Created in 2003 by five partners, Skype was bought by Microsoft for more than £5bn in 2011.
We caught up with Gary Bramall, global senior brand director of consumer apps & services at Microsoft, to find out about how Skype built its brand team from scratch, and how the Skype brand is rolled out across the rest of the business.
Bramall, who has worked for brands including Orange and Apple, was brought in to head up brand four-and-a-half years ago. He is in charge of the brand teams for Skype, Bing, MSN, Onedrive, IE, Outlook.com, and Lync.
The Skype brand team, which is made up of 33 staff, is now spread across Microsoft offices in Palo Alto, Seattle and London. The latter, where Bramall is based, opened in March 2013.
Bramall says, ‘We have a complete mix of people. We have the former global senior art director from Apple, Susan Park, who is creative director here, and Maria Ramos who was head of brand implementation at London 2012 Olympics and is now head of brand management at Skype – there’s a broad range.’
Others from the agency side include creative leads Jesse Boyce, who ran his own consultancy Lethal, and Al Johnson, who was creative director at LBI.
By and large Skype looks to its own brand team when a project arises as it has the capabilities to work in house and, as Bramall says, ‘It’s interconnected to the daily rhythm of the business.’
He adds, ‘We do outsource, most often to production houses, but I’ll always take the creative lead on anything we outsource and nothing is ever pitched in.’
Bramall says that as the Skype brand is in the hands of his team, the brand has been given an inbuilt flexibility and there is no real need for a set of guidelines. ‘I’m not a big believer in guidelines – documenting the brand like that would just mean things become out of date very quickly,’ he says.
Bramall does concede that there are ‘limited guidelines’ but maintains that there is a large amount of creative freedom and says that his team shapes the direction of the brand rather then works within its guidelines.
Bramall credits Susan Park with helping to drive this agenda – ‘Since Susan came in she’s help change the way it looks, there’s better story-telling and it has a strong voice which is very liberating.’
‘Anything to do with look and feel my team manages,’ says Bramall, who adds that his team ‘partners with UI, UX and graphics teams’ which means they are involved in interface and product development, including interface visuals around ‘user flows’ as well as ‘brand intervention into products and tone of voice,’ he adds.
‘We need to think about what it should, look, sound and feel like, so it is co-authored between the brand and design teams in that sense’ Bramall says.
When it comes to sound, Skype first developed its sounds ten years ago and they became less effective as they were compressed and reduced for different purposes.
Bramall says the brand team and the design team looked to reconstruct them ‘to understand the essence of the sonic brand.’
‘We spent four months in a sound studio; the brand and the design team have a similar approach to problem-solving,’ he says.
For Bramall the most exciting direction is the strategic advantage that being a Microsoft company brings Skype in terms of ‘embedding and integrating services’ – which could give Skype access to new markets and help it integrate with other Microsoft services and products.
‘We are now part of Microsoft and have some amazing communication tools,’ says Bramall, whose latest project was working on integrating Skype with X-Box ‘to bring gaming and chat closer together.’
The question ‘How can we make it a more everyday experience?’ is always front of mind for Bramall, who says messaging and video-sharing in all forms are being used more frequently and becoming more of an ‘everyday occasion’.
On the everyday front Skype has been branching out in the direction of instant chat, an area into which Whatsapp, and Facebook have also made inroads. Bramall concedes that the area is particularly competitive but adds that ‘competition is great.’
User conversations and chat are an added feature for Skype for iPhone which has just been relaunched.
To demonstrate the product the brand team worked with illustrator Kate Moross and Jamie Elliot of fabricator JAILmake on an awareness film which shows the pair collaborating on a remastered Skype logo which shows off Skype for iPhone in a self-referential way.
When a new project is being brought to bear that idea might start with the new technology and it is up to Bramall’s team to understand how it looks and feels – ‘or it could be a new capability or latest version of something and we need to think about it from a brand and design perspective,’ says Bramall. In the case of an update the team would look at things like user flows and registration processes to meet the expectations of an upgraded product experience.
One of the new directions for Skype is Ones to Watch With Skype – a project, which connects fans and artists using Skype.