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We’ve decided to let you in under the hood, so to speak, here at SOZO | Pivotal with the launch of a behind the scenes video series, This is Working. We figured we’d get two episodes under our belt before we made any type of formal announcement. Sometimes you don’t know how these things are going to work out. We didn’t want to make any grand promise that we couldn’t deliver. Two episodes was our benchmark for saying this is real, and here we are…Episodes 1 and 2.

So why are we doing these quick videos that take you into the inner workings of our small business?

One answer is because The Apprentice misses the mark. It’s not about selling lemonade and designing a brochure. But seriously, we felt it was important to create a running documentation of what we’re experiencing and how we’re growing our business in a tough economy. As we get closer to completing our first decade of entrepreneurship, we reflected on all of our experiences, triumphs and challenges. Good or bad—it’s all part of the adventure. Perhaps us sharing our experiences will help others. Who knows?

We’re excited to start a new chapter in the journey of growing SOZO | Pivotal and building a socially responsible company focused on doing outstanding work. It’s a journey that’s going to bring things back to the drawing board to analyze what the company is doing and how it’s doing it. You’re going to get a look into the inner workings of a real Michigan-based business that refuses to let recessions, FOR LEASE signs, dismal national statistics and unemployment rates drag us down.

There’s excitement and opportunity all around us, but sometimes it’s just a little harder to find. So come along as we show you how we’re repositioning our successful branding and design company.

I’m not a big fan of building naming rights. Unless of course you qualify in one of the following:

  1. you built the building
  2. you always had your name on it or;
  3. you are committed to it for the long-haul—Wrigley Field wasn’t always Wrigley Field, but has been since 1926.

To hear that the Sears Tower is now the Willis Tower is about as ridiculous as calling Pine Knob (an amphitheatre in southeastern Michigan and popular Summer destination for you readers not from the area) anything else. My apologies to DTE Energy and whoever the heck you are, Willis, but your naming of these buildings doesn’t resonate well with me or the masses. I’m certain that’s not what you were trying to achieve?

I must start out by saying that SOZO | Pivotal has responded to RFPs in the past. In fact, we’ve launched some of our greatest client relationships through the process. However, we don’t respond to unsolicited RFPs anymore and after reading the Zappos ad agency review process and RFP fiasco, I’m even more comfortable with that decision.

More on Zappos later, but you may be asking: Unsolicited RFPs? How can a company asking to possibly do business with you be considered unsolicited? The problem is they aren’t directly asking to do business with us or anyone else we’re competing against. Someone at the company who made the determination that they need to fan out an RFP is trying to cover their behind. Can you imagine the uproar if they didn’t painstakingly outline to the agency what it is that they needed? Can you imagine the hotseat someone would be on if they went ahead and selected an agency based on the chemistry between client and shop? Can you imagine, God forbid, the relationship didn’t work out? That’s a tough pill to swallow in a corporate America where in today’s economy everyone is looking over their shoulder in fear that their next misstep will be their last.

So the risk is what keeps companies from addressing their real marketing needs. Essentially they’re telling the professionals what they need. Well, the risk is there regardless and it increases exponentially through this process because one of two things happens as an agency responds to an RFP:

  1. They tell you what you want to hear
  2. They tell you what you need to hear.

So now all the proposals look exactly the same with a few gems that appear as though they didn’t pay attention to the directions. Can you start to see why we no longer waste our time on RFPs?

Let’s get back to Zappos and their RFP that brought in over 100 responses, free pizza and ice cream and a whole lot of negative attention. Yes, I said 100 responses. There’s an outstanding blog post here by Ignited—a company that responded to the RFP. Ignited did something extremely smart. The crafted their proposal in a blog format and set up Google Analytics to track how long and how much of the proposal content was actually reviewed. Considering Zappos is built on customer service, it was no suprise that they didn’t waste their time reading through a 100 25-page proposals word-for-word.

But there’s something inherently wrong with all of this. Why are agencies still responding to RFPs? Why don’t they all start to think like we do? We gave up on responding to RFPs after we realized we were losing a ton of hours in preparation of these meaningless documents. Sure we had won some lucrative contracts, but we’d also spent more hours than the contract was actually worth on a few of them. Unlike the gambling addict, we were able to admit to ourselves that we didn’t always hit the jackpot when we walked into the casino.

The ironic thing is we’ve actually helped companies create a branding RFP. They admitted that they didn’t know what exactly should be in their RFP, so we told them what they should outline. After all, it makes sense, right? We helped them with their RFP and got paid for it. I’m thinking somewhere along the line they didn’t like what they saw or didn’t feel they owned it because it never was sent out. That’s too bad, because it was an RFP that hit the mark — the document outlined what they need to ask for, not what they thought they needed. (Here is an RFP outline we created and published to this blog a few years ago…maybe it will help you)

Unless you’re dealing with a commodity, I strongly urge you to stay away from the RFP process. There are no two ad, branding or PR agencies that are the same. Some say they do everything. Some specialize. Some are good proposal writers. Some are actually good at what they do.

Here’s what you need to do. Talk to some people you know and trust and ask they if they recommend an agency that could help you. Make a short list of agencies (no more than five) and call them up and say you’d like to stop by and meet with them for a half hour. If all goes well, invite them to your office for a one-hour meeting. Here’s the secret: EVERY agency you put on your list will respond. I guarantee it. If they don’t, they’re obviously not the right fit.

And here’s one more secret for you? Consider those hours that agencies spend in writing proposals with all those sections and details you asked for rather than allowing them to present their services to you in their format? More than likely the agency is building that price into the contract. Now that’s a complete waste of money, don’t you think?

Hopefully this is helpful in selecting an agency that is going to work with your brand. It’s the relationship and partnership that fosters outstanding work, it’s not the proposal or the free pizza.

Four years ago Kimberly Leclercq and I started SOZO | Pivotal. Along with that exciting new beginning came the responsibility of creating a new website full of information and project work to showcase that we really did know what we were doing.

The information part was easy. We are never at a loss of words when it comes to talking about what we do. However, the online portfolio has been a thorn in our sides for a long time. After a year or two we finally got a bunch of screen shots up there showing corporate identity work, screenshots of websites and photographs of printed materials. The problem was that it just didn’t do the work justice.

Sure, it looked great, but there’s so much more to our work than just what you see. An online portfolio is a must for people who solely practice graphic design, printing, photography or website design. But us showing a logo or a brochure design is akin to showing just the answer to a long and difficult calculus problem.

We all remember the excitement in 7th grade when we realized the math answers were in the back of the book. That thrill was dampened when the teacher wanted to see our work to know that we truly understood the problem.

The same can be said for what we do at SOZO | Pivotal. We provide answers to our clients through the use of a wide variety of tools, but it’s the strategy and creative thinking that guides us to the right solution.

So you can see why showing images of our work just doesn’t tell the whole story. Nonetheless we’re excited to have finally figured out a way to capture our process — from strategy to design. The hardest thing for us was getting the term portfolio out of our heads. All we saw was a nicely cataloged booklet of fancy artwork and nice photography. Clearly that was not the right approach in communicating and illustrating what we do as SOZO | Pivotal. Please take a moment to look at our new website and some of the relationships we have with our clients (or as we like to refer to them, our friends). Also, please take a gander at the Beyond Strategy section. Here is where we take a closer look at individual client projects that are the results of clearly developed brand strategy.

It all makes perfect sense to us…finally. We hope that you find it just as informative. If you ever have any questions about the work that we’ve done with our clients or how we can apply what we do to your needs, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Thanks for stopping by and while you’re at it, please consider following us on Twitter and becoming a fan of SOZO | Pivotal on Facebook.

Four years ago today Kimberly Leclercq and I officially formed SOZO | Pivotal and it’s been a fun, exciting and challenging 1,461 days.

It’s amazing what can happen during a span of 48 short months, but we’re excited about the next 48…that’s for sure.

We’d like to thank all of our clients, friends, associates, partners and employees for all of their support. Prior to forming SOZO | Pivotal, Kimberly and I had both run our own companies—her’s SOZO and mine Pivotal—which we had started back at the turn of the century. So actually, we’re both celebrating 10 years as business owners.

You’re probably thinking four years isn’t all that much of a milestone, but screw it, we’re excited! We feel this four-year mark is even more notable not because so many businesses and partnerships fail to make it this far, but because we know we’re just getting into a groove! The next four years are really going to be something special…stay tuned!

So I’m meeting with a client yesterday and this is how it went…

After showing the website design concepts and site architecture our client, who loved both concepts, favored the second version. Both directions were different in their approach, but similar in that either one would have been effective in communicating the client’s message.

This is when I heard the best testimonial ever…

“Dave, it’s like pornography,” said the client. I wasn’t quite sure how to react, but I knew it was a compliment so I laughed.

He continued, “You know it when you see it. I knew what I wanted to see, but I wasn’t sure how you were going to pull it together and this is exactly what I wanted to see.

We have great clients here at SOZO | Pivotal!!

I certainly don’t claim to know much about wedding gowns, but I do know that Vera Wang has established herself as the preeminent fashion designer in this category.

The fact that I’m not Dennis Rodman and I’ve never been in the market for a wedding dress are important to note considering her name and brand should hardly come close to crossing my radar. Wang has done a masterful job over the years in promoting her brand and positioning her name as the wedding gown designer to the stars as well as an author of a wedding book, Vera Wang on Weddings. She also has a line of jewelry, fragrances, home collections and has made a number of appearances on television; all in a strategized effort to strengthen and promote her brand.

All in all it would appear that she has done everything right…until now. I read in today’s Detroit Free Press that Wang has drastically slashed the prices of her gowns by a 30-50% as she introduced her Spring 2010 lineup. Of course, we’re in a recession and people just aren’t buying and spending like they did in the heyday. That affects everyone, even the Vera Wangs on the luxury goods tier.

But just like cutting marketing in a down economy, slashing prices is just as detrimental when trying to preserve a brand that identifies exclusively with the elite. It’s hard to imagine that this price cut will do anything but hurt the brand long-term if only to move a few units during rougher period.

This drastic reduction only makes you wonder: is the Vera Wang brand just a status item or truly a luxury brand. True luxury brands carry clear value and can hardly be reduced under any circumstances. Status items, on the other hand, come and go and they ultimately go by way of red marker mark downs in a pile of wrinkled mess in the back of the store. Luxury is a fickle market to be in. One misstep and you’re going from niche market to no market.

If you’re selling a product or service today for less than you did five years ago, let me ask you a tough question: were you gouging the consumer during good times? Was your product really worth that price considering to you it carries the same value today as it did five years ago, what’s the difference?

Luxury brands with staying power don’t mess with pricing. They may tweak other things, but they don’t touch the tag. It raises all sorts of questions you don’t want your customers asking about your brand. Are they using cheaper materials? Is Vera Wang outsourcing the design to a cheaper apprentice? Why was the gown I bought in 2003 for $9000 now listed for $5500?

I don’t mean to pile on Wang, but doesn’t she feel she has a “must-have” product? Everything she’s done up until now would lead you to believe that, but what happens when things turn around and now she’s catering to the masses—trying to grab marketshare in a tough economy? Will her high-end clientele come back or will they flock to a fresh designer waiting in the background and ready to pounce that segment? Could she even consider moving her prices back up?

One of the biggest brand killers is messing with your pricing structure and I don’t feel that’s exclusive to luxury items. It happens a lot in fashion and it occurs quite often in beer. Believe it or not, Busch Beer used to be considered a premium beer in the late 70s. Sales go stale, drop the price and soon college kids and buying up the 30 packs for $12.99.

So have you considered dropping your prices in order to compete in a new world? Think carefully. There are many things that we should be doing in order to address the fact that our phones aren’t ringing as much or the foot traffic in our stores has dwindled. But slashing prices isn’t something I would ever consider doing if I wanted to maintain the integrity and value of my service or product.

If you must take a look at pricing, ask yourself: Is it the best decision in the short and long term and how do you plan on answering the questions from your most important critics—your customers?

A few years ago Microsoft unveiled the Zune to compete with Apple’s iPod. Its attempt to steal market share failed miserably. Now it’s trying to do the same thing in the search engine game with Bing.

Bing? What do you think? This is Microsoft’s attempt for a Google killer? Will we be binging for our information? Will you Bing Dave Bing? You get the sense that Microsoft tries way too hard to be cool—that’s the kiss of death in business. You’re either cool or you’re not…there is no try.

Go to and one of the first things you’ll see on the homepage is a question:

“What is your bank trying to sneak by you?”

Ironic. You may have noticed the new Ally Bank TV spots over the weekend. If you haven’t, you will. The new Ally Bank is the old GMAC.

The reason to bring on a new name appears to be two-fold: 1) sweep away the negativity associated with the collapsed auto and housing markets and 2) offer new consumer banking products and drive deposits to offset losses in those loan departments.

So this name change and brand shift is an effort to get people to forget about the GMAC name and its troubles. The Ally Bank mission? Straightforward and honest. What doesn’t line up here? Apparently they’ve been talking about this switch since June. I’m curious to know what those internal conversations sounded like? Who was involved? How did they get everyone on-board? Surely it wasn’t just sent out via an email announcement Friday afternoon. Or was it?

This has definitely been a very tumultuous last couple of years in the banking industry. A disastrous financial crisis, numerous mergers, confusing names changes, changes in fees and products and lackluster customer service to name a few. People really don’t have anything good to say about banks. Does it really all end with a name change and a promise?

I don’t think this approach by GMAC, LLC is necessarily wrong, but I would like to see a little more clarification from Ally that it was formerly known as GMAC—after all that would be the straightforward way of doing things. Sure they do come out in say on the site that Ally is built on the foundation of GMAC Financial Services, I just think it needs to be a bit clearer. I also hope it’s not misleading in the sense that they’ll never be able to deliver on what they’re trying to promise. A new name alone does not bring a tighter promise.

The millions of dollars that are spent on putting a corporate name and logo on a stadium—especially in a world of mergers and bankruptcies—has always been lost on me. Consider Pacific Bell Park, SBC Park and AT&T Park, the nine-year-old home of the San Francisco Giants has had more visits from sign companies than BALCO reps.

Clearly I understand why teams sell the rights, but what doesn’t make sense is the obscene amount of money invested to hear your name when they say “you are looking live at….”

I just never quite understood how Comerica or DTE Energy ever justify having their name on a ballpark and ampitheater. But word out of Miami is that Dolphin Stadium could be re-named LandShark Stadium and this makes perfect sense. Consider the connection and the intentions of the Miami Dolphins. According to this article, they want to create an “entertaining, tropical South Florida feel.” What better way to do that than to align with Jimmy Buffett and his beer?

Essentially I could see this becoming a 65,000 seat Margaritaville. You have to believe that’s some sort of a draw—at least in concessions. To me the Dolphins look like geniuses here. While the article estimates the team won’t get the $10 to $15 million that they would like, you can’t really lose with this association. If the South Florida branding is what they’re after, it appears to be a win-win because aligning your beer with the NFL has never been a bad idea.

Finally a naming right pairing that seems to make sense.