Zapier Rebrand: Branding Symbolism & The Ukraine War

I’m joined by Zapier’s Creative Director turned brand strategist, Mr. Michael Jeter.

Now for those of you who don’t know Zapier.  Its a software company that connects two different softwares so you, so it could say that they’re a bit of a software connector, and recently they went through a rebrand.

Now, this wasn’t just any rebrand and on the eve of their launch, Russia invaded Ukraine and unless some drastic decisions were made, they risked being caught up and associated with Russian oppression through symbolism.

So in this article, I speak to Michael about the rebranding story, and he gives us an inside look at what decision-making was like under political and time-sensitive pressures about the brand that they had just built.

And what I really love about this article is that they used the brand strategy that they had just developed to throw out the brand identity they had just designed.

So if you want to get an inside scoop as to what it’s like making big decisions for big brands in big moments, then don’t miss this article.

Zapier Rebrand: Associations, Symbolism & The Ukraine War

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Michael Jeter Journey (Zapier Rebrand)

Stephen Houraghan

Now, Michael, I’m sure most of our viewers know who Zapier is.

You’ve got a vital role over there and that role came into more significant importance in recent times, why don’t give us a little bit of an overview of your journey to where you are now and your current role with Zapier?

Michael Jeter

I think early on in my career, I moved to San Francisco to go to grad school before the tech boom, before any of that was kind of a thing, to become a designer. 

Started a design studio that was solely focused on social issues. My whole thesis in grad school was around like, can we actually make money in a studio, in a business that’s around good?

So all my clients were nonprofits or cities that did a lot of disaster preparedness, kind of like campaigns and stuff for the city of San Francisco or the City of New York or worked on social issues around identity or homelessness, stuff like that. 

Fast forward through that studio last about 8-9 years and did a small stint with a fellow named Beto De Thurston, who had just recently left the Onion, if you’re aware of that, this satirical kind of newspaper.

We started a kinda comedy design studio for a year to try that out and that was super fun and interesting.  Then he got a job to run the Daily Show that the marketing side, the Daily Show when Trevor Noah took on and so that studio kinda dissolved because of his amazing opportunities.

I was looking at life at the time, all of my clients become the big tech companies, Google, Facebook, Pinterest, on and on and on, because that’s where the work was in San Francisco. 

I kind of was getting frustrated because they would come with pretty thin briefs they just need a quick kind of thing to be done.

While it was fun to do that work, you kind of had it off at the end of the day. You just felt like you were not really making a big impact or big change for different things. 

So I started getting curious, as design started growing as a, in quality in-house, like right back in the day, like being an in-house designer was like a bad thing, right?

I remember, it was like where the creative went to die and people were very sad. The only happy moments is when they went to like a conference each year and that kinda changed in tech as these companies started realizing that designing product designs was really important to the business.

Started asking around and being wondering what was kind of available and interesting and who was doing kind of cool stuff in a way that I could kind of help and Dropbox was looking for someone to run their illustration team and help with their rebrands now infamous rebrand.

So I joined Dropbox was there for four and a half years over the time was creative director, running advertising, kinda anything I say anything with a story in a pixel. 

I was kind of running and with some great counterparts. Jessica Fenson was the design director. Aaron Robs was the creative director for a while. He’s over at RAMP now.

An incredible human and creative and many, many other folks there that I kind of call that my, like PhD and design and I think relevant to this podcast and the thing that really changed the trajectory of my career and I think is important to the Zapier story.

I was introduced to brand strategy at Dropbox.

First with our first brand strategy is Patrick Ra, and then over time Anna Sternoff, who’s the head of strategy there, who was the head of strategy at Collins and actually worked on the rebrand with the Dropbox and then came over and then another guy named Etti and Ma, who was a strategist Goodbee for a long time and came over and I just fell in love with working with them.

Just really like how to dial in the ideas, how to like bridge kind of business problems with creative potential became something that I was really obsessed with it. 

So I just probably clinged onto them way too tight and learned everything from strategy that I could.

As we were building that brand for better and for worse, for all of its twists and turns, like really understanding how they thought about things and simplifying things down to its core was my obsession. 

So I realized that I made a total mistake as a career and I should have been a strategist, but I didn’t know that existed until now. 

How Does Design And Strategy Interlink?

Stephen Houraghan

Your story it’s super familiar to me, probably not in terms of the experience that you have had within your creative experience in your creative career, but certainly creative to strategy pathway.

It’s the same for a lot of our listeners.

A lot of them are pure breed designers and it’s a case of that question comes up and then it comes up again, and then it comes up again and again, and one question leads to another question, and all of a sudden, you’ve got all of these questions that bring you back to why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you can do it better.

All those questions, essentially the strategy. 

So it’s great to hear that, that you’ve gone on that journey and you’ve kind of experienced that through these big brands and obviously the benefit of being able to work with such great strategists as dipping your toe in the water.

What a great education to go through there. No wonder you fell in love with it.

As a pure breed designer yourself, how do you see, the linking of the two and what was it about that link that kind of opened up your appetite? The strategy? 

Michael Jeter

Yeah, I think coming up as a designer, there was kind of two big schools starting up and it was kind of like the IDO school of thought, the like sticky note, like deep, kind of like living strategy design thinking was a brand new term and you kinda had like the pentagram, right? 

That was kinda like, there was a lot more going on, but those were kinda the big moments in design.

Thinking strategically was important, right?

Like we were smart designers, were smart people solving, really hard problems but I think maybe it’s just cause I was young o maybe it wasn’t quite there yet for a lot of companies.

But as you started a brief you always started with a pretty solid strategy, right? That the brief was clear. 

But I always kind of call it, it’s like breaking bad, like you keep making a series of decisions that lead to other decisions, and then all of a sudden, six months or three months or whatever the deadline is, you have something that’s very different that you wanted to do or should have done or solved the right problem because a series of pieces of feedback or other people would come in and so you all of a sudden you’re Walter White.

You got a Frankenstein project and that happens a lot or happened.

So I think that’s really what it is for me, is kind of like making that foundation really strong so that when you build the house, it’s not over like in the woods somewhere where you’re just like, Oh, there’s a shack over here that you’re actually building the house that solves a problem.

A weird thing about me as a designer is that I was actually pre-med in college.

I was kinda on a science track both my parents, my dad’s a chemist, and my mom is a veterinarian.

So I grew up with the scientific process kind of being everything like it was just grilled into me and I love it, right? 

It’s just so pure around how to get to truth and so I think that tha kind of connectivity between strategy and, what I love the scientific process kind of connected, right?

I think that’s exactly we’re talking about the sand is always just testing, right? Is this going to stand, Is this on solid foundation?

I found internally at companies there’s this study, I forget who did it, that I always like to talk about, but I probably say it too many times, but there was a study did in a waiting room, and they had an actor and a real person going to the doctor there, and they would do a ding, right?

And when they dinged, the actor would stand up and then the other person not saying anything, the other person would stand up to because they thought that they were supposed to, right? 

And they would ding, sit down, ding, on and on and on and long story short, 15 people in there, none of them are actors anymore they keep dinging.

All 15 people never told to stand up. They stand up every time they ding because they just kind of do what they were told or not even told. 

Just what they think socially is correct. 

Companies are like that a lot of times where like information transfers around it may not be true and so you have these weird kind of pieces of knowledge that are completely false or built off of kind of false understandings.

That’s the other part I learned about strategy. 

It really helped to be like, now what is true and why and if it’s complex, it’s usually not true, right? 

If you can find the simple answer I found a lot of times that’s where the truth was found, and it’s really hard to get to a simple answer.

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Dropbox Rebrand Learning

Stephen Houraghan

Absolutely and like you could, you’ve touched on a few things there that really speak to me. 

But one thing that I drill home time and again, is that

Branding at the end of the day is, is about simplicity

And those who are able to define a strategy well for their client are able to take complex ideas and situations and make them seem so simple.

It took two seconds to get there, but really the journey to that destination is a long journey. It takes a lot of effort to strip back things. 

So it’s so simple that it’s easy to understand, and that’s where I believe.

Our role as strategists, is to really peel back those layers as much as we possibly can so that whoever is on the receiving end of the message goes well.

I get it, it’s simple.

The more complex the method is, the harder to understand it is the less you’ve stripped back those layers.

It absolutely speaks to me and what you said about the scientific process as well.

There’s so much that we can take from science and psychology in branding, because at the end of the day, we’re connecting a business with a person and,

if you understand people, then you’re gonna be well-armed to do that job. 

I want to get to the Zapier story but before we get there, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you learned through the Dropbox rebrand and a 10,000-foot view of that story.

Michael Jeter

I think the first rebrand the kind of infamous one that blew up, the just design Twitter in a lot of ways the mini colors, the kind of wild and crazy kind of way, was really interesting because the strategy was really solid and tight.

That’s kind of where I learned that connectivity, right?

Our ability to do this kind really bold and really interesting and really kind of expressive brand, which no one ever sees in tech really was really built on solid strategy.

Again, Anna Sternoff running that stuff when she was at Collins and, and Patrick Row on internally, we, from a research perspective, really understood the core user or the superuser of Dropbox was a creative and markers.

They used the most files, the biggest files, they connected with folks, They shared files with people who weren’t Dropbox users. 

The reason Dropbox was successful was because of that audience.

We were able to kind of really connect that strategy to the work and make something that showed our audience that we saw them.

That kind of built something around creativity and for creatives that was really interesting. That was also strategically built to invite others to feel like they were part of a creative process.

When you’re creating files, when you’re making something, you’re either writing something or doing something, whatever it is content, right? 

That you’re kind of storing to some degree, and so you’re making something, so that connection was really wonderful. 

I think what I learned in the rebrand though that kind of connects is that companies and the people instead of companies change a lot. 

We have the classic like CMO last maybe two years on average and a new CMO has a completely new idea, the new leadership has new ideas of where their business can go.

One of the things that didn’t work for me, at least as I was kind of building work over time with the brand was that change as a different kind of needs changed.

We pulled away from the creative audience a little bit because we had different business kind of growth objectives and the brand wasn’t able to really mold into all those places.

It became kind of watered down because it wasn’t set up for success to be kind of modular in that way. It didn’t have that solid foundation. It had a solid foundation. It just, the foundation kept moving. 

I think that’s a really important part that we’re learning about tech companies that I think classic strategy didn’t quite have a lot of companies set their foundation and go, tech companies have to, technology is always changing.

Things are always changing like this AI stuff that’s coming out tomorrow, we’re gonna be making entire movies in like that’s insane. We couldn’t have guessed that even two months ago. 

So it just is always kinda changing and so when I came to Zapier, you’re realizing that again, it’s at the, for, it’s gonna change the way we build companies and the way we use the internet.

Like this no code thing is, my 12-year-old son can build Twitter on now, right? Like that’s insane.

That’s just changing and changing and changing every day. 

I think that’s the kind of connect through-line connective tissue there is like how do you build a brand and a strategy and a visual identity system that knows that change is inevitable?

That can still have that simple consistency, that is understandable, ownable, identifiable.

We went through, a refresh at Dropbox that kind of simplified the visitors in a lot of ways.

It just put the Dropbox logo inside of a blue box in the center of everything because the strategy was really around like no matter what the company is, what you do with files,

Dropbox is at the core of like how you kind of manage and share those, those folders and files.

With that new kind of identity, It can shift and move to kind of whatever Dropbox needs to be, whatever products it builds on and on and that was a big change for me and how I thought about brand identity to make it something that’s living and breathing a lot more than the kind of like really putting a line in the sand if that makes sense.

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Zapier Rebrand Story

Stephen Houraghan

It’s super interesting because you touched on a couple of things there that a lot of brands and strategists are going to have to deal with more and more, and that’s shifting sands. 

I believe at the core when you identify a market that you want to go after and specifically a target market segment, you’re anchored into that segment, it gives you that solid foundation to allow, the sense to shift because you’re focused on exactly who the audience is.

The more segments that are attracted to your brand, the more you’re then going to have to adjust to accommodate those segments. 

Certainly, the changing of the tides so rapidly these days is something that strategists are just going to have to deal with and to keep their finger on the pulse a lot more.

It’’s not just a set-and-forget-for-10-years kind of thing,

You need to kind of keep on top of what’s happening within your market and what your target market segments want to make those decisions.

In terms of the Zapier story, because obviously the Dropbox project was kind of an organic one that you came to Zapier was reactive because of the market conditions.

For those who don’t know the story, can you give us just an overview of the series of events that led to the Zapier rebrand so that we can understand the context? 

Michael Jeter

I was chatting with, with the Zapier leaders and It was clear that they, and this is a classic kind of tech story, right?

Like you build a product, there’s great product-market fit, and a lot of times founders just think that brand is kind of voodoo, right? Or marketing is voodoo.

They just think that, hey look, the product I’m doing, we’re already doing well, Like people found the product that are using it and we have a lot of success.

Like every other company that creates something new that doesn’t exist before Dropbox. Similarly, all of a sudden a bunch of other companies kind of crop up and start doing the same thing, right? 

You start to wonder, well, what’s, what’s happening in our business?

Why, is our growth flowing? and founders generally start kind of understanding like that’s what brand is, right? 

Brand is really about how folks can understand who we are, why we exist, what we’re for and feel connected to us. 

The company had made that a number-one priority for the year had the budget, had the backing, and all that kinda stuff. That’s when I decided to join the company. It was like, Okay, you guys are in right way. 

There was no, there’s never been a creative director before, there wasn’t a brand studio. There were two brand designers that were, that were just trying to triage all of the thousands of requests, of one-offs to come in, and whatnot.

So the company really just didn’t have a brand muscle at all and they had just hired a VP of design. 

So all of this was coming together to one magical moment of the company, realizing the power of design, and brands and having the right people to kind of back it and push it, which is really and so in that kind of the main pushes for the rebrand was that that. Zapier’s really hard to explain.

it’s a really tricky product, right? it’s a platform. it’s a playground where you can do kind of whatever, right?

It connects a bunch of stuff. So at that point, it’s a Lego box where you can think a house or a car or whatever, right?

It’s really hard to describe Legos to people when it’s a work tool as well. Like, well, you can make something cool and so the company was talking about it in 5,000 different ways.

Everyone had a different metaphor and a story and a connection and also like from a business perspective.

The way people had found Zapier was kind of this single problem.

They had like, shit like, slacking, my Google calendar isn’t working together and it’s frustrating me and you start Googling.

You’re like, How can I possibly do this?

And Zapier’s really good, they have this entire system where they spin up landing pages for all of those possible connections.

For every partner that we have, that we have an API, they, there’s just like this, this backend that kind of makes a webpage that shows you how you can connect those.

So when you Googled it, You actually find it and you’re like, Oh, cool, there it’s brilliant.

Early days like finding that product market fit again was all about that, but long term.

The power of Zapier is much, much bigger and it’s, and it’s ability to change the way we work and the way our product is and the way we kind of connects to our customers is so much bigger than just these, like what they called the duct tape of the internet for a long time, 

They got to a moment where the future of Zapier is pretty big, but no one can kind of see it from ours.

But the cool thing for me was when I was kind of doing research, going on Twitter, looking at people, the, the audience, the users, they knew that they were talking about that online already.

They’re like, Oh, I did this and I connected this, and I can pull together, like you said, your stack, right. Your work stack. Like that’s a, that’s not a term that Zapier ever has used but the entire internet is, that’s how they talk about it, right? 

Questions To Guide Decisions And Strategy

Stephen Houraghan

Now, I know that you have a hard stop, in a little while, but I wanna squeeze in a question before I let you go there.

I believe it would be super valuable to our listeners, and that would be really around the questions that were asked internally to guide your decisions and to make that change. 

What were those questions that came up that made you think there’s, this is the right decision because there’s no way that we can follow through on that? 

What were those questions that gave you that clarity?

Michael Jeter

Like let’s just take this down, to the design process. With any process where you have a problem to solve you start to do research.

We’re so close to it. 

The kneejerk reaction to when we first start seeing the Z being used is like, ah, that’s really difference.

It’s a very different z No one’s gonna connect that Z with our z. It’s fine and we were like, we’re, we’re good.

What’s funny is the same conversation happened over and over and over again. I talked to reach out to a lot of friends of mine who, who are leaders in the industry.

This woman DD Gordon, who’s kind of the brand strategist to end all brand strategist. She’s literally the inspiration for the book, The tipping point. 

She has done a lot of brand strategy for the company and we reached out to her and I was like, what do we do?

She’s like let me get back to you. So she reached out to folks and as she was looking and talking to folks, I reached out to a friend of mine, Alejandro Veta, who’s a creative director  at Adobe and, just on and on and on, I reached out to Anna Sternoff again, back at Dropbox.

Just help me understand what’s going on and the conversation was the same every. 

Started out like that’s probably fine. Then you start asking these questions, Well we have this, this big z we were putting people, customer’s, and portraits inside the Big Z, right? This big kind of electric moment where we’re gonna show them, um, how are customers gonna feel about that?

Do we have to get permission for them to put this big thing in the Z? What if the Z ticks off in a weird way and all of a sudden, Connected a customer with this symbol for Russian oppression or Putin oppression? So it was these kind of things.

It was like any good brand it always came.

back down to the customer and the kind of connectivity to that on one side, but then also the, the, the workers, right?

Cause if a brand doesn’t succeed if it’s not. It doesn’t feel owned, like I was call it an organ rejection

If a company doesn’t feel like it represents who they are. and so it was kind of both sides of those questions, right? And so each person asked like, Okay, well that and they’re like, Yeah, that’s probably weird.

That’s probably not a good thing. Then you had the swag thing with like wearing the big Z on the other side, so it kept on bouncing back and forth of like meaning for folks.

It just got clearly to a point where like everyone was like, You could possibly launch this and it would.

But why at what point?

Like to what end?

Like why are you taking the risk to do this? 

So the kind of risk became so clearly not worth it. It just felt wrong to even just launch it and it be successful to know that we kind of just like half-assed it into an expression of a brand where the world was changing.

Felt like it went against everything we believed as designers, right? Like we believe that design makes a difference. 

Visual culture is a part of the change of culture that symbols matte and so to say all of a sudden that a symbol doesn’t matter, it kind of felt like heresy in a way as a designer, right?

I think all of those kind of core tenets of what it means to show up as a company. Those were the questions we were asking. 

So how we show up, 

What would we do in advertising? 

What will we do in the product? 

What would we do? 

Like if over and over, go over again. You see that Z And I think it felt really clear that like every time you saw that Z.

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Approach In Building A New Brand

Stephen Houraghan

For the most part especially in the design world we play around with images and graphics and for the most part, we don’t attribute the real importance to it.

Of course,  you’re representing a business and there’s an entrepreneur behind the business and their hopes and dreams are wrapped up in that business. 

But it, it rarely goes beyond that, into, this world where you could have these associations attached to your brand that are linked to these atrocities.

Having to ask those bigger questions and as I said it just does go to show the power of associations because that’s what we’re trying to do as brand builders. 

We’re trying to create associations in the mind of the consumer to paint an image and perception of what our brand means.

At the core of that there’s this big Z that is associated to this big thing going on in the world, this big negative thing, as you said it, it’s why take that risk and it seems that now you, you guys have come at the other side and now it must seem like a bit of a no-brainer at this point.

Michael Jeter

I think what you said really resonates. I like to tell folks that on my team that once you understand, or that everyone you’re working with understands that you’re dealing with a really irrational emotional animal called a human,

Branding starts to become quite rational.

So a lot of times you’re trying to express and tell people why brand matters, people don’t quite get it but that’s because we’re trying to affect emotion, like you said, and that connectivity.

So you could do all the research in the world, and no one could ever tell you why they have a negative association with the brand because they never really could realize that the Z just made them feel uncomfortable.

That’s a point by which you could understand how someone would interact with this symbol, especially as it could grow. 

I think it’s died down a lot now but it could have grown to be something quite powerful and so I think you’re a hundred percent right. I

t’s just why remind them of something negative whatsoever, especially when the brand itself like, is all about new possibilities.

It’s all about kind of building something that’s never existed before for the good of kind of work and people and the things that they’re doing and your ideas. 

Sometimes you forget a gloss by in the story that like, obviously very small potatoes in this world and so there’s a much bigger thing kind of going on, but it was really from a branding perspective. 

You always kind of pressure-test your brand, right?

You go through this process where you’re building things, you’re researching, you’re seeing, does it work?

It’s rare that you get like that much pressure in your test, right?

Yeah, absolutely. And that you really see where a foundation of strategy kind of exists. 

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