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Like a master chef, President Anita Nelson of IN Food Marketing and Design knows how to combine creative ingredients to cook up brands and launch them for her clients.
She's done it for years, specializing in food-related companies ranging from giants like General Mills' bakeries and foodservice division to small local firms like FunkyChunky, the snack mix maker in Edina.
Yet when Nelson set out to rebrand her Minneapolis-based marketing communications agency, she discovered that the cupboard was surprisingly bare.
She got input from employees, clients and vendors, among others. Still, she and her staff struggled to come up with a new brand for their own company.
She even briefly considered hiring another agency to help.
"It was much more difficult to do it for ourselves," Nelson said of rebranding her company. "When you're so close to it, it's hard to take that bird's-eye view and really step back and look at everything."
Old name no longer worked
Nelson had founded the agency -- formerly Vavricka Juntti and Co. -- in 1995 with Cheryl Vavricka.
Neither of those surnames applied any longer. Nelson had bought out Vavricka in 2006 and then got remarried last year, going from Juntti to Nelson as a result.
Nelson knew she wanted a name that would reflect the company's strengths, its values and what it has to offer.
She just couldn't come up with the right name.
After much brainstorming, a welcome breakthrough and a celebratory food fight -- more on all that later -- Nelson chose IN Food Marketing and Design as the company's new name.
The effort already has paid off.
After announcing the new name in February, IN was selected in April by Ecolab to develop a trade advertising campaign for that company's institutional division.
Though not a food-related client, Ecolab sells cleaning, food safety and other products and services to the kinds of foodservice clients with which IN is familiar.
Pitching new clients
The new name, Nelson hopes, will not just differentiate the company but also bring in new revenue, as in the Ecolab case.
Revenue topped $650,000 last year at IN, and Nelson projects a 20 to 25 percent rise this year, to the $800,000 range. Growth plans include hiring someone soon for a new business development position as well as identifying selected nonfood clients to work with.
Roughly 85 percent of the company's revenue comes from food-related clients, Nelson said.
Riding out tough times
While the economic downturn and soaring costs for commodities and fuel are squeezing some clients, she is trying to help by offering ideas for new products. With dinner sales down in restaurants, for example, she is offering manufacturers ideas for new dessert items.
Nelson and her staff were working on new brand names for a client when the breakthrough that led to the new name occurred.
"It's really quite easy to do it for other people," Nelson said. "We were brainstorming a name for one of our clients' businesses ... and suddenly the conversation turned back to us.
"And because all these names we kept coming up with started with 'in' -- integrity, insights, involvement, intelligence, ingenuity -- my creative director, Lori Gerdts, who's also vice president of the agency, she's like, 'How about just IN?'
"The more I thought about it the more I liked what it stood for, I liked the simplicity. There's a lot of fun that we can have with it. There are some positive connotations, as far as 'we're in the know' or being in the in crowd.'
Company employees celebrated the new name with a good-natured food fight, documented on the agency's website, www.infoodmarketing.com.
Whipping up samples
Food is a hands-on subject on other occasions as well. The company has a small kitchen for testing products, coming up with recipe applications or seeing how a new item might appear in photographs.
Nelson, who expects to move to larger offices a year from now, would like to have a larger kitchen with commercial appliances.
She envisions hosting client seminars and possibly opening a retail coffee and sandwich shop to test new client products, get immediate consumer feedback and gain insight into operator issues.
A career in food
Nelson has worked with food since she served as a baker, waitress and hostess at a restaurant her family owned in Bloomington. She was an account manager at Chamberlin Associates for several years, working with Pillsbury.
She and Vavricka left Chamberlin to start their own company, buying out her non-compete agreement so they could continue working directly with Pillsbury.
Working with food clients has inspired a passion to help relieve hunger, Nelson said, and the agency gives a percentage of its profits to Second Harvest Heartland, a hunger-relief organization. The agency's commitment to community service helped it win the Minnesota Business Ethics Award in 2004.
Nelson also has formed Food Connections, a group of food industry professionals from different disciplines who meet to share information and develop partnerships.
IN -- the company and its new name -- received favorable feedback from clients like Kim Ewanika, marketing manager of Lakeville-based Fusion Culinary, which develops and makes products for foodservice operators.
IN has been "very creative, very responsive and very friendly," Ewanika said. Nelson and her staff were instrumental in the launch last fall of Fusion Culinary's line of frozen, all-natural sauces, working from concept to focus groups, commercialization and marketing materials.
"Their new name and image really help to identify them more with the food and foodservice industry," Ewanika said. "I really felt that was a good change for them."
Is the message clear?
John Sailors, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business whose research specialty is branding, said he saw positives and negatives in IN's rebranding.
The "Food Marketing and Design" portion of the new name, for example, clearly defines what the agency does, Sailors said.
"But the particulars of whatever the IN is supposed to represent -- the integrity, the insight -- at least for me none of those things come to mind when I see IN," he said.
Sailors suggested that the agency feature its work more prominently on its website.
"It's a nice company," Sailors said. "They have some nice vivid shots [on their website] of some of the things they've done, which are much more appealing visually.
"I don't know if it wouldn't be better to have examples of their work reflected on the home page, rather than digging around inside."