Start with people — You must understand your audience, and not just the data. Get to know them. Spend time with them and see how they live. It’s fine to build personas, but they’re only powerful if built from specific observed nuances. For example, when Pensa designed skincare solutions for a Brazil-based market, we spent days in the homes of those suffering with those unique issues. Our understanding of their needs — functionally, emotionally, and culturally — drove us to solutions that we otherwise wouldn’t have discovered.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Prommel. Mark is partner and design lead at Brooklyn-based product design firm Pensa. Creating at the crossroads of design, invention, and brand, Mark works alongside and mentors a diverse group of multi-faceted designers. Throughout his 20-plus years in product design, he has followed his passion for shaping the physical products that enhance everyday life. Mark has received numerous design awards including multiple IDEA Gold awards, Fast Company Innovation by Design awards, Core 77 Design Awards, Architizer A+, CLIO and Good Design Awards. His work has been selected for the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum Triennial and published in The International Design Yearbook. He’s an inventor on dozens of design and utility patents.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us what brought you to this specific career path?
As far back as I can remember, I was always drawing, building, and creating — and taking things apart too. My mother would roll out long paper sheets on the kitchen floor and I would draw and create different worlds for hours (she knew how to keep me busy). I went to Carnegie Mellon University for industrial design — partly because I thought it was how to keep drawing and eventually get paid. While I was there, I fell in love with the idea of making something beautiful and functional that could help improve people’s lives. Over my career, I’ve also discovered my love for storytelling — which is the foundation of all great design and brand-building. And I’ve been fortunate to learn and work with immensely talented people at well-respected firms, and now have incredible partners at Pensa.
Can you share the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Several years ago, our team at Pensa invented a desktop CNC wire-bending machine. It enables anyone to take a vector line file, drag and drop it into our software, insert a wire, tube or metal rod, and create that shape — precisely and repeatedly. We’re extremely proud of having developed everything internally: the initial proof of concept, industrial design, mechanical engineering, software, UI/UX, branding, marketing, etc. But when we named the product we thought we were especially clever, calling it the DIWire (a play on the term DIYer or Do It Yourself-er). It didn’t take long to realize nobody understood this — and 95% of people stillcall it the “Die Wire.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story/example?
Pensa stands out in our ability to take on challenges that seem daunting — sometimes almost impossible — and then finding ways to make it work. Our team of creators (designers, engineers, researchers, strategic thinkers) come together to tackle all aspects of product design and brand development. We’re often tasked with strategizing every aspect: the customer, market and competitor landscape; building product experiences that resonate; designing, engineering and building concepts; and ultimately wrapping those in customer-facing brand stories.
For example, when we came up with the idea to create the first solar-powered, mobile device charging stations throughout New York City, we found the help of partners, AT&T and Goal Zero (a consumer solar product company), and then convinced the city to let us do a pilot run. But the catch was that we had only six months to create and deliver 25 charging stations — not an easy feat. To bring this crazy challenge to fruition, our team combined all our skills and experience — and somehow just a few months later we did it! We had 25, 11 foot tall, 800-pound STREET CHARGE units deployed across the city by summer.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now?
One of the most exciting new projects we’ve been working on for the past year and a half is reinventing the product lines and experiences for a well-known luggage brand. This will be the future of luggage for the modern traveler. More to come on that soon.
In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? And why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand.
We’re at a time when the lines are blurred. In the past, advertising was a hook, a story to be remembered, but it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the product or service. The product could be junk, but what mattered was how it was advertised. This is much less true now, in an age where it’s easy to expose bad products and services, and where consumers have to ability to freely share feedback and reviews.
That said, the major difference in branding and advertising is that brands are built from the product (or service) out, with consumer needs and desires at the forefront. This is what your customers will buy into, and where you’ll ultimately reward (or disappoint) them. Branding is about creating a connection and community between your products/services and your audience. In this way, the product + the people = the brand. They must constantly build on each other.
Can you share 5 strategies that a small company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand?
1.Start with people — You must understand your audience, and not just the data. Get to know them. Spend time with them and see how they live. It’s fine to build personas, but they’re only powerful if built from specific observed nuances. For example, when Pensa designed skincare solutions for a Brazil-based market, we spent days in the homes of those suffering with those unique issues. Our understanding of their needs — functionally, emotionally, and culturally — drove us to solutions that we otherwise wouldn’t have discovered.
2. Build from the product/service out — The product is the foundation of your brand — and the design and experience must continually reward your community. In doing a great deal of work for OXO, an industry-leading housewares brand, we’ve seen first-hand how the success of their brand and community loyalty has been built on years of obsessive focus to every product detail.
3. Immerse the team — The team developing your brand must experience the needs of its community first-hand. When we were developing the outdoor woodcare brand, Woodmates, our team was literally out in backyards — staining decks and fences. The solutions for new products and brand stories flowed from those experiences.
4. Get outside the category — Yes, understand your community’s needs and desires and get immersed in those experiences. But also cast a wide inspiration net. When we designed the products for Nanit, a smart baby monitor that provides insights to help your child sleep better, much of our inspiration actually came from modern furniture and lighting design. This was key to help the product blend softly and seamlessly into the nursery.
5. Find the magic moments — Every brand touchpoint is an opportunity to let your audience know you’ve considered their needs — and bring some magic to the experience. When we developed the DIWire, we knew it would be compared to existing experiences of industrial CNC wire-bending equipment. These are cumbersome, difficult machines to set up and run, often requiring professional operators. To standout, differentiate and make a better product, we had to create an experience far away from that as possible. We asked, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could just take a vector line file from any software, drag and drop it into our program, and simply hit ‘bend’? We stayed true to that vision, and the simplicity of operation is one of the brand’s core attributes.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I’ve always loved and respected Dyson. At their foundation, they have unique and powerful product offerings, and pay close attention to design and execution of every detail. But they also have an amazing ability to communicate complex technology in a clear, direct and simple way. It’s a great lesson in understanding the distinct advantage of your unique product or service — and staying focused on the brand message.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
Of course, there’s no denying the importance of the bottom line. But great brands are communities. They create something for people to believe in. The best brands have products and services that continually reward their consumers for that belief.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
One unique way we’ve used social media is a testing ground for new products of our own making. Put something out in the world and see how people react. How do people share your product on Instagram or other visual platforms? It’s invaluable feedback that you can use to help understand, evolve and make your brand better.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
It’s always about the people that you have around you. Hire immensely talented people who are better than you (or at least better than you were at their age). They will continually inspire and challenge you to push yourself to new levels of creativity and leadership.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It may seem strange coming from someone who develops new products, but the movement would be toward less consumption. Much of the threat of climate change comes from our culture of consumption. At Pensa, we’ve spoken extensively on and created concepts for the circular economy of the future — where products could be replaced with shared services to reduce consumption. Another way to help is by building products that last. One of our clients, OneBlade, said the razor we collaborated to design is, “Guaranteed for lives. Yours, your son’s, and your grandson’s.” I love developing something that’s as far from disposable as possible.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ll always be a New Jersey kid at heart, so my top quotes would probably come from Bruce Springsteen songs. Here’s one of my favorites: “Some guys they just give up living, then start dying little by little, piece by piece… Some guys come home from work and wash up, then go racin’ in the street.” It’s a reminder not to get caught in a rut, not to get too comfortable. Find your passion. Keep pushing.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Website — pensa.co
Thank you for all of these great insights!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.