Building Your Brand: Five creative leaders weigh in on strategy, new clients and the challenge of rising above the crowd

Is your social media strategy working?  How did that customer hear about your product? Is your brand identity projecting the image you really want? These are just a few of the countless questions marketing and design professionals tackle daily in their work for companies and organizations locally and across the country. This month, the TCBN asked the leaders at five local creative agencies to reflect on their work in 2018, and what they are excited about (and will be challenged by) in the year ahead.

BRAND TONIC – Jennifer Lake, founder and creative director

New accounts in 2018: We worked with several amazing nonprofit organizations to launch bold, new brand campaigns including: Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra, Children’s Advocacy Centers of Michigan, Christ’s Hope International and Kalkaska County Library. We also gave fresh rebrands to local businesses such as: The Center for Plastic Surgery & Skin Care, King Orchards and Monarch Home Health Services.

A favorite project from this past year, and why: Every project brings its own interest and passion, so to pick a favorite is difficult. We admit we love serving the nonprofit sector. We helped the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra refresh its image – focusing on creativity, community and connection – with a new identity, brand messaging, season posters, website design, signage and more.

What’s coming in your industry that you’re excited about: As visual designers, we’re excited about the upcoming color trends for 2019. Pantone recently announced the color of the year as Living Coral (think pinky-orange.) Along these vibrant lines, you’ll find complementing colors that express boldness, confidence, creativity and joyful spirits. The last several years have focused on cooler, more subdued tones, but not anymore. The new colors show an expression of playfulness. Look for these uplifting colors in fashion, home accents and graphic designs.

Biggest challenge in the industry right now: Clients continue to be challenged by how to effectively spend media dollars. Often, the greatest success is found in a mixed approach. There is no single answer to a media plan any more. Sometimes dollars are best spent in sponsoring events with high visibility to target audiences. Sometimes collaborating with other businesses helps create a buzz. An online presence is a must, but giving users value is what keeps them coming back for more. Think about where your audience is, then find the right mix of tactics to get there, too.

Company news: It’s hard to believe, but in 2019 I’ll be celebrating 15 years as a business owner. I am fortunate to work with incredibly talented and positive teammates, and I’m very proud of the work we have created for meaningful clients across Michigan. While we continue to build our branding clientele, I am also doing more public speaking to bring creative exercises and personal branding workshops to groups and organizations.

FLIGHT PATH CREATIVE – Aaron Swanker, co-founder and creative director

New accounts in 2018: Vapur, Inc. (Oxnard, Calif.); Pacific Living Properties (Seattle, Wash.); Hardinge (Berwyn, Penn.); Snowbird Ski Resort (Snowbird, Utah); Arbela Technologies (Irvine, Calif.); Hilbert’s Honey Bees (Traverse City).

A favorite project from this past year, and why: Vapur, Inc. is an international California-based company that combines groundbreaking design, innovation and eco-responsibility to create the anti-bottle: A reusable water bottle that is perfect for travel and adventure; it stands when full and collapses and flattens when empty. Flight Path led the website redesign, and made sure to place an emphasis on what makes Vapur different from its competitors.

What’s coming in your industry that you’re excited about: We are continually focused on the ebb and flow of digital marketing as it relates to [return on investment] and we are beginning to invest more efforts into influencer marketing, which focuses on using key leaders (that you inspire or hire) to drive your brand’s message to a larger target market, typically through social media. When done well, this leverages the reach, credibility and salesmanship of an influencer to advocate your product or service to consumers and customers, resulting in awareness, improved perception, and action.

Biggest challenge in the industry right now: The dilution of content in such a heavily digital age. Although the addition of digital avenues through which to advertise and interact with a brand can be helpful, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly where and how customers are interacting with a brand. Through the wide use of social media, Google ads and print materials, customers more than likely have multiple methods of exposure to a product or service. It’s our job to sift through the interactions to determine where clients’ budgets would be best spent.

Company news: We are honored and excited to have been published in this year’s edition of Logo Lounge. We recently gained a Dallas/Ft. Worth-based client with franchises throughout the south central United States. We continue to broaden our digital marketing services, focusing on educating our different departments and expanding knowledge of upcoming trends.


IDEA STREAM – Marsha Stratton, owner

New accounts in 2018: Copper Ridge Surgery Center (formerly Northwest Michigan Surgery Center); M22 Lakeshore Trail; Old Mission Peninsula School; Northern Michigan Angels; East Bay Plaza; Berkshire Hathaway Michigan Lifestyle Homes; Mapleridge Construction; Tremonte Financial Consultants and Scott Jones Consulting

A favorite project from this past year, and why: Chosen to be the marketing partner for Copper Ridge Surgery Center, we did significant research that led to the renaming of the facility and complete brand development. It was a highly visible and layered project that made a significant impact within the community. The entire team was a fantastic group to work with. There was great excitement internally and a very smooth transition with the public rollout.

What’s coming in your industry that you’re excited about: Artificial intelligence is a hot topic in marketing. Even though many still don’t understand its capabilities and limitations, the technology of chatbots is taking shape. Chatbots help brands improve customer service while keeping a lid on budgets. They are quicker than humans in giving any data-related answers and receiving requests. They have humor and personalities and offer personalized service to any customer in need, any time. Chatbots can be integrated with a website, an application and even with a social media platform. They also gather user information that can later be used to better tailor marketing strategies.

Biggest challenge in the industry right now: Standing out in a digital world can be difficult. Engaged audiences are no longer just on one social media platform, they are spread out across several. Knowing where to invest your marketing budget is a vital part of the strategy. There’s a vast digital world that needs to be included as well as part of your overall plan. Consumers continue to trend toward a word-of-mouth referral system to gauge the products or services that are of interest. When choosing traditional media options as well as digital, it is imperative to have the right medium with the right message to the right audience.

Company news: As a new collaboration, we are pleased to be a part of the Northern Michigan Angels group. By being involved with this organization we are able to be on the front end of entrepreneurial pitches for a new product or service that is being developed right here in northern Michigan. Also, this year Idea Stream is celebrating 21 years of serving northern Michigan with their marketing needs.


PB&J MARKETING – Karl Bastian, creative director

New accounts in 2018: Northern Building Supply; United Way of Northwest Michigan; Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula; 4Front Credit Union; ProFILE; Lakestone Bank & Trust.

A favorite project from this past year, and why: We’re excited about a lot of the work we’re doing with our clients, because so much of it impacts the lives of people and communities of northwest Michigan. But perhaps the project that really stands out is the campaign we just launched for United Way’s new 211 service. With just one call or text, United Way connects people to the social services they need: help with utility bills, childcare, legal assistance, etc. So often it’s hard to navigate what’s available in terms of assistance. This changes and simplifies all of that. It’s a game-changer for our community.

What’s coming in your industry that you’re excited about: Clients continue to move more and more into digital and social media spaces. There’s a great need for compelling, relevant and original content. More than ever, clients need to define who they are and the value of what they provide in clear, simple terms.

Biggest challenge in the industry right now: One of the greatest challenges in today’s industry is creating and maintaining a unique and consistent brand across all media – digital, social and traditional. There are so many ways to get your messages out there now. You need a plan and a message platform and you need to stick it. It’s not a new challenge, but it’s a significant one.

Company news: PB&J participated in the 2018 ADDY Awards, a nationwide creative competition, and won nine awards including three Gold ADDYs and a special judge’s award. Additionally, creative director Karl Bastian has been chosen to judge the 2019 ADDY Awards show this month in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


PROOF POSITIVE BRAND DESIGN – Eric Campbell, principal and creative director

New accounts in 2018: We recently completed a comprehensive brand assessment and identity redesign for the Otsego Community Foundation. The assessment is a critical exercise that helps lay the groundwork for the foundation’s future marketing strategies and tactics. Other new and notable clients include: Boyne Country Sports; Fischer Insurance; Northwoods Soda; R.M. Young Company; EcoQuant and The United States Geological Survey.

A favorite project from this past year, and why: The design and launch of a new bottled sparkling soda line for Northwoods Soda. The project was a standout for many reasons. First, the three-dimensional nature of designing for packaging always presents a fun and welcome challenge. Second, we were able to utilize the talent of our senior designer/in-house illustrator, Jacquie Auch, for the packaging. Third, Northwoods Soda is an amazing client, they do so much for the community. And finally, the visibility of this project, locally, has been thrilling. It’s so much fun unexpectedly “running into” your work in area stores, restaurants and bars.

What’s coming in your industry that you’re excited about: Technology continues to advance so quickly, presenting new opportunities for branding and immersive customer experiences. Virtual reality is now affordable and becoming ubiquitous. Augmented reality is amazing when executed well — just look at the Pokémon Go craze that swept through a couple years ago. Smart speakers and electronic home assistants are going to be a new frontier. It’s an exciting time and advertising/branding/design firms are going to become more specialized. Oh, and artist collaborations for products, although not new, seem to be enjoying a golden age.

Biggest challenge in the industry right now: One of the biggest challenges for our industry is crowd-sourced creativity. Sites like Fiverr (the gig economy) and Tailor Brands (AI-generated logo design) advertise inexpensive logo and brand solutions that are soulless, rarely successful or distinctive — and definitely not strategy-driven.

Company news: Last spring we were invited to exhibit at the Grand Rapids-based Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in a show called “A Look Behind Design.” The show explored the process of design in the disciplines of graphic design, industrial design and product design. We chose to chronicle our process in designing the brand and pint packaging for Big Dipper Dough Company. Additionally, we had three logos selected for 2018’s Logo Lounge Book 10, an international logo design competition in which more than 36,000 logos were submitted, and only 2,000 selected for inclusion in the hardcover book.