All posts in Branding and Identity

Several years ago we created a hardcover marketing piece for a client we were courting. It was back in the day before PDFs were the preferred form of document delivery. My favorite part of the hand-made (yes, hand-made. I actually broke a beer bottle and cut up my hand assembling these) book was the inside front and back covers that listed out a bunch of “Does Your Business…” questions.

The phrase has always been a tagline of sorts at SOZO | Pivotal. I just came across one of those books today and thought I’d share those questions with you. Some may hit home and some may not hit anything. Enjoy! Continue Reading →

What’s the first thing you do when you’re starting a new business? The first thing should be doing some thing. Some thing like figuring out what you’re selling. Or fine-tuning a business plan. Determining how much capital you’ll need to get up and running is also an important place to start.

Contrary to what you’d think I’d say as the principal of a design and branding company, one some thing that shouldn’t be considered in the very early stages is going out and hiring a firm to help you with your marketing and branding. You no longer need to spend a whole lot of money to get started and you don’t need those fancy offices or a professionally-designed logo identity or brochure to get you going either. Too often, those exercises are a crutch for business owners to feel like they’re starting a real business. The truth is, you’re a real business the minute you have something to sell. For more on figuring out if you’re doing a hobby or building a real business check out my post from earlier this year “Are You Ready?”

For under $200 you can set up a template website and get a crowd-source produced logo. For a few more dollars and some time you can create the content and copy for your website and a brochure that you can plug into a templated design. These types of businesses are all over the web and contrary to what my colleagues probably say, they’re good for you — at the right stage of your start-up. The difference between these companies and the hiring of a professional brand consulting firm like SOZO | Pivotal is the depth at which these services are performed. When you are starting and getting your business off the ground you don’t have time to collaborate with a company that is going to take you through the necessary steps to effectively position you today and for your future. It’s quite frankly just not a good time to throw resources at that.

Work on your product or service first. Only you can do that. Make sure you set your company up to be positioned as the best in a specific area. You don’t differentiate by saying or looking like your different. You differentiate by actually being different. When you’ve reached that stage, it’s time to really get serious about the visual identity and messaging that leads your marketing and sales efforts and using templates and designs that are generally amateurish and accessible to anyone with a Benajmin in their pocket just won’t cut it in taking your company to the next level. Dont hire an agency to help you define your position; hire them to help you communicate it through all the necessary channels. This is hard for many business owners to understand — especially after their businesses start to fail and they blame their PR firm or ad agency for their lack off success.

The best entrepreneurs realize that a lot of people help them along their road to success, but when they fail, they immediately accept all the responsibility. Too often society likes to label entrepreneurs as greedy, but I think it’s quite the opposite. The smart business owner knows that rewarding others for his company’s success usually generates more success while passing the blame for failures does nothing to turn the corner from continued failure.

There’s also a big difference between starting a company as a new versus seasoned entrepreneur. Experienced business leaders tend to know precisely when to hit the proper growth accelerators like professionally branding and taking their image and packaging to another level. Regardless of whether you have the money or not, it should never be wasted or spent unwisely. How often have you heard, “if only I had the funding to do this?” On the contrary we’ve worked with businesses that probably had too much money and not enough focus. It’s a fairly common imbalance. Looking back, those engagements were oftentimes scrapped because of poor vision.

That’s irresponsible spending no matter how much is in the coffers. The message here is that you can’t do everything for your business immediately. There’s no such thing as overnight success and bringing in professionals to help you grow too early is really a recipe for disaster. And that disaster is too often blamed on those who participated rather than the one who made the call to hire the agency too quickly.

At SOZO | Pivotal we look to work with the right companies. You’ll hear us talk about passion a lot, but the second most important criteria in client-agency collaboration is timing and we haven’t been scared to tell someone that now may not be the right time. Sure we’ve turned away some business with that approach, but one thing we have prevented is the creation of a relationship that is doomed from the start. And we feel pretty darn good about that.

If political advertising teaches us anything, it’s that advertising is an effective form of brand building.

For many, politicians are considered the bottom feeders of society. Why? The negative ads make them look that way and the positive ads carry on about promises that never come to fruition.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that that’s not just my opinion and it’s not a partisan perspective either. I’ve had enough water cooler conversations with all kinds of folks to know that this is a common feeling on both sides of the aisle.

You don’t need me or this blog post to tell you that there is something so incredibly wrong, disgusting and irritating with the political advertising platform — especially the portion of it that we see on TV in the form of the 30 second advertising spot or in our mailboxes in the form of junk.

It doesn’t take long to tire of the dark and gloomy ads. It happens during every campaign season and it gets progressively worse and more hard-hitting as we get closer to the first Tuesday in November.

There’s a lesson in these horribly-produced and generally indistinguishable negative campaigns: if you ran your business the way every politician runs their campaign you’d be out of business by next Tuesday. Whenever a discussion with a client goes in the direction of focusing more on a competitor’s weakness than their own strengths, we encourage them to focus on what the positioning should be all about — them! If you can’t create a solid and positive position for your business, you don’t have a business.

Only in politics can you get away with being mean-spirited and obnoxious. The sad fact is that if a politician doesn’t use sticks and stones and name-calling, he simply won’t win. This is the best example that most politicians don’t operate in a “real world” environment. And if they don’t run in real-world circles how can they govern within it? But that’s a post for another time and another blog. This is about marketing and branding and how businesses must differentiate by focusing on themselves in a crowded marketplace.

How can trashing your competition be a feasible marketing plan? How can distorting the truth in order to place you in the best possible light while making your competitor look like a fraud be considered a good business move?

For those of us who aren’t politicians, it can’t. And quite honestly, it’s sad that we as a society put up with it. We would never take it from the mom and pop store down the street. Not today. Certainly not anymore. Look at how we expect only the highest level of customer service when we walk into a store or visit a website or call the utility company. Why do we demand more from businesses that have owners and shareholders who’s careers are on the line than from career politicians who lie and finagle their way around their own shortcomings? The difference is on Main Street we have choices; more choices than ever, and certainly more than just two.

I don’t watch a whole lot of TV so the political spots actually don’t even really affect me. But I’m a firm believer that political advertising should be banned completely — for the good of the political process that should rely on knowledge and truth rather than dollars and (cents)ationalism. Hold debates and town hall meetings, but stay off the television timeslots that are paid for and stay out of the mailboxes. Leave the airwaves to those who have something good to say. And yes, I believe that that can actually be a politician with a positive message and position.


Lot of fuss around the internet about iTunes’ new logo. In fact I see Wired is doing a contest to redesign the “ugly” icon.

I’m not all that bothered by the new logo. It’s the name “iTunes” that doesn’t make sense anymore. iTunes was great when it was just a music store. Today it’s obviously so much more. In addition to music and TV shows, it sells the apps and syncs your computer with your iPods, iPhones and iPads.

It should probably be called something like iBuy. Or how about iCan’tDoAnythingWithTheseAppleGadgetsWithoutIt?


I enjoy following the Brand New blog. Pretty much every day they feature a company that has gone through an identity change. They also provide an interesting insight into the before and after of the corporate identity and the comments section never disappoints in providing a lively discussion between I hate it and it’s the best brand re-design I’ve ever seen.

This morning’s post definitely caught my attention and brought me back about 10 years ago. Back in 2000 we were hired by a new restaurant to create a logo and identity campaign that would be carried out through all location signage and marketing materials. This particular client knew exactly what he wanted but had a difficult time communicating what that was. We visited art galleries and he showed me pictures of vintage Italian advertising artwork. He finally said he wanted a woman sitting on a crescent moon. I could now share his vision. The end result is what you see above. He loved it. It worked great for the restaurant — which has since closed for reasons I’m sure had nothing to do with this logo.

Any time we create an icon for a company it’s usually an interesting process. This, however, is one of the favorite stories. After getting clear on the fact that the client wanted a sultry woman hold a glass of wine while sitting on a crescent moon, I started sketching and brainstorming. I knew I needed to bring in an illustrator who could get the job done. After working out the concept and collaborating with a few people I decided to work with an illustrator who, um, specializes in adult comic book design. Needless to say the first round of sketches were eye-catching. After toning this guy down a bit we made the dress a little less form fitting, showed a little less leg and gave her some under garments…if you know what I mean. It was a fun project, I just wish I could dig up some of those early concept sketches — unfortunately when you have to throttle back a designer for any reason you tend to not get his best work. While happy with the final product, I always thought the final design looked a bit compromised.

Fast forward a year and a half after the launch of the restaurant. My client calls me and says he’s received a letter from the Miller Brewing Co. requesting that he stops using his logo which they claimed was a copyright infringement of their “Girl in the Moon” icon that supposedly was on the old Miller High Life bottle labels. Without having a Miller High Life in hand or in the fridge, I had no idea what he was talking about. I could picture the bottle and packaging, but I didn’t recall there ever being a woman sitting on a crescent moon.

Curious, I jumped in the car and visited the grocery store. Walking down the beer aisle I found what I was looking for — verification that there wasn’t any woman on the Miller bottle. Now I was even more confused. I got a copy of his cease and desist letter and read through it. I made sure he understood clearly that we didn’t “borrow” any creativity from Miller. He understood and said he was just as surprised. A few days later my client called and said he contacted an attorney who told him not to get too worked up about it. Miller couldn’t actually own all women sitting on crescent moons — especially since the Laluna woman was in a very different pose and wearing a flowing gown rather than the red outfit worn by the Miller version.

It was one of those cases where it seems like Miller just wanted to throw a little weight around. They weren’t interested further exploring or really concerned about the Laluna Grille’s use of a similar — whether intentional or unintentional — creative direction.

A few months later I noticed Miller High Life starting to use the Woman in the Moon graphic in their bottle packaging. They must have been trying to protect its design prior to incorporating it into their marketing. Now, as Brand New reports and shows in the images, the Woman in the Moon gets some retouching and a more prominent role in the product packaging. And the Laluna Grille? Attempts to visit their website bring up a dead link and calls to their phone number tell us it’s disconnected. While I’ve chatted with the owner off and on over the past several years it’s probably been a few years since we connected. At the time he had move out of state and left the restaurant to his co-owners.

I loved that project and the story behind it. Thanks to the re-branding by Miller High Life, it inspired me to share it once again.

Before I get too into this, I must say that I probably would have written a similar letter. I probably would have thrown things against the wall as my temper oozed from my fingertips to keyboard. But I hope I wouldn’t have actually hit SEND like Cleveland Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert, did last night as he lashed out at former Cav, Lebron James, for his decision to sign with the Miami Heat.

Reading this open letter was painful and surprising. The quick-tempered, competitive side of me applauds his energy and motivation to bring a championship to Cleveland. The think-before-you-speak side of me is shocked. Here’s a guy who’s spent millions of dollars on a once-in-a-lifetime superstar for seven years only to see him leave for what he believes is a better shot at a championship. Forbes is reporting that the Cleveland franchise value has taken a $106 million hit. Ouch. Yes, I definitely wouldn’t be taking that news lightly. I just hope someone would have gotten to me before I hit SEND. The fact that the letter was set in Comic Sans makes you at first wonder if it’s all really a joke, but then you read on and realize this is bitterness almost on the level of Emperor Palpatine towards Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi.

The thing is Gilbert should be upset. But he should probably turn that anger towards a mirror. As the owner, this is his job. James chose a better opportunity and he had every right do so, just like Gilbert had every right to fire Mike Brown, the most successful coach (in regular season terms) in franchise history. He also had every right to give former, disgraced Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, money to help him settle down in Dallas. James was a free agent, plain and simple. He didn’t kill anyone. He didn’t disgrace the organization. He simply left after his contract was up. Sorry Dan Gilbert and sorry Cleveland, but in that sense this guy did nothing wrong.

Of course we don’t know what happened behind closed doors, but there’s a decent chance that we just may find out given the tone of this first piece of communication delivered by Gilbert. (Is ESPN getting its programming in order to produce a show called “THE REACTION?”) One has to wonder the reason behind why a successful business person would truly make himself look so foolish and bitter. What does Gilbert stand to gain…unless of course you really believe in curses?

Covering up the fact that Gilbert couldn’t assemble a championship team with the best player in the world by writing a childish letter is puzzling. I’d love to know what his business peers think of this reaction. While the Cleveland fans and players will at first feel that their owner has their back, I think this makes Gilbert look like a true amateur and terrible loser. How will it affect his chances in the future when he tries to sign a free agent or hire a coach or sell you a mortgage? I don’t know, but I can’t believe this letter was a step in the right direction.

There are things that get us fired up everyday. Believe me, I’ve hit SEND at the wrong times just as Gilbert did last night, but as they say, you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube and it’s something you have to think about every time you’re close to losing it.

What about Gilbert saying something like “we’re extremely disappointed that Lebron chose to move on” and leave it at that. Or “we’re more committed than ever to bring a championship to Cleveland” and then leave it at that. Or “We really think it was a bad decision for Lebron to leave.” Instead he called it a “cowardly betrayal” and trashed the self-titled “King James” moniker that I’m sure made Gilbert a lot of money. Like I said, it’s hard to read as you realize how bad this makes Gilbert look. I appreciate that he wrote a letter and didn’t have his PR staff fire off a cliche-filled statement that carried no emotion or any real substance. But wow, you have to believe Gilbert right now is looking for his lost mind.

It will be interesting to see what comes of all this. Who knows, but from a business standpoint I’ve learned it’s just not a good move to fire off such a Quicken-dirty letter.

The saying goes: Good, cheap and quick. Pick two. I first heard that line early in my career and there probably isn’t a more accurate statement when it comes to providing a service.

The other night I read Tony Hsieh’s book excerpt in this month’s Inc. on why he sold his company, Zappos, to Amazon.com. It provided some great insights that you don’t typically get and it all surrounded Hsieh’s strong desire to ink a deal that would maintain and build on the culture and customer service that was the platform for it becoming a $1 billion company within its first 10 years of business.

It isn’t often that you read a story like this. Big company buys little guy (not that Zappos is at all little)… and then nothing changes. Of course everything could still change, but you get the sense that it won’t. Customer service is the main differentiating factor that Hsieh created his shoe company around. Without it, it’s not Zappos. The consumers will quickly notice the difference if it’s not the same company and if policies begin to change.

As for that saying at the beginning of this post. Zappos is great and quick, but they’re not any cheaper than the competition. I’ve never purchased shoes online. I have a hard time understanding how people do it if there isn’t any type of significant savings in doing so. I’d be the kind of guy that would go to the mall and try on the shoes and see how they fit and then go online to see if I could find them 20% cheaper. I’m assuming I’m not alone. I have to try it on and see how it looked on me, not the model in the website’s thumbnail photo. This isn’t an online music shop where you can listen to a song sample and 15 seconds later have the song downloaded. This is a retail store with merchandise that you have to touch, feel and try on.

Taking all that into consideration I truly am amazed with Zappos’ level of success. Customer service and experience is important to me, but no matter how easy it is to ship back a pair of poorly fitting shoes, it’s still a pain. Zappos remarkably makes it happen.

This merger looks like a great deal for both companies. Both can gain a lot from each other. Consider Amazon’s ability to even further improve on its own customer service and imagine what kind of revenue Zappos could potentially generate with the backing and support of Amazon. You don’t see it often, but there really appears to be two clear winners in this deal. And you can only have two winners when you have two very successful, smart and customer-focused companies working together.

Good, cheap and quick? Pick two? I’ll pick Amazon and Zappos.


There’s a common phrase out there in the design world: you can break the rules as long as you first know what they are. Every now and then that comes to mind and it popped up again yesterday after hearing about GM’s internal memo that circulated externally to the New York Times stating that the automaker was enforcing the use of the brand name Chevrolet over its commonly-used nickname Chevy.

I don’t know about you, but all I know is that Chevrolet makes Chevy trucks. It doesn’t make Chevrolet trucks. And the Corvette? I wrote about this a while back, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Chevy or Chevrolet badge anywhere on that car. Corvette is a “white sheep” brand of Chevrolet and doesn’t so much take pride in being associated too closely with either GM or Chevrolet. Are Corvettes now going to carry the name? Chevy is strong. Chevrolet is formal. Contrary to what we preach everyday, both names have an extremely strong place in the consumer mind. Both names should remain.

Insulting the buyer by pretending a nickname doesn’t exist is just a poor and short-sighted approach. Do you think Harley-Davidson is going to start saying you can no longer just call their bikes Harleys?

As far as the argument that international sales could be hampered due to the confusion? Well, GM, you then have bigger issues to solve when it comes to internationally branding Chevrolet. If that’s their argument then why is the same car called something different depending on which side of the Rio Grande you live?

Sending a memo saying you can’t use “Chevy” anymore is ridiculous and completely contrary to what should be smart branding sense. I also found it interesting that the memo stated: “when you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding…”

Um, Coke is a nickname for Coca-Cola. And, Chevy, wake up, you really are one of the most popular brands in the world. Being popular and being profitable aren’t always the same thing. Solid brands, if anything, realize the importance of being flexible. Being strict in imposing rules makes you look like a drill sergeant rather than a brand ambassador.

A lot of things happened last night in Detroit at Comerica Park. Rather than witnessing history’s 21st perfect game it was more like a perfect storm. And in all that craziness there is a lot to be learned about business and what to do in the face of adversity.

Let’s start with Armando Galarraga. The guy threw a perfect game in everyone’s eyes (even umpire, Jim Joyce’s, after he reviewed the replay), but how he reacted to the call was even more telling of his character. Every day, business owners, entrepreneurs and managers are faced with challenges, dilemmas and factors that are completely out of their control. I think about the client for whom we performed “perfect” work for, but for whatever reason at the end of the day they figured it wasn’t outstanding enough or they just had it in them to make it their decision as to which direction they were going to go—the decision of a different direction for no apparent reason. It happens. It’s happened to us and last night it happened to Galarraga. But what did he do? He didn’t argue. He didn’t go running up to Joyce hollering in disbelief. He stood there, smiled and let the reality sink in. Later, in the clubhouse, he talked to the media about the situation and even talked one-on-one with Joyce. Today he walked the lineup card out to Joyce who was the homeplate umpire. He handled it like a true professional. In fact, I’d say he handled it better than a true professional. He could have been bitter, but he decided to live with what he knew — that he had thrown a perfect game. The history books will disagree, but he knows.

Now consider Joyce. You have to feel terrible for the guy. He screwed up, but haven’t we all. At least he wasn’t the fireman who had to decide which person to grab out of the burning house before the roof caved in. At least he wasn’t the surgeon who came down with a case of the yips and snipped the wrong vein in the middle of brain surgery. The best business owners are the ones who make the quick decisions and fortunately they’re rarely life and death. They’re not always right, but the good entrepreneurs stand by their decisions, whether they succeed or fail. What Joyce, and everyone else who makes a mistake, has to do is get up and get back at it the next day. But more importantly, he admitted he messed up. He faced the criticism. So many people these days hide behind attorneys or point the finger at someone else. Joyce could have said he had the wrong angle. He didn’t. He could have maintained, even after reviews, that he made the right call by saying Galarraga’s foot wasn’t on the bag or that the ball bobbled in his glove. He didn’t.

There’s also a example in the way Galarraga’s teammates handled the situation. They raced to his support after the game and let Joyce know what they thought about the call. Later, as cooler heads prevailed, they celebrated in the clubhouse as if it were actually a perfect game. Teamwork. Collaboration. It was all there. The best in business have a team who has their back.

So this isn’t a blog post so much about branding as it is about doing the right thing. It’s somewhat related to my last post about internal branding. Treat people right: your people and the people doing business with you.

I tell you, last night’s events will stick with me forever. I’ll always remember where I was and what I was doing. In many respects, Galarraga will go deeper into history because he was the first player in baseball history to be wrongly denied a perfect game on the 27th out. Heck, a huge group of 20 have perfect games and quick off the top of your head (no cheating with Wikipedia) who was the last guy to throw a perfect game before Dallas Braden did early this season? Gotcha. Obviously retiring 27 batters in a row is a huge feat, but you’ll never forget Galarraga. It was historic for sure.

During the past couple of months I’ve witnessed some pretty interesting things happening on the inside of some fairly large companies. I listen to the whispers: “she’s not good for this company.” “He has no idea what he’s doing.” He’s completely out of his league.” “Wow, they must have been a good interviewee.”

Those quotes are true. (Names and genders are shuffled to protect the guilty)

I don’t know who wrote it, and I’m sure many have repeated and practiced the saying, but I recall reading somewhere that your employees are more important than your customers. Initially I didn’t really agree with that. However, I found myself thinking about that the other morning as I met a friend and former colleague for coffee. We were talking about the way we’ve seen certain business owners treat their employees. As we talked we realized it all was starting to come full circle for that particular company — and not in a good way.

Your team is only as good as you treat them. Treat them like crap and what does that say about your company culture, let alone the company’s brand. Don’t think for a moment that that abuse doesn’t show up when “stepped-on” employee gets in front of “wool-pulled-over-the-eyes” client.

It should be obvious that in order to get the most out of employees you need to treat them well. Exceptionally well. But what about the flip side? What about the bad people? The miserable folks? The complainers? The lazy employees? Just as there are bad people dressed as management, there are just as many bad people disguised as employees supposedly playing an important role in your company’s success.

What do we do with bad people who interview well? What do we do with bad people who don’t have a B.P. accreditation after their name? The challenge is to never let these people through your door. They’re qualified on paper, but not for your company.

Your company’s reputation is way too important to have bad people carrying its torch.

Whether you’ve hired someone who’s incompetent or highly-skilled, their ability to blend into the culture of your business is probably the most important tool they have to offer — especially if you’re putting them in front of the customer. Good people can screw up and rebound. Bad people don’t have a chance.

Too often, as we begin to implement a branding strategy for clients, I hear them say: we’re going to have an uphill battle getting everyone on board. Your internal branding efforts are a lost cause if you’re not first starting out with outstanding employees and leaders. Leaders have to treat their people right. And their people inherently have to believe in the company. They can’t be told to believe. Yes, a tree that falls in the woods still makes a noise even when nobody’s there to hear it. Treat your team like crap behind closed doors and they’re still treated like crap. Likewise, gossip about your company and no matter what elevator pitch you memorize you’ll still ooze negative venom.

Like all branding efforts, the exercise never ends — especially when it comes to making sure you have the right team who is on board with what the company is all about. I say forget trying to train people to regurgitate the company line. Instead, craft a clear message and quickly educate. If they’re not willing to understand or are incapable of being a “YOUR NAME GOES HERE” type of employee without brainwashing or hypnosis, then they need to go.

I’m willing to bet that most managers don’t give enough consideration to their company’s brand when they’re in an interview. Sure, they ask the standard questions, but how about asking potential employees questions about your company’s brand. Ask them what the promise of this company is. Don’t try and trick them, but observe their answer. Is it half crocked crap filled with a bunch of words like quality and professional? Next.

Do you chose employee candidates based on their skills or how they fit within the larger team and system? As the saying goes, everyone’s a marketing person. Look around your office; is that a good idea?