Learning - and earning - by doing

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2010 - 9:22 PM

Brand firm Imagehaus looks to the development and marketing of its own products to help diversify revenue and to stay attuned to its customers.

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Imagehaus founder Jay Miller has branched out with a new product: Toast-its, wraps for wine bottles that replace gift bags and that also serve as greeting cards

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Jay Miller, founder of Minneapolis-based boutique branding firm Imagehaus, is toasting a successful product launch for a discriminating new client -- himself.

The product is Toast-its, wraps for wine bottles designed to replace gift bags and greeting cards. They come in 25 designs and mark a variety of occasions. Miller had several reasons for his new venture:

Providing staff with a firsthand understanding of the budgetary and other obstacles clients face in getting products to market.

Learning more about social marketing -- Toast-its made its debut on Facebook posts and Facebook ads.

Incorporating the firm's new Web development and online marketing skills into its branding process.

Oh, yes. And generating revenue.

Miller hopes Toast-its -- released through Imagehaus' newly formed consumer products company, Hi-Industries -- will generate sales to help balance out challenging years like 2009. Revenue at Imagehaus, which has six employees and two contractors, was $1 million last year, Miller said, down from $1.3 million in 2008 but up from $900,000 in 2007.

In retrospect, Miller said, 2008 was a fluke. The unplanned-for growth that year was somewhat painful. Managed growth is now his goal.

Seeking fiscal stability

"I'm trying to make sure we stay focused on what we do best for Imagehaus, and that is consumer communications, but to also allow us to build some stability so we don't have our eggs all in one basket," Miller said. "We have developed a process now to take products to market. The infrastructure for Toast-its can be repeated easily for other products. Hi-Industries allows us to be a breeding ground for design."

Since Toast-its first appeared over the holidays on Facebook, it's been featured in nearly two dozen design and lifestyle blogs as well as on Daily Candy, a new product and activity website with 3 million subscribers.

'Brand DNA'

Sales went from $46 a day to more than $2,000 the day after that Daily Candy mention, Miller said. (Toast-its, which sell for $3.99, are available at www.toast-its.com.)

All Imagehaus clients must go through the firm's Brand DNA process, Miller said. The goal is to understand a brand's needs, define its audience and then develop a strong, consistent brand message for now and the future.

"Our philosophy always has been to make an emotional connection with your consumer by treating your company as if it were a person," Miller said. "If it's a person, does it greet someone for the first time by saying 'Hi'? 'Hello'? Or 'Hey, dude what's up'?

"That communicates volumes over any kind of research ... knowing who you are as a company and what is most relatable and can make that connection to your consumer."

One example is MadeSmart, the St. Paul maker of storage bins sold at Target and elsewhere. Imagehaus updated the brand while saving the company money, Miller said. New, more attractive packaging uses one color instead of four and gives the product a voice, declaring: "I give your paper clip collection an ego boost" and "Go ahead. Slam the drawers. I don't mind," followed by the new tag line, "I am madesmart.''

The people at Imagehaus "work with small companies and Fortune 500 companies, apply the same process for both, and it works," said Sigrid Nord, vice president of marketing and sales at MadeSmart. "I can achieve the stellar image that I need working with a small agency and get the same impact as if it had been a large agency working on it. It's a journey where he partners along the way to understand your business and provides great solutions at economical prices, and that matters."

Giving is good business

Philanthropy is another key strategy for Imagehaus. The company has donated $2 million in creative services to nonprofit organizations through its foundation, doubling the goal Miller had set for his first decade in business when he started the firm in 2000. Imagehaus donates creative services equal to 35 to 40 percent of its revenue each year, Miller said.

"Are we doing it because it feels good?" said Miller, an Iowa native who had few local ties when he moved to the Twin Cities. "Yes. But we're also doing it to build business.''

Imagehaus' nonprofit work includes a recent rebranding for Open Arms of Minnesota, which prepares and delivers free meals to people with serious and life-threatening diseases.

Kevin Winge, executive director of Open Arms of Minnesota, said Miller was the first person to contact him after the organization announced a capital campaign to raise more than $8 million to build a new building in south Minneapolis.

Much more than just a logo

"Jay and his team explained that this wasn't about creating a logo," Winge said. "It's about brand identity and who you are as an organization and where you're going. The whole process helped us identify our core values and vision for the organization. It was an incredibly productive process."

Imagehaus donated more than $100,000 in creative services to Open Arms, Winge said, and the organization was able to match that contribution with grants from other sources.

The new circular logo suggests "a big hug," Miller said.

The expert says:

Avinash Malshe, assistant professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, had praise for Imagehaus' approach to personifying a brand but questioned its move into products.

"They characterize a brand in human terms, and I think that's a very smart approach," Malshe said. "This is not a new idea, but when you personify a brand, you understand a lot about that brand, what the brand image is and how it's going to behave in the marketplace, what the boundaries are and what the brand can and cannot do."

As an internal exercise to develop or hone skills, working on products may be a smart move for the company, Malshe said. But developing products, as Imagehaus has done with Toast-its, is potentially risky because it appears to be outside the company's core competency, Malshe said.

"If you're purely an ad agency or consulting firm, do you have enough of what it takes to introduce a new product into the marketplace and see it through the entire life cycle of that product?"

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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