Black and White

Branding Insights for Business Success

Black & White is an ongoing compilation of cogent and compelling essays, articles, whitepapers and presentations by Nocturnal offering actionable insights and practical applications to help transform great businesses into successful, thriving brands.

How Is Your Brand Making A Difference?

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By Ken Peters

Would you develop retail branding to launch a hot, new consumer electronics gadget after the client gave you two and they both stopped working within weeks? What if they confided to you that they knew their gimcrack gizmo had a design flaw, but they were working on a fix? What if they planned to sell the defective units in the meantime? Have you ever felt screwed as a consumer?

Would you be willing to brand a sugary fruit drink that was nothing more than a caloric concoction of chemicals you couldn’t pronounce? What if they planned to market it to moms as a healthier alternative to soda? How about if the client wanted to brand it with cartoon characters so it appealed to kids? Are you a parent?

Would you collaborate with a political consultant to brand his candidate even if you didn’t agree with their politics? What if that consultant tells you – with utter sincerity and conviction – that he entered politics because God appeared before him in the shower one morning and instructed him to do so?

He’s dead serious, he’s sitting right in front of you, he’s got a lot of money to spend, and he wants to know if you’re ready to help him and his candidate “change the world”.

What do you say? Do you compromise your principles for the money? You’d better be ready with an answer – and willing to live with the consequences.

Every career has its share of ethical quandaries and “what the hell am I doing with my life?” moments. Those were a few of mine. Chances are, you’ve had a few of your own, either as an employee, or a business owner.

Sometimes, you’re confronted with moral dilemmas, and other times it’s a situation that’s so silly, and surreal that you feel like you must be on hidden camera. That thought crossed my mind many years ago when I found myself sitting across from a client discussing branding for a line of sex toys.

Picture a large office, empty but for a single desk in the middle of the room, me on one side, the client on the other. Between us, dozens of dildos; a veritable phallus freak show in a kinky kaleidoscope of plastic, metal, and rubber – all standing erect, right at eye level.

This particular client was actually in the battery business. Recently, though, he’d discovered that he could make more money – a lot more – by purchasing vibrators from China for cents on the dollar, reselling them for $100 per, ahem, unit, and offering mail order replacement of the specialty batteries that powered them. The money, and the “genius”, was in the replacement batteries.

That day, selections for the new product line were under consideration, and a motley array of vivid, vibrating, spinning, studded, knobbed, ribbed, and pronged appliances of varying lengths and freakish configurations that could have made Caligula cringe were being sized up. I had been sent to get approval on ad creative, but things had gotten more colorful.

“What do you think of this one,” the client asked, holding up a lime green, anatomically correct (for the Jolly Green Giant) rubber appendage with large, gyrating prongs that… well, it’s not important. What did I think? Oh, so many things, like “Why are you asking me?” and “This can’t possibly get any worse.” Then it did. He added, “This is the one that Craig said he uses with Nancy (My then-boss and his wife – names have been changed.).” Much worse.

At the time, I was six years into my career, employed by someone else, and desperately wanting to leave and start my own studio. Churning out sex toy ads for the back pages of skin mags was not why I’d gone into design, and it damn well wasn’t why I’d put in all those late nights, weekends, and holidays. What the hell was I doing with my life?

To be fair, peddling kink in porn pubs probably wasn’t what my bosses had envisioned for their established and revered agency, either. But, poor decisions led to desperate measures when reckless ambition proved shortsighted. Soon, the agency found itself in the unsavory position of having to accept any account that came knocking. Nobody wants to be in that position and when I eventually struck out on my own I swore I never would be.

The missteps of that firm helped to learn that responsible growth lets you make responsible choices for yourself, your business, your employees, your customers and beyond. You might not always be able to do the work that feeds your soul; but if you don’t get stupid or greedy, you won’t have to do anything that sucks your soul, either.

“To open a shop is easy, to keep it open is an art.”

So goes an ancient Chinese proverb. Truthfully, it may have come from a fortune cookie, I don’t know. I read it on Twitter, but it’s spot on. Business often requires tough decisions. The choices you make define you as a person, and define your business as a brand. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it’s a sign of strength; and operating a business from a position of strength is the path to success.

Profit at any price is so last millennium. Today, achieving profit potential while also having a positive impact on people, and the planet is the new black, or “green”, or whatever. Think that’s naïve? There’s a whole new generation of Millennials ready to rock your backward-thinking world.

A recent study by Edelman and StrategyOne found 87% of millennial-aged respondents asserting, “Business needed to place at least equal weight on the interests of society as it did on its own interests.” More than a quarter said that brands should exert a “positive impact on the world”, as well as help individuals “achieve their personal goals.” More and more brands are doing just that:

Shoe company, TOMS, launched their One for One movement in 2006 with the simple goal of matching every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need.

Starbucks Ethos Water Fund supports water, sanitation and hygiene education programs in water-stressed countries. Ethos is just one initiative within the Starbucks Foundation, which started in 1997 by funding literacy programs in the United States and Canada, and that is now supporting communities around the globe in a variety of ways.

Whole Foods Market developed a 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program that grades pork, beef and chicken products according to how farm animals are bred. The system helps shoppers learn more about the origin of meat and poultry products to make more informed choices.

Conversely, as this piece is being written, German automaker Volkswagen finds itself drowning in controversy having been exposed skirting EPA emissions standards via software trickery in its four-cylinder diesel models. VW stocks plummeted a breathtaking 17 percent the first day and another 20 percent the second day as news broke. The company faces billions of dollars in fines and recalls, but beyond that, they've eviscerated the trust and good will of consumers to an extent from which they may never fully recover.

According to the 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility Perception study by research firm Penn Schoen Berland, more than 75% of consumers say that corporate responsibility is important. 55 percent of those polled considered social responsibility a differentiator among brands and were more likely to choose a product tied to a cause when other factors such as price, or size were similar.

Brands cannot make empty promises, they must be built on beliefs and consistently deliver on their promises founded on those beliefs. People make conscious decisions to align themselves with brands they feel embody their values, and empower their potential. People care about brands that care about them. What is your brand doing to empower people, and show them that you care?

Sir Winston Churchill famously opined, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” Business is about finding the right balance with both.

Recognize the need, seize the opportunity, embrace the responsibility and become the solution. For some brands, that equation adds up to a fast buck supplying batteries for sex toys. That’s not bad, it’s just not great. Anybody can make money, but being in business is too great of an opportunity not to make a difference.

Society doesn’t need nihilistic, soul-suckingly shallow, unfulfilling, cheaply made, short-term junk that wreaks real and long-term havoc on people, the planet and future generations; it needs meaningful products, services and initiatives that offer lasting value and engender enduring prosperity. So, what is your brand doing to make the world a better place?


Ken Peters is Co-founding Partner and Creative Director of Nocturnal Branding Studio, a full-service branding and design agency located in Phoenix, AZ. He's been known to design for everyone from Silicon Valley giants to start-up cat toy manufacturers. His work has garnered him everything from a host of awards to a grateful kiss on the cheek. He also makes a mean teriyaki chicken dish, but it hasn't earned any awards. To talk to Ken email him at:

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