Who are you? It’s a question that’s consumed us for millennia. Establishing a sense of self, identity, and what that says about the choices we make. Once we have it, or at least some semblance of it, we can make better decisions and navigate life with more ease.
Those of us who do not have a solid sense of our identity may, at times, rely on the feelings and thoughts of others. Yielding to their opinions, allowing them to make decisions for us, or participating in activities that we do not truly enjoy. It can leave us feeling less and less connected to ourselves.
The same can be said about companies. Their identity lies in branding, the intrinsic core of a business, the rallying cry that brings everyone together under the same banner.
A company without a brand is like seeing a painting in pitch dark. Your branding is the feeling that you elicit in your customers. Brands have to resonate with people, and they, in turn, should be able to understand what you stand for as a company. That’s not something that happens overnight. It’s also why knowing when you need to rebrand is such an important part of business.
In a way, how rebranding works is like going to therapy. It’s something that Sançar Şahin, former VP of Marketing at Typeform, has said that perfectly describes the rebranding experience.
In therapy, you spend a certain amount of time talking through who you are. Then, when you understand yourself and what makes you tick, you can better understand what you want to be. Rebranding works the same way. It’s a process that takes time, with many moving parts, which can sometimes prove difficult to fit together. And once you get it right, it’s a mighty thing.
In 2019, seven years after launch, Typeform underwent its own rebrand, under the guidance of Alex Antolino, Creative Director at Typeform and VideoAsk.
On this latest episode of the Drag & Drop show by Creatopy, we’re exploring how Alex and the Typeform team approached their “people first” rebranding, balancing the rational and emotional, through data collection and conversation.
Together, Alex and I take a look at which stage unlocks the path to alignment, discuss how important it is to allow yourself to change your mind and understand what strikes a balance between emotion and logic.
This episode is an excellent opportunity for everyone looking for insights to include in their own rebranding process. So get your notebooks ready, and let’s dive in.
Introducing Alex Antolino
Alex Antolino is the Creative Director at Typeform and VideoAsk.com and the creative force behind the company’s most recent successful rebrand. Alex is a pro at understanding how a company needs to connect with customers on a gut level.
His sense of brand and creativity has helped the Typeform rebranding process stand out as a much higher purpose, one that impacts the organization itself and its customers, community, and society at large while reinforcing the company’s value system.
Alex’s background in video advertising has allowed him to empower brands by helping them understand that in business, every single customer interaction counts.
Today, we get a captivating view into how to plan a rebranding, what a rebrand is, what it does, how to rebrand, and how Alex and his team were able to strike a balance between function and feeling.
Stuff I Was Curious to Find Out:
- How they knew when and why it was time for a rebrand at Typeform (01:41)
- How to approach alignment on an internal basis, helping people from the organization connect emotionally into what the brand means and to its identity (06:25)
- How the initial strategy changed during the rebranding process and led to readjusting the brand proposition (10:50)
- What types of questions proved most useful to ask when rebranding, and how to approach these conversations with users so that you get the most from them (17:17)
- How to balance risk in a rebrand, how to commit to these risks and make decisions that show you own up to them (21:46)
- What the rebranding process actually looks like, how to plan a rebrand and which company members are involved and have a stake in it (38:56)
- How creativity can happen in a rules-based environment (48:06)
- What the most important factor, the guiding star aspect of a rebranding, should be (54:26)
What You Can Learn From This Episode:
- How being there at the right moment can help decide when you need to rebrand (03:45)
- The importance of scalability when it comes to post-rebranding internal processes (07:27)
- How to get everyone on board and involved from the start, from C-level executives, down to the mailroom (09:06)
- How to achieve true depth in rebranding, not just on the surface (10:50)
- The importance of readjusting, of not being scared to go back one or a few steps and recalibrate (11:50)
- The relevance of including users themselves in the rebranding process and switching the focus from brand to community (12:53)
- What the main challenges in a rebranding process are—from risks to leadership buy-in (21:47)
- Why expecting to see results immediately means setting yourself—and others—up for a disappointment (26:01)
- How to build on your strengths in order to differentiate, to follow through on what you believe in (36:56)
- What the rebranding process looks like, from stages, milestones, and procedures of alignment (45:12)
- What the most important part of the rebranding process is and how to get there (54:26)
1. Rebranding includes everyone, from C-level executives and employees to users and critics
Rebranding affects every single aspect of a business. From the way that a company launches new products or talks about their existing ones to the way they talk about their communities and engage with their team members. That’s why you need to involve everyone in your considerations when rebranding. Customers should be at the center of your rebranding mindset—they’re the ones who give you purpose and direction, not only on a theoretical level but also on a practical one. But employees are the ones who bring your brand to life. If you’re leading a rebrand within the company, you need to embark on that process yourself. You need to build trust within the company to be able to build trust in the brand. Don’t be afraid to ask difficult, scary questions like “Why are we doing this?” and “What do we believe in?”
2. Rebranding requires depth, and depth requires patience
Rebranding takes time. Going back to the therapy analogy, finding your sense of self isn’t something that’s done in one or two sessions. Rebranding means taking your company from a concept to something tangible and real. That involves finding answers to difficult questions, which takes time and patience. Sure, you could just scratch the surface in a few conversations, but a genuine, valuable rebranding is more than that. It’s about putting in the time and work to find an identity that has a simplicity and clarity that matches the product you already know. It’s about trusting the process, having the strength to stop, backtrack and see when you’re heading in the wrong direction, and the patience to see the entire journey through.
3. Managing expectations and building trust at the leadership level is critical
Rebranding is a big and emotional decision, especially for founders. One of the main challenges in how rebranding works is actually getting a truthful buy-in from the company leadership. One that involves trust and follow-through. A rebrand is not a point in time, it is a process, and top-tier executives have to understand the consequences and implications of such a big decision. Sometimes, these are the types of people who need to see results fast, and that just doesn’t happen in a rebranding. You can’t directly tie your identity to financial results simply because it’s so much more than that. That’s why managing expectations from the very beginning is critical. Dive into how, in order to pull off any kind of process that’s tied to identity, to what people truly want, the company needs to decide, commit and go all in.
Andra Zaharia: Hi, Alex, welcome to the Drag and Drop Show! I’m super, super excited to have you here to talk about the Typeform rebrand and a lot of other things that are part of your legacy. So, welcome!
Alex Antolino: Thanks, I’m happy to be here! Thanks for inviting me.
Andra Zaharia: Your level of energy kind of overflows into everything that you do. And even if you don’t get to talk too much about it, hopefully, we’ll dig into many aspects of your work today. So, I’m kind of excited to talk about this brand that I love and that I’ve been using for such a long time, that actually inspires that kind of energy. So, the way that your culture, your entire company culture has evolved, I think that it really captures that sort of energy and brings it to the table. So, I’m really curious how you managed to do that and how you constantly manage to keep that feeling, that upbeat pace to everything that you do. So, tell me, how did it all start out? How did you know it was time for a rebrand at Typeform?
Alex Antolino: Okay, so first of all, the rebrand happened two or three years ago, but I joined Typeform around five years ago. My background is in film. So, not many people know this. Some people get surprised when I say this, but my background is not actually in design. My background is in film. So, I studied film, I had my own studio, I was doing commercials and TV ads for fashion companies and tech companies. And then, super randomly, I ended up at Typeform – I didn’t even know what a tech company was, I had no clue about Silicon Valley. It was super accidental and I ended up being hired at Typeform to do some videos. And, at some point, because I worked with fashion, when I was working on some videos, I was like, where are the brand guidelines? And I remember asking this to one of the two CEOs – he was like, “Well, I’ll share them over.” And he sent me an Illustrator file with a logo and a couple of colors. And I’m like, “I don’t know if these are the brand guidelines that I expected.”
Alex Antolino: So, I was like, “I feel we need to define a little bit more what Typeform is.” But again, it was more coming from the point of view of a creator that needed to do stuff for a brand that I didn’t know, at that time, other than a business need. That was the very beginning. So we didn’t create a brand or anything at that time. But we did put together some, let’s say, design guidelines for what Typeform was going to be. And I very soon realized – some of you might know Typeform for a long time, I don’t know about you – but Typeform when I joined, it was only two colors: turquoise and white. And, for those of you who remember that old Typeform, which was turquoise and white, and there was also a mascot, like an Illustration mark. Anyway, it looked like a dentist, right? I’m like, “Dude, you’re asking me to make videos for what you say is a friendly, happy brand, but it looks like a dentist, right? So, we need to do something about it.” So we added some colors. But everything was very technical. Like, it was very on the surface. And this happened in the first year. I kind of ended up leading the project of not a redesign, but a design expansion of the brand, where we would add some colors, maybe change the typeface to something more unique. And that was it for the first year. And I guess that project went really well. Everyone got super excited, we had new tools to express our brand, and the company exploded at the time. We were 30 people, and we moved from 30 people to 150 in one year. So it was mind-blowing. And the company needed a team to create communications. And I was, at that time, in that place, and I became the Creative Director.
Alex Antolino: So, to your question, there’s this journey that startups – you know, every company has their journey – and for me, being there at that moment and asking for these, and then after having done these and having a creative team, we realized that the brand that we had was basically like a Frankenstein of many decisions taken at different times and places by different people. There was no clear idea, and that was an issue for me as a Creative Director running five or six people at that time because everything was based on my approval, everything was based on what I thought, and I didn’t want to run the team like that, and it was creating a lot of friction. Because we didn’t have guidelines, it was not clear for people. Designers were not empowered to make their own decisions, right?
Andra Zaharia: Before we move on, I want to unpack a little bit because you’ve shared so much and there’s so much that happened in such a short time span – and I’d like to dig in a bit more. So, when you came in, there wasn’t a core design system, it wasn’t that kind of formalized. But you were there, and you did the groundwork to get everyone on the same page. What was it like to be able to align the team at a time where it grew so fast – you know, tripling, basically, its size? Because that’s a huge thing! You know, onboarding people, getting them to connect emotionally to the company culture into what the brand means and to its identity, so they can further express it, so they can do their work really well and connect with others, that’s so important! But there’s also a very, very subjective thing. So, how did you get them aligned? How did you talk to them? How did you go about, you know, taking this core and making it part of everyone’s work, at the end of the day?
Alex Antolino: So, everything that I explained so far, is up until the moment that we decided that we needed the rebrand. And we started doing some strategy work, and at some point, we stopped there because I knew we didn’t have the expertise or the experience enough to pull it off, with the level that I wanted to have. That’s when we hired Design Studio – they’re called Design Studio, but it’s the design studio behind Airbnb brand and Deliveroo. And so, we hired them to work on our visual identity and help us a little bit with the rebrand, right? I wanted to make these very clear, because up until that moment, we didn’t really have anything. So, it was that year when I became Creative Director that I was commissioned with the need to build a creative team from scratch, and I started bringing people in. But that took at least a year and it was very chaotic, as you said. No one knew what to hold on to, and so, a little bit at the beginning was based on my approval, my feedback, which didn’t really work, and it was definitely not scalable at all. And that was, for me, at least, one of the reasons to say, “We need to create some document or some agreement on what is this brand about.” Then we realized that it was also not working for the customer – or it was kind of working, but it was not pushing us in the direction we wanted to go. So that’s when I talked with David – again, one of the founders – and I said, “David, I think we need to do this.” And we did it. So, I’m just saying this because, up until that moment, it was chaos, and then, after we launched the rebrand, the rebrand was actually a huge tool for alignment internally. And the whole process for me, it took like… I think we spent 10 months doing the rebrand. And a lot of it, as you said, was getting everyone aligned.
Alex Antolino: So, a quick example: I would go one week to work in London with the Design Studio, they would come one week. And we had like five or six stages for the whole process. So, brand strategy, concept, design, etc. So, at the end of each one of these big stages that would take a month or a month and a half, I would do a small meeting, personally, with everyone in the company to present our progress and get their feedback. It was more like an alignment thing. Of course, some very interesting feedback came from very unexpected places, but I personally wanted to do this because I didn’t want everyone to feel that this was imposed on them, but they were a part of the process – and this was one of the best decisions I made because we didn’t go with the big reveal of the logo or anything. We actually did a big event, internally, where we presented the brand, but it was not a surprise or a reveal. It was more like a celebration of the brand and the new direction and stuff. There was no Mad Men kind of moment where I said, “This is the new logo!”
Andra Zaharia: I love that! I think that is so, so important because, again, this is not a cosmetic thing. Rebrands are not a surface thing, or they shouldn’t be. That’s just one side that’s been popularized and talked about, and things like that. But there’s so much more to it below the surface. And I think that the value is, in the way that I see it – you know, looking from the outside in and sometimes, obviously, participating as a content creator in these things – is that the conversations that this process starts and that this process involves are actually the ones that shape everything: the conversations you have with your peers, with your teams, with agencies, everyone else. So, I’m very curious, what kind of questions did you use to try to figure out what your new brand identity is, what your values are, and how you want to take them forward? Because I assume they haven’t changed a lot. Did they change a lot?
Alex Antolino: They actually did change a lot. The truth is that I would say I was very naive – that was my big project up until the date. As I said, I was a filmmaker, and that was my first experience. As a creative director, that was my first experience with doing a rebrand. So, I had to catch up very quickly with a lot of things, and we actually worked with Design Studio on a concept, some values, principles, a lot of these things, and a value proposition. And we rolled it out internally, and externally. So, we implemented the whole visual identity, we put it out, and I would say six to 10 months later, we initiated internally another project, to kind of readjust the brand proposition – it was just not working; it was not working for us, it was not working with the communication, so we changed it.
Andra Zaharia: That is very bold! That’s very bold that you gave yourselves the permission to go back. Sometimes people, when they get into these things, because they invest so much time, energy, money, and so on in them, they tend to kind of not be able to let go – they’ll just go with it until the end, no matter what the risks are. So, what kind of things do you think made this decision easier to like, “Hey, this is not working for us. We need to readjust.”?
Alex Antolino: I have no idea. And you have a really good point, it didn’t feel easy doing it. Especially, just because, like you said, we invested so much time and it was like, we sold it to the entire company, right? Founders, the CEO… Like, everyone, right? And so, we decided to change it because it was just not working. It just didn’t feel right for us. It just didn’t feel it was what we wanted to say. And, to be honest, it’s changed again after we did that. And this was – I like that you asked me this question, because that was a big learning for me, and it has changed a lot on how I approach brands, actually. Because I was very naive, I had this idea of what branding is, and what a visual identity is, and what advertisement is, from what I saw in my experience, but it was my real first experience on a company and running it. And I realized very soon that brands are something organic. It’s not something that you do one day, and then, you know, it lasts for five or 10 years, like it happened before. Now brands are alive, and they change every month and every year. Slightly. I’m not saying you’re gonna change the logo every month, or every year, but they evolve, right? And if you look at every single brand two years ago, it’s slightly different. And if they’re slightly different on the surface, it probably means that they changed a lot on the inside. So, that was a big learning for me. And one year ago, we launched our new product VideoAsk, which is kinda like online forms, but with video. And I’m running this brand since early January, so I kind of like shifted my role and now I’m doing what I did for Typeform, but now with VideoAsk. And my approach is totally different.
Andra Zaharia: In what sense? In what ways? Tell me a bit about that.
Alex Antolino: Yeah, exactly. So, a quick example. I collaborated on the design of it with a good friend of mine who worked on Typeform before. And we collaborated to create the visual identity of VideoAsk. For Typeform, it took me like 10 months to figure out the strategy and all these things. With VideoAsk it took one month and a half – the whole thing from beginning to end. And the reason is not because we wanted to do it in a more scrappy way or because we were rushing or anything. It’s just because we were putting the focus somewhere else. We were putting the focus on our community – and this is something that is a big shift for me in how I approach brands. And, for example, at Typeform – this is not gonna sound nice, but at Typeform, for whatever reason, I didn’t get the chance to talk with users at all, basically. Maybe like, a couple of times or three times. But it was not something I was doing on a regular basis, talking with users. Of course, when we did the rebrand, yes, we did speak with groups and things like that. But it’s not like every week, I had a call with a user. Which is how my life looks like at VideoAsk, since day one. And I guess that’s also like, David, one of the co-founders at Typeform is who created VideoAsk, and he’s running VideoAsk now. So I work with him. And I think that we haven’t talked about this, but I would say this is also one of his learnings, that from day one, he set up a Slack community, and he invited new users from day one, right? Even before launching the product, for like, better users and stuff. And it’s been a game-changer.
Andra Zaharia: What kind of questions do you ask users through these conversations? Because so many people talk about, and know that you should – especially in the startup world, and in the tech world, that you need to talk to your customers to figure out how your product is evolving, how they’re changing, how you’re changing, and how it all fits together. But I think that the secret is not in just having these conversations, but in how you have these conversations. So, I’m very curious how your questions look like now versus the type of questions that you used in the Typeform rebrand. And I’m curious to know what that looks like, in real life?
Alex Antolino: I think it’s not that much about the questions, but the topics and how we approach the conversation and the relationship basically. So, before, I would just jump on a call with a user, ask them some questions, and then get my conclusion, then move on with my life. It’s more like now we’re developing relationships in a sense that there are some users – because I host a podcast, too, for VideoAsk and I invite some users that I consider they have great stories or great points of view. And with these people, I just develop a relationship. You know, it’s not like we have one interaction, I ask them some questions, and I move on, but more like, this framework where firstly, it’s more about curiosity. So, I am generally interested in learning how they use the product in different ways. Then, it’s building a relationship, like, talking with them, really listening to them, and understanding how they’re using our product. And if I think it’s interesting, it’s all about supporting them and celebrating their success with our product. So, I would invite them to the podcast, I would feature them on the website.
Alex Antolino: Before COVID happened this year, I set up the goal for VideoAsk – just so you can see the difference in approach, actually, let me give you this example: on Typeform, when we implemented the new rebrand two or three years ago, to go out, we needed a lot of imaginary pictures. We wanted to make a very people-driven brand, so we needed a lot of pictures. And we didn’t have much time, because we implemented the whole branding in a couple of months, which is insane! So what I did at that time was to find photographers that I liked, and ask them for their personal pictures. You know, in general, photographers take pictures when they travel. So, what I did is like, some of them, they have these on their portfolio. So I called a couple of friends of mine and said, “Can I buy these pictures? Can we get the rights to release those pictures?” And I bought those pictures. And those pictures formed the library of images that we used at Typeform at the beginning. And that’s why it felt so authentic and so real, because it was real. It was photographers taking pictures of their friends when they were having fun. So that was for Typeform.
Alex Antolino: For VideoAsk, at the beginning of the year, I set up a goal that I said, we’re not going to use anything or barely anything of stock images. We’re going to use only stuff from our customers. Which is a bold challenge, because that means you actually need to know and get there. I mean, for every single landing page, you need to go there. When COVID hit, things were more complicated because we couldn’t move and it was not easy, and not every customer knows how to take pictures. Like, we needed those pictures to be taken. So, the images we took were a mix of employees and our customers. But if you look at our website now and you scroll in VideoAsk.com, you’re gonna see that 70% of the images, for example, are from customers. And we feature only customers. Of course, I’m not gonna say you can create ads and everything like this, but I’m happy that at least 70% or 80% – and this is mostly because of COVID, that we cannot travel and it makes things more complicated in that sense – it’s coming from customers. So, just so you see the difference in approach on some very pragmatic stuff.
Andra Zaharia: That is huge. But, you know, listening to you, I still feel like your vision and you’re pulling this all off together. And not only that, but you’re getting people to kind of resonate with your way of thinking and you get their buy-in actually, to embark on something so daring as to use 70% user-generated content, which is a lot. I mean, we know that user-generated content is so big. Like, we’ve been talking about it for over a decade. But, the way that you use this is, you know, it’s not just content – you give it power, you give it weight, you turn it into something meaningful, you bring it together. And this is something that I particularly love about the power of a brand. And we’re talking a lot about this, because I feel like this year more than ever, you know, there’s an emphasis on relationships. We feel that need for connection with both the people in our lives, but the brands in our lives, especially, because we use so many products because we need this. As human beings, we feed off of it. So I think that the way you bring this together is very bold. And I was wondering, when you do a rebrand, obviously, there are some risks that you have to live with. So, what do those risks look like? And how do you pick and choose them? Because, to me, that’s where the difficult decisions are.
Alex Antolino: Well, I think in general, for every rebrand, and of course, I can talk about my experience, but it’s super, super different depending on the size of the company and the stage of these companies. So it’s not the same to create a brand for – even if they have some kind of like ‘look and feel’ or something like that. Because usually, when a rebrand happens is when you have a company that’s grown a little bit, and they have some design that they replicate on all of their communications, but they don’t really know where this design actually is coming from, according to what they want to do today, right? This is usually when a company says, “We should rebrand.” Or someone in the company says, “We should rebrand, just to understand what this company is about, and how we need to put it out to engage with our people.” But, in general, it really depends on the size of the company. So, if it’s like a small company – like a 10-people company or something like that, or a 20-people company – it’s not the same as if it’s like, a 200, 300-people company like Typeform is today. It’s very different.
Alex Antolino: So, I would say, based on my experience, the main challenge is actually getting truthful buy-in from the leadership team. I would say, at least for me and my experience with the brands that I’ve worked on, mostly like Typeform, it was hard. Like, in meetings, people would arrive and they pay all their attention, and they decide things, right? But sometimes it’s hard to let them understand the consequences or the implications of those decisions. And this is what happened with Typeform’s first rebrand, that, even though it was not 100% clear for a couple of persons, we decided to say, “Okay, we agree and commit to these and move forward.” But then, the truth is that some of those people were not 100% in and this generates a lot of… So, I would say that one of the main issues is really making sure that they understand the implications, because not many people – even people working on branding – not everyone really understands the implications. And then, the second one is like, making sure that when they say “Yes, I buy it” they really buy it. And I think that’s it because the rest is just work – like, getting everyone in the company to move on.
Alex Antolino: Patience is a big challenge, also. I’m not a very patient person, but in general, these things require a lot of patience, because branding is a long-term thing. So, it’s hard to see results. So, another challenge would be to educate the people in the company who need to see results fast that they won’t get results fast. I got people asking me, “Okay, but how did it go? How much are we selling?” And even some people saying, “Oh, our sales dropped” and I’m like, “What do you expect? We’ve changed the brand. Of course, it’s gonna drop a bit.” But then, the challenge here is understanding that branding is a long-term thing. It’s like going to the gym. You’re not going to see the results in the first week. You need to go maybe for six months or a year to actually then compare two pictures and be like, “Fuck, yeah! I notice now!” And with branding, it’s the long-term thing, and then, also, it’s a holistic effort. It’s not something that can happen on the design team. The design team is probably going to deliver the visual identity, but that’s not your rebrand. Your rebranding is the strategy, is a lot of different things, right? And so, understanding the impact holistically, it’s just really hard. It’s like, if I want to get in good shape and get healthy, probably I’m going to start going to the gym or doing workout every morning. But then, probably, I’m gonna have to start eating well, cut alcohol, and all those kind of things – maybe spend some time outdoors, all these kinds of things, right? But then, if I look back after six months, and I realize there’s a big difference, how am I gonna actually see what had the biggest impact and in what measure? Was the diet? Was it the workout? Was it these couple of weeks that I spent outdoors doing hikes? You know, what was it? And it’s the sum of all those things, and it’s really hard. That’s why people say brands are hard to measure. It’s not because people are dumb and they don’t know how to measure things. It’s because it’s a holistic thing and it’s a long-term thing.
Andra Zaharia: I’ve been nodding vigorously here, because I support so much what you said. You talked about it so beautifully, and so articulately. I think that the same principles apply to everything that’s related to organic growth – you know, to building something that people kind of viscerally feel, and they resonate with. It’s the same with content marketing, like, hey, you put in a lot of effort into educating people, into helping them, into building the community – and with so many other things – but you can’t directly tie that or transfer that into monetary value, simply because it’s so much more than that. And that’s why we see brands like Apple who have such incredible, super, hyper-focused, ‘very into it’ community; you cannot buy that type of thing. But you can build it gradually in time with investment, and patience, and care, and thoughtfulness, just like you talked about. And I loved how you talked about managing expectations. Managing expectations is so, so important and I truly believe that to pull off any kind of big thing, something that’s tied to identity, to what people truly want, you absolutely have to have that management buy-in. And to have them do the follow-through because, like you said, a rebrand is not just a point in time, it is a process. And it’s a process that’s basically happening all the time, it’s just that sometimes it translates into a visual transformation or a transformation that you can see, that you can, well, touch sometimes, depending on the swag that you get or the type of products you interact with. So I love how you talk about it – how passionately but also pragmatically, because there’s balancing emotion and logic, like you mentioned in your article about Typeform’s redesign. To me, that is an art form. And it’s always, isn’t it, when you’re kind of dealing with people’s emotions.
Alex Antolino: I think it has an artistic component, if you want, but at the end of the day, it’s very important to have a very clear idea that a brand is a business tool. I like that you mentioned this because I always say that brands are like people, right? I didn’t know how to build a brand in the beginning, I didn’t know how to create a visual identity because I was not a designer. So, maybe a couple of years ago, I studied for my master’s in graphic design, because I was running designers and I had no design background. But when I did the rebrand, I was not a designer, right? And so, I think what’s important to understand is that brands are business tools, right? And if they don’t serve the business, they are not good tools and they need to be looked at. And I think yes, there’s like an artistic side of it, if you want, because at the end of the day, it’s expression, in a way. And so, in that sense, yes, I understand what you say, but it’s very important to understand and make it very clear that that expression needs to serve a business goal. Because I’ve seen visual identities that are very interesting and very nice, but at the end of the day, they don’t work. They don’t work and they need to be changed.
Andra Zaharia: Yes! And especially online it’s such a different thing. It’s such a different medium to kind of inspire emotion, to get people to connect to something, to get people to do something. It’s so much more challenging to do it online. And to do it for a product – you know, for a software-as-a-service product, that is basically a data-capturing machine – that’s what it is. But the way that you do that makes all the difference. And I’ve always found this to kind of be the differentiator that made Typeform stand out. And I think that the rebrand really played on the strengths very much, as compared to all the other similar tools in the market. And that’s why I was kind of drawn to it myself.
Alex Antolino: I think the reason why this happened and why you perceive it this way, is because there was actually a lot of trust in the process, right? For whatever reason, I initiated that process, and I got a lot of trust, and basically, everyone was behind the full process. And this is really hard to find in different companies. Typeform is a design-driven company. Their founders were designers. And that’s a big difference. Yes, a couple of people asked me “Okay, but how much money we spent on the rebrand, and where are the results?” In general, people from marketing. But the founders, who were behind the whole thing, never asked this. And it’s not because they were not interested – I would say they understood better that it’s something that you just need to go and keep doing and keep evolving. You know, it’s like, if you fuck it up, and your logo doesn’t really work, you can change it. Luckily enough, we don’t live in the era of TV advertisements and billboards. For tech companies, we can literally just push a button and change our logo in every single tunnel, right? This was not possible 20 years ago. And I think that that’s a big difference in how we build brands because brands are alive and brands need to react like people. That’s why I say that brands are like people because brands need to be context-aware, they need to evolve, and it’s normal. It’s part of the process. And this is something I learned with Typeform. Actually, Typeform, when we introduced the logo, it had a circle and now we’re getting rid of the circle because it’s not functional. And it’s okay, like, it’s part of the process.
Alex Antolino: And I really like that you mentioned before – I wanted to make a note on that – you mentioned Apple. So, the key for companies and small startups who are watching this, if you need to do a rebrand or something like that, just make sure that you give the space and the trust to believe in the process, hire a good partner, or hire good employees that are going to take charge of this, and work on this. And just trust them and leave them space. And don’t ask them for results very soon. That’s my point of view as a creative director. Of course, you might be a founder and you might have other points of view and that’s super fair. But just think about something: I watched the Apple keynote the other day on my sofa for like an hour. I don’t know if you’ve watched it but they introduced… So I want to talk about the first chapter where they introduced this HomePod mini version. So the keynote starts and then Tim Cook – I think that’s his name – shows up and then he starts talking about the new products, and then he introduces the HomePod or whatever it’s called. This kind of like Alexa thing by Apple, right? And then, all of a sudden, we go into this amazing studio and we see literally a house they built inside that studio and the camera starts moving around all those rooms. Now, I know it’s Apple and they have loads of money, but these are the kind of things that in the normal companies are hard to pitch. Because you always have some… Like, imagine the pitching room where someone says, “Yes, so, we’ll build a home – an entire home – six rooms, two floors, a garage, and we’re going to put a car there. And now we’re going to move the camera around just to explain the features of this thing that we’re launching.” It’s hard to imagine someone being like, “Yes, here’s the money.” They’re gonna be like, “Yeah, but can we do post-production? Can we do all these kind of things?” These are the kind of things that build your brand. Apple wouldn’t be Apple if they would not do these kinds of things. And of course, they could have told the story in a different way, but they did it like this, and they decided to do it for very clear reasons, in my opinion. And if you ask, “Okay, but what’s the ROI of building this entire set with two floors, versus like, I don’t know, maybe do it in a different way?” It’s hard. You know, what’s the impact of that studio? It’s hard. It’s probably thousands and thousands of dollars to build that. But, how do we measure? It’s hard. But they did it for a reason, right? And I think these are the kinds of things that you just need to trust the process and your strategy and go with it. Some things you’re gonna measure, some other things you’re not going to be able to measure, and that’s fine. But that’s my point of view.
Andra Zaharia: And your point of view is super valuable because I think that this plays so much into building on your strengths. If you want to differentiate, you really have to follow through on what you believe in. And if you believe in creating human connection and empowering that, if you believe in creating beautiful solutions that please not only our need for actual problem solving, but our need for aesthetic things, for things that are beautiful, or things that make us feel good, then you’re gonna put a price on that. And I love how you talk about, you know, not being able to capture the full ROI, because I think that, in many ways, branding is very similar to company culture. And, of course, they kind of combine and they combine to create the brand, especially because if you want to have a strong company, you need to have an internal culture that’s just as strong because otherwise, you’re not going to be able to hire the best people, have the best processes, stimulate creativity, and all of those things. And branding is exactly the same. It’s that identity, that core identity that people resonate with, because we’re so emotional – and I bet that you know that better than I do. As human beings, we’re emotional, we make emotion-driven decisions, and we think of ourselves as hyper-rational and things like that. But we both know that the truth is kind of at the opposite of that. So, giving this creative space and believing in what you’re trying to achieve, because at the end of the day is like, “Hey, what are we trying to achieve here? And how are we going to do this?” And if everyone’s on board, that makes everything easier. That’s how you were able to actually implement that rebrand in three months – which is insane for a software as a service! There are so many things you have to update. That’s just an enormous amount of work!
Alex Antolino: Yeah. And it was two months.
Andra Zaharia: Wow, yeah!
Alex Antolino: It was great. It was not easy.
Andra Zaharia: So how did you pull it off? You know, you mentioned that, obviously, you need to have buy-in from C-level management, from the company leaders. But who else has a stake in this? Kind of, who else do you need to count on to pull this off?
Alex Antolino: Yes, I think, again, it depends on the size of your company. For us, at Typeform, we were at like 100 people at that time or 150 people. The co-founders and CEOs would report to investors, so I didn’t ever have to talk about this with investors. I just had to get everyone on board with the idea of a rebrand – mostly like our CEOs, and then just get input and feedback from the leadership team, and see the key objections that were popping up from employees in general, just to make sure that I was not losing any point of view or anything like that. But that’s it, honestly. Like, the people who make the calls, and every single employee need to be on board with it. And just like, you know, at the end of the day, it’s funny because it’s what you want the brand to do with your customers, which is, generate trust. That’s why we build brands, right? To generate trust. That’s, in my opinion, the only goal of a brand. So, you need to embark on that process yourself if you’re leading a rebrand within the company. So it’s funny, it’s kind of like an inception of life. I need to create a brand but then I need to convince these people so I can convince other people.
Alex Antolino: So, I don’t know, for me, it’s beautiful. It’s kind of like bringing everyone in the same direction and listening to everyone and having great conversations. And it’s part of the game, I guess, to incorporate those things. The users – it’s important to understand them for a rebrand. But I would not let users dictate how my brand is going to be. At least today. Maybe we have another conversation in a year and I’ll tell you the opposite. But at least today, what I know now is that I want to know my customers very well, understand their needs and their desires and their passions and their problems. But then, I will decide how the brand needs to feel and needs to behave to help them. Because they don’t really know what they would need. I mean, in terms of our brand, because they don’t know what a brand is, necessarily. Someone buying these doesn’t understand what the brand is, necessarily. So, careful also with some people being super, super user-driven in the sense that we’re gonna do what the users want. Even I got once someone asking me, “Can a brand be tested? Can we do two visual identities and do an A/B test?” And I’m like, “Would you actually go to a job interview and A/B test how you need to dress?” You know what I mean? You just need to decide. And then if that didn’t work, then, okay, optimize it. But, at some point, you need to make some decisions here.
Andra Zaharia: Yes! And own them and go with them. And I think that that’s where kind of that exact kind of decision making and your creative direction and following, you know, part of your gut, as well, because intuition is actually our experience that informs our decision making. And I feel like it’s very important to talk about this. It’s very important to talk about the thing that there is no perfect roadmap for a rebrand. I feel there are no recipes, there are no exact checklists. And I love that you emphasized that it’s different for everyone. And I think that trusting the process is about just that: you need to figure your way around what this entire thing means and what it means for the company and your peers and your place in the industry or in the world. And those are some very difficult questions, and you’re not always going to find perfect answers to them, are you?
Alex Antolino: Yeah. I want to make a note on this: I do think there’s a clear process. It’s just the outcome and the way you tackle that process is different, depending on the business, right? But there is a process that you can follow and it’s not like some thing that you need to figure out from scratch every time – otherwise, I would be out of business as a creative director, if I don’t know what I’m doing and if there’s no process, and I have to make up the process. I always say that you would go to hire a design company to do something – this happened to me – they would be like, “What’s the process?” And they would be like, “Oh, there’s no process. You draw the pan, we’re gonna see over time.” I’m not hiring you. If you don’t know what’s the process to create something, either you’re not telling me because you don’t want to put your secrets out, or you don’t have a process. And if you don’t have a process, I don’t want to work with you. So, don’t get me wrong, I’m very process-oriented and there is a process that I follow and that people follow. So, first, you do the strategy – there are some things you can do to figure out your strategy. So I just don’t want to freak out people listening here that, “Oh, my God, we’re gonna have to figure out on the way.” No. I figured it out looking at the Internet, you know what I mean? And then we were collaborating with a big agency and learning from them and they sold me a very clear process with stages and milestones, and all these kind of things. So there is a process. What I meant is that it’s different for every company in the sense of how you apply it and who has more… So, for a three-people company, you don’t need to do all these processes of alignment on every stage because it’s only three people. It’s not really hard to get three people aligned, you know what I mean? In that sense, it differs from company to company and the size of the companies and the nature of those companies. But the process, it’s one – at least the one that I use is very clear and can be followed.
Andra Zaharia: And what do you think is one of the key stages of that process? If you were to kind of look at it and break it down into its main components, what do you feel is the one where things change or where things start to come together and really make sense?
Alex Antolino: The first one: understanding, listening is the most important thing. Like, in every relationship in life, when you don’t listen to other people, you start losing those people. And I think that’s the key underestimated stage of every… Not rebrand, but even like the creation of a brand. Understanding the market, your product, your company, your employees, and your customers. All of these four elements you need to understand to then start making some decisions and start putting a strategy in place. And this stage sometimes is not done properly, sometimes is overlooked. I wouldn’t say we nailed it with Typeform. We got closer than we were because we weren’t very far. But I would say that’s a critical step. And actually, it is reflected in how we did the rebrand at Typeform. Of those 10 months that I said that we spent doing the rebrand, I would say, six or seven months were only for content. So, it was a process that on paper was gonna last six months – by month number six we only had the brand proposition, the values, and the manifesto, and all those things. The design – the first iterations and visualizations of the brand took like a month and a half. We gave them feedback, they came back after two weeks, and we said okay. So the execution of the visual identity, if you have a very clear idea, it’s simple. What’s really hard is understanding your customer well, because this also takes time. Even if you do all the steps right, you need time to digest and form your ideas and let them breathe. It’s like every creative process, it needs time. It’s like, if there’s a filmmaker on the audience, if you’re making… I mean, you do content, right? So there are some videos that you just need to let them sit for a night or for a couple of nights and then you find something special. For branding is the same. Like, you need to let those things sit over a little bit of time. So, it’s impossible to make a brand in a week or two weeks. You just need some time. Otherwise, you’re gonna roll it out, which you can do, and then realize, “Oh, shit” and now you need to change it.
Andra Zaharia: That is so, so true! I love how you have this incredible creative kind of exuberant not just personality, but just the way you conduct yourself and the way you think. But it’s also balanced by this fierce discipline that I feel it’s coming from you. And I think that one can’t live without the other. We’re, I think, trained to believe that creativity only happens in a space where there are no rules. But actually, you know, working with limitations is what I think makes us a lot more creative. And we can see that a lot in the startup world, we can see that in the tech world. And, you know, it’s essential that you talked about gaining clarity, because that’s where things have to connect, that’s where we have those aha moments, those small epiphanies or whatever everyone calls them, and we need to let our brain breathe. That’s why you tell other people to get a good night’s sleep and sleep on it and sleep on an important decision simply because you need that. Our brain, as humans, needs that time to just sift through everything and sit with that tension and figure its own way out of whatever situation it is. So, I’m very curious, you’ve obviously evolved a lot as a creative leader, as a leader within the company, as a culture creator – both inside the company and outside of it through your entire work. How did this kind of branding and then the Typeform rebrand, and then the branding for VideoAsk – how did they change you? How did they change your perspective? You’ve kind of given us some little nuggets, but what’s kind of the main thing that you feel changed for you throughout these experiences?
Alex Antolino: I’ve changed a lot from when I joined Typeform – in these five years. I’m a totally different person when it comes to how I relate to others at work, how I approach projects. When I was in the film industry, when I had my studio, it was a very small studio, like three or four people, and then, for every project or shooting, we would work with contractors. So when you’re used to working with contractors, the only thing that really matters is the output. Especially in the film industry, or especially in the advertisement industry, if you’re on the filmmaking part of it, it’s very output driven because you only have 24 hours or 48 hours to make this very expensive piece of content. I’m talking about the original advertisement on video. And it’s so output-driven that it’s super harsh. You know, a shooting is crazy. And people, I would say based on my experience, they support each other, but also they’re thinking – and I was thinking that too – it’s fine, I can take anything because it’s only for 48 hours. Or the pre-production is only for these crazy two weeks, then I’m gonna take one or two-week vacation, right? And this is what a lot of people believe when they shoot commercials for TV, for example.
Alex Antolino: When I joined Typeform, and comparing it to how I feel and how I work today or in the recent years, I think there’s two main things that have changed for me. One is on the things that I create and the other one is on the way I create those things with people. So, in terms of how I create those things with people, before, I used to think and behave like I was executing stuff with my team, through other people. So, this is what we need to do and I will execute it through you because you have the skills that I don’t have, and we will do what I think has to be done. That’s when I started Typeform, because that’s how you behave when you’re in a small studio, shooting stuff. You hire someone, a contractor for a couple of days to do what do you want to do, and then they go, you pay them, and move on, you work with someone else. And I brought that mindset at the beginning. And it was very challenging because you can do this if it’s like a two-day commercial. But if you’re going to work with some people for two years, it’s a no-go. And that was my biggest learning in terms of management and relationships. Now, I think my job is kind of like, set the vision and empower others to get there on their own terms and help them and motivate them to get the most out of them and feel happy and feel excited when they do those things.
Alex Antolino: So, it’s a change in how I approached the output of my work. Before, I was super perfectionist and I wanted everything to be exactly as I wanted. It was like, this needs to be this way. And I had a very clear idea. Because I was directing commercials, I had storyboards, I had mood boards – it had to be as it was, right? Now, I really don’t care about the output. I care more about the content, and about the relationships built on that process. And that may sound a bit fluffy, but it’s not. When I put content on Instagram for VideoAsk, for example, I care more about the contents and their reactions and their feedback and learning from them, so we can actually deliver better features, so I can deliver better content. So, for me, the content is just an excuse to learn to create better content. Where before, I would just put it out and just, “Hey, we’re happy it’s done. Let’s celebrate!” Not even look at data. So, that’s been my biggest change: one in terms of relationships with other people, and the other in terms of the output. I think today, it’s all about relationships, it’s all about being personal and understanding your customers and your content, your ads. Even your product is just a way to make those relationships better.
Andra Zaharia: Oh, wow! You captured that so beautifully. And I think that, you know, that’s kind of the challenge and the beauty of working in software as a service. It always keeps you there, it keeps you learning, it keeps you present, you have to be aware of everything all the time. And that’s what makes you better because you’re not just doing things with a limited cycle that only has these stages that you go through, but it’s constantly evolving. It’s evolving to match people’s changing behaviors. And to me, that’s why I find it’s so difficult to work in this space. It’s so challenging, but it’s also so incredibly rewarding, not just because there’s insane growth and all the hype top just trends of things. It’s because there is so much value in doing the work and keeping this process alive and following it and teaching others to grow through it as well. And then, giving them that decision-making power to actually run with it and make the work their own because that’s what it is, at the end of the day. You’ve given us so much, Alex! I’m so thankful for this conversation. I feel like you’ve elevated the entire rebrand discussion to reach new heights and you’ve set standards and you continue to do so with your work and I can’t wait to see what you do next. But before we wrap up, I just have one last ask: if you were to give one piece of advice to someone who’s going into a rebranding process, eager to do their best work and to put their best foot forward, what is something that could help guide them along the way in their decision? Something they can use, kind of as their North Star, I guess.
Alex Antolino: Okay, so before, you used to create a brand to attract customers to sell more products. Today, you need to attract customers so that they build a brand for you and attract more customers. So, it’s different. It’s reversed. And this is my biggest learning. I did Typeform the old way – we listened a little bit to our customers, but we basically created a brand to take them where we wanted to go. I’m trying a different approach with VideoAsk – we are co-creating our brand. And, as I said before, the pictures and the imaginary thing is just an example, a very clear visualization of this. But literally, everything, the words they used, we used them on our communications, everything. So if you are going to do a rebrand, and you’re going to start now and you don’t know where to start, whatever, there’s a clear process you need to follow. The process is clear, but to me, what’s more important is that the mindset has to be ‘I’m gonna build it with them and for them’. It has nothing to do with you. Yes, of course, you need to understand your business. But putting the customers at the center is what’s going to actually make it even relevant for them and bring them along the journey. Maybe I would even consider if I had to do it now, to say, “Hey, we’re going to rebrand. What do you think about it?” You know, like, why not? You know, this idea of the big reveal is very interesting for a Mad Men episode, but it’s over. It’s not how the world works today, in my opinion.
Andra Zaharia: So true! I think that your opinion is very much reflective of the actual reality. And it shows that you’re very plugged into, you know, what’s going on around you and in your customers’ lives. And thank you for taking me along this incredible adventure of what it means to kind of dive into all of this complexity and beauty around us. So thanks for sharing this with us. I’m really looking forward to what everyone’s going to do with what they learned from you. So, thank you so much, Alex!
Alex Antolino: Thank you for having me! I feel like I could talk about brands forever because I feel like brands are like people and it’s human behavior, in the end, that we’re talking about. So I feel like I could be talking about this for hours, but maybe we’ll leave it for another session. But thanks for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation and thanks for letting me share those ideas.
Andra Zaharia: Our pleasure, Alex, thank you!
Connect With Alex:
Resources Mentioned in the Episode:
- Article: Alex Antolino – Rebranding Typeform: finding the real us
- DesignStudio: Branding and Digital Creative Agency
- Airbnb rebrand
- Mad Men TV series
- Apple Homepod Mini Introduction – Apple Event – October 13
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