Building a brand is foremost — not an “in addition to”. Marketing and advertising are a means to gain awareness and drive sales. If more companies invested in stronger brand experiences, they wouldn’t need to spend exorbitant sums on ads. People make decisions based on emotion. And experience — not interruption — is how to positively influence those emotions. Advertising is mostly noise we try to avoid. But a great brand experience is something we welcome into our lives.
As a part of my series about brand makeover, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Krieger. Joel is chief creative officer of Second Story, a design studio focused on immersive, multi-sensory interactive environments. Working across cultural and brand spaces, Second Story designs new experiences that defy labels, elicit emotion, and spark action.
As head of Second Story, Joel leads the studios’ three locations in Portland, Atlanta, and New York. His work merges graphic and experience design, visual effects and programming with industrial design and architecture. Endlessly fascinated by the art of collaboration, Joel brings together radically different ideas and people for the ultimate creative mash-up.
His design work has been recognized by Communication Arts, HOW Design, the Society of Experiential Graphic Design, FastCo Design, The Webby Awards, IxDA, and The American Alliance of Museums. Joel is a regular speaker at forums like the Experiential Marketing Summit, MuseumNext, and AIGA. Joel also serves on the advisory board of The Ocean Experience Project, an immersive entertainment attraction focused on ocean conservation and activism.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Around the time that digital media’s over-whelming noise and isolation started to take its toll, I became very interested in our physical environment — and its power to bring people together. Creating these kinds of spaces requires a highly collaborative, interdisciplinary practice, which I love and have always been super curious to explore further.
Bringing these passions together, I joined Second Story in 2013, co-founding the Atlanta location and then serving as executive creative director for all three studios (New York, Atlanta and Portland). Now, as chief creative officer, I guide the studio’s vision, which is all about creating physical environments that invite people to interact together. Coupled with emerging technologies, these site-specific experiences are the most powerful channel to influence brand perception.
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?
Too many mistakes, I’m sure. But the most humorous have come from drowning in brand immersion. It’s vital to step inside your client’s perspective to see the brand from the inside. But you must also come back up for air and unlearn everything to see with fresh eyes. One way to balance yourself is having fun playing anthropologist — observing and experiencing real situations and customer moments to collect insights. Only from these foundational experiences do the wildly unexpected ideas emerge.
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?
From a craft standpoint, my background is more visual. But motivating myself to get better at articulating ideas through writing was a game-changer on every front — with co-workers, managers and, of course, with clients. When you embrace writing as a communication tool, it helps your thinking become sharper, more concise and focused — even if ideas are ultimately shared verbally.
Another tipping point: finally getting comfortable pitching ideas to clients. This has everything to do with calming the nerves. When you stop being so attached to the end result, it frees you to communicate with greater confidence and ease. This doesn’t just lead to better outcomes, it’s also far more fun to work this way.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re wrapping up work on the Australian Center for the Moving Image — reopening in Melbourne by early summer. It’s the most visited moving image museum in the world, spanning film, video games, animation, digital culture, and art. This is a great rebranding example, driven completely by the space itself and its reimagined experience. Our efforts will help people understand how we use moving images to construct reality and make meaning. Media literacy is really important considering the current trends of deepfakes and fake news.
Second Story is also evolving our experiential workshop, Make Some Room, which explores unconscious bias in the workplace. Iterating on this project over several years, we’re now taking it to the next level to serve a large-scale audience. This experience has proven emotionally potent and transformational. I tend to shy away from buzzwords like that, but this project really touches participants in a profound way — which translates to greater empathy and understanding in the work environment.
What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
We live in a culture that celebrates the grind. But success is not based on the hours you put in (brute force). Rather, it’s how meaningfully you spend your time. Cut out the noise of excessive meetings, emails, notifications, and interruptions. Spend more time thinking and making. By doing less and focusing more, you can do everything better.
In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between branding and advertising?
Advertising is how most companies communicate. It has completely saturated our world, everywhere we look. We see thousands of ads each day and ignore most. It’s inherently interruptive, appearing when we’re trying to watch a video, read an article, take a taxi or a flight. Advertising is also the underlying business model that subsidizes many of the free things we take for granted (like much of the internet). A great brand experience, which drives word-of-mouth and gets amplified via social, is a far more effective way to convert new customers than interrupting. I’m hopeful that we’re starting to shift beyond this outdated advertising model.
A brand is the collective perception of a company. It’s ethereal, existing only in the minds and hearts of people who experience it. Companies can influence their brand through actions — but they don’t own it. Similarly, our impressions of people are developed over several encounters based on observations, interactions and behaviors. Think about the most memorable person you know. They probably have a unique personality, which can only come from a strong sense of self and how they relate to others. It’s the same thing with businesses.
If a company was a person, what adjectives would you use to describe them? What character traits would they possess? The strongest brands have authentic personalities, expressed consistently in all their actions. Yes, tangible elements like names, logos, and taglines are important. But those exist only at the surface. Just like your name and clothes, these things aren’t who you are. Branding goes deeper — it’s an experience you live. What’s it like to go into a company’s store, buy their products, or interact with customer service when something goes wrong? All of those experiences (and many more) make up a company’s brand.
Can you explain why it’s important to invest resources into building a brand, in addition to general marketing and advertising efforts?
Actually, building a brand is foremost — not an “in addition to”. Marketing and advertising are a means to gain awareness and drive sales. If more companies invested in stronger brand experiences, they wouldn’t need to spend exorbitant sums on ads.
People make decisions based on emotion. And experience — not interruption — is how to positively influence those emotions. Advertising is mostly noise we try to avoid. But a great brand experience is something we welcome into our lives.
What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?
A company might need repositioning to standout in a space that’s grown crowded with competitors. The business may have fundamentally changed to the point where its brand perception no longer represents who they are. Perhaps they’ve merged or been acquired. Whatever the reason, true rebranding is only possible when led by a comprehensive change in experience.
Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?
Unless you’re ready to evolve and change some fundamental aspects of who you are and how you act, you’re not ready for a rebrand. An organization must be introspective about their behavior and experience. A brand makeover can’t just be skin-deep with a new logo, tagline, and photography. You need to reimagine the experience of both your employees and customers to really reinvent yourself. Otherwise, it’s all just posturing and positioning.
Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please share an example for each.
Do the unthinkable. Would you encourage people to buy less of your product? Patagonia did with Worn Wear — helping people get more mileage out of the stuff they already own. You can repair, share, and recycle your gear. This is a company that really knows who they are. And it shows in every bold action they take.
Zig when others zag. While everyone else jumps on the Black Friday bandwagon, REI closed their stores with #optoutside. Sure, there was advertising based around this — but they had to DO SOMETHING first, in order to have something to talk about.
Be a Verb. What happens in your space beyond commerce and transactions? Lululemon and House of Vans are great examples of vibrant community activity within their physical footprint.
Take care of your employees. Your employees are the closest interaction point to your customers. How you train and what roles you offer them has an outsized impact on the brand experience. Just stay at a great hotel, and you’ll remember the difference it makes.
Exist for a reason. There’s much talk about brand purpose these days. But if it’s not baked into your business model, then it’s not really a purpose. People respond to brands that stand for something beyond profit-making. Patagonia is a clear leader in this category, but also companies like Ecosia, with purpose at their core — a search engine that plants trees with every search you make. Personally, this has totally shifted me away from Google. No amount of marketing could ever have achieved this.
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?
From a traditional branding perspective, Pentagram’s work for MIT Media Lab is stellar. They designed a beautiful system of grid-based glyphs for the lab’s 23 research groups. It’s flexible enough to support the organization’s innate diversity and complexity, yet so simple and refined.
From a brand experience standpoint, Virgin, lululemon, and the Ace Hotel all standout. Not sure if these qualify as a brand makeover — they likely have always been this way. Everything they do has a unique and authentic take. You can feel their identity in every experience detail. These brands are extremely thoughtful about how they show up in their physical environments and types of “happenings” that take place. How do you replicate that? Think about your physical footprint as your most powerful brand asset. Pay attention to the details — every little encounter adds up.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Most of the major problems in the world can be traced back to a single, underlying cause: we’ve become fundamentally disconnected from nature, and from each other. We spend most of our lives indoors staring at glowing screens, lonely and isolated from the natural world. There is a collective longing for a return to community and healthy communion with the earth. To help people see themselves as part of nature — not separate from it — would create a seismic shift for the better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
Everything always comes back to emotions.
How can our readers follow you online?