branding in the startup world, but I realized that many early-stage startups do not have the time, resources, nor the budget to hire a professional branding agency. Many business owners and entrepreneurs are left with their own laptops, completely lost, and didn’t know where to begin. As a former intra-preneur, or an entrepreneur within an existing corporation, who has gone through a similar challenge, I felt that there was potential in this space and it was worth supporting. This is why we made ZeBrand, to support startups and small businesses that do not have expert knowledge or skills in branding, but are passionate about bringing their visions to life. ZeBrand uses a proprietary A.I. powered algorithm to generate brand identity based on aggregated branding data inputs, including: type of industry, mission and vision, and the personality of the company. It then generates appropriate brand elements including color, typography, imagery, slogan ideas, web layout, pitch deck, and brand values.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

ZeBrand generates brand identity in less than five minutes and provides the brand strategy frameworks and coaching session. Instead of the big branding agency that charges you between 50K and 500K USD, we charge 400 USD, and can still provide a high-quality branding agency like services in a DIY environment.

We are disrupting the branding world, where a lot of the work has traditionally been done by human beings, by introducing the power of A.I. into the space. We don’t think that A.I. will completely replace human work in the branding world. Rather, we are using A.I. an efficient enhancement, and having humans take care of the strategy, creativity, and imaginative work, to create something from nothing (going from 0 to 1), because only humans can create something out of nothing. There are things that A.I. does better than humans, but the reverse is also true when it comes to imagination and creation.

We not only provide brand visual assets efficiently and quickly, but also by training our users mindsets to define their company’s long-term vision and core values. We hope our services will be the go-to partner or platform for those who have yet to realize the potential of their brands’ complete identity. We also envision ZeBrand becoming a platform for teams to collectively use for collaborative brand development as well as maintaining internal alignment on mission, vision, and core values.

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

I don’t know if this would be funny to you, but for me, the funniest mistake was assuming the A.I. could do everything. At first, we believed that we could automate all the branding work with A.I. As I was building this platform, though, I learned that there was some limitation to what A.I. can do after many failures. Quickly, we realized that I, along with our brand strategists and team, were the only factor and element to create something from nothing, going from 0 to 1, by setting the vision and the directions, and not the A.I. Our first assumption was completely wrong. Then we had the A.I. take that foundation that was created by humans into “10” or “100,” to rapidly scale. That’s when it started to work as our current platform, ZeBrand.

This is what I call “Hybrid Literacy,” the balance between the co-existence between human work and A.I. work, and I learned this balance was such an important element.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My number one mentor is John Maeda, the former president of RISD and the CXO of IT consultancy Publicis Sapient. I studied graphic design and digital media as a research fellow at RISD under the leadership of John Maeda. I learned what makes great art by creating something from nothing (going from “0” to “1”). I also learned what makes it a design. It is accomplished by taking one idea and moving it forward exponentially (going from “1” to “10”). I have focused on learning how to go from “0” to “1” by creating art projects that is unique and completely new that expresses my own perspective and imagination. I remember at the Final Critique, or final presentation at RISD, John and other professors told me “One person can change the world — and you can be that person.” That comment has inspired me to focus on using my vision for the benefit of “The All.” It shifted my perspective on how I can truly contribute to the world. I believe my own unique perspective can bring new value to the world, and that is my life’s purpose.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I believe disruption is part of evolution. For some people it may not seem good, and for some, it may seem great. When I was researching branding, I realized the world of branding hasn’t evolved much for decades. Branding has always been done along with brand guidelines, but there hasn’t been any big evolution happening other than that. Even when we shifted into this digital age we live in today, everything about branding just moved from paper to pixels and there hasn’t been a big evolution in terms of content or the format.

For me, it felt as though the branding world has reached its peak, and there seemed to be an invisible barrier among the creatives that if you’re not an experienced designer, you cannot design, or you are not allowed to design for brands. And if you did something completely new, it also seemed as if it wasn’t welcomed by the branding industry, while if one of the top branding agencies in the world did something new, it was highly regarded by the industry.

But in an era when A.I. can replace human work, I thought that branding could be automated, and that is how I started to think about creating ZeBrand.

Disrupting an industry may not be so positive for some people, as we do often get feedback from industry professionals saying, “A.I. will replace us humans.” But we believe the opposite, which is that human work can never be replaced by A.I., only enhanced. We first and foremost believe in the power of the human designers and all creative people in the world, and that creative power is so influential and powerful in our day-to-day lives. We believe that laying the groundwork can only be accomplished by talented humans rather than templated branding theory. The human work is about creativity, imagination, art direction and vision, and we want to help entrepreneurs support their vision and direction to create new values, and a world where all people and businesses can express their uniqueness freely. By doing so, we believe the branding world will evolve into another realm.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“One person can change the world — and you can be that person.” By John Maeda

This was told to me by my mentor at RISD, and it inspired me to focus on using my talents and vision for the benefit of society. It shaped me into the person I am with the purpose I have in my life. I believe in these words and this is what I aspire to live every single day.

“Look at the world responsibility –“response-ability” — the ability to choose your response.” By The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Whenever there’s been adversity, I remember these words to choose to look on the bright and positive side. For example, this year has been a challenging year for everyone with COVID-19. We actually launched ZeBrand this past February, and the following month in March, New York City had its stay-at-home order. We had many kick off events coming up around that time, including a pitch contest at SXSW, and I was also scheduled to speak at one of the events in New York City. We were on our way to have many amazing kick off events to celebrate our launch, but everything got cancelled. Instead of seeing it in a negative light, we chose to respond to the situation in a positive way. We launched a COVID-19 business support program helping struggling small businesses or new emerging businesses in the city to support their branding effort, and partnered with global communities and institutions to help with their efforts in marketing and branding work during the pandemic. We now believe that because of the pandemic, we really found our strength, along with our expanded network of friends and support systems. We wouldn’t have otherwise found these precious connections and communities had we chosen to see these events negatively.

“You cannot change your past” By Anonymous

I cannot change the past, so whenever something happens, rather than dwelling on the past events that I cannot change, I choose to accept what is, look forward, think about what needs to be done, and just keep going. Again, launching our startup during the pandemic has really been an interesting journey this year. One of the challenges was to quickly adopt the new normal, which for us was about attending conferences and pitching competitions, virtually. Instead of dwelling on what it could have been had there been no pandemic, we chose to accept and adopt the new normal quickly. We quickly got our team together to level up our virtual presence and image, and everything that we needed to make the best virtual impression. Among one of the many things we did that was easy enough to do, yet made a huge difference, was to set our branded virtual background for Zoom interviews and meetings. All of our team had virtual background set ups for all of the pitch contests we attended. I remember one of the judges mentioning our virtual branded background being refreshing. As a result, we won the pitch contest at this year’s virtual TechCrunch Pitch Event, and have been selected as a final pitcher at other pitch events this year.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We are currently thinking of scaling the ZeBrand platform to open up more branding activities to users with various backgrounds. While big branding agencies may be able to handle 10–30 clients or cases a year, ZeBrand has already processed over 35,000 cases along with our users’ own inputs. With these inputs and information, we want to visualize these data sets to quantify the uniqueness of a brand to make the branding processes more robust. We are also considering ways to open up the platform for collaborations for more seamless branding experiences to our users.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

“Look at the world responsibility –“response-ability” — the ability to choose your response.” By The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

This has been stuck in my mind for a long time, just thinking how I always have choice and the way I see things really depends on how I choose to see it. Whenever there’s been any adversity, I remember these words to choose to look on the bright and positive sides. For example, this year has definitely been a challenging year for everyone with COVID-19. We actually launched this February, and the following month in March, New York City had its stay at home order PAUSE. We had many kick-off events coming up around that time, including pitching contest at SXSW, and I was also scheduled to speak at one of the events in New York City, and we were on our way to have many amazing kicking off events to celebrate our launch, but everything got cancelled. Instead of seeing everything in a negative light, we chose to respond to the situations in a positive way. We launched COVID-19 business support program helping struggling small businesses or new emerging businesses in the city to support their branding effort, and partnering with global communities and institutions to help with their efforts in marketing and branding work during the pandemic. We now believe that because of the Pandemic, we really found our strength, along with our expanded network of friends and support systems. We wouldn’t have otherwise found these precious connections and communities had we chose to see these events negatively.

John Maeda

“One person can change the world — and you can be that person.” By John Maeda

This was told by my mentors at RISD, but this has inspired me to focus on using my talents and vision for the benefit of the society, and this really made me into the person that I am with the purpose I have in my life now. I believe in these words and this is what I am aspired to live every single day.

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

“What do you really want to do?” When I studied at RISD, this was the question I was asked every day by my mentor, John Maeda and Lane Myer. At the time, I worked at a company that had over 90 years of history with a lot of traditions, and I believed working as a salary man was the right path for me. While I worked at the font design firm, I thought that my mission was to pioneer the future of the font in this new era, but when I was asked the question, “what do you really want to do?” every single day, I realized what I really wanted to do was not to pursue something that was given to be, but rather to pursue something that comes from me and my heart. In Japan, the social ideal was to go to a reputable college and go to a reputable firm. When I went to RISD to study, I had an opportunity to talk to students from the college nearby at Brown University, and when we talked about our plans after graduation, one of the students told me he wanted to be a baker. At first, with my Japanese way of thinking, and societal norm, I thought he was too good to be a baker, especially as a graduate of a reputable college. Later he explained to me that he can go to a reputable firm and earn a lot of money, but in this country, it is more highly regarded when you actually pursue things that you are passionate about doing in your life. This is when my paradigm shift happened inside of me, and with this event, I started to look deep within myself to ask what I really wanted to do with my life, and the wonderful journey that would come with actualizing my dream was all that I really wanted to experience in my life. This is why we have today’s ZeBrand’s vision “Brand your way” and this episode led to our current vision of the company.

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. 🙂

I would love to contribute to the world where there is no conflict or war through ZeBrand! We want to help build a world where all kinds of people can freely express who they truly are, while we accept the uniqueness of each other fully and peacefully coexist. If this movement starts, then we would like the resources to be distributed more evenly, there will be less greed, and the world will turn into a place without jealousy, or tricking people, but rather it becomes a place full of people doing what they really love to do and communicating each other with respect, and becomes a more accepting and compassionate world. I believe pursuing our happiness with our own value standards would not bring conflicts but rather will create new values. I also believe that with the technological advancement and singularity approaches us, there will no longer be a need for anyone to do boring routine work as part of their job, but instead, we all will get to focus on doing what we are passionate about doing every day. This is why I think that the human creativity and potential is so important to focus on developing and what I call the Hybrid Literacy, where the perfect balance between humans and AI work together, needs to continue to be optimized and that is where ZeBrand can support, and we continue to strive to create the world where there is no conflict or war through these concepts.

How can our readers follow you online?

Of course, you can find and learn more about us at zebranding.com, and you can follow my Linkedin account here: — https://www.linkedin.com/in/ryozebrand/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Thank you for having me!

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