visual identity

Astonishing product design & funky brands

Back in 2009, I wrote about Alessi and its ability to keep its brand alive through product innovation. While rereading that blog post, as well as looking back at the beginnings of SCHMOOZY FOX's blog, and the content that I've created over time, I feel like reiterating this important for me thought: product innovation and design are very powerful elements of any funky brand.  

Manyt of the funky brands that I've spoken about on this blog are good at design -- be it product design or visual identity. Think of Theo eyewear, Kipling bags,  Biomega bikes or Ice Watch -- product design is an important element of their brand DNA. Or, let's take, for instance, Mad Mimi -- a funky visual identity makes this email marketing service stand out from the crowd in a very refreshing way.

 

Many Funky Brands can be spotted at major events and conferences dedicated to design. I wish I was now at the Milan Design Week, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. Alessi is also present there with its latest designs, check them out here.

Mad Mimi: funky email marketing

mad mimi Anyone who has ever launched a new business, must have at some point experimented with email marketing.

Has any entrepreneur ever looked for an extremely funky kind of email marketing when looking for such a service? I can only speak for myself, and say that I wasn’t. Frankly, I didn’t expect anything as functional as sending out an email to be enjoyable and fun. Until I discovered Mad Mimi.

First of all, it was the name. I thought that a company that dared to call itself by such a name, would be something special.

Then there was the funky design of their web site that triggered my interest even more.

To cut a long story short, sending my first email with Mad Mimi was simply fun. Email exchange with its support team that welcomed me to MadMimi was refreshingly different. I simply could not resist contacting Mad Mimi’s CEO Gary Levitt and getting to know the man behind this funky brand. I greatly enjoyed my talk with Gary, who shared some useful tips on the importance of staying optimistic, and hiring only the best and most talented. Have fun reading my interview with Gary, and learning about Mad Mimi.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Gary, most of my Funky Brand interviewees have represented product brands – such as fashion, accessories, food and drink. I am very happy to interview you about Mad Mimi because I want to show to my readers that Funky Brands can also exist in a business-to-business context. Could you tell me when and how you had the idea of launching Mad Mimi?

Gary Levitt, CEO of Mad Mimi

Gary Levitt: I studied music at Berkeley College in Boston, and after graduation, played jazz in New York, worked as a bus boy in restaurants and eventually worked in commercial music production. One day I had an idea of building an online platform for musicians that would allow them to upload images and send out press kits. Although I received funding to develop this product, and hired coders, I never ended up launching it.

I guess the main reason for that was that I lacked deep understanding of how to build a product, and expected the coders I hired to do the creative thinking and architecture for me. The coders were into ... coding, as opposed to designing the product and making it work on the market. Plus, I myself lacked the experience to know how to manage the development of a product.

SCHMOOZY FOX: How did you make the switch from the press kit product for musicians towards Mad Mimi, which is an email marketing service for a much wider audience?

Gary Levitt: Mad Mimi simply seemed like a logical step in a direction that I thought had more potential for commercial success than a niche product for musicians. The interface we had created for musicians was good enough for everybody to use -- and so Mad Mimi was born.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Mad Mimi is quite an original name, did you come up with it?

Gary Levitt: Yes. I originally planned to call the company simply Mimi, but then had the idea of adding “Mad” to it when I was renting space next to another company called Madstone productions.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Good design -- be it product design or brand visual identity -- is an important element of Funky Brands. To me, Mad Mimi looks pretty eye-catching! Even the colors of your site look quite different from what one would, I suppose, associate with email marketing!

Gary Levitt: I wanted Mad Mimi to stand out from the crowd not least by giving it amad mimi email marketing fun, eye-catching visual identity that would make it memorable. I was once leafing through an issue of Creativity Magazine where I saw a list of award-winning designers. It seemed like a great idea to work with the best and most talented, so I contacted one (David Bamundo) who designed Mad Mimi’s logo.

This is pretty much how I’ve thought at every crucial step of building the company. For instance, when I looked for software developers, I sent out my brief to about 80 meticulously selected top programmers. I was lucky to end up working with really talented people who helped me build Mad Mimi the way it is now -- and are in fact continuing product development.

The same philosophy of hiring the best and most talented applies to selecting customer service reps for Mad Mimi. We receive 1, 500 emails of customer inquiries per day, and have a dedicated force of 16 customer service reps around the world.

I have generally focused not on resumes (I’ve never actually used a resume to influence a decision to hire someone) but on energy instead. We typically don’t take a cost cutting or outsourced approach to staffing our front lines with low paid employees. We’ve instead focused on creating top-down culture where every lead developer and C-level executive does customer service along side dedicated customer service staff. The customer service infrastructure isn’t “designed” as such, but has rather flowed naturally from the ownership out to other members of the team. We feel that our profitability and growth is in a large part due to this approach, and it’s a crucial part of our brand.

SCHMOOZY FOX: I experienced Mad Mimi’s customer service first hand.  Actually, I must say, I assumed that the first email I received from Mad Mimi was an automated response.  And yet, something told me there was a real person interacting with me at the other end.  It felt different and nice.

Gary Levitt: (Laughing). Indeed, we don’t do automated customer service! There are real people who are there 24/7 to help you. We say that we like to hire friendly geeks for this kind of job, but really, anyone cool, friendly and passionate is great to be in customer service.

SCHMOOZY FOX: And finally, Gary, how would you describe the essence of Mad Mimi’s funky brand?

Gary Levitt: It’s simplicity, warmth and loveliness. Yummy loveliness! :)

Mashable gives a positive review to Mad Mimi

Brand mascots

Photo by Bludgeoner86 on Flickr

You’ve ordered yourself a great logo. You’ve built an attractive web site. You’ve sorted out the look and feel of your distribution channels. And you even have a brand slogan that goes well with your funky brand name.

Provided that your business idea actually makes economic sense and that you’ve positioned yourself well against competition, chances are that you’ve built a good basis for your brand strategy that will lead to satisfied customers, and big profits.

And yet, you feel that there should be something else that will give your brand a personality.

Have you noticed that when you buy your funky Kipling bag, there’s a very cool little toy monkey that comes with it?

Or, when you buy your Michelin guide, it always has the Michelin man on its front page?

These cartoon-like characters are called brand mascots, and they are there to infuse your brand with that precious valuable personality.

Rather than part of your visual identity, brand mascots are essentially a marketing communications tool that gives your brand a more memorable and emotional character. Even if your brand mascot is actually an animal, chances are, it will give your brand a human touch.

Though brand mascots are becoming increasingly common, especially with the rise of social media (check out the Travelocity Roaming Gnome on Facebook), really good and effective ones are still rare.

kipling monkeyHere are some tips that will help you create a great brand mascot:

1) Think of your target audience -- will it be prepared to listen to your brand stories told by a cute mascot? If your company offers specialized software to accountants, don’t start pushing cartoon-like characters onto them to promote your stuff. The funky factor of your brand mascot needs to be consistent with the profile of your customers.

2) Don’t get obsessed with making your mascot look like your logo.

In fact, the role of the mascot is not to enhance your visual identity, but make your brand alive. Some companies change the appearance of their mascots, adapting it to the situation. For instance, different Kipling bags will have different monkey mascots, depending on the style of the bag.

Similarly, the Twitter bird often takes different shapes and forms, somehow still managing to look Twitter-like!

Twitter birds

3) Make your brand mascot connect to your customers emotionally. The main question you need to ask yourself is this, “What do I want my customers to feel when they interact with my brand mascot?” There should be something in your customers that resonates with the character of the mascot.

4) Consider a brand mascot only if your business makes economic sense.

This is a tough one! I’ve seen many startups invest tons of money into a lot of activity around their brand mascots -- only to realize that these cartoon characters alone neither  drove sales, nor built the brand. If you have nothing valuable to offer to your customers, they will be annoyed rather than delighted by your brand mascot.

5) Finally, make people remember your brand, not your brand mascot.

A brand mascot is only one element of your brand communications, but it doesn’t replace your whole brand strategy.  When people think of your brand, it’s okay if they first recall a funny cartoon-like brand mascot. What’s more important, however, is that they know what exactly this mascot exactly stands for! Remembering a cute furry animal, and not having a clue about what you actually sell, is not what you want from your consumers. Brand mascots enhance your brand, but they are not your brand.

Kipling bags: attitude included

Kipling Helmet Bag

Funky and stylish Kipling bags are sold in 60 countries around the world. The story of Kipling (( the brand was named after writer Rudyard Kipling)) began in 1987 in Antwerp, when its founders decided to launch a brand of stylish bags with personality -- comfortable and far from boring.

The brand was later sold to private investors. In 2004 Kipling was acquired by VF Corporation, which marked the beginning of tremendous growth of the brand globally.

In order to reposition Kipling from sporty and casual to stylish, funky and contemporary, VF hired Isabelle Cheron, a former executive of Chanel and Celine, as the brand’s global Art Director.

For me personally, Kipling is a brand that owes its success to a carefully crafted and implemented brand strategy. I met Isabelle to discuss the rapid success of Kipling over the past years, as find out what makes it a Funky Brand.

SCHMOOZY FOX: As Artistic Director of Kipling, which company functions are you responsible for at Kipling?

isabelle_cheron_01Isabelle Cheron: I have the overall responsibility of managing the Kipling brand worldwide. In practice, this includes overviewing Design, Marketing and Merchandising. At Kipling, these functions are very closely connected with each other, and managing them by the same person has resulted in many benefits for the organization and brand as a whole.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Do you have a background in design?

Isabelle Cheron: I studied business, but there’s also a very strong artistic side in me.  I often draw sketches of new bag models, and then my team of designers brings them to perfection. I certainly have an eye for good design and style, which helps me determine what new product launches would be in line with the overall brand.

SCHMOOZY FOX: What was your main objective regarding the overall brand strategy of Kipling when you joined the company?

Isabelle Cheron: I thought that Kipling had a lot of potential to continue being a brand of very functional bags, and yet I was convinced that it needed to become much more contemporary. I wanted to reveal its true exuberant personality, which became a bit hidden over the years. Importantly, the main objective was not to adapt the brand to a particular age group, but rather, make it into a statement of style, comfort and fun for active, modern women.

magali_cross fushia

SCHMOOZY FOX: Kipling surprises its customers with very innovative collections. From what I’ve noticed, each collection has a little surprise in it -- be it a totally new product, or a different twist added to existing models. How do you make sure that innovation remains at the core of the brand?

Isabelle Cheron: My own source of inspiration and creativity lies in observing women, what they like, what they find functional and stylish. For instance, you may observe that some women always, or mostly, wear high heels, and others -- hardly ever!

But what lies behind this observation? In fact, I think that women who wear high heels are completely different from those who don’t wear any heels! These differences are seen in their personality, the way they carry themselves, and even what they want from life.

SCHMOOZY FOX: And based on these differences, Kipling designs bags accordingly?

Isabelle Cheron: Absolutely! We observe women, we learn what they want, and what exactly they would find comfortable and attractive. For instance, during the upcoming Spring Summer 2011 collection, we’ll launch two new bag models: the DJ bag, and the Festival Bag.

Kipling DJ Bag

The former is an ultra-funky bag for women DJs, and has been designed after studying the needs and desires of many young women who work as DJs, and who have very unique needs that are inherent to their profession.

festival bag_fish skin

The Festival Bag has been designed for concert and festival goers. It has foil-lined inner pockets that are extremely useful for carrying cans of soda. Even if your Coke spills out, your bag won’t suffer!

SCHMOOZY FOX: What are the company’s future plans in regard to Kipling’s brand strategy? How will you ensure that Kipling continues to be a Funky Brand?

Isabelle Cheron: We plan to improve our points of sales globally, as well as ensure that Kipling moves away from the image of casual (which some consumers still share) towards ultra-stylish and functional.

All images in this article have been provided courtesy of VF Corporation.

Need rebranding? Don't just change your logo, think brand strategy

Old Apple logoI am often asked to explain what brand strategy stands for. In my experience, many people still associate branding, and brand strategy, with graphic design -- logos, web sites and other elements of visual identity. Whereas visual identity is absolutely essential in branding (and SCHMOOZY FOX works with a great team of designers to take care of it!), it's just one step in a broader activity which is brand strategy.

Brand strategy is your overall business strategy that has an objective of building a  S T R O N G  B R A N D.

This may sound rather simple, but in reality, a good brand strategy is a very complex exercise.  A good brand strategy can determine your success, and no brand strategy is often a recipe for a failure (see my previous blog post Brands do not take care of themselves).

Rebranding is a good chance to sort out your overall brand strategy. Often, companies feel like getting away from a tired image, and creating something more consistent with market needs.  This "something" is often, in their view, a change of look and feel. Often, their rebranding efforts are only about changing a logo.

But the reality is, even after improving their logos, many companies don't sort out their bad customer service, or improve product functionality. It's astonishing that many companies simply do not think that these strategic elements have anything to do with their brand!

Today, I want to share with you a story  published on Inc.com, How to rebrand your business successfully. It summarizes a rebranding project that was done by Seattle's Coffee Company (part of the Starbucks group). See how the company measured the size of their market, did competitor research, re-thought their customer base, and improved distribution channels.

All of these activities are characteristic of brand strategy and should be considered within any rebranding project.

Branding humanitarian aid

Humanitarian aid is also branded -- sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. This post gives an example of how United Nations and others try to build brand awareness.

Can a brand exist without a name?

no-name-restaurantYesterday I had dinner at a very nice restaurant in Brussels. The service was excellent, and food was enjoyable. A funky item on the menu was a mix-it-yourself salad. The waiter brought me a piece of paper with a list of ingredients, and all I had to do was tick off the ones I wanted in my gastronomic concoction. I liked playing the "ticking the box game" and was quite satisfied with the resulting salad.

A nice idea, which, combined with great service, led to a high level of customer satisfaction I for sure experienced.

This is all good, but what was the name of the restaurant?

Well, I have no idea!

The next time I go there, I'll invite my friends to a ¨place where you can mix your own salads", but I won't be able to give them its name. The thing is, I did look for the name of the place above the entrance , but simply couldn't see any. I am sure it must have been there, just well hidden.

The waiters' uniform didn't have any signs of the name either. One of the waiters was wearing a T-shirt with a logo of Havana Club, a bar in a totally different part of Brussels which probably had nothing to do with the "place where you can mix your own salads" .  Another waiter had an altogether different logo on his T-shirt. Total confusion!

This particular no name restaurant certainly has a lot of nice things about it, which for me personally resulted in the most precious thing all businesses should strive for: customer satisfaction.  With some help of a visual identity consultant, this particular restaurant can introduce some logic and consistency to its look and feel, including a logo, interior design, the way the menu looks and the style of the waiters' uniforms. Higher brand awareness is guaranteed!

But for the moment, could I say that for me, this restaurant has a BRAND, if I can't even remember its name? I'd argue that it actually does. Although there are very many definitions of "brand" out there, the simple definition is that of a "personality" of a company, human being, country, exposition, etc.  A set of unique character features, if you will.

The no name restaurant that served me dinner last night, has a "personality" of a friendly place that allows you some creativity and participation in making your meal. A good brand name, if easily detected and memorable, can only enhance this personality.

Good branding has nothing to do with trying to make a lousy business look nice. Chances are high that people will remember your name, but it will be tied to a bunch of negative connotations. Good branding is about first helping companies manage their business well, enabling them to provide good service and have authentic values and THEN translating this work into what's actually visible to the final customer. Trying to dress up a bad business into a nice package simply won't work.

So, the "place where you can mix your own salads", just sort out that name stuff, and the rest will follow.

Chocolate and Online Branding – Sweet Dreams or Bitter Reality?

I couldn’t resist an impulse purchase of two tiny boxes of Pierre Marcolini chocolates on Place du Grand Sablon in Brussels this morning; even though I had to pay 16 Euros for the pleasure! I wandered around the stylish shop, carefully examining nicely wrapped chocolate goodies displayed on its two floors and wondering about the relevance of brand building in the chocolate business.

If buying chocolate has mostly an impromptu character, isn’t it just enough to care about having attractive shop windows that are enough of a catch to lure customers in, or do chocolate producers need to care about building longer-term relations with their customers? While the latter option seems obvious to me, Belgium is full of small shops with a very local reputation that sell superior quality chocolate, but who have probably never considered setting aside a chunk of their budget to try to build a brand – or wouldn't know where to start.

Some “chocolatiers”, like Pierre Marcolini, and some others, have embarked on the path of trying to make their names known across Belgium and abroad. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, at least on the local Belgian scene, Marcolini has succeeded in making its name known to chocolate-loving connoisseurs. The major achievement of Marcolini in this respect has, in my view, been an attempt to give its shops an ultramodern look that immediately set them aside from smaller old-fashioned competitors. But if Pierre Marcolini cares about its further growth and international recognition – after all, it has opened stores in the US, Kuwait, Japan, UK, Luxembourg and France –it might consider giving a bit more thought to improving its online presence and making it part of its wider brand-building strategy. In order to do so, it would first of all need to take a fresh look at its web site.

Let’s look at the Belgian site of the chocolate producer -- www.marcolini.be (why not include the name “Pierre” in the domain name?) -- from the usability point of view;

The main page brings us to a flyer for the recently published book “Eclats” that is said (in tiny text that I could read only by moving my face very close to the computer screen) to be available in a range of shops. There are no details about the contents of the book (I suppose it has to do with chocolate) and reasons why anyone would want to buy it.

The main page then gives you some further options for surfing: three language options (French, Dutch and English), as well as “Site Map”. A click on the English version leads to the story about Pierre Marcolini himself, and “Company” provides a snapshot of the main achievements of the brand in chronological order. The tab “Collections” is empty for the moment, and “Events” hasn’t been updated for a while. The page “Contact” briefly mentions a possibility of buying corporate gifts, but the link where further information about them is supposed to be displayed, is “In the construction.”

As I am very used to the fact that on web pages in Belgium content information often differs depending on the language, I attempt to reach the Pierre Marcolini page in both French and Dutch. But it’s not an easy task! I can’t access the language options by clicking on “Home”, so I need to shorten the now expanded domain name address to www.marcolini.be again, in order to reach the main page with the info about “Eclats”. Voila! The French version of the page contains a new tab unavailable in English, “Solutions enterprise” or “Company gifts”. It contains a small collage of chocolate boxes with text below them mentioning that these, indeed, are company gifts. However, no further information is provided on how to order these gifts! Same thing on the page in Dutch – no further info on the subject.

Given its international presence, I was hoping to come across a corporate site of Pierre Marcolini, but what I´ve found was a number or local, country-specific sites. For instance, the US site www.marcolinichocolatier.com gives some facts about the business, but looks quite incomplete. The tab ¨online shop¨ redirects you yet to another site, www.pierremarcolini-na.com. The latter, in its turn, does not seem to be fully functional as some of the goods described just don´t want to go into the shopping cart!

Apart from the imperfections of the mentioned sites, someone at the company must have nevertheless thought about the consistency of visual identity – the shop design, packaging and some elements of the web sites follow more or less the same color and style pattern.

What strikes me in particular, is the discrepancy between Marcolini´s grandiose shop in a stylish location, and its quite undeveloped web sites, mediocre both from the conceptual and technical points of view. Even if strengthening its brand through a variety of online initiatives might not be Marcolini´s strategic priority at the moment, the company should at least boost the look and feel of its web sites, as well as think of using the brand name consistently throughout the country-specific sites. This seems especially important since the chocolate maker is pursuing the path of e-commerce. Imagine how important it would be to help foreign visitors to Brussels relive their pleasant chocolate shopping experience online! Then, thousands miles away from the gorgeous flagship store, they would continue being fans of the brand. And aren´t most brands dreaming of such a ¨lovemarks¨ effect?1

1. Described by Kevin Roberts in “The Lovemarks Effect”, PowerHouseBooks, NY, 2006