interview

Interview: Shar Biggers, Provoke Founder & Senior Designer At Amazon

Shar Biggers

If your company is looking to perfect its branding, then you already know there are so many factors to consider. There are so many common mistakes you can avoid, and there are so many great examples you can follow. Sometimes, you just need the help of an expert to point you in the right direction.

We had to privilege of speaking to Shar Biggers, founder of brand consultancy Provoke. She's helped craft the brands of major organizations like Amazon Fashion and Hillary Clinton. We learned how she advises brands, where her inspiration comes from and so much more. We hope you learn as much from her as we did!

What does branding mean to you? 

As a brand strategist and design founder, branding means everything to me!

However, the more critical questions are, “What should branding mean to your business?” and “why is your branding plan more vital than your business plan, or even your marketing plan?”.

Jeff Bezos described branding best when he said, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Branding is not what you say your company is, it’s what they say your company is. I want every reader to replace the word brand with the word reputation for the rest of this discussion, and it will quickly illustrate why your branding plan is more vital than any other plan you create. 

You might be thinking, “Well, nothing is more important than the product or service itself.” That is true! However, I regularly meet owners who believe their cool product or service will “sell itself” and create a brand for them— without any real investment. However, this is a killer mistake because you’re letting the impressions about your company form carelessly and haphazardly, instead of taking authority and crafting it to your advantage. Though it is not something you can completely control, it is something you can influence, manage, and create. You create the gut feeling that you want your customers to feel when they think about your product, service, or company. 

Your brand is a set of unique values, qualities, ideals and attributes that you promise to deliver in all of your experiences both physical and digital. It’s the interactions that people have with your company, internally and externally. Branding is not saying how amazing you are; that would be marketing. It’s showing what you find to be significant and then progressing towards it, knowing that other people are progressing that way as well. That is how you attract your tribe. 

A company must use its voice to reveal what they value and then stand behind that. This includes meaningful stories, images, and experiences that you love. All act as signs of trust to those who feel the same way. You extend this across all touchpoints including your: website, decor/retail space, graphics, communications, customer experience, staff, product, signage, packaging, and even your logo. How well you do this will determine the impact of your marketing and the trajectory of your company. 

I always say, “you know that you’ve successfully branded your business when your marketing efforts convert your company name into a verb!” The following phrases instantly reveal the brand behind the phrase: Google it, grab a Kleenex, I need a Band-Aid, or Photoshop it. They’ve become what we call, household names.

How do you help brands differentiate themselves from a competitor? 

You said it best, differentiate them! The best way to do this is to create authenticity, a powerfully—innovative brand image with emotional connection, and heartfelt sincerity within the company. 

Though I do believe in competitive research, it should not be used to blend in or only to create a slight difference. I find that many companies set themselves apart, just slightly. This is how business industries often remain stagnant or the same for years to come. 

When Dyson came out, they had zero desire to appear like any of the other vacuum companies, which all looked the same, by the way. They differentiated themselves down

to their socks! 

And our job is really cut out for ourselves when we must brand commodity products like orange juice, toilet paper, and toothpaste. Yet it’s our job to make them stand out on the same shelf. In that case, we must find or create key differentiators from competitors. Nothing does that better than creating brand authenticity, with compelling expressions. Our goal is to create something that causes the culture to connect with the brand; and to make them think about our specific product, service or market—ahead of the rest.

How did you find out you wanted to work with design?

As a child, I was always creative. I found myself illustrating, designing, and writing what I thought were plays or movies. 

However, my family wasn’t too fond of my creative side at the time because they wanted to ensure a successful future for my siblings and I. When I reached college, I ended up in the field of psychology. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t happy until this point because I’d always loved learning about behavioral decisions and helping people. 

Innately, I’m a fixer. However, the industry wasn’t the right choice for me. To cut a long story short, I left my doctoral program and began working in advertising. I completed my MBA, and quickly fell in love with marketing and design. Soon after, I enrolled in a visual design program; and I created an ecommerce store selling customized artwork to fund my education. The rest was history!

What do you do when you get a designer-block?

It’s rare that I get designer’s block and I believe it’s because I’m a businesswoman and a concept first. 

Business acumen is always advantageous to a designer, and I encourage every creative to make it one of their core competencies. I’d also say that conceptor’s like myself rarely ever run out of ideas! As a matter of fact, shutting off my brain is the bigger problem. 

Before I get into sourcing inspiration, I’m problem-solving business and branding solutions for my clients first. Why? Well, there is zero reasons to have design if there is no strategy. Design is meant to solve a problem; to express the aesthetic of a brand, make a product understandable, or to create emotion. You cannot solve a problem without purpose. It doesn’t matter how great, innovative, or beautiful design is—if it isn’t conceptual, it means nothing. 

You will find that the concept and strategy always distinctly communicates the executional direction to the designer. When a designer’s block is present, there is likely a lack of strategy-first procedures in place.

What has been your favorite project and what project has been your biggest challenge?

My favorite, yet most challenging project was the Hillary for America (HFA) Presidential Campaign. It was the first time that I ever helped execute a brand around a person and organization that targeted—literally everyone! 

One of the first lessons that is taught in marketing is that you cannot target everybody, you must narrow your focus to identify and perfect your target audience. Needless to say, this was the first time I’d ever seen an exception to the rule, not to be mistaken for the last. Amazon would be my next project that targeted the entire world! 

Through the presidential campaign - I and other designers - perfected how to market to all people using visual design. The following classes were targeted for this campaign: every race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, marital status, and citizenship status. Notice that these are all protected groups, which some would say our opponent was unsympathetic to. We did not see these groups as opportunities, or target markets—per se, but instead we wanted our campaign to be altogether inclusive. 

This meant calling out each group and being uniquely something they could call their own. This is a very different and intricate way of designing. The brand could not be too stylized, yet it had to display a specific voice that reached people on an emotional level. It was quite worth it though because I got a chance to help make history, break barriers for women, fight for equality, and serve my entire country through design - seven days a week!


Where do you gather inspiration?

Oh goodness, this is a great question with endless answers! 

First know that I’m a conceptor at heart. I’m always gathering inspiration and information everywhere that I go because I’m an avid Pinterest fan. There is never a lack of inspiration and the world is full of fascinating designs and patterns; beauty, nefariousness; and paradoxes. It can all be found—one glimpse away, one click away, one step away, or one trip away. 

For some people, a place can arouse inspiration in their mind; and for me that would be the beach, or hearing oceanic sounds. Weird right? I can lay on a beach and ideate all day long! Now this is totally random, but just last night I researched animals with transparent bodies like glass frogs and glasswing butterflies. I draw ideas from simple research like that. I’m constantly in awe of nature and how much every part of our earth is designed—to a T! I’m never short of inspiration sources, and you aren’t either. It’s all in your outlook.

Describe your creative process.

Our creative process depends on the project scope and the client needs. If a client - for example - wants a visual identity system and they already have a strong brand implementation in place, then we would begin by reviewing the entirety of the brand strategy. 

We would make sure there were proper plans for execution; and that the brand is accurately defined in a legible, clear, and articulate way. We’d also review their current brand consumer touchpoints (if they have them) including their: current website, packaging, product, decor/retail space, customer experience, product, logo, and what customers feel about them. 

This will all help determine how we define the brand for the sake of a visual direction, and how we will design the identity. Once completed, we would then review the current logo and visual system in place; and identify the areas of improvement. The fun part comes into play once we begin to gather inspiration. No stone is left unturned! 

We pull inspiration from nature, history, art, competitors, and organizations from completely different industries. The client is involved every step of the way and we present various concepts to them. From there we iterate, review, iterate, review; until the final deliverables are completed.

Who are your favorite designers?

Wow, I draw inspiration from so many places that I’d definitely say my favorite designers aren’t limited to visual design. I draw inspiration from every type of design discipline there is, and from the greatest designers that ever lived. 

James Dyson is one of my favorites! When people think of the most innovative companies, Apple is always named first; and Dyson is not mentioned often enough. James Dyson is literally the epitome of Dieter Rams’ commandments of good design. The amount of varied concepts that comes out of Dyson is uncontested. 

Some of my other favorite designers include Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames, Michael Beirut and anyone Pentagram. Alexander McQueen was my first fashion obsession, and Zaha Hadid aka “The Queen of the Curve” inspired me a bit as well. She took movement, swirls and curves to a greater height within architecture. She was quite a phenomenal designer. 

How do you balance your own style aesthetic with what the client wants?

My personal aesthetic is always in favor of what the client needs. I help them create celebrated and iconic brands because I believe in designing for purpose, not beauty. 

The aesthetic will always reflect their company's purpose, beliefs, message, and story. My only condition for organizations is that they are ambitious or desire to become one of the best—not like the rest! Rhyme not intended. 

This means I work with companies who create industry-disrupting products and services; or businesses that have a true calling and purpose of differentiation. A company can sell a commodity and differentiate itself to become a world-class brand. But they have to be open to thinking ambitiously and creating a “special sauce” that separates them from the rest. Aesthetic is just the instrument used to reflect the personality they already embody or the one we create together. 

One thing about my portfolio is that it is very diverse within branding; but you will see a consistent thread of polish and quality, with a distinguished brand style.

What platforms do you think are the best to display your brand? 

It depends on what your company does and who their targeting. 

For example, Facebook targets primarily late 20 something adults or older. If your audience is younger than 26, you might want to check out Snapchat. Youtube is a platform that more brands should consider because it is the largest search engine behind Google. It’s highly targeted and has great reach in just about everything. 

Instagram is a phenomenal brand-building tool because aesthetically no other platform gets your brand message across better. However, I’ve seen some B2B companies who have very little success on Instagram because their audience isn’t present. I always suggest that companies do the research to find out where their audience is located before investing in marketing. What is your customer's process in locating services or products in your field? Do they begin on Google and end on yelp? Do they start with their favorite Instagram influencer or blog?

If you aren’t sure, locate where your direct competitors are targeting their audience. Search for the engagement because it’s happening somewhere! If it isn’t happening yet, consider that a great market opportunity for your business because someone is looking for it. 

How do you build a strong brand?

Firstly, brand professionals must be onboard. Every day, I watch new businesses fail because they attempted to build their own brand (without experience), completely underestimating the challenge and skillset required to achieve the task. It’s vital that either brand professionals are hired internally or outsourced because this is not a job for beginners. 

It’s not a DIY project, and creating it without professional help would be the equivalent of diagnosing your own disease or representing yourself in court. It doesn't make much sense, correct? Exactly! Now you might be thinking, “It’s really not that serious, how dramatic!”

However, the success of a business not only affects the livelihood of the owners, but it is also the source of income for employees and their families. Therefore, it does hold great significance because branding is detrimental to the trajectory of a business. 

Also, branding for owners can be tough and is often their downfall because they’re very close to the business. It’s difficult for them to know the way it is perceived from the outside. Now that this is out of the way, below are my directions on how to build a strong brand, with professionals involved. For companies that already exist, it’s best to begin with a brand audit; while startups should begin with brand strategy and planning. A brand audit takes the “temperature” of your current brand and tells you exactly how your brand is doing. It also helps your company determine where there is room for improvement, a need for redirection, and guidance on the best route forward. 

Brand strategy and planning is when a company creates its strategic outlook for how they will build, shape, and grow their brand through core tenets. This is where the position of the brand is defined, attributes are determined, and the story along with transparency is built. The company must also determine how they will implement the strategies across platforms to build brand awareness, grow sales, and strengthen the brand image. It’s a bit like a game of attraction, where you create a brand persona that makes “them” want to fall in love with how “you” look, make them feel, and speak. You must determine who the brand is before you can determine who likes it, and bring the audience to a point of belief in who you are. 

All of this is done in the brand strategy phase and I often say that this is truly where the brand is built. The visual aspect of the identity is the behavior of the brand and it sits under the umbrella of branding, but it is not the brand itself. It is more of visual expression and the vehicle to communicate what was determined in the brand strategy phase about the business. In the design and copywriting phase, all of this information is gathered and reviewed by professional creatives. The best creatives found should be allotted the task of the visual and verbal execution. 

Look for people who have strong—award-winning portfolios, great case studies, experience with Fortune 500 brands, and have created strong identities for up-and-coming businesses. These creatives are guaranteed winners, and it reduces the risk of hiring an unprofessional and inexperienced designer or copywriter. 

Lastly, implement the plan of action determined in the brand strategy. These implementations should reflect branded design across every customer touchpoint. Then you will have a strong brand!

What companies do you think are good examples of this?

Spotify and Apple are my favorite companies and both exemplify strong branding. To this day, Spotify’s story amazes me. It was a mixture of luck, technical excellence, brilliant strategy, and upstream planning. The design execution was pivotal as well. 

CEO Daniel Ek came up with the genius idea for a music streaming service when Napster shut down and music piracy was at an all-time high. Ek stated it best himself in the Telegraph, “I realized that you can never legislate away from piracy. Laws can definitely help, but it doesn't take away the problem. The only way to solve the problem was to create a service that was better than piracy and at the same time compensates the music industry - that gave us Spotify.” 

Ek found a need in the toughest internet sector, online marketplaces. It was quite revolutionary because it allowed users to discover great new artists, listen to music, both old and new - any artist, at any time - all for free! The strategy behind the brand happened upstream, in the midst of building the MVP (minimum viable product). 

For example, Spotify was able to negotiate licensing agreements with record labels because music revenue was on a steady decline. They offered premium benefits to users through a freemium subscription-based model, without streaming limits. They made the sign-up process easy by integrating with Facebook as the authority in music sharing, eventually linking it with Instagram as well.

Ek focused on creating a superior product that also had strong selling points like

high latency with impeccable browse and search capabilities. The unique selling proposition was so powerful that it went viral immediately! The product itself acted as the vehicle for brand awareness, which is a very rare event. Before launch, he hired the famous Collins Design Agency to create the brand identity for Spotify, which they constantly refined and rebooted over the years. 

The brand is known for its primary green and black colors, duotone imagery, gradient combinations, and bright color filters. The photography visually expresses the emotions and moods around the artists, songs, and genres. When you see a Spotify image, you know immediately it belongs to Spotify, and that is a sign that the branding has done its job! 

Collins designed an extremely flexible visual identity system that transformed the company from the new Apple Music competitor to the most popular music brand in the world. Every touchpoint was considered: the digital platform, social media, communications, future innovative products, and physical spaces. Spotify got it all right!

How do you report an ROI when branding has been revamped?

There are many ways to measure the ROI of a rebrand and the most common way is to calculate the profit margin or conduct a pricing study. However, the problem with these methods is that it leaves out the internal and external perception of your new brand image. 

Social listening and brand tracking help to take the temperature of the new brand design through customer value; while company culture becomes stronger internally. Every area of your business relations should be affected and organizational activities become easier. For example, human resources have enhanced their candidate pool, the new brand has drawn more recruits that are highly competitive. 

Other companies such as retailers, suppliers, wholesalers, or manufacturers more easily connect with your brand because they want to be affiliated with it. The engagement across social platforms increase and followers are on the rise. Surely, this means your image is changing for the better in the sight of the consumer. 

Following this, the revenue of the brand will increase (if executed correctly), but keep in mind that this is correlated to how consistent the company implements the brand. This cannot just be something a company does for the first six months. This is a forever thing that must continue in perpetuity. Rebrands gives businesses the upper-hand; it keeps their customers around and increases their loyalty. It opens the door to attracting new customers and makes competitive hires and current employees excited about working with them. 

The worst thing a company can do is neglect and abandon their brand. For example, Amazon treats every day like “day 1” of the company! The enthusiasm your business had at launch should be the same enthusiasm it has seven years after its launch, and you must not become sloppy in appearance and services. 

As a final point, I would say not only is branding powerful, it’s literally the God of business elements. The more energy you put into it, the more it will work for you. The ROI will demonstrate itself in all of these areas and many more!

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