The Power of Animation in Branding with Christine Mackay

animation brand strategy brandin podcast May 05, 2022

Christine Mackay: I think a lot of it is in the tone of voice tone of voice is really important. And, you know, we have always been a kind of agency that's not smoke and mirrors or you know, it's what you see is what you get. So the tone of voice is professional but friendly.

Shireen Smith: Hello, and welcome to the Brand Tuned podcast hosted by me, Shireen Smith, IP lawyer, marketer, and author of Brand Tuned. The podcast focuses on how to design brands, avoiding commoditization and intersecting them with intellectual property during the creation process. My guest today is Christine Mackay of Salamandra.uk an animation agency, she helps her clients to communicate complex messages using animation. Christine has just written her own book as well, destination animation, which we'll find out about later I'm sure. So welcome to the Brand Tuned podcast Christine, please tell us more about yourself and what you do.

Christine Mackay: Thanks so much Shireen, thanks so much for having me on. So yes, we I work well, I run an animation studio called Salamandra.uk, we've got studios in Eaton, Dundee and feet on the ground in San Francisco as well. And we primarily work with b2b animation unlike the sort of the Disney's and the Pixar type of animation that are very popular and quite beautiful. We help businesses to convey their complex messages using animation on any platform, actually. And we work with 2d, 3d, AR, VR, you know, motion graphics, mix it up with live film footage, that sort of stuff. And it's really about getting less complex messages across visually because it makes it more memorable. And, yeah, we're all pretty passionate about doing that. And because we don't work in one particular industry, we work about 18 industries or so it means that no two days are ever, ever alike. And obviously, with technology changing at a pace, whether it's the hardware or the software, it means that we get to experiment and try all sorts of new things, which is really good fun.

Shireen Smith: Right. So when did you start the business or what actually led you to do that sort of line of work?

Christine Mackay: So I actually ran. So I've travelled a lot quite overseas, working and travel. And I actually started Salamandra. In, Africa years ago, and then moved. So I drove across Africa down to South Africa, stay there for a number of years, then went to New Zealand. And that's where I discovered animation as an incredible, sort of medium. And then when I came back to the UK, and then I thought, well, there's definitely a gap in the market for helping, you know, clients getting that convert conveying that complex messages across and this is a brilliant way of doing it. I'm very visual myself, I've even got sort of like a more of a visual memory. And I learned better visually. So I thought it was a great medium to help businesses to you know, to get whether it's internal comms or, or adverts or corporate explainers, you name it. There's all sorts of things that we can do with animation. And I started at Salamandre.uk, in 2014. So coming up to eight years in June. And actually, when we first started, we weren't as niche and just animation, we were animation brand and web. So we had all these different services that we could help businesses with. And then we sort of started niching, more and more. It was it went animation brand and web then it went animation and design. And now it's just animation. But although we still do quite a bit of designing. I mean, it's still part of what we do anyway. But the focus is definitely animation and conveying those complex messages.

Shireen Smith: Did you have experience running a business before? I mean, what led you?

Christine Mackay: Well, I did when I first started Salamandre overseas, which was a more of a design and comms kind of company. So I ran that for six or seven years before leaving for New Zealand. And yeah, so So I had already some experience of starting a business. Yeah.

Shireen Smith: So the name how did you go about choosing that name? 

Christine Mackay: Well that’s an old nickname. And so I actually grew up. So my parents moved around quite a bit. I grew up in Portugal and in Europe, most countries the word salamander is Salamandre. And it was an old nickname so and I love lizards. And it just became quite I don't know why but people seem to really like the name and I wonder whether it's got lots of A's in it, it's quite a friendly vowel sound. And I don't know it, it definitely resonates. So, and we took that, you know, the lizard theme, and we've developed it more and more, it's now a 3d mascot. As you can see behind me dancing, a little sombre, so is very much part of our branding. And people really identify with that as a sort of part of our tone of voice if you like. So it's become quite useful. In fact, we heard recently that having a mascot as part of your company, apparently increases your turnover by six or seven times. So we're happy for that is one of our speakers, we run a couple of meetup groups one is a tech and SAS Meetup group. The other was a farmer one which require host. And it was one of our speakers. Like me, I can't remember I can get back to you on that, but I can't remember his name. But I found that really interesting. statistic, really.

Shireen Smith: I often think it's such a shame, people don't choose something more visual, you know, they go through this branding exercise and emerge with some sort of ordinary word mark, and nothing else, you know, a colour. And that's all they have to stand out with. So a mascot seems brilliant. Yeah, I think.

Christine Mackay: Even if you have a word as part of your branding, you could. And of course, I would say this, but you could animate the logo, and it could come to life. And in that coming to life, you could actually convey some of what it is that you do. Because animation is very, very malleable, you can do anything you can make it photorealistic or painterly or, you know, vector star, any hand drawn style, whatever you want. So, and we're very lucky, we got a very, very talented team, and they do all that all the different styles you want enhanced, which is great. But you know, no brand needs to be boring, even if you already exist with a certain set of brand guidelines, or even a name or, you know, you can always bring it to life in all sorts of different ways.

Shireen Smith: Oh that’s curious what so you have the letters of the alphabet, effectively.

Christine Mackay: It could be anything, it could be something happening in front of the lettering, and then it pops into the letters or it could be you know, something happens before the letters even get drawn on. We've got animated email signatures that every time we send out an email, we've got our own sort of animated branding that goes out with it, your sickness. And it's what makes it memorable people sort of get what you do instantly. And you can do that with it with a GIF, which is a short, you know, three to five second animation, we can you can repurpose in all sorts of different ways. You can use it in electronic white papers, or social media or email signatures or, or peppered around your websites, presentations, because lots of different ways of doing it. You know, we're very, we are humanly attracted to images, before text, but we're even more irresistibly attracted to moving images, you can't help but it's distracting you go look at it like like, Sal behind me, who moves every once in a while people say, well, it's very distracting. But yes, that's the boring people don't kind of forget it. And when there's a number of people on a big sort of zoom call, people always notice when my team or I am on the call because we've got a branding behind us. And it's a brand's valuable, they're an expensive but very valuable asset to have in any business. And I think you should treat it with sort of the as I say the importance in the focus it needs it's really what gets you out there might be remember, isn't it?

Shireen Smith: So did you have help with your branding in 2014? Did you actually launch it with the logo you now have and so have you made?

Christine Mackay: No 3d cell didn't exist then. So it was very much just similar to that the brand new see blog, which has got the lizard and the writing or the font and the branding has morphed over the last sort of seven-eight years. And so I used my when I first started actually I used because I had traveled around quite a bit I used my contacts to set up an outsource to various people before I started organically building the brand and the company rather and having people work you know, as part of a physical team in the UK, so but are because I'm quite visual. I already had sort of quite a few ideas in my head but yeah, it does take a good designer to create something that works well. And I love the colours as well. And the colours are quite so it's you know that teal green turquoise and the vibrant green. I think it's it's nice and bright so I do like a bright colours

Shireen Smith: So when did Sal emerge?

Christine Mackay: Really so? So he's been he's sort of, sort of morphed from 2d to 3d. And we've had 3d self for a good few years now about three or so years, three, four years. Something like that. I can't remember exactly. But like, like most brands, it may sort of organically improve as you go.

Shireen Smith: So how much thinking did you do when you started the business in terms of how you're going to differentiate yourself from competitors, what competitors were there, tell me about that.

Christine Mackay: I think a lot of it is in the tone of voice tone of voice is really important. And, you know, we have always been a kind of agency that's not smoke and mirrors, or, you know, it's what you see is what you get. So the tone of voice is professional, but friendly, and other brands quite playful. But again, serious, in the sense of our skills are definitely, you know, been proven, where we've been very fortunate to be multi award winning, and in both film and business, so that obviously reflects that we're kind of, you know, recognized in those fields, which is fantastic. And with regards to sort of, I think, with any business, when you get started, you just have to just go for it, obviously, plan as much as you can, but it's never a perfect time. So I think with any branding, even if it's not 100%, ready, just, you know, be as ready as possible, go for it, and then, you know, improve it as you go. So I think at the time, there weren't many agencies offering b2b animation. And to be fair, it's still not massive, I mean, compared to say, branding agencies, or, you know, customer experience, user experience, those kind of agencies, there's quite a lot but with animation, because partly because it's quite a skilled thing to have to, to know and have under your belt, I guess. And also, when with many animators, when they sort of finished their degrees, or what have you, they tend to want to go and do all the big Disney Pixar type animations. And what we do is quite different. So it uses different platforms. It's obviously short projects, rather than projects that will go over, you know, two to five years, where you might be working on, I don't know, two minutes worth of film over two years, whereas you might be working on 60 seconds, over four weeks. It's very different sort of approach and different formats. But equally, I think, really good fun, because you get to see the project from beginning to end. Whereas if you're working with massive teams of people, you are an important cog, of course, but you're still a cog in a much larger machine. 

Shireen Smith: So what does Salamandre represent to because to me, this sort of a lizard is, is kind of something I'd recall from so tell me more?

Christine Mackay: Well, I think I think lizards are incredible creatures, I think they come in all shapes and sizes. A Salamander. A real salamander is an incredible creature, because, it can actually come out of the ashes is a bit like a phoenix. And often, where we grew up, I grew up in sort of woods in Portugal, and every summer there'd be sort of forest fires and stuff and, and the sun would get in through fire. That's when the salamanders come out. And they quite spectacular look like they look like they're wearing hippie outfits as sort of blacks and oranges and yellows and stuff looks like sort of tie dye, kind of look. They're quite amazing. And I think everything that they denote it lizards in any format, they live in all sorts of different territories. A salamander, as I say it can be reborn through ashes. I think they are clever and I don't know there's lots of attributes that I like about this is I find them really beautiful. There's one lizard I think it's from New Zealand that's really cute. It's a bit bright green light Sol and doesn't have any eyelids so it uses its tongue to lick it sighs and it looks like windscreen wipers. It's really funny. But they're very, very cute. They look really naughty. And, and sort of and have a twinkle in their eye so I think they're cute and funny and smart. So I guess those are some of the attributes that I would associate with a brand. We aren't we are a professional but sort of fun kind of brand. That makes sense.

Shireen Smith: Yeah, well, Sal is very endearing for sure.

Christine Mackay: So hopefully that recall from him

Shireen Smith: No but you know the idea of a lizard choosing that but I guess there's a crocodile as well that has chosen crocodile, Lacoste crocodile.

Christine Mackay: Yes. Yeah.

Shireen Smith: Yeah. It's just, I guess I would tend to go for different sort of animals. So I'm just curious why you will? 

Christine Mackay: What would you go for if you picked an animal? 

Shireen Smith: I don’t know maybe a horse or I’ve gone for a Ram with our own sort of visual element. 

Christine Mackay: You’re horsewoman yourself?

Shireen Smith: No, no, I have ridden but I'd be too scared to do it now.

Christine Mackay: Rather large creatures, aren't they.

Shireen Smith: And I was often very fascinated by horses. As a child, I keep drawing horses. Yeah.

Christine Mackay: A horse is really difficult to draw, you picked a quite difficult animal to draw, I think that's interesting.

Shireen Smith: So as salamander it's really good to see somebody focusing on standing out visually, instead of just you know, through. And also, the colour stands out quite a lot. But tell me about the competition, because you said it's getting more competitive, would you be doing anything to separate yourself and differentiate yourself from them apart from your distinctive visual identity?

Christine Mackay: To be honest, we don't really focus on the competition very much we just get on with it. Our competitors, the people that we really look up to a much larger agencies now as and it's always good to benchmark yourself and to try and do better. But I'm not too distracted by people who are similar to us or maybe getting started. Because I think there's the pie is big enough for everybody really do. And so it doesn't really faze me too much. We just do things our way. We've got so as I say, as I said mentioned before, we are very passionate. We I guess that the three kind of things that make us stand out is that we get what our clients do, we generate results and we innovate. And for us, it's all about the client, we want to delight at every stage of their experience of us from the onboarding, through to every meeting through to, you know, obviously, the end result, we want them to be sort of singing from the rooftops, which they very often do, which is great. And, and also, obviously referrals are fantastic. When clients love what we do. And then they refer us to other people that absolutely first prize. And, and we love that. And I think for any other business, whether they're in animation, or else, I really think that of course you keep an eye on on the competition in particular, it's a fierce market, but I wouldn't get bogged down with it. Focus on what you want to do and your passion, because it's a bit like, can never get over, you know, when you're watching, say the Olympics, and you see a race. And then right at the last minute, if people look back to see who's coming, I mean, surely you should be focusing going forward a minute you look back, you slow down, and you've given the competition, you know, time tick to get ahead of you. And I've never understood that psyche. So I'd rather not get distracted on looking backwards or looking sideways, I want to look forward love seeing what the people that really aspire to be like and what they doing. And we follow quite a lot of companies that we really like. And it's just I think you can really get bogged down with competition, I think it's more about really do what you love. And that will start shining out and find people who are like minded. For us as our, our core values are really important. And, and something that we've built together as a team. And we try and live it as much as possible to so for example, when, when we have our one on ones, which regular as you know, as possible, every eight weeks or so, we always start by the four core values and how we've lived them. And that way, it's quite cool, because sometimes you forget, I don't know how to live that core value this week. But you've done this. Oh, yes, yes, you know, and then it's, it's sort of re emphasizes who you are, why you're doing it, who you are as a team, etc. And I think if you focus on those things, much better than focusing on competition, again, only if it really is a super, super competitive market. And you've got to know what your competition is up to you. Yes, I understand that. But I think in our industry it's I don't think it's like that. 

Shireen Smith: Well in many industries I think there's too many people chasing work so what happens is there is some work for everyone but not as much as they might like so that's a lot of part of why I haven't had the strategy to differentiate and attract your ideal customers. But you know, if you're getting enough work I guess it doesn't matter then.

Christine Mackay: Well I mean, we're always looking for more work will never turn work away if we if we can help it but yeah, I know I just think that it's about priorities and what you focus, isn't it? For us, it's about giving excellent service. And, as I say, delighting our clients at every opportunity.

Shireen Smith: So when a client comes to you, is there a particular reason that prompts them to turn to you?

Christine Mackay: Yes, often. So companies find that they can't articulate what they do internally or externally. And often, we found it a lot with engineering firms and companies that are quite complex and sometimes quite hard to explain, or pharmaceutical companies, for example, they might have, or even finance companies that have very complex products. And we've had people say, Well, you know, we can't articulate what we do, we don't know if we'll be able to, and then what we do is to what I said earlier, but we get what do you do, we have to really understand what a company does, and what their services or what have you, before we can even start on the narrative. So the understanding part is really key. And once we understand we fully understand, say, the brand, who you're talking to, what their pain points are, etc. And, you know, what, what is the challenge that you've got, because it might not be an animation, then we'll come up with some, you know, suggestions on how to tackle that challenge. And, and for us, as well, it's quite important to have some kind of call to action for whatever we create for our clients, and also encourage them to repurpose wherever we create, because, you know, every marketing budget is finite, as we all know, and it has to have some kind of return on investment. So yeah, that answers a question.

Shireen Smith: Yeah. So what sort of rights do you give people? Obviously, there's lots of copyright issues, and how do you deal with that for your client?

Christine Mackay: Well, the mp4, whatever it is that we create for them, is theirs to use as they like. But any sort of things that, for example, working in 3d, we don't give any raw files out to clients, because for many reasons, for 3d workers, because it's our work, they get the MPs, which is actually fine. But all the backend stuff is quite complex and remains sort of our property if you like, but they don't need that anyway. And even if they did sort of ask for things that we normally say, well, we pretty much always say no, because when you hand over stuff like that, it doesn't get used in the same way. And it's not the same sort of model of software, etc. It ends up getting corrupted, and just a great big mess. And then we've had clients come back, so can you fix it for us, and it's just such a nightmare to, to fix something that's been really, really corrupted. So what we do is we agree on what it is they need, and that NPC is what they get.

Shireen Smith: Okay, if you're creating something like so for me, I would want to have copyright of that, because it's going to become part of my brand. What would you say? 

Christine Mackay: Yeah, that's, that will be fine because it is a standalone piece. But often when we're doing 3D work, it's got quite a lot of other stuff in there. But yeah, if you're paying for it, yeah, yeah. 

Shireen Smith: And do involve freelancers to create that for.

Christine Mackay: No. Everybody's in house.

Shireen Smith: Good. So, where does the book fit into that? Why have you written the book?

Christine Mackay: Well, we often get asked by clients, and friends and family, that kind of stuff, you know, you know, what, how does it work? You know, how do you know what's in my head? If I want to do an animation or anything that's animated, if I want an animated presentation, or, you know, virtual torium, or, you know, some, augmented reality or virtual reality, you know, where do I even start? So, we were always fielding this question. So I thought, well, let me I'll show you the book. This is what the book looks like destination animation. And it's it was a bestseller on Amazon, which is brilliant, and Kindle. But the idea is really to illustrate the, you know, as a marketeer, as a business owner, you know, if you want to start and going down the journey of creating animation, it takes you through every step of the way, how to pick, you know, a good agency, what to look for, in a good agency, you know, how do you pick? How do you do the brief? What should be in it? What are the different styles you can go for, you know, what are the formats? How can you use it, you know, etc, etc. So it really goes through all the different steps. And that's why it's called destination animation, because it's done a bit like an underground map, where it shows our methodology of what we do, you know, clients sign off the next bit, the client sign off, etc. It's a very collaborative process, the way that we run it, so that it's not that, you know, went away and go and make an animation, come back to here go and the clients not seeing any of it. It's very much, you know, they sign off at every stage and it sort of talks about the different stages. And also I think it's Many people think that for some reason animation is cheaper than video. And to the third, don't understand why. Because when you're videoing something, so your half day shoot, for example, everything that you're shooting already exists, you know, the sky, the leaves, the birds, the people that gravity, you know, sound, but if you're creating an animation, you literally have to build everything from scratch your world, your 3d Enos or to Linus, you know, the sound, the voiceovers, the OS in the narrative, etc, etc. So, for a 62nd, say, animation, it could take us four to six weeks, with a bunch of people working on the project with obviously, you know, approval processes with, with the clients. So it is, you know, a chunky piece of work. 

But the great thing about it is, then, if the further down the line, you need to amend it or updated or refresh it, we didn't know that if you had it on film, you'd have to go back to same place, get the same setting and get the same people same talent, same lighting to make it look like it's the same piece. But with animation, you can, you know, change it at any stage, you could change the voiceover to any language, I've done pretty much every language, I think, in most parts of the world in the animations that we've done for business. And if you take, for example, an Ikea catalogue, most of the photographs aren't photographs, they’re 3d renders. And the same with a lot of car and swerve, for example. You know, they might do a shoot in beautiful winding roads in Italy, or France, and then suddenly decide to change a bumper, while they're not going to do the same shoot again, actually get companies like ours to go and recreate, digitally, the actual bumper to show how it's, you know, with the new shape. So CG eyes, it's come a long way. And it's often very hard to, work out what's real, and what's digital. And that's what makes it really fun. Because, you know, we found that during COVID, for example, and lockdown, you know, we've created virtual tutorials, we've created a hybrid, you know, green screens, and then recreate anything you like, behind a speaker. No, we've heard in something that we've done, we've had soul will be across the stage and having graphs in 3d come up next to me while you're talking. And this is in a sort of a fake, massive stage with all sorts of things going on in the background. So it really brings a different dimension to if you're stuck behind a screen in a zoom or you can't get to conference. And with VR, for example, you can create virtual Expo stands, you can, you know, send a headset through to VIP customers and create a whole demo with avatars. Avatars is the latest thing as well. It's very futuristic.

Shireen Smith: So with the book, then people are more likely to come to you ready to go ahead because they'll have done more of the thinking. And you'll have less explaining to do to them is that right?

Christine Mackay:  Well, maybe, maybe not. I think it depends on where they were to begin with and what they want to do. There's still lots of discussions to be had with regards to, you know, what is their business challenge and what they need help with and why they want to do it. But yeah, hopefully, they get a better idea and a better idea of what's out there as well. Because it's, you know, people say, Well, you know, how much animation or well, do you want 10 seconds, you know, 60 seconds, 90 seconds or 10 minutes? Do you want 2d 3d, a mixture of the two? I mean, how complex is it? You know, is it one character is it 20 It's, it's really, everything's tailored, everything we do is, is tailored and we, you know, assist clients to work with them to get the best possible solution that they need, 

Shireen Smith: Is there starting price that they should, that you?

Christine Mackay: It really depends on what they want, again, you know, whether it's a 2d thing or a 3d thing, and again, how complex it is, for example, you could do a 3d 3d illustration that's not moving. That then doesn't mean bones. So it Sal back here. He's built in 3d, but it's completely bone, which means that we can move them and make them do all sorts of things from blinking to breathing to opening his mouth or to, you know, movie walking, jumping, and to bone him up is a completely different job than just drawing him in 3d. So again.

Shireen Smith: What about you create a cartoon? Do you also do that? 

Christine Mackay: So a cartoon as in what to two dimensional rather three dimensional? No cartoon, two dimensional ones that are not beyond their nature? 

Shireen Smith: So you do that?

Christine Mackay: Yes, we do. 

Shireen Smith: You do 2D, so presumably, that would be cheaper and somebody can get?

Christine Mackay: Again It depends.

Shireen Smith: There’s lots of drawings to do, aren’t they?

Christine Mackay: Well, it's mostly done. We do have some hand drawn but it's quite rare. We tend to do it. sort of computer generated, drawing what is still drawn, but it's drawn digitally, as opposed to, in a sort of a traditional staff and make sense.

Shireen Smith: Sounds very complicated. 

Christine Mackay: If you read the book, it's quick to read. It's not too long.

Shireen Smith: And so I've got a few questions before we finish. One is, what do you think is the single most important thing a company needs to focus on? As far as its brand is concerned?

Christine Mackay: I mean, that's a big question. Single most thing they need to think about from a branding perspective.

Shireen Smith: As far as their brand is concerned, or alternatively, what how would you define a brand?

Christine Mackay: I think a brand is many things, I think it really is your identity. So it needs to reflect who you are. So if you're a, you know, a very serious, traditional company, you don't want to clown denoting what you do. And vice versa? If you're, you know, again, it depends. Exactly, it totally depends on who your target audience is, you've got to understand who your target audience are, who you're servicing, and what do they like, and what resonates with them. So as long as whatever you're doing resonates with that target audience, then you're kind of halfway there. And then it needs to resonate with what you're offering, who you are, and how you do it. For example, one of my favourite brands is a company called an I'm sorry, there's an exclusive and it's, it's an Australian brand called Who gives a crap. And they, they're a charity, they create bamboo based toilet paper. And their branding is fantastic. Because it is always on point, it is always very funny. very cheeky excuse upon which they use that pun a lot. And, you know, everything from the way they advertise to their, their billing, to the way that it's packaged. So every touchpoint screams their brand. And to the point that, you know, when you pick up the box that arrives in it says your bum looks nice or something like this. And, you know, you're carrying this around, we have at the office, and I have it at home as well. And I just think you know, there's branding everywhere you should, if you've got a brand, make sure it's everywhere. We certainly do we remember using our brand and every possible touchpoint that we possibly can, because it's an investment any company makes and their brand. So you should use it as much as possible and be on brand as much as possible.

Shireen Smith: Yeah, well, they're obviously doing it right. Because you're the third person who on this show has mentioned that company. 

Christine Mackay: Yeah, well, another contrast of that, for example, another brand I really love, which is very traditional brand. And it's also sort of okay has morphed through the centuries, but it's still very traditional is important reasons. I mean, what a great brand is that, you know, they, again, completely different from you know, who gives a crap but, but still very on point very on brand, everything they do. It's it's all about quality and tradition and, and beauty and taste and all that kind of stuff and they never get it wrong either. So it's about being consistent. I think, if you pick whatever your brand is be consistent in everything that you do to reflect that.

Shireen Smith: Well thank you very much, Christine, for coming on the pleasure.

Christine Mackay: Thanks, Shireen. It's been great. Thanks a lot.

Shireen Smith: Bye. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe on your favourite platform. It really helps to spread the word about it. If you want to appear on the podcast, get in touch directly with me, proposing a topic that you think is relevant to the focus of the podcast.