This is how we do it ...
Toolbox Creative is a B2B Brand Engineering firm, helping the Ag Tech, 3D Printing, Clean Tech and Software industries change the world. We distill complex technologies into powerful identity systems, websites and marketing tactics that build brand love and align sales and marketing efforts.
That's us. That's our two-sentence brand positioning statement that took two years to write.
Don't worry. We're not the world's slowest branding agency. Our eggs were just in other baskets. Not unlike many in our industry, we focused more on serving our clients than serving as our own client.
But all that changed at the beginning of 2016. We set out to refine our processes, articulate our vocation and illustrate our models. It's been an incredibly fun and fulfilling journey — one that we'll remain on as long as we're Toolbox.
From one perspective, we've taken a long, circuitous route to get here. From another perspective, everything we've done over the last 15+ years has lead us to exactly where we are today.
Here's how we got there:
An organic process
Dawn and I started Toolbox in 2003 as designers who wanted to have our own business, not as business people who chose design. We evolved like many design shops do — bringing freelance clients into the fold and taking on new work where we could find it. We designed anything and everything: direct mail for radio stations, library logos, award-winning children's bibles, restaurant bus shelter ads, theatre posters and beautiful book covers for some truly awful books.
We took care of our clients, focused on doing great work and grew organically — primarily through referrals.
Through that process of organic growth, we came to identify things that were working well and things that were not. The work we did was driven by the work that came in. Some of it was great and some of it left us frustrated and unfulfilled. We'd do a good job on the less fulfilling work and, magically, more of the same type would roll in. Like begets like, whether or not it's the kind of work you enjoy. At times, we felt like we didn't have as much control over our own company as we would like, and we liked our jobs less than we do now.
Like begets like, whether or not it's the kind of work you enjoy.
But there was hope. The jobs that worked well worked really well. The work that was most fulfilling was also the work that bore most fruit, for our clients and for us.
A big part of every branding project is asking a lot of good questions. The most important question we asked ourselves: what's our specialty? For years, we resisted the idea of specializing. From a business perspective, specialization makes all kinds of sense. From a creative perspective, it poses real challenges.
With my CFO hat on, I'll buy specialization any day. Repetition builds expertise. The 15th bank website you design will be faster and more profitable than the 14th. We encourage our clients to find hyper-specialized niches and own the space, so surely we could do the same. Or could we?
With my Creative Director hat on, I could not justify that level of specialization. I couldn't see how we'd make the 15th bank website any more interesting than the 14th, or how I could keep our creative team from jumping ship from the pure monotony of it. What I love most about my job is that I'm never quite sure what I'll be working on when I arrive in the morning. I know my coworkers feel the same way. I could be learning about 3D printed crop sensors, working with a composer to score a corporate video or trying to figure out how to make a shark swim through a wheat field. That kind of curiosity is a job requirement at Toolbox.
Variety is the spice of life. Repetition builds expertise. How to reconcile those two was the big challenge.
Variety is the spice of life. Repetition builds expertise. How to reconcile those two was the big challenge. Through the process, I realized that I was thinking too narrowly of specialization. Rather than specializing in one industry, we could specialize in the kind of work we do best — the kind of work we most enjoy doing.
After taking steady doses of our own medicine, we defined what we do best, who we best do it for and most importantly, why we do it.
What we do best is simple
What we do best is simple. It's distilling. It's editing. It's alchemy. It's turning complex technology that takes two hours to explain into brand positioning and marketing assets that take two seconds to fall in love with. Simple is beautiful. Simple is powerful. Simple is really, really hard.
We do our best work for innovators
The engineer, the technologist, the scientist — those who are endlessly passionate about how their technology will make the world a better place for their customers. They work for companies that are revenue-positive, and have a proven product and happy customers who love them.
While our clients are doing a lot of things right, they're typically also at a precipice. They might need to grow. They might need to take on the big player in their industry. They might be seeking one of the big players to acquire their technology. They know where they want to go but are not quite sure how to get there.
We do the work because it works
Great design works. It sways public opinion, moves product, wins hearts and minds. But sometimes, no matter how great the design, the initiative ultimately fails.
In 15 years, we've done plenty of work that worked and some that ultimately didn't work. Our where are they now file runs deep. After some time had passed and our emotional investment had dissipated, we objectively reviewed the work that didn't work, and we were able to identify some commonalities. In each case, something critical wasn't there all along: budget, trust, passion, resources, a good product, a good client / agency fit, a believable story.
As a boutique agency, we can't afford for our clients not to succeed. It's critical for us to be able to identify potential impediments to a project's success early on and either take corrective action or disengage.
Our Brand Assessment phase was designed specifically to address that challenge. Before we begin any creative work, we dive deep to understand where our clients are now, where they want to go and map out how we'll get there. We find out why those who love them love them and we start to identify ways we can build on that brand love.
This initial diagnostic phase provides the client and Toolbox the opportunity to to make sure there's a good fit before moving into creative.
A successful creative partnership is a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. It's a two-way street. It's equally important that the agency find the right client as it is for the client to find the right agency.
Here's what we're looking for in a client:
Bring the goods
Good + good + good = great.
At Toolbox, we believe there are three fundamental goods required to build a great brand. We work with good people with good products and good budgets. Having the three goods in place does not ensure success. Rather, it lays the foundation upon which a strong brand identity can be built. When one is missing, the entire process can go off the rails.
Good people: We've had a firm no a-hole policy at Toolbox for years. A few have slipped through our detectors — making designers cry (which is not easy to do) and spectacularly derailing the process. A person that comes in miserable is going to leave miserable, no matter how good the work is. Plus, our process is designed to be fun, open and engaging. Wet blankets can dampen the room quickly.
While we love working with nice people, it runs deeper. We work best with people who are good at their work and want to see their work do good in the world.
Our sweet spot is making your company look and sound as good as it already is. We're not in the turd polishing business.
Good products: Tech companies need to have a good product on two levels. First, the company's overall value proposition has to be solid. Does the brand have a strong moral compass, a clear focus, a compelling story and a reason for people to care? Second, the actual product or service offered needs to be truly good. Is there a market? Do customers love it? Is it making their lives easier, their jobs more fruitful and their own brands stronger?
You can't build a great brand before you have a good product. If you have a subpar product and a $100,0000 marketing budget, spend that money on making your product better instead.
Case in point: a few years ago, we worked on parts of a rebrand for a tech company that seemed to have a solid product. But we knew there was trouble when the sales people did not want us to call their current customers because they were afraid our calls would be met with, "Oh yeah, that reminds me. I want to cancel." They had bus ads, puppets and a hilarious brand guide. What they didn't have was a good product. They went bankrupt, hard.
Brands are in the hands of the consumer. The days of marketers being able to trick people are long gone. So you've got to bring the goods if you want to build a great brand. Our sweet spot is making your company look as good as it already is. We're not turd polishers.
Good budgets: One of the first questions we ask a potential client is: do you have a budget in mind? A huge budget isn't always a good budget. Likewise, a good budget isn't always a huge budget. Rather, a good budget is all about determining where you want your branding initiative to take you and what it will take to get there. A good budget sees branding as an investment that will pay dividends and dedicates the resources needed to pull it off. A logo can cost a dollar or a million dollars, so you can't budget for branding as you would a commodity. It's not about getting the lowest price; it's about making a managed-risk investment with clearly defined ROI in mind.
Finding the right marketing agency is much easier when you talk money early. We're happy to chat about your marketing budget, whether or not you have a number in mind.
The engineer whisperers
One of our favorite clients describes us as Engineer Whisperers. Given that in some cases engineers hate marketers, that was a big compliment indeed. That insight was the seed of what became our Brand Engineering process.
Though our end products differ, we discovered that our approach to building brands is not unlike how engineers build things. We're incessantly curious, ask lots of questions, love to figure stuff out, believe passionately in our work, continually prototype, test and measure, crave accountability and constantly improve.
Based on our approach, we identified four industries where our work can have the most impact. While disparate on the surface, these innovative technology industries often intersect — and they all are driven by how their tech can improve the lives of their customers.
Toolbox specializes in branding for the following industries:
Input. Output. It's a simple equation, but it's also the most pressing technological issue of our time. How can farmers make the best use of their resources, maximize output and feed a rapidly growing world with increasingly less farmland?
There is no lack of innovation in agricultural technology. Broad adoption is a harder nut to crack. Ag innovators need to craft brands that can tell compelling stories, make emotional connections and build brand love. Ag Tech brands will change the world in the next 10 years, and they'll do it more efficiently with strong brand identities.
The dream of a 3D printer in every garage was a perfect case of marketing hype outpacing technological need. While the correction in the consumer 3D printer market was inevitable, the overall 3D printer market has pivoted to hyper-specialized, industrial B2B applications.
3D Printing is not only benefiting traditionally technology-forward industries like medical and aerospace, but it's also revolutionizing industries that have remained largely unchanged for centuries, like jewelry and investment casting. In a crowded marketplace, it's critical that 3D Printing companies build believable, respectable brands that are hyper-focused on solving specific business challenges.
One of the most pressing business challenges today is how to make a bigger impact while leaving a smaller footprint. B2B customers see the forest along with the trees and demand partners that deliver not only short-term value, but also see the long game. The Clean Tech industry has proven that doing good business and doing good for the world are not mutually exclusive — just the opposite.
Some of the most exciting innovation is happening in the Clean Tech space — down the block and around the world. Clean Tech companies know full well that innovative technology does not always win out over the big guys, especially if that technology is well-established. A strong brand can often make the difference between adoption and failure to launch.
The software industry is uniquely positioned to improve the way we work, live and communicate. The job of a graphic designer today was the job of eight different people just 40 years ago. Software has made our industry exponentially more efficient, and it's doing the same in the Ag Tech, 3D Printing and Clean Tech spaces.
Innovative software companies fall nicely into our sweet spot, as they are often developing highly-specialized solutions and taking on a dominant generalist in the field. Building a bold, agile brand is a critical part of their success.
While the majority of our clients work outside of Fort Collins, Colorado, about 20 percent of the work we do is for local, mission-driven organizations that work to ensure all those in our community have what they need to survive and thrive: food, shelter, equitable opportunity and art.
We're fortunate to live, work and play in an amazing community. Preserving and building upon what makes Fort Collins a great place is in our personal best interest and serves the greater good.
Great tech deserves great technology marketing
Tesla (the inventor, not the car), the metric system in America (and Burma & Liberia), Betamax — history is replete with examples of superior technology losing out to an inferior rival. It's true that there are plenty of reasons why technology fails. It's also true that a clear, compelling brand identity can give innovative technology companies a competitive edge.
Our future depends on how we utilize innovative technology to revolutionize the way we produce food, build our environment, power the world, improve our workflow and take care of each other. Here at Toolbox, we've made it our vocation to use the power of branding to help those innovative technology companies make the world a better place.
About Toolbox Creative: Toolbox Creative offers a powerful engine to grow technology brands and take on the big players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increasing brand equity, boosting media buzz and making the most of marketing dollars.