The clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the cell phones we use, even the celebrities we admire and the sodas we drink, all say something about us. And Debbie Millman is fascinated by how consumers arrive at those choices.
Millman is a branding consultant, educator, and author who’s helped a range of corporate and non-profit clients define and differentiate their products. She discussed her work on this weekend’s Connections with Renee Shaw. Their conversation was recorded at the 2014 Idea Festival in Louisville.
Millman says branding helps consumers understand the nature, use, and value of a certain product or service. Her own work has included developing packaging and store designs for Burger King, developing a special type font for Twizzlers candy, and helping launch an anti-domestic violence group, the No More Foundation.
What Drives Brand Choice
Millman says most brand choices aren’t rational or financial but highly emotional. She says people will even pay more for a certain item, such as an iPhone versus a cheaper smart phone, if that choice helps the individual project a certain image of themselves to other people.
“We choose the brands whose tribes we want to belong to because we feel better about who we are when we’re engaged with those brands,” Millman explains.
Because these consumer choices involve feelings, motivations, and other intangible factors, Millman says good marketers and branding consultants need to have expertise in a range of disciplines from anthropology and behavioral psychology to finance and economics. “It’s those all together that create the most holistic, the most powerful way to use branding to express ideas,” Millman says.
Defining a Personal Brand
Millman’s own creative streak started when she drew words and stories as a child. Her artistic talents expanded after Millman’s mother, who was a seamstress, taught her how to sew and make her own clothes.
“I made anything that you could think of,” Millman says. “I think I feel most alive when I’m actually making something.”
After majoring in English and working for her student newspaper in college, Millman knocked around in various freelance and part-time jobs in her 20s, until she took a job in branding simply because she needed to pay her rent.
“All of a sudden I realized I’m completely comfortable with this language,” Millman says, “and it’s intrinsically fascinating to me to understand why people choose the things that they do.”
Now in addition to her own brand consulting work, Millman has written six books and hosts a popular podcast on design and branding. She also teaches at New York’s School for Visual Arts in a master’s in branding program she co-founded. There she helps students define their own personal brands.
“If you don’t understand your motivations first, whether you’re a person or a brand, you’re never ever going to be able to make a difference,” Millman explains. “[People] are interested in engaging with brands and people that are going to make differences in their lives. So that’s very much at the root, at the foundation of everything I teach: What is your message, what is your motivation?”