The Sweet Spot: Slightly off-kilter PB&J Marketing gets TC talking

PB&J Marketing co-owners Karl Bastian and his wife Maria Perez-Bastian look over some of their recent work. (Photo: Todd VanSickle)

Meat, potholes and penguins have had Traverse City buzzing since PB&J Marketing launched Maxbauer’s Meat Market’s eye-catching billboard and marketing campaign several years ago.

One of the most memorable Maxbauer billboards read, “We have steaks bigger than Eighth Street potholes,” which at the time were legendary on the crumbling roadway. In another campaign, four unmarked giant penguins on a frozen West Bay subtly pushed Maxbauer’s fish after a flurry of social media posts wondered whodunnit.

The off-kilter approach has worked well for the award-winning firm, co-owned by husband and wife team Karl Bastian and Maria Perez-Bastian.

The company turns six in April and has had a string of successful and unique advertising campaigns in the region for other local clients, including Peterson McGregor Insurance, Korthase Flinn Insurance & Financial Services, High Street Insurance Partners, Grand Traverse Distillery and Traverse City Tourism.

The heart of the firm’s success, says Perez-Bastian, is Bastian’s copy.

“It is the copywriting I am proud of,” said Perez-Bastian, who met Bastian in college; the couple now has four children. “You can have a beautiful image and it can move you, but when the writing is sweet, it just hits the mark. He is so good at distilling, making you think, making you laugh. His copywriting is really the heart of this company.”

She added that he is passionate about his work and is always thinking about writing and marketing strategies, including when the couple goes on road trips and critique billboards together. “We can be pretty harsh,” she said.

One question Bastian gets a lot is: Where did the firm’s name come from? “Everyone asks that,” said Bastian, a Central Michigan University grad who has been involved in the writing process for branding and business naming of Fortune 500 companies. Before branching out and starting his own firm, he was a copywriter in the Detroit area. A little more than six years ago he was a partner at a Traverse City ad agency.

He says he wanted his company’s name to be something simple and make people smile. He ran the name by his wife, who said, “You know what that is: Perez-Bastian and just great ideas.”

“Aside for being simple and memorable, she gave it meaning,” Bastian said.

One of PB&J’s first clients was Maxbauer’s. At the time the Traverse City business was celebrating its 100th anniversary. “We had some ideas for some posters,” Bastian said. “It celebrated their history and their commitment to the community.”

The posters featured Maxbauer’s staff, including former long-time owner Mike Deering. “They loved them so much, they created a wall decal that is there today,” Bastian said.

The posters went on to win awards and were featured in international publications. PB&J then started billboards with a little more personality that started getting a lot of attention.

“They were really kind of fun, reflective … of the personalities of the owners,” Bastian said. “People tend to respond to the billboards we do for Maxbauer’s.”

Another Maxbauer ad campaign that generated a lot of buzz, but it had nothing to do with billboards, was the penguins on the frozen West Bay three years ago.

The frigid scene got Bastian thinking about how Maxbauer’s wanted to promote their frozen fish. So, he created four life-sized penguins out of corrugated plastic and placed them on the ice before the morning commute. The plastic penguins stood alone and were not accompanied by any signage or branding.

“They looked like real penguins … It looked like Antarctica,” Bastian said. “It just exploded on social media. People were asking, ‘What’s with the penguins on the ice?’ It was a lot of fun.”

As the buzz continued to grow about the mysterious penguins, Bastian reached out to the media to explain that it was a promotion for Maxbauer’s.

“Everyone loved it,” Bastian said.

Aside from social media, the publicity stunt got the attention of local radio shows and news television programs. Even a television station in Tampa Bay, Florida picked up the story. Bastian credits his company’s success to breaking through the promotional clutter that inundates consumers on a daily basis.

PB&J has two in-house designers and works with other contractors. However, all the creative and concept work is done in-house. A lot of the firm’s work also consists of social media and video. One tip he gives clients is not to post too often on social media.

“We have clients that are pushing so much content that it loses its impact,” Bastian said.

He stays current with the new social media platforms by reading a lot and being an information junkie.
Bastian said no client is too big or small for his company.

“Any time we have an opportunity to do something unique and solve a problem for a client, that is what we look for,” Bastian said. “It is not so much the size of the client, but the client themselves.”

He admits to turning down clients in the past. “We would turn down a client if the chemistry isn’t necessarily there,” Bastian said.

He added that he tries to challenge clients to try new things and think outside the box. “We are at a point where people come to us and are expecting that,” Bastian said. “They want us to share our ideas and challenge them.”

One of those clients is 4Front Credit Union, which has been using PB&J for more than a year. The relationship was initially based primarily on media purchasing and message consultation. But the partnership has blossomed and 4Front’s Vice President of Marketing Keith Carey said the credit union has started to see results.

Since January 2019, the credit union has opened almost 2,700 reward checking accounts, something Carey attributes to PB&J.

“We have some pretty unique television commercials out there,” Carey said. “It has been a really neat partnership. It certainly has grown into a more complete agency/marketing-type of relationship. We work together on specific campaigns. We take advantage of Karl and his crew’s expertise.”

Carey first became acquainted with PB&J during a charity run that Bastian was helping organize in Leelanau County. Bastian had reached out to 4Front to see if they wanted to be a sponsor in the non-profit event. “He was perceptive and had seen our involvement in a lot of events,” Carey said.

At the time, 4Front was working with another agency, but it wasn’t long after that PB&J and 4Front forged a relationship.

“We were looking to go in a different direction,” Carey said. “I was aware of what he had done for other area businesses and really liked the tone and gutsiness. I thought that sort of calculated risk would be a unique direction for a financial services entity to move into.”

Carey said Bastian is results based, very easy to work with and is extremely organized. Carey and his three-person team meet with Bastian about once a week.

“Anybody can come up with a crazy idea, especially when somebody else’s money is paying for it,” said Carey. “He never fails to offer a unique perspective and not something wacky, but something with legs. It is going to be new with a twist, but there will be a purpose to it. That is what I appreciate the most.”