Meet the team: Intercom’s Brand Studio on evolving our brand

As your business grows, it’s only natural your brand grows with it. We chat with some of the creative people behind Intercom’s branding and our recent brand refresh project.

You wouldn’t expect to find a Brand Studio at every tech startup, but then again, we’ve always enjoyed doing things a little bit differently. Behind every feature launch, every blog post, every book, there they are — creative directors, copywriters, designers, illustrators, and animators with the sole mission to make modern communication between businesses and their customers feel a little bit more personal and human.

And lately, they’ve been quite busy with our brand refresh project. If your brand is how your company presents itself to the world, Creative Director Scott Smith recently wrote, as the business takes off, the brand will inevitably need to mature as well. You partner with other teams, onboard new agencies, add more and more freelancers, and suddenly, there’s a new world of variables to consider while making sure your brand and communication stay consistent. But, and perhaps more importantly, you have to figure out a way to evolve your brand, to make it resonate with an enterprise audience without losing whatever quirkiness made you unique in the first place. As I said, they’ve been quite busy.

In this episode of Inside Intercom, we chat with some of the team behind the brand:

We’ll hear more about all the wonderfully delightful work they do, how it’s evolving, and how, even after 10 years, Intercom still thinks the best way to communicate strong ideas is through friendly, personal design.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • When it comes to creative projects, there’s always a risk of overkill. Involving key stakeholders in the process right from the start helps the creative team never lose sight of the needs of the business.
  • Branding is always evolving. Remember to constantly ask yourself if the way you communicate is still a reflection of the foundations of the brand and where you’re going as a company.
  • Remember who your audience is. At Intercom, we use simple, personal, friendly language because we’re humans talking to humans, not businesses talking to businesses.
  • Going upmarket usually involves a rebranding effort to appear more enterprise-ready. However, that shouldn’t mean you have to abandon all of the quirkiness and the brand foundations that make your business unique.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.


A world-class creative hub

Liam Geraghty: Hi, there. I’m Liam Geraghty, and welcome to Inside Intercom. Previously on the show, we’ve taken you on a tour to meet everyone from our product management and marketing teams to our Sydney office down under. Today it’s the turn of our Brand Studio. They help many creative projects at Intercom come to life and support practically every team with design and creative copywriting needs. They’re a fascinating and very creative bunch. Without further ado, let’s head over to meet them in our San Francisco office.

Scott Smith: At Brand Studio at Intercom, we’re made up of designers and copywriters, illustrators, animators, operations folks. We’re just kind of the creative hub for all things Intercom, and, ultimately, we’re responsible for how the brand shows up in its various forms.

“I think that folks outside of the branding process are likely unaware of the amount of leg work and thoughtfulness that goes into something like this”

Liam: Branding is crucial to every business. It can change how people perceive your brand. It can create new business and increase brand value. Here at Intercom, we have an amazing bunch of people who work at our Brand Studio. They look after everything from voice and tone to visual identity and things like typography and illustration.

Scott: We do a lot.

Liam: They really do. That’s Scott Smith.

Scott: I’m the director of Brand Studio here at Intercom.

Liam: So, how do we figure out what our brand is? Scott says through a lot of research.

“A lot of people think this is just ‘creatives gone wild’ and that we get to do whatever we want to do”

Scott: There are various bits of information that help get to the right direction or the right place to land. For one, we work very closely with our exec team. There are key stakeholders throughout the company that we bring into the process from the very beginning, almost interview-style, and getting opinions and thoughts from those key folks. There are a lot of bits of information that go into how we decide on where we land. Ultimately, it’s a lot of leg work. I think that folks outside of the branding process are likely unaware of the amount of leg work and thoughtfulness that goes into something like this. A lot of people think this is just “creatives gone wild” and that we get to do whatever we want to do, that this is our opportunity to make the newest, coolest looking thing. And sometimes, those lanes do merge, the creative does get to do that, but when it’s done exceptionally well, it lines up with, of course, the needs of the business.

Refreshing the brand

Liam: Recently, the Brand Studio has been working on what they call the BRP, the brand refresh project. You can see a lot of the changes and updates on intercom.com, and all of those brand changes are kept in our brand guidelines document. Scott says, “For every company, this is the bible they return to again and again to make sure they’re sticking to the vision and the brand foundations of what it looks like and what it sounds like.”

Scott: The team had done such an amazing job of immortalizing that work within our brand guidelines. We use Figma to document all of the specifics of the brand, whether that’s voice and tone, whether that’s illustration style or color palette – all the ins and outs of the work we’ve done to be able to deliver a consistent brand time and time again.

“It’s a great way to come back and start that conversation, ‘Hey, is this still a reflection of where we’re going as a company?'”

Liam: And that’s not without its challenges, especially for a company like us who are growing fast.

Scott: As we scale as a company, we’re finding that we are working more and more with outside vendors, or outside agencies, for various teams. The work is coming at us from every angle, and we need to find a way to scale our expertise. That comes in the form of scaling the team, but you have to get nimble, and you have to find ways to grow as quickly as possible. In some ways, that just means working very closely with this agency or this team. And in those instances, that brand book is everything. That’s the guide.

That said, it’s a great way to come back and start that conversation, “Hey, is this still a reflection of where we’re going as a company? Is this still a reflection of our brand foundation’s work? Is this representation in our brand attributes, and the visualization, and the voice and tone of the brand still working for us and conveying what we need to convey and helping to get us to where we need to go?” Those were the conversations that were kind of the impetus for the brand refresh project. And they will continue to be, as we have decided to keep BRP as an ongoing project we come back to every six months or so to reevaluate and make sure we’re continually doing the work we need to do to best represent the company, the foundations of the brand, and the brand itself.

Great at sounding human

Liam: One of the big elements of branding is voice and tone. Voice is the personality of a brand, and tone is the way we apply the voice in different situations. Our voice and tone also got an update as part of our brand refresh. Here’s Kira Bundlie, who manages our creative copywriting team.

Kira Bundlie: Our voice attributes are conversational because Intercom, in general, is really all about conversation and relationships. We want to really make sure that comes through in the way we talk to our customers. So we like to say that we write with a smile. We’re not over the top or goofy or funny, but we are friendly, personal, positive. Keeping the idea of writing with a smile in our heads really helps us come across that way, nice and warm.

“We like to think that we’re talking to humans rather than businesses talking to businesses”

Liam: Another thing that’s really important to us is to write in a way that is clear.

Kira: We try and use concise, very simple language to describe what we do and what we offer. It’s part of respecting our customers’ time. Nobody wants to sit and read through a tome. We also like to think that we’re talking to humans rather than businesses talking to businesses. We’re humans talking to humans, and that’s really important to us.

Liam: A few well-chosen words go a long way. Another one of our attributes is confident.

Kira: We do a pretty good job of this already, but it’s something that we really wanted to make sure was in there. Talk like the leaders we are. We’re the future of customer service. We know it. So we really use nice, strong, bold statements that we can back up with facts. It makes us more trustworthy, I think, as people want to be around a company that’s confident in what it does. And then, finally, our voice is delightful.

Liam: My personal favorite.

“It’s all about making something that sounds simple have a lot of meaning. There’s a lot of thought that goes into that one headline”

Kira: This is something we really wanted to include. Intercom is known for having a bit of delight. A clever turn of phrase or something that just makes people think or smile is something that we really like to include. Not go overboard with, but include.

Liam: Copywriting is one of those art forms where if you do a good job, no one realizes the work that’s gone into it, like a special effect in a movie.

Kira: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it takes us so much time just to come up with a smaller headline. The difference between the copywriting side and the content side is that ours tends to be quite a bit shorter. We have a reduced amount of character counts with which to work in. So yes, it’s all about making something that sounds simple have a lot of meaning. There’s a lot of thought that goes into that one headline or that one piece of sub-copy.

Liam: In this industry, there’s a lot of jargon and confusing terminology. We try to steer clear of that.

“If it isn’t something we would actually say out loud to another human, it’s a good indication that we probably need to rethink that copy”

Kira: I think we do a good job, and always have an opportunity to improve at sounding human because B2B businesses, especially, tend to have this need to sound very corporate. That’s just the way it’s done. I don’t know why. I think it is a feeling where it’s a business talking to a business. Where we really stand out, and where we have an opportunity to shine, is by staying human and making a human connection with our customers. I think that’s something Intercom does really well in general and that the brand team does really well and focuses on.

Liam: When the Intercom founders were starting out, they were in a Dublin cafe watching the owner chatting away to his customers, and it’s that personal human voice that permeates our copy.

Kira: It absolutely does. In fact, sometimes we will make a point to read what we’ve written out loud as if we were sitting across, I don’t want to say necessarily a coffee shop table, but just a table from someone, and if it isn’t something we would actually say out loud to another human, it’s a good indication that we probably need to rethink that copy.

Getting the look and feel just right

Liam: Aside from voice and tone, the Brand Studio is also responsible for our visual identity.

Kristin Raymaker: I think a good way to think of our identity is by starting with the squinge.

Liam: That’s Kristin Raymaker, our design manager focused on content and demand generation.

“Not too many tech companies have a smiley face embedded within their logo. And that has really painted the way we’ve visualized the brand over the years”

Kristin: I’m not sure that that’s something that other people call our logo, but within the Brand Studio, we like to call our little mark with the smiley face the squinge. It’s a good way to get to the core of the identity. Not too many tech companies have a smiley face embedded within their logo or their identity. And that has really painted the way we’ve visualized the brand over the years.

There have been several different variations of it, but where we are now is kind of in-between this space of being a small startup and having our eyes set on tremendous growth. That means we have to show up in a slightly different way going forward while still holding those core tenets of making internet business personal. As much as we want to appear credible and the obvious choice for enterprise clients going forward, we also still want to maintain that personal unique identity. And we’ll see how that changes over time. It has certainly changed in the years leading up to this point, and we’re excited to see how it changes from here on out too.

Liam: A company’s brand is always changing and evolving, but as Intercom’s brand design lead, Kyle Benson puts it…

Kyle Benson: It’s like a recipe. Even though all of the ingredients are staying the same, you’re kind of getting together as chefs always tasting and saying things like, “Ugh, is that too much salt?” You’re not going to eliminate salt from the recipe, but you might tweak it here and there as you go along.

“I think anyone can see a brand that just doesn’t feel right, and you’re less interested in buying that product or whatever it is”

Liam: It is a long list of ingredients like color, typography, illustration, and photography, to name a few. So it can be tricky when you’re playing with all of these elements.

Kyle: Especially in mediums that we’re not particularly conversant in, whenever that comes up, we’re kind of looking around the team and getting support from other teams on exactly how our brand should show up in that space. But it really is such a strange sum of parts. You can get into the details, and you can be descriptive about how those details feel, but you put that one particular thing, maybe it’s typography next to illustration, and it can have a totally overwhelming effect and spoil what you were going for. It’s tricky.

It’s never clear if a brand is speaking to an audience, honestly, until it doesn’t. It’s a lot easier to measure that than it is the success with a brand. I feel like you maybe don’t know successful brands are doing well for several years down the line, but when they fail, yeah, you really get the feeling. I think anyone can see a brand that just doesn’t feel right, and you’re less interested in buying that product or whatever it is.

Friendly through and through

Liam: During the many projects the Brand Studio works on, the team pools their creative minds in a true collaborative process.

Kyle: It’s a lot of huddling together, staring at the thing that was made, squinting our eyes, smelling it, and saying, “Is that right?” And that shows up just in everything we do, in every conversation we have, in every performance review, this really intuitive kind of sussing out the thing, asking ourselves if it’s on track. And it’s really difficult.

I do think we do it better than I’ve seen many other teams do, of still being harmonious, respecting each other, collaborating, but it takes quite a lot of work to, essentially, not get your feelings hurt. Because at the end of the day, when someone doesn’t like your work, you are doing your honest best and you really thought that was it, it can be very tense. It can be very stressful and hard.

“There are certain brands that we gravitate towards, and there might not be a conscious reason why”

Kristin: We live in this world with just a million different companies vying for our attention at any given moment.

Liam: Kristin Raymaker again.

Kristin: There are certain brands that we gravitate towards, and there might not be a conscious reason why, but I think good brands, whether they have an impactful identity, they’ve proven their trust through the product that they provide, or you have a history with this brand – there needs to be a way that you filter through all of the junk out there, and you have your core trusted brands. I think that brands sometimes want to be that without actually proving themselves.

And that’s a unique thing about Intercom. We are that from an identity system standpoint. We want to feel like we are your friend. We want to feel trustworthy. And I think that we are uniquely positioned to prove that in the product and through how we show up. Branding is important because companies need to differentiate themselves from one another, especially when you have a unique product, offering, and personality. Those are the best times to really let those things shine.

Looking ahead

Liam: As we make the move upmarket, Intercom is growing fast, which is something the Brand Studio has to adapt to.

Scott: When you’re working for a company that’s like a rocket ship, this is what happens.

Liam: Scott Smith, again.

“The future’s very bright at the Intercom Brand Studio”

Scott: And it happens overnight. Maybe everyone feels this way, but definitely on the creative side, it’s a constant reminder… We were ahead of the curve, and we could keep up with everything that was going on. And then, overnight, we’ve got all these new partners, we’re onboarding additional agencies for specific things and this agency for this other specific thing, and we’re bringing on freelance support. We work with a ton of illustrators. It’s just bananas. It takes off.

Liam: How do you keep up with it?

Scott: I think the answer is really never getting comfortable.

“We’re lucky to work for a company that really values the creative spirit and the creative folks on the team”

Liam: So what do you see in the Brand Studio’s future?

Scott: The first thing that comes to mind is growth and scaling with the demand and scaling with the company. And what does that look like? When you’re part of a rocket-ship startup that has been around for as long as Intercom has, and that’s going through that change of becoming this larger formidable company at the next level, what you see is not a straightforward answer. You need to scale in various ways. We’re hiring, so that’s something. We have multiple roles open right now. So, for all of those creatives out there, go check out our open roles at intercom.com/careers. A little plug there.

The future’s very bright at the Intercom Brand Studio. We’re lucky to work for a company that really values the creative spirit and the creative folks on the team. We have a very large function, and I feel blessed to work with the people that I get to work with, build the team that I get to build, and produce the work we’re producing. It’s all very exciting, and it’s going in the right direction. So yeah, the future is very bright.

Liam: Thanks to Scott Smith, Kira Bundlie, Kyle Benson, and Kristen Raymaker. If you’d like to read more about our refreshed brand, head over to the Inside Intercom blog where Scott has written an entire post about it. If you enjoy today’s episode, let us know on Twitter or leave a review on Apple Podcasts. That’s it for today on Inside Intercom. We’ll be back with another great episode next week.

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