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If there’s one thing coming out of Atlanta-based brand identity firm Matchstic, it’s a whole lotta love. And courage and truth and harmony. And fun (think fire-pole-in-the-office fun). Okay, so definitely more than just one thing. And that’s a fantastic thing. Because Matchstic is spreading the good stuff near and far through its client work, its On the House program, its community involvement, and the team’s willingness to be real and share their message with the world. I spoke with creative director and co-founder Blake Howard to find out how they’re doing it.
The Firm: Doing Brand Identity
As Howard puts it, there are tons of branding firms out there these days, and “everyone has a great manifesto, a four or five step process (usually using all ‘c’ words), or a cute office dog on their team page.” So what makes Matchstic stand out from the pack? For starters, they’ve been focused on brand identity—and only brand identity—for nearly 10 years.
“It’s what we do every day, all day, which has led to a deep experience in objective thinking around positioning a brand, evolving a brand’s reputation, and helping brands rise from obscurity to top-of-mind awareness,” Howard says. The firm’s main goal is to help people who love what they do to do it even better, whether that means working with a brilliant startup to come up with the perfect brand name, or helping a business understand its core purpose, or evolving a brand identity in a way that allows it to truly serve its target market.
“We operate at the intersection of art and commerce; a mixture of high-level business thinking and inspiring design, producing what we think is the best and most strategic brand identity work for our clients,” Howard says. “Ultimately, we want to do great work and build great relationships in the process. That’s the driving force more than anything.”
But what does that look like? Howard says there’s a rigor and discipline around their process. “We aren’t a marketing firm, getting deep into the weeds of on-going implementation work. We aren’t a digital firm and don’t do development in-house. We don’t do PR, social media execution, or advertising either. We do brand identity. I guess we are more defined by what we don’t do than what we do, and I think that helps.”
Giving Back, One Client at a Time
Several years back, Howard initiated Matchstic’s On the House program, which donates design time and talent to local non-profits in need of branding. [Get the full story behind Matchstic’s On the House pro-bono solution.] I asked Howard to tell us more about his favorite memory related to this program.
“One that comes to mind is when we completed our rebrand for the Swift School, a school for children with learning disabilities like dyslexia,” Howard says. “To thank us they had students draw and write notes on little index cards. Some ranged from ‘I love the new logo’ to ‘the new logo is okay’ to ‘I hated the old logo.’ They packaged all the cards and assembled them in a photo album. They turned out to be some of my favorite client testimonials and we still have them on our shelves today. All of the hard work, time, and money investing in that project was all worth it after reading those hilarious and heart-felt thank you cards.”
Love the City You’re in
The Matchstic team’s love for their community is certainly evident in the implementation of the On the House program. With that much positive emotion flying about, it makes sense that the firm is showing up in their city in other awesome ways, too—particularly within Atlanta’s creative community. Several team members speak at local design schools and meet up with students to give them feedback on their work.
“We believe in the importance of the creative class and its impact on the betterment of the city,” Howard says. “That’s why one of our guiding principles is ‘Make our city better.'”
Howard himself started the Atlanta chapter of CreativeMornings, and continues to lead it today, which helps keep the firm fully immersed in both the design and creative community. “Two team members from Matchstic help me organize the chapter as well, but the entire company participates in brainstorming for the events or at least attends—it truly is a team effort,” Howard says. “Our involvement with CreativeMornings has thrust us into the budding Atlanta creative community in massive ways, from networking to simply building friendships. I am incredibly thankful and honored by how CreativeMornings has benefitted us and the city.”
On the Call to Courage
For Matchstic, courage is the first of three main values (the other two being truth and harmony), so it goes without saying that the firm has much to say on the subject. [At How Design Live 2016 in Atlanta, GA, Howard will be delivering the talk “A Call to Courage,” in which you’ll will learn how to appropriately stand up to clients, how to not flee from failing, and how to create the best work of your life.]
I asked Howard about his and his team’s biggest inspirations when it comes to being courageous, and though he noted that they each have personal inspirations for various reasons, it’s likely they’d all agree that Alina Wheeler is a significant one. Wheeler, author of Designing Brand Identity, is a mentor, friend and advisor for Matchstic.
“She is who I remember as the first to champion the need for bravery and courage to us many, many years ago,” Howard says. “She definitely has her fingerprints all over the content in my [HOW Design Live] talk. A big part of her influence is why we chose ‘courage’ as one of our three core values for the firm years ago. She influenced us to focus on brand identity, and her fearless spirit encourages us every time she visits our office.”
But Howard’s most personal inspiration is his dad. “He has always been my biggest champion and encourager. When I wanted to start my own design business as a bright-eyed and naive 22 year-old fresh out of college, he only pushed me to do it. As a successful entrepreneur himself, he could have easily discouraged me or scared me to death with tall tales of being broke, stressed and burnt out. He didn’t. He chose the courageous, more difficult way to love his son and told me to do what would bring me fulfillment.”
[Hear more of Howard’s thoughts on courage on the HOW Design Live podcast with Ilise Benun]
When you spend your days focused on the brand identities of clients, it could be said that you had better have done the work on your own identity. That’s something Matchstic has figured out—they know who they are, and who they’re not.
“There is an abundance of brilliant agencies out there,” Howard says. “We aren’t Lippincott, Wolf Ollins, Anagrama, or Fuzzco—we are Matchstic. It’s important to me that we don’t try to mimic others but remain true to ourselves.”
Looking ahead, Howard hopes that he and the others at Matchstic will lead the conversation on branding through both their work and their thinking.
“We have a natural and healthy discontent that propels us forward, always getting better,” he continues. “I hope that fire never goes out. We released a small book last year called Igniting Passionate Brands, and that just wet our appetite for writing, and we would love to release more in the future.
“I hope we can do all of this and not lose our souls in the process. Ultimately, we want to enjoy our work, do work we are proud of and build lasting relationships along the way. Success is an after product as long as those tenants stay in place.”
Work by Matchstic:
Does some of your firm’s best work take the form of promotion or marketing design?