We're proud of Karma Go and the company we've built to build, serve, support and promote it. In this series, we'll be telling the behind-the-scenes story of how we got here.
A couple years ago, when Karma was just a few Dutch guys with an idea, we needed a visual identity. Our CEO Steven, a graphic designer himself, reached out to Peter Sunna for help building the look of the new company. Peter, born in Sweden and now living in Brooklyn, got his start in design with album covers for bands, before moving on to branding and strategy for major brands like Burton, Microsoft, and Nike. Karma was something different: a tiny startup with a big idea.
"Ultimately, I think they wanted to look like the big boys," explains Peter. Karma's competition wasn't scrappy web startups, it was the major carriers; multi-billion dollar behemoths with cash to spare and little need for personality. The branding Peter delivered, which included the "Loop" logo and overall look of our website and marketing material, helped Karma position itself in that space. The Loop was the heart of the new brand, meant to express community and movement. Some of the marketing materials, however, ended up looking a little generic.
The Karma "Loop"
Startups are never a safe bet, and hardware startups are a double risk, but Karma delivered on its promises. A different kind of internet hotspot, with more functionality and perks than what was being delivered by the big carriers, along with a human-friendly business model. With the original idea proven, Karma started looking forward to a next-generation LTE product, and we wanted a new brand to go with it.
So Steven reached out to Peter again. After talking to Steven, Peter saw the need, and opportunity, for Karma to think more deeply about its brand. Not just a new coat of paint, but a fundamental refocus. To help do this, Peter brought in Teke Busk, a friend and frequent collaborator. Teke's specialty is brand strategy, and he saw the same opportunity Peter saw in Karma. He started out by talking with our company's founders, Steven and Stefan.
Not just a new coat of paint, but a fundamental refocus
"What I found was a total disconnect between the passion of Steven and Stefan and the website," explains Teke. For instance, the "lifestyle" photography we had of good-looking people smiling and using Karma could work almost interchangeably with any major technology brand. "You take out the Karma device from the photo and you can put a Microsoft Surface in there," says Peter.
Teke wanted Karma to explain the "why" of the company. Show how we weren't just a competent alternative to the big guys, but founded from an entirely different idea. "For startups, the 'why' often becomes the differentiator," says Teke.
I first met Peter and Teke at a companywide "brand development session" a couple weeks after I joined the company. The development session, a sort of collaborative, structured brainstorm, is a favorite technique of Teke, which tasks every employee with guided group activities. No trust falls, but a lot of writing and spitballing, as we explored what our company's culture was from the inside out. Our job was to explain what Karma was "in the business of," and as Teke and Peter suspected — and hinted to us heavily — it was a lot larger than "building WiFi hotspots." Words like "independence," "rebellion," and "empowering" came to the front. It wasn't just Steven and Stefan, the founders, who had these ideas in mind; it turned out that changing the way people connect was why everybody else joined the company, too.
The brand development session
"It was quite apparent what the company stood for, but that wasn't being communicated in the brand," says Teke. "The brand development session was about getting the team to give us the language to express it."
Language in hand, Peter and Teke retreated to their bat cave to work on a new vision statement for the company, and a design that reflected that vision. For Karma, they say it was a process of "Pushing the limits in the right direction." Karma is still a consumer technology company, and we still sell a useful, reliable product at a good price. Some of the new imagery and language we wanted to use is more often associated with selling jeans than selling electronics.
But a guiding principle throughout is that we didn't have to position Karma as something built for a vaguely-defined, focus-tested “market segment.” Karma wasn't just for generic middle class adults with 1.5 kids, it was for us: designers, developers, writers, doers. The Karma team is young, international, and hugely ambitious, and our brand should highlight that, not hide it.
Page 35 from the guide: Typography
The resulting brand guide Peter and Teke delivered — after several rounds of input from the team — specifies everything from our logo and word mark, to the font we use on our website, the colors we use in our ads, and the suggested length of our sentences in written communications. Peter's original logo remains the same, because the original ideas that inspired it remain true, but every other aspect of the brand has been tweaked, changed, and more deeply defined. It's a huge PDF with dozens and dozens of pages about how Karma should look, feel, and act. And, frankly, I found it a little bit intimidating.
Peter's original logo remains the same, because the original ideas that inspired it remain true
Teke laughed when I told him this, and assured me it's not a book of hard and fast rules. "In the beginning it's very normal that people have this feeling of 'doing something wrong'," he explains, saying that some companies will call him repeatedly after receiving their brand guide, checking whether or not what they're doing is "on brand." The key is to "Trust that you are part of the brand," he says. The brand is how we live it out, not something written down in a PDF. This might all sound a little lame and corporate-speak, if it weren't such a damn fun brand to live out.
Apparently Peter thought so: shortly after delivering the brand guide, Peter quit his consulting work and joined Karma full time. "The interesting part for me is now building this out long term," he explains. Karma’s really just getting started, we’re just finding our voice, and I’m glad Peter’s here to help us express it.