March 30, 2022No Comments

First Brand to Move

Traditional marketing puts an overwhelming amount of importance on the coveted first to market, especially in digital technology, product innovation, and even retail. It’s reasonable to understand why – the first mover is often rewarded with early adopters and a large slice of market share. This is especially true when the initial audience is relatively small, or there is likely to be stiff competition soon. But for many businesses and organizations, for example those in the service, specialty, and not-for-profit sectors, being first-to-market is both unlikely, and even risky. Short of consumer testing and market research, who’s to say your target will even drink the tea? 

For so many entrepreneurs, a focus on brand development prior to launch will lead to sustainable growth that far outweighs the importance of timing. As IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Jr. said in 1973, “good design is good business,” and a brand’s identity is built on a foundation of solid design. While it’s possible to evolve brand perception, thoughtful consideration prior to launch can help avoid costly brand dissonance in the future. Combined with sound strategy, a unique identity will help make an immediate emotional connection to the intended audience that will contribute to a brand’s longevity. 

Obviously, we’d see many more successful businesses out of the gate if developing an relevant brand was easy. It’s not, which is one reason even business owners that understand the critical role of branding often put it off. A good friend and entrepreneur once told me, “well, let’s just hang the ‘We’re Open’ sign now and then we can always revisit the branding later.” Those that understand the real value of design, like Mr. Watson Jr., realize that there is nothing more powerful in the marketing toolkit. If speed is of the essence, though, how can businesses that aren’t first movers really move their audience?

First, focus on adding real, tangible value to people’s lives. Think about the reasons people would choose your service or product over what’s already in the market. What problem are you trying to solve? Problems are almost never solved with a widget or fancy feature. Things we all like more of: love, money, and time. Saving a busy person 5 minutes during their hectic day is extremely valuable. Dig deep, and do some soul-searching to figure out what that unique value proposition is — then include that value in both your brand ethos, and your launch strategy. Reinforce that emotional connection at every brand touch point. When you offer something of value, your audience doesn’t care whether you were first to market, or last. 

Second, talk to and engage with your customers as if you are a person — because you are. Nobody likes talking to robots, at least robots without a personality. (My kids happen to love Alexa.) Your brand’s tone of voice helps to differentiate your business or product from your competitors. It’s important to consider and establish this tone prior to launch – especially if the first movers have already established one. Is your brand warm, empathetic, and endearing? Or loud, charismatic, even irreverent? Don’t be afraid to have an opinion. You might put off some potential customers, but the idea is not to please everybody. You’ll build a more meaningful connection with people who respect the fact that you stand for something.

Last, find the brand whitespace opportunities. If your business lives in a crowded space, don’t do what everybody else does. This may sound obvious, but examples of parody abound. How many pizza parlors maintain that they are the “home of the slice?” And most of them just blend in. How many pizza places do you know market cold mozzarella cheese on top of the melted cheese? I know of one, and they’ve been the most popular pizza place in town for as long as I can remember. How many brands of bottled water can you recall? Seems like aluminum could make a real splash. If you offer a similar product or service to other businesses in the market, find ways to add real value to your customers’ lives, talk to them like they are your friends (or like you want to be friends), and develop unique ways to differentiate your brand from your competitors.  

We live in a “launch now, learn later” world. Unfortunately, the reason we our fathers told us not to “judge a book by its cover” is because that’s what we do, instinctively. We’re human. First impressions are important, and not just with people. When I have a bad experience at a new local restaurant, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll bring my family there again. I’m not unreasonable, there are just too many other good options that exist. We form the same initial opinions about the products and services that we interact with. So why do we continually see brand launches that don’t form immediate positive connections with audiences? Because they haven’t take the time to invest in the values of their brand, they don’t speak to their customers like real people, and they market themselves the way everybody else does. 

Launch today, or launch tomorrow — products, services, and businesses that last are built on brands that move people. 

February 28, 2022No Comments

Opposites Attract

On February 16th, Map Agency hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with AIGA CT called Opposites Attract. The event featured 6 incredibly talented creatives that work at opposite ends of the design spectrum. Each set of "opposites" spoke about specific topics. Sam Becker, Software Director at IDEO, chatted with Rietje Becker, Creative Director at Soulsight about branding. JP Flagg, Creative Director at Arc Worldwide, discussed teamwork and collaboration with Rebecca Hansen, Creative Director at Kayak. Last, Steve Habersan, owner of Habby Art, teamed up with Daniel Sheridan, Owner of Sheriden Design, to wax about process. The event was free, and attended by over 40 people, including AIGA members and students from Syracuse VPA.

December 23, 2021No Comments

Map is Moving

Sitting on the banks of the mighty Pootatuck River in Sandy Hook, CT, sits a 150-year-old brick mill building where, legend has it, Charles Goodyear once experimented with the vulcanization process of rubber. Built in 1870 with timber framing and a gabled roof, we're proud to announce it now houses the new Map Agency office! Should you find yourself in this beautiful area of Newtown, stop in to say hello. Until then, please update your contact information with the following:

Map Agency
27 Glen Road, Suite #200
Sandy Hook, CT 06482

Our new phone # is 203-304-1846

November 26, 2021No Comments

Open for Business?

Small Business Saturday is almost here – can your audience find you? Do they even know you have this cool product/business/idea/thing that exists?!!

As much as we hate to admit, most of us don’t break out the Yellow Pages to find a local coffee shop these days. We Google it. In light of the ensuing giving season, and that Big Holiday (eh hem, Small Business Saturday), here’s our gift to you: If you want your business to be discovered, either your physical location or a brief description of your service, the first thing to do is create a Google My Business Account. Here’s your new “Open for Business” sign. When you’re ready to start reaching and connecting with your audience or customers in unique ways that create engagement and loyalty, give us a call – we’ll get a coffee!

October 26, 2021No Comments

Top Branding Agency in CT

Map Agency has been recognized as a Top Branding Agency in Connecticut by DesignRush.

The DesignRush community lists over 9,300 agencies from over 50 different countries and is consulted by thousands of decision-makers looking to start a project. We're honored and excited to be recognized as we continue to grow our business and add services for our stellar list of happy clients.

Map is a strategic brand and design agency in Sandy Hook, CT. We launch brands that demand attention in today's radically competitive landscape. By partnering with people and businesses to better understand audiences, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems, we create innovative marketing solutions that help position brands on the Map.

September 10, 2021No Comments

Refresh. Revive. Revitalize.

Investing in cultural infrastructure is often overlooked during a recession, even though studies prove the arts help spark economic recovery. Creativity stimulates the local workforce, supports the development of tourism, and bolsters civic engagement. This year, we're tapping into the critical connection between the arts and the economy for the Cultural Alliance of Western CT's Annual Fundraiser. Our campaign was designed not only to intrigue the viewer, but to educate our audience about the unknown benefits of the arts in our communities. The idea is to encourage sponsorship and donations, for sure, but also create interest and drive awareness of the event.

“Refresh. Revive. Revitalize: How the Arts Spark Economic Activity,” will be streamed from 9 to 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 8. Local leaders in government, education and business have been invited to discuss how art helps the economy. Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi, a longtime advocate of the arts as an engine of the economy, will lead the round-table discussion.

“Our elected officials have been so important in the conversation about the importance of art and how it can benefit a community in tangible ways,” said Lisa Scails, executive director of the Cultural Alliance. “The presentation will show real examples of projects in our local towns that have worked to bring in visitors, attract patrons to businesses, and to make our communities more livable.”

Marconi will be joined by Bethel First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker, New Milford Mayor Pete Bass, Sherman First Selectman Don Lowe, Western Connecticut State University Provost Missy Alexander and Neviana Zhgaba of Aquila’s Nest Vineyards in Newtown. They will discuss successful art projects and plans for the future to bring art into our cities and towns to help communities recover from economic shocks and better equip them to withstand future crises.

“We see examples across the region of art projects that have injected life into a section of town,” Marconi said. “If we can agree to build on our successes and promote art as a way of attracting more business to this part of the state, we will be much stronger in coming years.” The event will include an auction and opportunities to donate to the Cultural Alliance, a 501(c)3 service organization serving 10 towns in the Greater Danbury area. For more information, visit cawct.org.

August 26, 2021No Comments

Think Small Again

The timeless “Think Small” Volkswagen ad, created in 1959 by Doyle Dane Bernbach, is embedded in most of our minds as the quintessential example of, ironically, the “Big Idea.” You know the one — the tiny silhouette of the VW Beetle, grounded by shadow but floating asymmetrically in a sea of negative space. The famous two-letter headline sits a mile below in Futura Heavy. The design works on multiple levels because it challenges perceived norms: both America’s propensity for gas-guzzling vehicles, and the reader’s graphic preconception of how a glossy print advertisement should look and act.

For those of us who went to school for Design, the ad was ubiquitous, being featured in both Megg’s History of Graphic Design (Page 353), and Hollis’ Graphic Design: A Concise History (Page 113). Held on such a pedestal, it’s no wonder so many of us have spent our  careers crying, “Simplify!”

Understandably, the concept of going smaller was big in 2020. Smaller productions, smaller budgets, and, for many companies, smaller staff. For large agencies, reduction was somewhat expected, even if not immediate. In spite of that, 2021 has been an important year for small, independent agencies and studios, like ours, and — knock on wood —it appears that the number of opportunities will remain quite large.

Its been over 60 years since the VW ad first ran, but there has never been a better time for marketers, brand managers, and business leaders to once again consider the benefits of thinking small. This is not a call to simplify, or to rally ideas around the “Single-Minded Thought.” Instead, with so many innovative design opportunities tabled in the age of uncertainty, businesses can march ahead with an eye on the future of big ideas: the Small Agency.

No doubt, the Small Agency possesses a number of characteristics not only suitable, but preferable, for today’s competitive environment: cost, productivity, creativity, and, among the most important traits, agility.

Free from the constraints of multiple levels of hierarchy, the small studio acts nimbly. That doesn’t mean careful attention and consideration is brushed aside for creativity — quite the opposite, in fact. Team members at a small studio are themselves invested in the success of the business. While bureaucracy is successful at delegation, personal investment results in a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-it-done mentality. The ability to consider, learn, and adapt quickly provides clients with a direct advantage. 

Externally, the marketplace shifts faster then ever before. Insights, opinions, and behaviors don’t just evolve; they trend, then rapidly change. Companies that adapt to these changes the quickest oftentimes reap the rewards, gaining the important advantage of being first-to-marketing, or obtaining the coveted early-adopters. Small, dedicated teams can be assembled quickly, ideas can flow, prototypes can be built, and changes can be made on the fly. Design Thinking, the Design Sprint, and the Lean Startup are all processes that work better with small, passionate teams that ignore groupthink.

Bonus: the teams at small agencies are built to be customer-oriented — an environmental by-product of problem-solving and collaboration. The empathic approach to design always considers the intended audience first. Likewise, creatives are able to partner with their clients’ and evolve in real time.

Another important benefit of working with a small agency, though often taboo, is cost. We all learned in 2020 that expensive overhead is unnecessary. Really smart, creative work can get done in just about any atmosphere — big, small, or remote. Small agencies don’t have big offices, and in many cases have moved to a completely remote model. That’s immediate savings that can be passed on to the client.

In addition, it’s likely that everybody at a small studio is involved in the projects their assigned from start to finish. That means clients don’t pay for staff that isn’t dedicated to their business. Side benefit: fewer managers means less red tape to cut through. Red tape has many negative connotations, deservedly so, but the biggest culprit is simple: it slows business down.

Furthermore, project-based work saves literally thousands of dollars compared to yearly retainer-based work. There are supplemental benefits to consider as well. Namely, project-based work keeps both the client and the studio invested in the task at hand. Authentic partnership almost always results in more unique, original, and meaningful work. When a certain level of trust is built in the relationship, a retainer can be outlined that is mutually beneficial.

By far, the most important factor to consider when choosing any creative agency is the quality of work. Exceptionally creative marketing communications that results in a return greater than the investment is the goal, every time. Which is why working with the most creative thinkers and designers is important.

It’s no secret that the smartest, most innovative thinkers — of which there are plenty — are always brought in to pitch new business at big agencies. It makes perfect sense to assemble a team that’s going to impress a potential new client. The reality is, once a business has been acquired, the team with the great ideas is almost never assigned to that client. When you hire a Small Agency, the people you hire are the people you work with. Their reputations are tied to the quality, craftsmanship, and professionalism they deliver – along with the success of their business. While a Small Agency won’t always have the ability to pitch work on speculation, any small business owner worth their salt is willing take the time talk about how they can contribute to help solve your design, marketing, and advertising challenges. It’s that partnership that always leads to smarter, more creative work anyway.

Undoubtedly, there is a place for creative agencies  both large and small. For those who still question the Return on Investment for good design, consider the alternative cost of bad design. Look around, most things aren’t designed. Communication materials gets over-looked. Directions can be confusing or misleading. Brand and Product launches fail more often than not. But there is certainly no lack of talent — Incredibly smart people, many of whom we consider to be our friends, contribute to innovative creative solutions for their clients every day. Some work alone as freelancers, and other oversee teams of 50 or more. With the challenges that are present today, we think the opportunity is exceptionally big at the moment, for the small agency.

August 21, 2021No Comments

A Delicious Taste of Branding

We like to think of branding as big, ripe avocado – an analogy we borrowed from Brian Dougherty’s book on “Green Graphic Design” (Allworth Press, 2008). Dougherty relates the three layers of an avocado to important roles of the modern designer; 1. Manipulator of stuff, 2. Message maker, and 3. An agent of change. It’s a fantastic read — highly recommended — but we also think the avocado is a ripe analogy for branding as well. Here’s why:

Brand
The outer layer acts similar to our definition of what a brand is – the perception of a company. In “Zag,” Mary Neumeier defines brand as “a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.” In other words, a brand is what people think about you. People make judgments based on a number of brand characteristics: the quality of the product, the effectiveness or creativity of advertising efforts, and the quality of customer service. But a brand is also built on what other people say – in magazine articles, online reviews, or what colleagues are gossiping about at work. Literally everything that people see, hear, or say about a person, organization, company, or business reflects and builds upon our perception of a brand. The single best word in the English language to describe it is “Reputation.” 

“Branding” is the effort to influence this perception. You can’t control what your neighbor’s mom might say, but you can do your best to make consistent and authentic impressions. While the outer layer of an avocado is thick and bumpy, we know it’s delicious and tastes wonderful on toast.

Identity
The set of visual and verbal elements that make up a brand is referred to as its “Identity.” This is the meat of our avocado, where strategy takes hold and brand identity designers offer most of their services. Here, the idea is to influence the public’s perception of brands by creating appropriate and consistent brand elements.

The features that make up people’s identity also make a brand’s – how you look, act, and engage with others. In business, this is often referred to as “Corporate Identity,” or an “Identity System.” In America, the practice goes back to the early days of Paul Rand’s work for IBM and other technology and pharmaceutical companies. But Corporate Identity systems can be traced back even further in the Netherlands  where, in the 1920’s designers like Piet Zwart formed longstanding relationships with companies like the Dutch Post, Telegraph, and Telephone service, or the PTT. What made these partnerships notable was the consistent design across a number of materials: letterhead, brochures, envelopes, business cards, packaging, and industrial signage. A certain “style” was obtained by working with one designer or a small team. Today, that system is also made up of many more elements, like color, fonts and icons, as well as digital touch points, like websites, apps, social media, email blasts, and video.

The brand style guide is the corporate document that keeps track of all the elements of the brand identity system. It ensures that everybody tasked with bringing the brand to life in the marketplace maintains a consistent visual and verbal tone of voice.

Logo
A logo is a graphic mark or symbol used to promote and identify a company. The word is short for “logotype,” which was one word cast as a single piece of type in hot metal typesetting. The definition has been expanded to include both type and figurative design, which often comes in the form of an icon, like the Nike “Swoosh.” If it includes text of the name it represents — for example, “Nike” seen without the swoosh — it’s known as a wordmark. A company’s logo is today often synonymous with its trademark or brand.

The logo is arguably the most memorable part of a brand identity. Out of all the elements that makeup an ID system, it is usually the most consistent, just like the seed at the center of our avocado. However, that doesn’t mean a logo can accomplish everything that helps define a brand. At first, the Nike Swoosh symbolized nothing but a fledgling new sneaker company. Over time, though, depending on how the brand identity works and, more importantly, how the company engages with its audience, the logo can come to symbolize what the brand actually stands for. The logo then acts as a quick reminder, emblematic of everything the audience has learned in the past and comes to expect from the brand in the future.

Time to Refresh?
For companies in a competitive market, or in an industry where products and services are generally the same quality, a brand’s identity becomes even more important. It helps to differentiate one product from another. But there are other situations that call for a brand identity overhaul as well. Perhaps a new audience or opportunity has been discovered, or a company’s internal mission has changed. New competition in the market can also be a good reason to evolve or shift parts of an identity system, either visually, verbally, or both. Often, it just so happens that the current brand identity doesn’t work – it isn’t connecting with the audience, or it just looks and feels outdated. That's a perfect time to slice up a big, ripe avocado.

July 21, 2021No Comments

State of the Agency

On April 14th, we officially put the “Open for Business” sign on our front door — metaphorically speaking, of course, since our announcement came by way of Instagram and LinkedIn. We didn’t actually have an office door to hang the sign. Then again, we didn’t have a single client either. Or a project to our credit. So basically, nothing.

In our announcement letter, I mentioned we'd keep our followers informed about the trials of starting a new business. We try to keep good on that promise with our creative posts on Instagram and Facebook. Hopefully, this article will provide a little more depth to the story. I can’t tell you how other design agencies start, though there are plenty of great books on the subject, which I would happily recommend. This is just how we launched, and how it's been going over the past 3 months.

Business Plan
Do you need one? Not really, unless you need to secure funding or a loan. It seemed like the professional thing to do, however, so we took the time to write our thoughts on paper. It’s about 25 pages, acts as a general description of the business, outlines what we think is our point of difference is in the market, and sets up a few basic creative and financial goals for the first year. If anything, we thought it would be interesting to review in a few months and see how far off we were. 

Funny thing is, taking the time to put your plan on paper really forces you to set realistic expectations. While we didn’t execute the marketing plan exactly as proposed, we're tracking ahead of schedule on several fronts, including new business. This will help us make better projections for future growth, and allow us to shift some of our spending to other important business needs.

New Business
At first, we went a bit "old school." We sent out a mailer to 200 prospective clients. It was hardly a creative execution — a simple letter in a #10 envelope that announced our opening and listed a few services. 75 of those mailers included a customized letter, where we researched accomplishments of the recipient, and addressed them personally. The remaining received a more generic letter, simply because we couldn’t find any specific information. We sent them to office addresses, though we knew most people would be working from home because of the pandemic, and just crossed our fingers. 

We then followed up a week later with either a phone call or an email. Generously, I’d say the response rate was about 20%, which isn’t bad considering the total cost for everything was around $500. (The biggest expense in this case was a new laser printer.) One recipient even sent a response back by mail, which was interesting. In total, the mailer resulted in 5 offers for proposals. And, we secured our first client who has since returned for multiple projects! Even more importantly, since we targeted the people and businesses we wanted to work with, the types of projects we've been awarded since have provided very meaningful opportunities. Which is why we started the business to begin with.

Clubs/Organizations
Having spent the past 7 years at an Ad Agency, one of the first things we wanted to do as an orginazation was become more involved with the design community. However, the pandemic really put many of those clubs on hold, and most events in early 2021 were still being held virtually. That didn’t appeal to us, and so we are holding off membership until 2022. We figured we’d have more to contribute next year as well.

On a whim, we joined our local Chamber of Commerce, and that decision paid off almost immediately. We were introduced to a new business owner in town that needed a logo and a website, which has been one of our favorite clients and projects to-date. (On the other hand, this specific project was also put on hold for months. This taught us the importance of continuously working on a new business pipeline.)

Workshops/Speeches
We gave a presentation at the local library on the Power of Branding, and invited all of the members from the Chamber of Commerce. The idea was mostly goodwill — to provide businesses with an introduction and basic understanding of how branding works. Obviously, we also wanted to get face time with local business owners. 2 people showed up. I suppose that shouldn’t have been a big surprise, given that most people were still uncomfortable getting out in public. But, 8 people did attend virtually, and one of them reached out afterwards to potentially collaborate in the future. While we were initially disappointed with the turnout, we learned a valuable lesson with regards to networking: you just never know what connections will work out. We're already making plans for our next workshop.

Team
While I’m still acting as creative director, art director, designer, bookkeeper, and receptionist, there have been several projects where we’ve had to bring in experts for different services. We’ve partnered with an account professional to help make media buying decisions, as well as a social media expert to consult and recommend executions in that channel. We’ve also brought in partners to help develop proposals, brainstorm conceptual territories, and freelance designers to help execute tactics when the workload has been too busy for one person to handle. There's no doubt we'll need to partner with a front-end developer in the near future. We just delivered several new business proposals that could potentially necessitate full-time hires as well. A big business decision, for sure, and one we won't be making without a lot of deliberate thought and planning, including a trip to the accountant's office.

Office Space
This is a topic of real debate, especially since many agencies were going remote even before the pandemic. As of now, we’re keeping our eyes open. We’ve made several appointments with Real Estate agents to look at studio space. Until we make a decision, our home office is officially a shared workspace, complete with a kids’ Ikea kitchenette.

Summary
Did we launch the right way? That’s a rhetoricall question, of course, because we’re not exactly sure what the right way is. All we know is our way. And so far, it seems to be working. The economy is picking up, and we see no reason why our business can’t grow exponentially over the next year. As always, we’ll continue to look for that next big project to walk through our metaphorical doorway.

July 14, 2021No Comments

What would de Harak do?

Pure. Simple. Rational. Those are the words often used to describe de Harak’s work, but the trained eye knows that achieving any of those qualities doesn’t come easy. It’s almost frustrating, the amount of work – the practice, the iteration, the reservation – that it takes to distill a communications challenge down to the core of the problem, and then create something that seems almost effortless, as if there were no other possible solution. De Harak and his team did it time and time again.

To ask, “what de Harak would do?” is to ask, “are we solving for the right problem?” And That’s what makes “simple” so “difficult.” Richard Poulin, who worked alongside de Harak for almost a decade, has captured many of those timeless solutions in the new monograph, “Rational Simplicity: Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer.” It’s currently being crowd-funded at https://vol.co/product/rudolph-de-harak/