Q&A with Everett Katigbak: Inside Fast Growing Brands

Interview by Marian Chiao

Everett Katigbak, brand manager at Pinterest and environmental design manager at Facebook before that, recently spoke to us about branding from the inside.

Everett started his career working in exhibition design at the Getty Museum. He moved to San Francisco in 2008 and joined what was then a much smaller Facebook. In his five years with Facebook, he co-founded the Analog Research Lab, worked on the design of every Facebook campus and satellite office, and designed the company’s sonic identity (the notes spell F-A-C-E). He joined Pinterest in 2013, bringing his passion for design in startups with him.

Pinterest, the ‘visual pinboard’ social networking site, is quickly growing with 25 million users as of February and 150+ employees. They’ve already out-grown their office in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco, and have expanded into the space next door.

Wolff Olins: At Facebook was the brand important to the founders from the start?

Everett Katigbak: Facebook was definitely an engineering-driven culture internally. In terms of [the founders] involvement, they are probably more engaged now in brand than in the early days. At Facebook the core focus is on the product, because a good majority of people’s brand experience is through using the product. So, at a high level they were always thinking about brand, but it wasn’t a focus, like let’s do ‘brand projects’ or engage in ‘branding’.

WO: How important is brand at Pinterest?

EK: Pinterest is definitely a different place because for one, we’re half design-founded, versus engineering-driven – that, by nature, seeps through our DNA. I think both of the founders, and in general the leadership team here, are really heavily involved in how the brand story will soon be told. Meaning that our short-term hockey-stick growth was primarily driven through the product, social media, and other forms of distribution. It wasn’t like there was a branding campaign that said “Join Pinterest”. And I would say that’s typical of most tech products. So now we are at the point where people are starting to talk about us in the media, and now we need to proactively engage in that form of storytelling.

WO: How much are the founders thinking about brand?

EK: “Brand” is such a loaded term. It means a lot of things to different people. When you talk about brand there is never one uniform definition of it. But as it pertains to the tech industry, a lot of people’s perception is that the product is the core expression of the brand, and to a certain degree that is true. As companies grow, if they don’t have a good sense of who they are, and what they are building, and what they are trying to solve for, then brand and identity design is kind of somewhat arbitrary. I think it’s really up to the founders to have a strong core of what they’re trying to do in the world, and then build a great team around that, that helps them express that in different ways whether it’s expanding the product in a way that ties back to the brand values, or pushing the visual design and identity design, or even just storytelling in general.

WO: As a brand manager, what’s your specific role like?

EK:Part of my role is helping define the brand strategy. This entails drafting our key brand position, and conducting user sentiment research to help make an informed decision. We then take this core brand strategy and develop creative work that helps educate around the product and drive awareness. We also work with the marketing team to translate these messages into some tactical campaigns for a target audience, to help acquire new users and create advocates. 

I use design as part of telling a story, but I approach the work from a central narrative first. Then we figure out what the most appropriate medium for delivering that message would be. [Graphic] design is one part, but it usually involves film and interactive, as well as marketing and design research.  

The other large part of my job is helping build the team…getting creatives excited about working at Pinterest and helping us build this young brand into something successful, while simultaneously building our own internal culture. I use design internally to build a fun and creative internal culture. The letterpress, sign painting, and the physical making of things is more of an expressive act, and maker culture is also core to Pinterest! 

WO: I read an article where your CEO Ben Silberman says “Our focus is on helping millions of people discover things they love and get inspiration to go do those things in their life.” How does that influence what you do?

EK: That’s definitely the thing that drives us, gets us up in the morning, and keeps us awake at night. The more people that we affect and we see actually derive meaning out of the product, we obviously feed off of that stuff. But the more people that have a poor experience, the more sense of urgency we feel to make it better. And for me, the more I hear that Pinterest is anything specific, like it’s a site for women and wedding planning, or something like that, the more I feel a sense of urgency. It’s really a neutral platform, and we need to communicate the diversity of it (how educators use Pinterest, or how gear heads and car people use it) because there are large communities of these people. But the story that is being told right now is what the core audience was, early adopters fit into that cluster of people…

WO: Is that the biggest challenge right now?

EK: I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge, I would just say it’s a lot of work we need to do. And I think it’s two parts: part of it is us proactively telling our story, the other part is building a better product that delivers more value to different groups of people.

WO: How is the internal culture developing so far?

EK: For the most part, because we are still so young, and a lot of our people come directly out of school, and a lot of other people come from other companies, we are still at that stage where we are trying to find our own internal voice, we are still trying to figure out the way that we work together. There’s still a lot of shaping. We’re still in that dough-y stage.

WO: Do you think a culture needs to form organically?

EK: I don’t want to say that all startups and all cultures should form organically. But I do think that in early startup stage you get more entrepreneurial people, bigger risk-takers – that generally lends to a more non-conformist culture. And as companies start to become more concrete, and their brand is very solid, then you get a more uniform vision and culture. There is definitely a shift. I would even say Apple, early on, was this free-spirited Silicon Valley culture. But that Apple is much different from what it is today. So the [cultural shifts] were necessary in those specific parts of the company’s life cycle to get it to where it is.

WO: Why are roles like yours are important in this industry?

EK: I think there’s huge opportunity for brand creatives at the early-stage startup…where there’s a mix of creativity and entrepreneurialism. These environments are typically flat structured, and creatives can have a ton of impact if they can internalize the startup mentality and run with things. With the surge of designer-founded companies, brand is being factored into decision making early on, and is seen as equally important as raw quantitative metrics. 

WO: What do you see as the future of social networks as brands?

EK: Pinterest is actually different because it’s not a social network, especially in the way you think of Facebook and Twitter as messaging platforms. There is some overlap whenever you’re dealing with people at scale, but Pinterest is a deeply personal experience for people,which has some social mechanics which help them discover content. 

Regarding any neutral platform, there is a risk of becoming too broad as a brand. Trying to be everything to everyone requires a lot of effort, and I haven’t seen anyone execute on this without numerous challenges. The root of these platforms as brands is tied so much to the product experience, but modern tech brands haven’t quite been able to build off of the generations of work that make commodities desirable brands. 

WO: Thanks for your time!

For more, here’s a video of Everett giving a tour of the new Pinterest space on TechCrunch.

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