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Episode 7

Authenticity and vulnerability in branding

Named “one of the most creative people in business” by Fast Company and “one of the most influential designers working today” by Graphic Design USA, Debbie Millman is an author, educator, curator, and host of the podcast Design Matters. In this episode, she talks about the importance of authenticity in brand development, why it pays to be vulnerable, and where she turns to for inspiration in her own life.

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Debbie Millman

Design Matters

Hosted By

Kyle Nordeen

In this Episode:

  • The benefits of being yourself in marketing and branding
  • Why today's companies need to get comfortable being vulnerable
  • How your own failures can help your audience in the long run


  • Celebrate who you are on your best day, talk from the heart, and offer an opportunity for people to get to know who you really are.

  • Your audience doesn't want to know all of your successes. They want to know how you've struggled and the lessons you've learned in the process.

Episode Transcript

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Kyle: Thank you, everybody, for joining us today. We have another very special guest. With us, we have Debbie Millman. Hi, Debbie. How are you doing?

Debbie: Good. How are you?

Kyle: I’m doing good. And just go ahead and get things kicked off a little bit. Can you just tell us a little bit about yourself and your professional background?

Debbie: Sure. I am a designer, an author, an educator at the School of Visual Arts. I co-founded and run a graduate program in branding. I’m also the host of a podcast, a long-running podcast, one of the world’s first podcasts. It’s called “Design Matters.”

Kyle: Awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time with us. And now, with your background in branding, one of the things I’m very curious about is, you know, obviously with what Emma does, you know, there’s a huge email component to this. With a very established technology like email, that’s been around forever, what sort of tips can you offer to people that really want to create a new brand presence through email, like, you know, trying to really recreate themselves or rebrand themselves through a traditional technology? What sort of tips would you have for somebody looking to do that?

Debbie: Well, I wouldn’t recommend that somebody recreate themselves. I would recommend that they feature who they are on their best day, in a way that feels very authentic and very true to their soul and being. People tend to respond more favorably to people that are really being themselves, and, in many ways, holding that “freak” flag really high, because they can then relate and be able to connect with someone in a much more visceral manner.

So, my recommendation would be to celebrate who you are on your best day, to talk from the heart, to offer an opportunity for people to really get to know you for who you really are.

Kyle: Okay, awesome. I think that’s great. And, you know, with the idea of authenticity, it’s a really hard thing for people to really, you know, shed those outer layers, put themselves in a vulnerable position and say, you know, “This is who I am.” What sort of recommendations do you have for people that say, like…you know, how do you start getting away from the mindset of, “I’m too afraid of what people think,” to, you know, “Here’s who I really am. Here’s what I want to put out there?”

Debbie: Watch a Brené Brown video, either of her TED Talks about what it means to live with your whole heart, because that’s really what being vulnerable is. And I believe…I really, truly believe that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, and you can’t really be creative and say something that is going to touch or reach other people unless you are doing it with your own open heart. And so, there really is no choice. If you’re not comfortable with being vulnerable, my strong recommendation would be to get comfortable being vulnerable, because, why else would anybody want to get to know you? What are they getting to know then? Some false friend?

Kyle: Yeah. From a skills perspective, are there, like, small steps you can see people, that you would recommend, say, like, you know, “Here’s, like, a small way of testing to see, like, this will put you in a more vulnerable position. Here’s a way of trying to push yourself out a little bit from your comfort zone?” Do you have…?

Debbie: Well, take small steps, small moves. And, I mean, you don’t have to reveal everything about your childhood in your first email, but if you can share some part of yourself that you feel is worthy of connecting with other people, and people will feel is honest, then why wouldn’t you want to do that?

Kyle: Absolutely.

Debbie: That’s what people want to know about you. They don’t want to know all of the successes and all of the amazing things you’re doing. They want to know how you’ve struggled, or how you’ve overcome an obstacle, or what lesson you learned in the process of doing something. And the more you can share that, I think the more value it has, both to yourself and to others.

Kyle: Absolutely. I think that’s actually a really good point. It’s, like, you know, you don’t want just to be putting out the idea of…we’re 100% successful all the time, people relating to that idea of, “You know, we had to really grind at this point. We really had to struggle a little bit.” What sort of value do you put on the idea of, you know, putting your failures out there a little bit for people to try and, like, connect with that? Like, what sort of value do you think that carries when trying to create an authentic brand experience?

Debbie: Well, everybody has experienced failure. And if you aren’t able or capable of sharing what you’ve done wrong, why would anybody care if you’re sharing what you’ve done right? And I feel that if we’re putting a face forward that’s only positive and only impressive, then we are creating meaning manufacture, we’re manufacturing our meaning, because that’s only one small part of what it means to be human, and strive, and long for things, and create things, and make things. And there is none of that without failure, rejection, vulnerability, fear. All of those things are just part of the process of being a maker.

Kyle: Definitely. And are there any particular, you know, failures or struggles that you can recount from your professional career, that, like, you know, “I’m glad I experienced this because it helped take me helped me take a big stride in my career moving forward?” Are there any particular memories that you can draw on from that, you can think of?

Debbie: Well, almost anything that I’ve done has been fueled by an enormous amount of rejection, whether it be book ideas, business ideas, business experiences, new business pitches, love affairs. I mean, my past is riddled and littered with rejections and failures. But, there are very few that I can actually look back on now and say, “I didn’t either learn something, or overcome something to get to a better place, or create something out of that failure, that then became successful.”

Kyle: Gotcha.

Debbie: And, of course, it’s easy to look back on it and say in hindsight, “Well, if that hadn’t happened, then that wouldn’t have happened, and then that wouldn’t have happened, and I wouldn’t be sitting right here,” but I can tell you that it’s really true.

Kyle: Yeah, absolutely. And with that, you know, so people want to really look back on their experiences to help feel their growth. Are there other places that you turn to for inspiration in your career? Any other particular thought-leaders, brands, anything like that that really helped get your wheels going and get some new ideas growing?

Debbie: Well, I love to read. I love to learn, and so, for me, some of the people that I’m either mentored by or inspired by are people like Seth Godin, who is one of the most generous, smartest, kindest people on the planet. And he does a daily blog, seven days a week, and so you can get daily morning inspiration from him. Also, Steven Heller. He also has a daily blog, and he’s someone else. And he also, I believe, does it on Saturdays. I’m not entirely sure if he does it on Sundays, but I know for sure he does it on Saturdays, too. And he’s somebody that has also been enormously supportive and helpful to me, and mentored me, and inspired me, and educated me in ways that I could never have imagined. So those are two people, on a daily basis, that I turn to, both personally and professionally, online and offline.

Kyle: Absolutely. And, with that, you know, for other people that really want to get started with being able to help formulate their story, building authentic brand, like, really get that out there, what’s your number one storytelling tip for brands that are really just looking to get started with creating a better connection with their audience?

Debbie: How can you reveal something about your experience that makes somebody else feel better about theirs?

Kyle: Okay. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for the time. I have one more just a question for you before you have to get going, and one thing I’m curious about is, what’s one thing you think marketers should be doing right now to set themselves up for success for 2018 and beyond?

Debbie: Think about what benefit you can provide your audience. People aren’t really interested in another form, or another flavor. They’re interested in, what kind of difference can you make in their lives? So, what can you offer your audience that will help them grow, help them become more successful, help them learn something that they wouldn’t have expected or had the opportunity to do? What can you offer your audience that no one else can?

Kyle: Okay, absolutely. And, you know, I think we’re just about out of time, but thank you so much for joining us, really appreciate having you on, and looking forward to having you on again.

Debbie: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Kyle: Awesome.

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