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“The first step is to define the mission, culture and values.” with Greg Nelson

The first step is to define the mission, culture and values. What sets the brand apart from its competitors? What part of the brand’s past sets it up to have a positive impact in the future? What legacy does it aspire to leave? What intrinsic values do the brand’s employees share? As part of our […]

The first step is to define the mission, culture and values. What sets the brand apart from its competitors? What part of the brand’s past sets it up to have a positive impact in the future? What legacy does it aspire to leave? What intrinsic values do the brand’s employees share?

As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Greg Nelson. Greg is founder of Altitude Design Office, a multidisciplinary design studio based in Santa Monica, California. In his twenty-plus years of professional experience, Greg has refined a strategic approach to creating award-winning brand experiences, wayfinding programs, architectural graphics and brand identities for a wide range of spaces and places including performing arts centers, hotels, stadiums, convention centers, hospitals, corporate campuses, exhibits, restaurants and retail centers. Trained in interior architecture, Greg has a deep understanding of building systems and human behavior in environments. Together, with his project experience creating interior spaces, graphics and design strategies, Greg blurs traditional project boundaries to develop custom, transformative solutions for clients.


Thank you so much for doing this with us, Greg! 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 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 be a perfect name of that idea and would be a great name for my 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 failing early, so we abandoned the name in the first year and obtained a dba: Altitude Design Office. Onward and upward!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At first glance, some might think that Altitude Design Office is a traditional brand agency that helps clients develop logos and graphics, websites and signage. Of course we do all of that, but what differentiates us is our emphasis on the way brands are experienced in physical spaces through their intersections with architecture and interior design. Design can inspire strong emotional reactions and connections, so we’re constantly thinking of the end user — the office employee, apartment resident, museum goer, shopper, hospital patient, or hotel guest — and how they move through a space. We hope that the elements we design will communicate clearly and inspire people to engage with that space and feel a connection with it. Sometimes this happens subtly, even subconsciously, and other times it’s quite literal. I recently visited the renovated Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix, where we designed a series of signs, graphics and architectural elements to bring new energy to the space, and I witnessed people climbing and posing for photographs in and on the large letters of the life-sized street-level signage. It was fun to see.

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 both 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.

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.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

For advertising to be successful, a company or product must have branding as its backbone. Again, you can tell me that a company or product can do anything. But until you show me and let me see and experience it for myself, I might not truly understand or believe. I won’t feel that true sense of connection. A brand must be based on the company’s or organization’s mission, culture and values — attributes that are unique and often deeply personal — and each must be acted out consistently and honestly. People seek brands that align with their own culture and values, so once that foundation is set, advertising and other forms of brand communication can be more successful in sparking connections, and ultimately in selling the product or service.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

Companies of all sizes should develop and follow specific strategies for brand building, but large companies face an imperative to be even more thoughtful and deliberate in their actions as they often face higher expectations (based on the assumption that they have more resources to get things right) and greater scrutiny. The exact process will be a little different for each company, as it needs to be authentic in order to be successful, but there are a few steps that every company should consider:

  1. The first step is to define the mission, culture and values. What sets the brand apart from its competitors? What part of the brand’s past sets it up to have a positive impact in the future? What legacy does it aspire to leave? What intrinsic values do the brand’s employees share?
  2. The second step in building a trustworthy brand is to consider the audience and how they’ll engage with the brand. It’s important to think of all stakeholders here — employees, customers, donors, board members, and so on — as each group is likely to have unique needs. What matters most to each of them, and how can the brand help to meet those needs? This step often involves several forms of stakeholder research.
  3. The first and second steps inform the third: deciding what to communicate, and how. Again it’s important to think of each audience and each touchpoint, and to consider how the brand identity and messaging needs to remain consistent across each channel, and adapted in order to be relevant to each channel as well. For example, visual elements like logos, fonts and colors are likely to be consistent in almost every application, and each should reflect the unwavering tone of the company’s culture and values. But a corporate workplace will require different brand installations than a retail setting, and digital channels might tell a rich and detailed story while signage and wayfinding is intentionally kept simple and more subtle. Similarly, the way the message is communicated to buyers may be slightly different from the way board members or employees are engaged.
  4. This brings us to step four, and the important reminder that employees are a critical part of a successful brand. If a truly believable and trustworthy brand is built with a strong set of values and behaviors, remember that your employees are the ones who bring those to life. They put the words into action. Architectural graphics and signage in the workplace must reinforce the brand’s culture and tell a story that employees can be proud to be part of. Team communications, recruiting and training materials must also reflect the mission. Just like customers seek brands that align with their culture and values, employees seek the same from an employer, and they’re typically the ones who interact with your customers — you want them walking the talk.
  5. The fifth and final step actually points to the fact that the process never really ends. While designs are implemented, spaces are built, and a project might feel complete, the brand must remain active and alive in order to remain believable. That means constantly looking back at steps one through four and reevaluating, even redesigning. Is the brand staying true to the mission and values? Are the brand’s stakeholders being engaged, and their needs and wants being met? Is the brand communicating the right message, honestly and reliably, and are employees bringing that message to life? Having the courage to look inward and make changes, when and where necessary, can strengthen a brand’s outward reputation and make it even more believable.

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 would have to say Nordstrom. I think they have done a great job of expressing who they are and what they do for their customers and there is a strong level of consistency of customer experience from store to store as well as online. They make it very easy to shop there. I think removing friction in customer service is an important trait that can apply to any business.

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?

When a company’s or organization’s goal is to sell a product or service, the volume of sales will always be a critical measure of success. Hopefully, if the brand has laid a strong foundation with clear and consistent communication of its mission, culture and values (in both actions and words), sales will only improve — perhaps significantly. But a branding campaign can also be measured in other ways. Metrics related to recruiting and employee retention (often an organization’s most costly investments) will improve. Word-of-mouth marketing can also improve when happy customers or clients — or again happy employees — talk about the brand and their experiences with it.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Social media is a big part of branding, especially as it relates to that word-of-mouth marketing. It provides a forum for two-way communication, where a brand can collect feedback from its stakeholders (informing that all-important step five of constant reevaluation) and help them feel valued for their participation. In general, social media offers a powerful platform for putting words into action. You can use it for advertising and tell people what your product or service does, but when you go deeper and show your brand living out its mission and values more actively, you’re even more trustworthy and believable.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders 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.

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!

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have lunch with Reba McEntire — I have admired her for years. While many may know her as a highly-successful country music artist, she is an equally talented business leader. She has continually reinvented her brand throughout her career while staying true to her core values. She has also paved the way and nurtured many new artists along the way. And, on top of all that, she has maintained her reputation as one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people in the music business.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find us on Instagram @altitudedesignoffice, or on LinkedIn and Pinterest. Our web address is altitudedesignoffice.com. Come visit!

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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