Client Interview: Tate Linden (Stokefire – USA) Ross | May 13th, 2009

In our Client Interview blog series, we feature interviews with a client from the crowdSPRING community. Today, we’re very proud to feature Tate Linden and his company, Stokefire. Tate and Stokefire have posted numerous projects on crowdSPRING.

1. Please tell us about yourself.

Easy enough.  I’m Tate Linden, age 38. I’ve been married to my incredible wife Sarah for almost eleven years, the last two of which we’ve been blessed to share with our son, Teddy.  When not at home I’m President and Chief Creative of Stokefire – a branding agency located in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.  Before Stokefire I held a series of management positions for Fortune 500 companies (most recently ADP) and a startup or two where I was responsible for various aspects of marketing, product management, and client service.

Most importantly, though, I hate pears.

2. What motivated you to start Stokefire Consulting Group?

I wanted to create a workplace where passion, creativity, and the ability to get things done were rewarded.  I spent a decade working with people who had the optimism and enthusiasm beaten out of them by the workplace.  I wanted to work for a company that sought out the enthusiastic, visionary minds – and ensured that the potential and power inherent in these people wasn’t broken.  Mostly, though, I wanted to work for a place I could believe in.  I saw that if I wanted to work for a company like that I’d have to build it myself.  What I was looking for didn’t exist – or at least if it did – I didn’t know how to find it.

3. Stokefire’s site says that “We’re Un-Same.”  So how is Stokefire different?

If I were to say, “Stokefire is just like every other branding firm out there” it’d certainly be refreshing, wouldn’t it?  I mean, with the tens of thousands of branding firms dotting the globe you’d think at least a few would be similar, and yet we all go around shouting about our uniqueness.

There are a few things I usually mention when this question is asked.  Probably the most intriguing of the bunch is our anti-consensus angle.  So often great ideas get quashed because some people think it’s the wrong direction.  This leads to what my team affectionately calls “Linden’s First Law.”  For every worthwhile idea presented there shall be at least one person who finds it offensive.  I know this law must be true because when we posted it to our blog one of our clients called to complain (seriously) that they were offended by it.

The one our clients most frequently talk about is our freakish attention to detail.  Our system (it’s called FAINTS) allows us to analyze more than one hundred measurable aspects of the potential brand.  Names, taglines, and logos are all analyzed in detail.  Why? Because in order to make an informed decision the client needs to know the potential brand’s strengths and weaknesses.  When it comes to design, many clients ask for something that looks good when instead they should be looking for something that helps them tell their story.  Remind me about that one, because we had a project on crowdSPRING recently that is an excellent example of how it can be done right.

4. When you founded Stokefire, the initial focus was on naming stuff. Why did your focus expand to brand strategy, campaigns, and art direction?

I’ll answer your question with a question.  Can you imagine naming your critically important organization or other thing without considering brand strategy, campaigns, and design?

What we saw as “naming stuff” other people were seeing as entirely different and unrelated activities.  We’ve always done brand strategy, campaigns, and art direction, we just called it naming.  That other agencies didn’t do this sort of work was a bit surprising, but once we figured out that we weren’t being descriptive enough we redefined our service offerings so our clients could understand the quality of work we deliver.

5. Please talk about a few of your clients and the work you did for them.

One of our favorite projects involved developing the brand for a web development company located in the wilds of New Hampshire.  We had been working on their project for a few weeks, progressing slowly, when we went back again to be sure that we had a solid understanding of what made our client different.  An offhand comment about our client operating out of a solar-powered office…and their raising ducks… helped us find them an identity that fit perfectly.  Enter “webmeadow”.  The brand identity we created was approachable, non-threatening, and competent… just like them.  Incidentally, if you have a desire to read a blog about web development and what its like to have fowl walking around outside your office then theirs is a must read.

On the major brand front, EMC – a $13 billion Fortune 500 firm – brought us in to rescue them from a branding project gone wrong.  They’d hired the biggest branding firm in the world [name withheld as a professional courtesy] and couldn’t figure out how to turn what they’d been given into something usable.  Three weeks before their annual conference, EMC brought us in and we helped them to rename a division, develop a naming strategy for their more than 150 unique products, refine their strategic vision, and identify talking points for their executives to deliver.  Feedback from clients and press attending the annual event was enthusiastic and positive.  That’s a rare thing when you’re dealing with such a large and conservative firm.  We’re pretty sure we did a good job, because when one of the executives we worked with left for another firm he brought us in immediately to get them moving in the right direction.  [Check the Open Text BLOOM project on Google for details on that follow-on work.]

Another favorite – as if there are any unfavorites – is Causeworth. CEO Jason Jenkins came to us with a powerful vision, but without the words to communicate it.  He wanted to build an insurance brokerage that donated up to 30% of the profits from every policy to the charity of the clients’ choice.  We created Causeworth Insurance – Where every policy shares your passion.  Even better, we crowdsourced the development of the logo on crowdSPRING, giving Jenkins a wide array of design ideas to choose from, and offering our art direction services to ensure that the design would support the message and vision of the organization.  The “4 C Flower” developed by dans added significant value by showing how different people, causes, concerns, charities can combine to create a beautiful solution.  There’s even a nifty frame in the middle that in marketing campaigns could be used to contextualize the brand.  We could center the logo over a visual representation of a cause worth supporting.

How well is Causeworth doing?  Well, in less than six weeks – and with no advertising – Jenkins has amassed hundreds of policies.  He’s had to rebuild the entire back-end of his web portal to handle the load.  Perhaps even more telling, he’s gained the attention of movie stars, professional athletes, and major non-profits who are trying to find ways to help realize Jenkins’ vision.  Now that is a brand that is kicking ass.

We’ve worked with casinos, nightclubs, hotels, hospitals, toothbrush manufacturers , defense contractors, chocolatiers, conference providers, web technologists, realtors, communications firms, mobile phone companies… Boy, I really should take another look at our client list.  I know there are many, many more.

6. Finding a great name today also requires being able to register a URL for that name. How much of a challenge does this present in your work and how do you overcome the challenge?

Less than you might think.  The number of people who type in URLs is shrinking every day.  Small business owners still seem to be obsessing over getting the pure URL as MyCompanyName.com, but the larger organizations have adapted.  We’ve done quite a bit of research that indicates the URL is becoming much less important.  Nowadays people are putting the name into Google to find sites.  We see this as a great thing.  The sad fact is that the vast majority of names we consider are ‘camped’ by squatters hoping to make a quick buck.  If you don’t have deep pockets or a convincing story to share you’re going to get taken to the cleaners.

Google is a great tool for getting around this issue—if you’ve got a strong brand and you’re getting links from people you’ll end up as the number one response for your name even if it isn’t the pure dotcom domain.

Name availability accounts for about 10% of the overall FAINTS score, and domain availability is about 3%.  It’s more important that the name isn’t already registered with the USPTO or other State agency that would cause a trademark conflict.

Last, there are some promising developments on the horizon.  There’s talk of opening up the area to the right of the ‘dot’ that would at least temporarily help businesses get their own domains.  There are also some processes in place where business owners can go to ICANN and file a complaint based on the fact that their trademarked domain name is being held for ransom.  I’ve heard some success stories of businesses going through the process and winning the domain rights from people whose sole intent in owning the sites is to sell them.

7. Take us through a naming strategy for a business or product. Where do you start and what’s your primary focus?

We really don’t start with the naming strategy.  We start with identifying what makes the brand unique.  From there the name is just one of the tools that we use to make the brand real and powerful.  One of the things that trips up most branding projects is that too many expectations are put upon the name or the tagline. We strongly suggest that our clients identify a single goal for each aspect of the brand identity.  The name has a single purpose; the tagline has a single purpose.  Same goes for logo, the web design, each brochure, and even the talking points.

I mentioned the FAINTS system earlier, and that really helps us to nail down what we need from each brand piece.  The aspects of FAINTS are:

Fidelity – Are you being true to your mission, voice, and abilities?
Availability - Can you legally use the name, tagline, or other brand aspect?
Intangibles – Does it have a nice ring to it?  Can people relate to it?
Need – Does it meet the singular goal set for the name?
Tangibles – Is it easy to spell, say, write, and remember?
Strategy – Does it provide a deep well of marketing ideas, and is it distinct in the industry?

I suppose our focus is on making sure the name is adding value – and meets the need specified.  We start naming only when we have identified what makes the brand tick and why it matters.

8. Take us through a branding strategy for a logo. What’s involved with branding?

It’s quite simple.  By the time we get to logo development we’ve already got a solid verbal brand and brand strategy.  More than anything else we look for a visual that adds tangible value to what we’ve already put in place.  It pains us to see a ‘green’ company that uses a picture of a leaf or a tree.  That’s expected and does nothing more than just sum up what everything else is saying.  It’s a waste of space.

An example of what I’m talking about?  Okay.  We’re doing a logo design for a technology consulting firm using crowdSPRING.  I can’t name the company due to confidentiality agreements, but a key portion of the brand identity involves their ability to see things that others can’t.  We got countless entries involving lights, lamps, and the like.  They were pretty… but expected.  One designer came up with a concept that was quite powerful and avoided the obvious metaphor – he used the shadow from the lights to show how much could be seen.  Pretty cool.  Even more powerful, though, was a very simple graphic involving three circles.  [The number three was a critical part of the organization’s identity for reasons we won’t get into here.] Through strategic arrangement of the circles a subliminal numeral “3” is shown – without ever actually being written.  Now that adds to the brand message.  Once we show people where it is they can’t help but see it.  And they tell their friends.  It looks cool, it’s viral, and it connects people to the brand.

And it’s something no one on our internal team had even thought of.  And we’re pretty damn good at this stuff.

9. What advice can you offer to small businesses who cannot afford to hire a consultant to help with their brand strategy?

The easiest way to create a brand strategy that works is to figure out what makes you or your offering unique in your market, then make sure you mention that one thing within the first two sentences of your website, press releases, and every conversation you have.  Whether you’re coming to us for an hour of consulting or a full year project we’ll spend the majority of that time focusing on what makes you different and how we can make that matter to your audience.

Better yet, if you’re in the United States, check out your local Small Business Development Center and you’ll be able to get some very good advice.  They may not offer brand strategy, but they’ll help you pull together a solid business plan.  I speak from experience.  Stokefire grew out of an incubator space co-located with an SBDC office.

10. You’ve openly supported crowdsourcing, even though it could threaten your business. Why?

I serve dual roles as Stokefire’s president and chief creative, and in the first role I must anticipate where the branding industry is headed so we can stay competitive.  If I look at the market today I’m not threatened at all by crowdsourcing.  It’s the five-year mark that could make the antiquated agency model extinct.  There is just no way that a single agency can match the sheer creative force that crowds can muster.
Once crowdsourcing solutions begin providing real project management and evaluation tools with real power behind them… is when agencies will start hurting.  It’s going to happen whether or not agencies like Stokefire support the effort.

Why would I knowingly put my firm in opposition to an irresistible force?  As it stands we’re looking for ways to capture the power of crowds for our clients – and we’re working with crowdSPRING and other industry players to find ways to resolve many of the key concerns with the basic crowdsourcing concept – chief among them the perceived unfairness to the creatives that are often described as providing uncompensated work.

From the creative side I see crowdsourcing as an incredible blessing.  Having over 100 ideas to examine when considering a design is a luxury most advertising firms just don’t have.  We do.  Firms that realize this and find a way to utilize both the ideas from the crowd and compensate those whose ideas help to move a project forward (but might not necessarily have their design used) are going to be pretty hard to compete with in the long term.

Really… imagine a world where there are no silos and people can create teams on the fly to go after and win business…where the work of someone in San Francisco can be iterated and finalized by people in DC or Singapore.  The agency model assumes that one firm can provide the very best person for every task.  There’s just no way that’s true.  Anyone who insists on staying within their agency silo is going to get creamed by organizations that are willing to break down walls and work with freelancers and other organizations willing to share their best talent.

I’m making sure that Stokefire is at the forefront of the movement by adopting the open model and working with key industry players to fix the problems inherent in the system as it exists today.  We don’t want to throw stones and say what isn’t working.  That’s useless.  We want to understand what’s broken, fix it, and then use the system to better serve our clients.

11.A little birdie told me you’re a classically trained singer. How did that happen?

Honestly I have no Idea.  One day I opened up my mouth and I could sing.  Evidently quite well.  It got me into a great university and accepted into some of the top graduate music programs in the country, but my heart wasn’t in it.   I loved to perform, but… I don’t think I’ve ever admitted this publicly… I can’t stand listening to most classical music and all but the very best opera singers make me irritable.  That’s a bit of a disincentive to pursuing the craft.

On the plus side I did get to sing on a Chipmunks album.  So I’ve got that going for me.

12. What do you like to do in your free time?

I have a two-year-old son so my definition of free time has changed a bit.  For now I spend it helping Teddy explore the world with my wife, Sarah.  Often this involves holding onto one of his hands as he runs around me laughing hysterically.  I’m serious.  Like fifteen minutes a day, every day…Is that weird?

I also serve on the board of Imagine Alexandria (www.imaginealexandria.org) – a non-profit dedicated to supporting, celebrating, and empowering commercially oriented creatives.

Other than that, I’m a hobbyist photographer, musician and gardener, and occasional home brewer.  Next batch (a light, Summery Mexican ale) should be ready in June.  Samples may be available at Stokefire HQ…

Recently, Tate was asked by Imagine Alexandria to put together a short video answering the question: what is creativity?

Want to ask Tate a question or comment on his answers? Feel free to do so in the comments.

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  • ArtbyAudree

    Hi Tate Linden – Thanks for a very informative interview. It helps to see things from the other side… and from a marketing point of view. Cool video, too.

    Audree

  • Rongen

    “I have a two-year-old son so my definition of free time has changed a bit. For now I spend it helping Teddy explore the world with my wife, Sarah. Often this involves holding onto one of his hands as he runs around me laughing hysterically. I’m serious. Like fifteen minutes a day, every day…Is that weird?”

    15 minutes a day for a busy man (as long as it’s every single day) is better than not seeing your child grow. But I think he needs more than that especially on his early childhood.

  • Rongen

    “I have a two-year-old son so my definition of free time has changed a bit. For now I spend it helping Teddy explore the world with my wife, Sarah. Often this involves holding onto one of his hands as he runs around me laughing hysterically. I’m serious. Like fifteen minutes a day, every day…Is that weird?”

    15 minutes a day for a busy man (as long as it’s every single day) is better than not seeing your child grow. But I think he needs more than that especially on his early childhood.

  • Stokefire

    @Audree – Thanks! I try to come at crowdsourcing from the middle. Right now the designers are being pinched, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As for the video, it was a lot of fun to do.

    @Rongen – Absolutely! I actually get to spend about 3 hours a day with my kiddo on weekdays. It isn’t as much as I’d like, but it lets me get to know this truly cool person as he’s figuring out what the world is – and who I am, too. The 15 minutes is spent running around in circles… which I’m guessing by your response is actually a pretty weird thing… Maybe it’s just a phase.
    Weekends we spend the whole day together – which, unless he’s filled with mucous, is a wonderful time. Heck, even with the mucous he’s pretty awesome.

  • ccisat1dxj

    Great attitude, great vision, will you please contact me about a project? DavidJemeyson@gmail.com

  • Stokefire

    Thanks for the kind words, David. I sent a note to the address listed.

  • vdesigns

    Thank you, Thank you! I am still in school for Graphic Design ,( I have just 6 classes left !) and your interview was very interesting…. I’m actually going to tell my partner in crime who is also getting the multimedia degree about this so she can read it( and watch) We’re starting our
    “Marketing in Business” class this summer, so your interview was just the thing I needed to read !

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with such wisdom ,
    Take care and hopefuly we’ll get to work together somtime!

    Debbie Martinez
    vdesigns

  • Michael

    Once upon a time I fell in love with you
    -Michael Williams, Steilacoom High School

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