In 1996 my parents finally figured out what I did for a living. They saw my adolescent sketchbooks and journals come to life on the walls, fixtures, furniture and packaging of Starbucks.
I was fortunate enough to be brought in to lead the rebrand of Starbucks when the company only had 800 locations but planned to build a store-per-day, forever.
It was then that I began to understand that graphic designers and marketers leave a legacy with the work they produce, not merely by how cool they think they are to their peers. This thought sent a shiver through my bones for two reasons:
- Some of the projects were so embarrassing that I’d never want my mom to see.
- We accepted work for brands we didn’t believe in—because they were selling products filled with non-nutritional ingredients and promoting unhealthy or sedentary lifestyles—just to fund our agency.
I was burned out and thought about becoming a beet farmer.
But when I looked deeper, there were a handful of projects that stood out—they contained genuine moments when we had helped a brand change the behavior and shape of popular culture. I chose to not only stay in the field of design, but I chose to also further my education to learn about business, leadership and management. I came out hungry for bigger game.
By the time I joined LPK in Cincinnati I had worked on approximately 300 brands, ranging from startups to the Fortune 50. And yet, outside of the world of graphic design, nobody cared. Even I didn’t care—unless it could make my brand more popular to other graphic designers.
Then LPK threw diapers at me.
Pampers tasked LPK with creating a global acceptance of disposable diapers. At that time, many developing regions around the globe had resisted disposable diapers. In addition to being viewed as costly, most families in developing regions preferred cloth diapers for deeply held cultural reasons that had to do with how motherhood was viewed (mostly by men). Research uncovered that the infant mortality rate in these regions was alarming and that cloth diapers combined with water conditions were leading contributors.
Using trend analysis research, I worked with a team that ultimately suggested P&G should do two things:
- Champion motherhood as a cause globally.
- Connect Pampers to UNICEF to change the way diapers were perceived in developing countries.
This led to P&G’s “Million Ways of Motherhood Program,” while Pampers worked with UNICEF to help virtually eradicate infant mortality in these developing regions.
Once senior leadership at P&G bought into and started running with the idea, fireworks went off in my head. I thought of it as a revolution. I believed that since a solid brand strategy process enrolled P&G, it could work for other brands seeking a higher calling. I realized that by aligning with and committing to helping this kind of company I could contribute to society in numerous ways—not just sell them stuff.
Reborn, I committed to teaching business leaders to view brand strategy as a way to win at retail while using their business as a force for good. I wrote a Manifesto that begins with the line, “I have seen the best brands of my generation destroyed by madness and greed.” and ended it with a rallying cry that, “there was a better, mission-driven approach to becoming a powerful brand.”
Taking it one step further, I created a new firm, Retail Voodoo, dedicated to helping the do-gooders gain enough influence to change the conversation around food, beverage, wellness and fitness. Our vision: Bring world-class brand strategy, big-picture thinking and top-level design to those companies who were hell-bent on changing the world for the better.
At the time we were seen as crazies. But, seven years later, we find ourselves in the middle of a megatrend because more people are seeking clean eating and have made the connection between optimism and exercise. Furthermore, people want the brands they allow into their lives to be good corporate citizens.
You might be wondering how, if at all, the day-to-day practice of brand strategy and design is different in this niche. What’s similar is that the brand owners need to grow their business—their neck is on the line if our work doesn’t produce results.
But that’s where the similarities end. Retail Voodoo doesn’t accept assignments from brands or products we don’t believe in personally—meaning we must trust their business ethics and are able to see that they are striving to do good for the human race beyond just making a product for profit.
Another difference is how we staff the agency. All of our employees are true believers in what we are trying to do as an agency. It took a few years of turnover—there were a handful of team members that were resistant non-believers. We ultimately had to evolve our hiring philosophy to one that was based upon a person’s potential and energy, not merely past job performance.
People are genuinely surprised (or skeptical) to learn that we walk away from brands with deep pockets but no purpose beyond profit. But we are respectful about it. We probe deeper and ask them why their brand exists beyond making a profit. If that offends them, it’s simply not a good fit. If they don’t know what their purpose is but want help finding it, game on!
Today, as we focus on our mission, it does not include cannabis brands. Why not bend to make room for it since the industry is flooded with venture capitalists that know how to grow a business? My kids. They are proud. They even tell their teachers and friends what we do.
It’s about the legacy we all must leave (whether we think about it or not). When we touch a brand, it catches fire, and I won’t help popularize products that I wouldn’t let my kids share with their friends.
successful examples include:
1. Sahale Snacks
Achieved a 5x growth in the first year and is now the best-selling brand of trail mix in the U.S.
2. DRY Soda
Recorded a 20x increase in topline revenue in 36 months and has earned the title of fastest-growing Carbonated Soft Drink (CSD) in North America.
3. Essentia Water
Reported 84 percent growth over 12 months and has become the fastest-growing specialty water in the U.S.
I see these “specialty” natural brands representing the future of brands—eventually they will be the majority. Don’t get me wrong, people will always want chips and cola, but I see a future where conventional grocery will be the new specialty grocer. This used to sound crazy, but there is mounting evidence of the shift—Costco and Walmart are now the biggest buyers of organic products with Kroger and Target hot on their tails.
We are not for everybody. But when the purpose-driven founder, CEO or marketer realizes how we have stood in the farms, factories, test kitchens and boardrooms of many of the brands they’re aspiring to be more like, we move from being a potential vendor to kindred spirit. They understand we want to help them grow and will make certain they don’t sell their soul for profit.
David Lemley is Founder/Chief Strategist, Retail Voodoo. Retail Voodoo believes that brands can make a difference when they stand for something good. It is the only branding agency with a 25-year track record turning better-for-you brands (in wellness, food, beverage and fitness) into cultural forces for good and financial powerhouses. Clients include: Essentia Water, KIND, Sahale Snacks, Alden’s Organic, Dry Soda, REI, Starbucks and Sur La Table. Contact Lemley at email@example.com