David Shultz, Sans Serif Founder, on Navigating Branding and Identity Challenges

David Shultz, Sans Serif Founder, on Navigating Branding and Identity Challenges

Interview by Ricardo Esteves
Published: December 20, 2022

Who Is David Shultz

David Shultz founded Sans Serif in 2011 to indulge his fascination with the Silicon Valley innovation culture. Collaborating with a range of long-term clients in technology and finance, he developed brand and event creative expertise – eventually building a multifaceted nationwide team.

Finding the right identity for your brand can sometimes be a more complex task than most anticipate, so much so that many companies look to re-branding as a way to reinvent themselves.

It so happens that Sans Serif is experienced on the matter, having worked with both start-ups looking for their identity and established companies eager for a re-invention.

Sans Serif’s founder, David Shultz, shared his input on the matter while also approaching the return of live events, cyber-security, and what the future holds for the company.

Spotlight: In your experience, what are the biggest branding and identity challenges companies typically face when they approach Sans Serif?

David Shultz: We work with both start-ups and Fortune 100 market leaders. Their challenges vary widely. A start-up may need to focus on cohesion – keeping everyone on the same page, singing the same song.

They are building a brand, and it’s in a fragile, formative stage. A Fortune 100 already has a brand firmly entrenched in millions of people’s minds. The challenge, in that case, is often how to build upon and strengthen the brand, while continuing to look for new, compelling, and authentic ways to express it.

At Sans Serif specifically, we are often entrusted with helping clients to clarify and express their brands faithfully in complicated, multi-stakeholder settings. With a flagship, global event that has tens of thousands of attendees, there are often multiple creative agencies involved, as well as internal brand teams, plus multiple event states in very different settings, from digital to in-person.

In situations like this, the challenge often becomes how to lean on the brand and its unifying power, while also being able to focus on what the event is about: celebration, strategic alignment, inspiration.

Can you share a few tips on proper branding for startups or companies looking for a re-brand?

Sometimes it can be tempting to jump into visuals and logo design because it’s fun and feels like the manifestation of the brand that people are familiar with. But the best branding starts with strategy.

The great brands have gone through the process, and that’s what makes them feel so effortless. Nail down the company mission, values, and positioning first and then you will start to see the voice, tone, and personality of the brand come to life.

In many ways, it’s about clarity of expression rather than creating something entirely new.

It’s good to remember that a new identity can only do so much. Don’t try to tell every story you have, and make sure the company culture reflects your brand values and positioning at every touchpoint.

Culture creates wins.

At its best, a logo, or even a visual system, is just an expression of the experience created through thousands of other touchpoints. Audiences will infuse the brand with meaning as they experience it.

How a company answers the phone or deals with challenges that emerge may ultimately inform the brand impression more than a visual mark. And all those impressions become embedded in how the visual brand is perceived.

Can you walk us through Sans Serif’s creative process, from first contact with a client to final execution?

We conceptualize our process in four stages, which are adaptable to each client and project. Since we prioritize relationships and collaboration, these stages help guide our personalized approach to whatever challenge or opportunity they bring to us for creative problem-solving.

The first is Discover: clarify business objectives and assess the current state of the experience. We start by understanding customers’ wants and needs and how well these are met by the existing experience. It’s a deep dive.

Next, we Define: articulating a customized strategy. We prioritize goals, strategies, and tactics that will best optimize the experience or interaction.

Third, we Develop: creatively explore and express strategic ideas. We generate ideas that are simple, exciting, and will provide exceptional value with minimum friction. We activate audiences by determining the best content and messaging at every point in the experience.

Finally, we Deploy: execute and implement. We build, test, and optimize experiences to drive more leads and conversions and to grow relationships with our clients’ customers.

What really sets Sans Serif apart is our team culture. We are a tight-knit group. Everyone takes ownership and pride in the work they do. We believe that a culture with high support is where true creativity and problem-solving thrive.

The best work comes out when we can create that environment within a project or client relationship – where we trust each other and can work together to come up with new and innovative solutions.

Sans Serif has partnered with various companies — from Cisco to Sephora — on live, digital, and hybrid events. How was it returning to live events in a post-pandemic era?

When we first went “virtual,” some people wondered if live events would ever return. Their cost and the environmental footprint seemed hard to justify – maybe this was the end. But, a quick look at post-event surveys highlighted how much people missed being together in the same space.

We lost those serendipitous encounters where you meet a mentor in a coffee line. In the emerging post-pandemic world, there’s a rekindled sense of enthusiasm. In a strange way, it was a reset that just proved how much people long to connect.

One interesting challenge, was getting people back into the processes that lead up to an event: submitting RSVPs, making travel arrangements, and of course, assuring them that health and safety come first.

Communication has had to be extra intuitive, streamlined, and clear while generating excitement and buy-in. We have, in some instances, had to reintroduce attendees to the signature attractions and features of their company’s flagship events and also consider a growing number of first-time attendees.

We’ve had the unique experience of being entrusted to preserve brand event culture and cohesion throughout the all-virtual period through the return to in-person events. It’s powerful to see people rediscover those moments and have the opportunity to welcome people into those community experiences.

Regarding the digital experience, how do you keep it engaging for the people on the other side of the screen?

The most important thing is to understand who is on the other side of the screen. We have to be able to empathize with their needs, desires, and pain points to deliver a great digital experience.

Digital is always evolving. Staying on top of current trends is super important, as is understanding how people are interacting with the latest technology.

A great customer experience is quick, convenient, and friendly. Keep it simple and reduce barriers while providing a warm and human interaction. Those tenets must be brought into the digital experience as well, and it can be a tough balance to master.

There are also occasions to create singular, surprising, unifying moments virtually that reduce that feeling of distance, that still gives the feeling of having an experience together.

We collaborate with our clients and other agency partners to carefully synchronize spectacle, messaging, and brand cohesion to create opportunities for those integrating moments.

Sans Serif logo on a black background

Sans Serif presented cyber threats personified as “little monsters” in a campaign designed to bring security awareness to global Cisco employees. Can you tell us more about that process and the feedback you got?

When the Cisco Security & Trust organization approached us to help improve internal data security habits, we saw an overwhelming amount of security information spread across a confusing network of internal sites.

Our client, Jeanne Hernandez, asked us to distill the story and break through the noise. We knew we didn’t want “hackers in hoodies,” 3D padlock illustrations, or Matrix-like rains of data. Instead, we began with a research project on how past campaigns changed behavior.

That included looking at everything from WWII “loose lips sink ships” posters to Smokey the Bear and the groundbreaking musical Virgin Airlines safety video. We also wanted to avoid an off-putting over-reliance on fear and guilt—the campaign needed to draw people in, not push them away.

All that preparatory work led us to create four campaign concepts. The Cisco team was immediately drawn to the option that “personified” the threats as monster characters. Those characters then became the centerpiece of a multimedia campaign across the global Cisco enterprise.

The monsters captured attention for a topic that had been very easy to overlook. We then funneled that attention into a training website where we distilled the requested action into four simple and accessible training modules. We even made biodegradable monster toys as an incentive.

The campaign has reached legendary status within the company, and has raised widespread awareness and action – helping to “Keep Cisco Safe.”

While we’re at it, can you share some of the biggest mistakes workers make that might endanger a company’s cyber security?

Through our Cisco data security projects, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about data security. It’s easy to assume that security is someone else’s problem, or that technology will protect everyone. In fact, many breaches are the result of small (or big) mistakes by people.

The leading mistakes are rooted in password selection (people choose ones that are too basic or easily guessed), password storage (keeping log-ins in browsers or on sticky notes), and a lack of simple tools such as two-factor authentication and password managers.

People also need a healthy dose of skepticism when looking at emails; although scams can be sophisticated, there are lots of clues to watch for (check the URL and watch out for suspicious links).

What about the future of Sans Serif? Any campaigns or events we should be on the lookout for?

There’s a lot of exciting work on the horizon for next year – especially interesting digital work – and we’re expanding the team. We are also working on a new website for a wonderful non-profit, Mission Bit, that will launch this spring, that the team is really excited about.

As always, we are thrilled for the new year’s cycle of our clients’ events. We learn so much every year, both within our event teams and cross-pollinating ideas across industries.

There’s always a sense of, “I can’t wait to apply that new insight next year!” It’s great to partner with multiple agencies and see such large events come to life in such short amounts of time. It’s teamwork at its best!

Thank you for your time, David Shultz. Best of luck to you and Sans Serif!

Keep up with Sans Serif on LinkedIn and read about other successful businesses here.

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