I would love to promote a culture of tolerance and acceptance where everyone can be themselves and bring their best qualities and talents to share with the world. We are proud of our own inclusive culture and believe that design has the power to bring people together and to inspire participation and action. I’d love to see more people and companies encouraging this kind of openness to new ideas and inspirations.
I had the pleasure to interview Greg Nelson of Altitude Design Office. To Nelson, the way buildings and places communicate has the power to transform the communities and people that use them. He believes by infusing brand, culture and identity into their places, organizations and communities can create lasting relationships with the people they serve.
In 2014, Nelson took a leap of faith and left his design director gig at the largest architecture firm in the world to create a studio of his own. Since then, Altitude Design Office has become one of Los Angeles’ leading brand design firms with assignments in cities from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle to Chicago, New York and Miami. His team has grown quickly from 1 to 11 and has experience designing exhibits, performing arts centers, restaurants, hotels, stadiums, convention centers, corporate campuses, retail centers and more. The firm’s impressive roster of architect and developer clients engage Altitude Design Office to create new brands, activate existing brands in spaces, and implement large architectural graphics and wayfinding programs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My family built a home when I was in middle school and that set the foundation for my understanding that the way spaces are designed can significantly shape our lives. After being formally educated as an interior architect, I worked at a sports architecture firm where I was assigned to design the interiors of a minor league ballpark in California. Outside of work I had developed a strong interest in graphic design, so I asked if I could also design the signage for the ballpark. My project manager said, “Well, someone needs to do it. We’ll give you a shot.” That became the start of my hybrid career in architecture and graphics.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Before I started my company, I had a client call me her “design engagement agency.” From that moment on, I had decided that Design Engagency would encompass that idea and would be a great name for the firm. After launching, clients, vendors and even our own team had trouble saying it, spelling it and explaining what it meant. Clients were writing checks to Design Emergency! I had clearly been too close to the idea for so long and never stood back far enough to think about it or to solicit input. I do believe in failing fast and early, so we abandoned the name in the first year and obtained a dba: Altitude Design Office. Onward and upward!
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?
It was around the 10-year mark in my career that I started to see a shift in the assignments I was being given and my role on teams. I began to see the way my work translated to value for our clients (or didn’t). It’s a magical moment when you realize that design truly can have a positive impact and it made me think even more carefully about my design decisions. This can apply to any field: how does the thing you’re good at and passionate about mean something to other people?
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the things I’m most proud of at Altitude Design Office is our diverse mix of clients and projects. I love non-stop learning, and never want to feel limited by repetition or routine. So we are involved in quite a few new and different projects. We recently helped to bring the Cayton Children’s Museum to life in its new Santa Monica home. We are also working with the Japanese bank, MUFG, to develop an identity for their U.S. retail and corporate office spaces that balance the brand’s heritage with its vision forward. And we’re developing signage, wayfinding, and experiential graphics for the renowned cancer treatment and research center, City of Hope. All of our clients have a unique sense of purpose, so we’re proud to design brands and spaces that help people achieve their goals, whether those goals relate to healing, community gathering, or nurturing a sense of purpose and participation in children.
What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
Stay true to your purpose. Just like we do with brand building, have the courage to look inward and to consider your own personal mission and values — to define the brand of “you.” Is your work reflecting your mission and values in an honest and believable way? Don’t be afraid to make changes. This is how we grow! Similarly, make sure you’re stepping away from your work from time to time. We can find inspiration for our businesses and our brands in the most unexpected places.
Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
Branding and advertising often go hand-in-hand, but they serve different purposes. To understand the differences between them, consider the age-old advice that “actions speak louder than words.” Product marketing or advertising is often a series of words and images that tell you what a company or product does. Branding, on the other hand, shows you what that company or product does through its behaviors, cultures and values. Branding is active and ongoing, brought to life through every interaction between the company or product and its employees and customers.
Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?
Organizations rebrand for a series of reasons. Sometimes a company has evolved their products or services, and that new chapter in their story needs to be told. Often, a merger or acquisition changes course for an organization. Sometimes a location change can spur a brand refresh. For example, the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles was forced to find a new space due to the construction of a new subway line. In the process, it inspired board members to consider that the timing of a move could be in sync with revisiting the museum’s mission, so we worked with them on a rebrand.
Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?
Rebranding takes a lot of effort — and time — to do well, and requires a thoughtful strategy that considers the impact of rebranding before, during, and after implementation. I wouldn’t recommend a company undertake a rebrand if they don’t have the time, resources and focus to go through the process, to make decisions and to ultimately manage the rebrand consistently over time.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.
Enlist Your Employees: They are the ones living your brand and delivering it to clients and customers, so ask them what they believe are the core truths of your brand and see what consistent themes rise to the top. Not only will you get some good information, but the fact that you engage your employees will also go a long way in fostering trust with them. We used this method when rebranding prominent LA-based general contractor ECC and found an overwhelmingly-consistent answer was that they were a family-like culture. We built on that idea that their culture translates to superior client-service and follow-through.
Build on Legacy, But Look Beyond: Companies who’ve been around for many years will most likely have many successes to share. This can be helpful when working to build credibility for new clients. However, don’t forget to talk about your innovation story and how your company works to stay ahead of the curve for what’s next. During the rebranding of WeidnerCA, a 60 year-old family-owned signage contractor in Sacramento, we found that innovation had always been part of their legacy — they just weren’t talking about it. Part of our strategy for them going forward included talking about the innovative technology and processes they employ and how they benefit their clients.
Don’t Overlook the Obvious: Sometimes the essence of a brand is easy to uncover, but it takes someone from the outside to notice it. We worked with the developer ACCO in Silicon Valley to rebrand all of their residential properties under one master brand and the unique differentiator behind their offerings was clear to us: their residences are all on park-like grounds, which offers residents a departure from their tech-filled days.
Make a Visual Statement: It’s true that seeing is believing, which is why creating a strong visual brand identity is an important step in a rebrand. The new Cayton Children’s Museum not only went through a name change (it was formerly the Zimmer Children’s Museum), but it also moved locations. For that reason, we felt that it was important to make a strong visual statement with a bold and fun multi-colored logo, collateral and signage that not only invite kids to participate and play, but also communicate the museum’s mission of diversity and inclusivity.
Signal a New Day: Sometimes a shift in direction for a business means a big shift for the brand. The old Hollywood Park Casino in Los Angeles had grown tired beyond it’s horse-racing heydey. Being relocated to a new building with new amenities and services meant an opportunity for a new brand. Our rebrand for the casino was designed to feel vibrant, luxurious and modern to appeal to new gaming audiences and to tell their existing clientele that a new day has arrived.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
The Southwest Airlines rebrand a few years ago is still one of the most successful ones I can remember. The rework capitalized on Southwest’s culture of being a customer-obsessed company, and brought it to life with a strong set of visual designs including a new heart logo, color and typography palette. They also used a vibrant sense of personality in all their copywriting, which reinforces their light-hearted spirit. All companies looking to rebrand can learn from this example: start with your core truths and they’ll carry you forward.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to promote a culture of tolerance and acceptance where everyone can be themselves and bring their best qualities and talents to share with the world. We are proud of our own inclusive culture at Altitude Design Office and believe that design has the power to bring people together and to inspire participation and action. I’d love to see more people and companies encouraging this kind of openness to new ideas and inspirations.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Malcolm Forbes, entrepreneur and publisher of Forbes Magazine said, “Men who never get carried away should be.” For me that has always resonated and reminds me that despite all my rational thinking, I occasionally just have to go with my gut. It has paid off well for me!
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