Q&A: Ethan Kanat of Zendesk on Rebranding & Creativity

Every day, Ethan Kanat, Senior Creative Brand Manager at Zendesk, brings his creativity to work to help craft, shape, and preserve the Zendesk brand. In our latest Q&A, he chats about his path to brand management, the surprising reaction to Zendesk’s rebrand, and the job’s biggest challenges.

C5: What do you do at Zendesk? And what does that mean?

EK: Technically my title is Senior Staff Brand Manager. But that’s probably going to change, since it doesn’t really describe what I do. I started here as a copywriter, back when the Creative Team was pretty small. I worked with the Design and Video Teams on everything from websites and banner ads to TV commercials and weird SEO hacks like this.

I still do those things, but now I also think more holistically about the brand. That basically means I serve as an envoy from the Brand Team, making sure that any experience anyone has with Zendesk looks and feels like Zendesk.

C5: What did your career journey look like? How did you come to find yourself in this role?

EK: I started off as a musician. My only career goal was to be a rock star. I played in punk bands, jazz bands, electro bands, shitty pop bands—anything I thought might allow me to make a living playing music. Eventually, I got a little smarter and moved into the business side of the music business. I worked as a radio DJ, music writer, and even ran my own record label.

The record label office was right next door to a boutique creative agency. They liked the writing I did for the label’s music blog, so they hired me to do some copywriting. That led to some freelancing, which, in turn, led to me working for a bunch of agencies and fancy tech companies. And that led me to Zendesk.

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C5: What made you initially want to work at Zendesk? What’s your favorite thing about working there?

EK: Actually, I didn’t really want to work full time for a tech company. But one of my friends convinced me to check it out. I looked at the website and saw all this great design, cheeky copy, and a bunch of videos that were way cooler than they had a right to be. So I went for it.

And I’m glad that I did, because now I get to work with some of the best, most artistic, most creative-thinking people I’ve ever met. Which is also my favorite thing about working here.

C5: What does your team look like?

EK: I’m part of the Brand Team, which includes Designers, Writers, and Video Wizards. We all work together on a wide variety of projects—everything from websites and TV commercials to event experience design and interoffice karaoke competitions.

C5: What does your average day-to-day look like?

EK: It usually starts with a 10- to 15-minute delay on BART. (This is an inside joke for any SF residents reading this—but also a sad reality.) And then there is some strong coffee.

Otherwise, each day is a little bit different. I’m a copywriter by trade, so some days I just have to sit down and bang out some banner ads. I’m also the de facto emissary from brand, so I have a lot of meetings with other teams to make sure they’re representing us in a way that jives with the look and feel of Zendesk.

But the best days are when I get to collaborate with my team on more exciting projects—things like big video productions, brand awareness campaigns, quirky internal communications initiatives. I love collaborating with people and seeing what kind of weird shit we can think up when we all put our minds to it. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does it’s the highlight of my work week.

C5: Tell us about the rebrand: What was that process like? How long did it take? Who was involved?

EK: The short version is, it was a lot of work. A bunch of people were involved in the initial strategy. Then the Design Team took over to handle visual identity. At first we tried to outsource a lot of it, but we weren’t happy with what we got back. So we took it in-house and were much happier with the results.

But you know what’s probably more interesting than reading what I have to say about it? Watching this sweet video we made:

C5: How has the reception been? What do people love most about your brand?

EK: The public hates rebrands, so we were bracing for a total shit storm. In fact, we wrote three pages of prepared responses so our social team would be ready to handle all the people throwing shade on Twitter. But it never happened. We got one guy who said something like, “Your new brand sucks and you suck.” But that was it. Generally speaking, people loved it. We got a lot of good press and even won a couple awards.

C5: What’s your strategy for taking the brand and translating it through everything you guys do?

EK: This is probably the hardest part of what I do. Most people in the company understand the value of a strong brand, and they get why ours works. But making sure something is on brand is tricky; it’s all in the small details. Everyone on the Brand Team is obsessive about getting it just right.

However, most other people in the company don’t share that obsession. They focus more on normal business things, like speed, productivity, and, you know, making money. So our strategy is to get in at the beginning. As soon as people start working on messaging for a new product, or thinking about a new web experience, we’re in those meetings. That way we can make sure there’s always a compelling narrative, that it makes sense in the context of everything else we’re doing, and that the design is super fresh.

C5: What’s one piece of career advice that you would give to anyone looking to pursue a career in marketing?

EK: Well, I don’t work in Marketing, so my first piece of advice would be don’t take any advice from me. But if you want to do something similar to what I do, I would suggest being interested in a lot of things. Sure, I have a literature degree, and I went to ad school. But a lot of times it’s my outside interests that give me the extra creative kick I need to make something good.

You have to have structure to your thinking and understand what you’re trying to achieve, of course. But if you can pull inspiration from an obscure cartoon, or a music video, or a cooking lesson you once took, your work will be more interesting to you—and that will make it more interesting to everyone else.

C5: Any last words of wisdom?

EK: The wisest thing I’ve ever heard came from my son when he was 3 years old: “Just roll down the windows, listen to loud Rock ‘n’ Roll, and be happy.”

Many thanks to Ethan for sharing his thoughts. For more wisdom from game-changers in content marketing and content strategy, check out these Q&As:

Of course, if you need any help with your own marketing, we’d love to chat.