Interview with Karl Isaac, Adobe’s Head of Brand Strategy

by . October 9th, 2013

Branding and marketing your business need some serious understanding about how design can affect its outcome. A simple change in font or color can make an impact on how your target audience will embrace your brand. To further explore this thought, we recently got the chance to talk to one of the industry’s top branding  directors – Adobe’s Head of Brand Strategy, Karl Isaac.

Karl, who has been in the world of Digital Branding and Marketing for years, shared to us a piece of his career, insights on creating successful branding, tips on how logo and type change the game, working with Adobe and his love for coffee. Check out the interview below:

Be relentlessly curious. And even better, be relentlessly curious about many things. When you soak up inspiration across varied interests, topics that may have seemed separate suddenly present new kinds of connections and in turn, opportunities.


Karl IsaacYTD: Tell us something about you and some highlights of your career as a veteran in branding and marketing.

KARL: I’m a non-linear thinker. It took me some time to realize this isn’t how most approach problem solving, but it’s natural for me and I worked hard at honing that skill while studying design and architecture at UCLA. Yet, when I transitioned more deeply into the world of business and marketing, it took some time to work out how best to apply my approach to more traditional business contexts. After all, principles such as time value of money are pretty linear.

When I first entered high-tech marketing, I was hesitant to trust what I learned as a designer, but once I embraced it, I found it served me very well. I think that’s what excites me about branding—looking for patterns, and clues in culture, and stitching things together that may not appear related at first blush. There are powerful insights in those connections which can have profound business impact.

I’ve had great experiences translating insights into business results through branding and marketing. One highlight was briefing Alex Bogusky and CP+B while leading an integrated marketing campaign group at Microsoft for the long overdue response to Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign. Others include building Landor’s global digital practice which brought me to London and Madrid, and developing social media strategies in Beijing and China while at Razorfish. But, my biggest highlights come from the work I’m doing now at Adobe, where my team and I are redefining what it means to create, build, and guide brands in 2013 and beyond.

Karl Isaac @ Adobe

 Karl Isaac while at work in Adobe

Brands today need to be more nimble and responsive, and one of my favorite examples of being quick, creative and strategic is the recent work we did to celebrate Charles Eames’ birthday, which coincided with the day we released our new Creative Cloud desktop apps. We honored Charles and Ray Eames by inviting a group of select artists to hack one of their famous mid-century modern chairs—something we thought they’d appreciate given they too were rapid prototypers and their approach informed the new breed of creatives we see today that build on and mashup existing work. I’m pretty proud of what the team achieved in a super short timeframe.

YTD: Personal question, how do you usually start your day?

KARL: I love coffee. So it’s a rare day that doesn’t include me enjoying a perfect pour-over to start my day, and typically streaming Rdio while catching up on email and Twitter. I bike commute to work and find it gives me much needed energy for the day ahead.


YTD: What made you say yes to work with Adobe?

KARL: The chance to help guide a brand that has had such a profound impact on the creative industry was certainly appealing, but more than that, I was drawn to the opportunity ahead for Adobe. With a creative heritage and leadership in digital marketing, we have an exciting future building on the power of art and science, and creativity and data. And it’s a company of amazingly creative people that value design, branding, and marketing.


YTD: How do you define “good” branding?

KARL: For starters, it’s so much more than a logo or visual and verbal system. Today great branding is rooted in creating highly relevant and meaningful experiences that people find delightful, useful, and easy. Powerful brands need to go well beyond just their product or service and think holistically about the full customer experience and where they can solve problems and remove friction for their customers. It’s a crowded marketplace and people are overwhelmed with messages, but at a time where our ability to engage customers, and test and learn, has never been greater, great brands need to be bold to break through yet also transparent and willing to own up to possible missteps along the way.

Also, with the rise of digital, great brands embrace data and understand their customers like never before to create more personal and relevant experiences. 

Understanding attribution modeling and connecting perceptual, behavioral, and financial data is core to successful branding today.


YTD: We have seen a lot of logo redesigns lately. How important is a good logo in terms branding and marketing?

KARL: A logo is a hugely important element in the mix. That’s why companies go to great lengths to establish, protect, and update them from time to time. And there is a tremendous amount of craft involved in designing a great mark for a product or company; it’s certainly not something that should be relegated to a lowest common denominator crowd-sourced approach, as we sometimes see in the industry. And yet as important as a great logo is, I’ve always liked the Paul Rand quote ‘a logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it means is more important than what it looks like‘.

With the ability for new brands to emerge at a rapid fire pace these days, it’s the compelling experiences that become vital to branding, marketing, and customer loyalty. Visual and verbal systems are critical too of course, but it’s the strategies they are based upon, and the experiences they support, that are foundational to people’s willingness to engage long term. Of course, as a designer, when I do get attached to a logo it is largely based on a deep appreciation of the craft.


YTD: Why do consumers get attached to a logo?

KARL: It’s hard to know sometimes if people are really attached to a logo or the brands and experiences they are based on. For example, having completed an Ironman Triathlon, I have great affinity for its logo. However, what I’m truly attached to is the experience and the idea of achieving the impossible, not the m-dot, as its affectionately known. People become used to and familiar with logos, as there is comfort in consistency.

Moreover, when people see disconnects between the experiences they are used to, and a new logo that doesn’t live up to the promise of the brand, they may react negatively, as we’ve seen on social media.

YTD: Any thoughts about the new Yahoo logo?

KARL: I was really excited to read about Marissa Mayer’s passion for Adobe Illustrator and design in general on her Tumblr posting. The new logo was clearly a personal experience for her, as she felt a need to signal change ahead while honoring the past. Her enthusiasm for design reinforces a trend we are seeing in the industry where design is playing an even greater and more visible role at the most senior levels within companies.


YTD: Typography plays an important role in many creative fields. How does a change of font in logos make a huge impact in branding?

KARL: Yes, I agree type has a big impact on branding and of course Adobe has invested a great deal in making sure the craft of typography extends easily to the web. The IBM and Coca-Cola logos are classic examples of the impact of type. The all-caps, industrial-style IBM logo is fitting to communicate the notion of industry and business machinery. By contrast, the script typeface of the Coca-Cola logo was based on a handwritten style that was prevalent at the time, making it seem more of and for the people.

An example of how we at Adobe use type to signal change is our consumer line branded Adobe Revel. We wanted to signal a change relative to the overall creative toolset, and decided on using all lower case which we felt was more accessible and represented a more casual approach appropriate for this consumer-oriented set of apps and services.

 Adobe Revel

While changes in type can have a big impact in branding, ultimately the impact really depends on the motivation for the change and alignment between the logo and the business and product strategy. Today’s customers are savvier than ever and they see changes that are purely cosmetic as lacking substance.


YTD: Another personal question, do you like music? Can you share us your playlist?

KARL: I am fanatical about music. It is a big part of my life. I tend to get in zones every few months where I listen to just a handful of albums over and over again. Right now I am listening a lot to The National: Trouble Will Find Me, Aretha Franklin: Soul Queen, The Head and the Heart (self titled), Stereophonics: You Gotta Go There To Come Back, and The Local Natives: Hummingbird.


YTD: What have you accomplished so far after more than a year of adventure working with Adobe?

KARL: Joining a new company isn’t always easy, and so one of my big accomplishments is the relationships I’ve built throughout the company, and the trust I’ve earned as my team and I have evolved our approach to brand strategy towards one rooted in being open-minded, opportunistic, and optimistic rather than focused on control and consistency. The combination of support from senior leadership, their appetite for change, and the opportunity to work with some crazy talented creative people has led to great things.

We have rebranded our biggest businesses to better reflect our highly focused business and product strategy. In our digital marketing business, we’ve consolidated over 22 product brands into Adobe Marketing Cloud, with six core solutions. On the creative side, we helped signal the move towards Creative Cloud with the introduction of the “CC” versioning, as we extend beyond the Creative Suite.

 Adobe CC Apps

I’ve also taken on leadership of an internal marketing innovation program, called Seeds of Innovation, and launched the Idea Factory, which both help exemplify brand strategy in action and provide opportunities to generate new ideas. Lastly, the marketing people see from Adobe today is more front-footed, breaks through in smart ways, and is more authentically connected to the communities it serves and I’m excited to be playing a role in this transformation.


YTD: How often should companies redesign their logos? And how can they take advantage of the current trends in branding?

KARL: I don’t think companies should redesign their logos absent sound rationale such as changes in business and product strategies and even then should proceed cautiously as the logo is an expression of the company and vice versa. With that said, today logos no longer need to be tethered to the confines of static print design as there are new opportunities for brands to express visual identities more dynamically or kinetically via digital.

Finding ways to express identities with the right degree of consistency yet also as patterns that have moments of surprise and delight, tailored to specific mediums, offers new opportunities and challenges in branding. Namely it raises questions regarding how much do you enforce standards of control and consistency vs. taking opportunities to be open and engaging with customers and communities. We’ve come a long way since branding was used for stamping cattle and many of the old rules no longer apply.

Some of the trends brands can take advantage of today include continuously testing new ways to engage with customers and learning from them as well. There’s a lot to be learned from the models of agile software development, including faster-cycle, highly focused efforts to prove out brand strategy via sprints, rather than as 12-week academic frameworks. I’m also seeing a focus on design at the core of developing and defining business strategies and product experiences; after all designers are great problem solvers and as companies seek to transform via digital, they need new approaches from what’s worked in the past.

Brands today also facilitate and foster relationships between their customers (and their customers’ customers) rather than try to intervene in that relationship. I think that’s what is so exciting about brands like AirBnB, TaskRabbit, and Lyft. These brands have social at the core and make their customers the heroes. They are built by delivering easy and amazing experiences and offering transparent ways for their customers to rate and review and participate with the brand. Yet to capitalize on the changes ahead branding can’t be thought of separately from the experience.

Brand changes require so many components to work together (consolidated data so you have single source of truth, teams that put social at the core, rapid prototyping, etc.), that changes that don’t account for this come across as cosmetic and surface level, which typically doesn’t yield much of an impact these days.


YTD: Who is your design hero?

KARL: Charles and Ray Eames. As I mentioned earlier they were the original hackers and were pioneers whose experiments had profound impact, and went well beyond aesthetic sensibilities. My favorite piece is the plywood leg-splint they made for the Navy in WWII as it is highly functional, beautiful, and innovative, as they were just starting to experiment with molded plywood—a technique that would eventually make its way into their mid-century furniture.


YTD: What is the most important lesson in creativity you have learned so far in your career?

KARL: Be relentlessly curious. And even better, be relentlessly curious about many things. When you soak up inspiration across varied interests, topics that may have seemed separate suddenly present new kinds of connections and in turn, opportunities. I’ve often found that insights and ideas that were staring me right in the face were ones I just couldn’t see until I looked at the situation in a new way. After all, it’s hard to look at something in a new way if you are only trained to see it from a single vantage point.


Karl's Office at Adobe

Karl’s office


SEE ALSO: Interview with Pete Episcopo, Adobe Education Leader

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