Reimagining the romance of Vacationland, one logo at a time
The black and white vintage sign that says “Murphy Empire Design” looks anachronistic. Mounted on a historic Center Street building, the enigmatic, spare emblem offers few clues. No lights, no flash. Has it been here forever?
Climbing a flight of outside stairs, I find Ken Murphy uncorking a bottle of hard cider. “A client just dropped this off. Want to try some?” he asks, pouring me a taste of an heirloom apple tonic in search of an identity.
Murphy’s office is filled with postcards, photos, a century-old stag’s head. Skis and boots are affixed to the wall. Oriental rugs here, a bear rug there, and an unmistakable aura of creativity. Turns out, the Maine College of Art grad is his own empire of one with one employee and one intern.
Yet this designer, artist, and font aficionado is the seer behind some of the most iconic brands in Portland.
The formidable sign outside Fore Street and the Portland Museum of Art’s mod red and white logo are both the brainspawn of the affable 42 year old, who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about space. “I understand space and how to elegantly articulate information so it is approachable, but not smacking you over the head,” he says. “The art is to conceal the art.”
Therein lies the key to branding. It slips over your critical threshold and engages you before you are aware. Finding a way to resonate with a distracted public is equal parts magic and mind-flexing work. As Maine’s entrepreneurial scene gathers force, everyone from small-batch producers to the state’s largest city is questing for market recognition. In the spirit of keeping it local, these companies are tapping pros within the 207 area code to develop their identities and the market clout on which business depends.
“It is psychotherapy for your organization, followed by telling the world what you discovered about yourself,” says David Puelle, who cofounded the VIA Agency in 1993 and might be considered the father of branding in Maine. Since this branding sage helped recreation giants like Sugarloaf become inextricably linked to Maine skiing, branding companies have gained traction here.
Across Maine, a new breed of badass branders is remaking Maine’s image one client at a time, pixel by pixel and font by font. Many have left big cities to practice their chops in a place where life feels whole, not harried. These marketers share with their clients an appreciation for the rocky coast and the tranquil calm of Maine. The common ground helps establish a fertile affinity.
Chris Kast rose to the top of the ad world by keeping his eye on the ball. At the Brand Company, he is ever ready to toss out a new concept and is quick to catch a client’s drift.
Companies like Rinck Advertising, the Brand Company and Murphy Empire Design tell a new story about Maine in strokes big and small. They describe a Maine that’s equal parts Vacationland, Open for Business, and The Way Life Should Be.
“Maine, our version of Maine that I live in, needs to be shared with everybody who will listen,” said Chris Kast, a brand strategist who helps companies like Cellardoor Winery and Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine articulate and convey their visions. “It’s really developing stories that are real. A story that has teeth, a story that has legs, a story that’s ownable,” Kast continues. “A story that no one else can tell with the same passion and purpose.”
Kast presides over the Brand Company, which collaborates with a growing roster of Maine entrepreneurs-on-the-rise as well as known Maine icons. He drives for the perfect tagline: “There is no such thing as a Maine lobster from away,” is one. “I’ll compete with you, but you’ll never be able to out-passion me.”
Even when he takes a hit he is “resilient, steadfast and ever onward.” These mottos were created for the state of Maine’s chief marketing officer last year. “They rejected them all,” recalled Kast, who, with his team, had volunteered to create a brand pro-bono for the state, working three to four weeks with his team of designers and branders on logos and slogans.
In creative arenas, no work is wasted. After the state officially rejected the pro-bono package, Kast, along with Kevin Thomas, owner and publisher at Maine Media Collective, came up with another way to use the work. “Instead of crying in our milk, we created brand and merchandise called Unapproved Threads,” explains Kast. The state’s loss is the consumer’s gain. Today The Brand Company sells vibrant shirts with a map of Maine in bright orange, gray, and green hues, accented with crests and anchors, symbolizing a Maine rooted in a strong and storied past looking ahead to a promising future.
Kast’s vision for clients goes beyond design. He helps them envision their best ideals.
Even those who are not branding-savvy at the start soon catch on. “To build a business, you need a much more holistic vision and understanding,” says Bettina Doulton, a former investment manager who decamped from Boston to Maine in 2007 to buy a sleepy winery, Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville. “To have a creative person understand not just what I’m asking for, but the business mission,” she says, moved her forward.
Wine may never take the place of lobsters and lighthouses when it comes to Maine’s visual shorthand, but a steady stream of innovators moving here are slowly changing that picture. As hundreds of tech and food startups now call Maine home, a growing cadre of behind-the-scenes message emissaries will only be more in demand.
“There are very few states that have such a powerful brand,” said Peter Rinck, of Auburn’s Rinck Advertising. “But Maine is a little mysterious, it’s a little unknown.”
Rinck knows all about the state’s magical appeal. He helped invent it. Rinck was the first professional copywriter hired by L.L. Bean in the 80s and worked to strengthen the company’s allure. When he started, the Freeport sports retailer was about a $125 million company. When he left in 1989 it was just under $1 billion. Today, with a team of 25 full-time and 20 part-time employees, Rinck does his best to decode the state’s mystery and its untapped breadth and wealth of natural resources for clients like the Amtrak Downeaster.
When Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority sought to promote its expanded service to Freeport and Brunswick, Rinck focused on what travelers boarding in Boston might need to know about the state. There was a great void to be filled. “What we know about the Boston customer is that they don’t know a lot about Maine. They don’t know that Maine is so accessible or has so many amenities,” he says.
The company’s “Experience More” multimedia campaign is a vivid invitation to conceive the journey and the destination as one. A Rinck-produced television spot suggests we visit Old Orchard Beach and Wells to cycle, surf, and birdwatch — and along the way, dig into a Maine-made whoopie pie.
“The experience of travel is sensory; the Downeaster is a lovely train that serves Maine-based food served out of the cafe car,” said Laura Davis, Rinck’s wife and company president. “There are so many things to do in Maine. We are really trying to use that lore. We are utilizing the Downeaster service as a means to experience it.”
Wicked Whoopie pies, made in Gardiner, are now central to Rinck’s brand. “Wherever we go we bring whoopie pies with us. It’s our secret weapon,” said Davis.
Not blueberry pie?
“No one can resist a Wicked Whoopie,” said Davis. “We were crossing snack party lines here.”
LOOKS DO MATTER
At Pulp + Wire ideas ignite under Taja Dockendorf’s steady hand.
Taja Dockendorf is not allowed to do the grocery shopping for her family. “I would spend way too much money because I want to try everything,” she said. The creative mind behind Portland’s Pulp and Wire is catalyzed by the power and allure of packaging. Her Portland showroom is filled with vivid examples of her ability to leverage food and wellness products through graphic icons and clean design. “It’s very important for a brand not to be a me-too,” she says. It needs to stand out on the shelves, separate from the crowd.
Organic, health, and beauty companies come to her creative brand agency for image triage. Her 100-percent-female owned enterprise represents home producers and larger-scale businesses in Maine and beyond. “It’s all about helping them discover their own heartbeat,” says Dockendorf, who grew up in Saco, broke out for New York and Boston, and moved back after 9/11.
Sipping a chia fruit juice, dressed in a summery yellow top, hair pulled back, eyes focused, she is an image chiropractor asking entrepreneurs where it hurts. “They come to us because they are a little broken. We home into what’s not working and fix it,” she said. Beyond rebranding a logo or website, Dockendorf helps companies such as Northern Girl and DennyMike’s ‘Cue Stuff “align their energy.”
She calls it the energy of success—arousing the latent power of the product through effective design and packaging. With a new brand image, the product finds its voice. “And when that happens, their brand has nothing but success ahead,” says Dockendorf.
When Rockland-based Bixby and Co. needed a new look for their gourmet chocolate bars, they knocked on her door. In her downtown Portland street-level space that resembles a swank boutique hotel lobby, she transformed their homespun labels into colorful, eye-catching iconography. After hours of thrashing about, they hit upon the right style. The graphics were culled from the owner’s great-great-grandfather’s custom-designed bookplate illustrations. The client was thrilled. “My passion is in helping companies be successful in a way that’s natural and honest to who they are,” Dockendorf says.
Honesty is what Puelle was channeling when he was tasked with giving the city of Portland a new tagline. The “Yes, Life’s Good Here” slogan rolled out last year and, like the city itself, evolves day to day. “I firmly believe that branding done right is fundamentally a design problem that incorporates a wide variety of disciplines to find the solution,” he said. “Done right, it still means defining your company in a holistic and authentic way with the intent of creating a clear idea of what you stand for.”
Discerning the company’s true DNA, even for the most dynamic businessperson, is not an easy endeavor. “It’s something that is very hard to conceive and even harder to execute,” says Puelle. To him, branding companies don’t put clients on the field as much as cheer loudly from the sidelines. “We have nothing to offer that the company doesn’t already possess,” he says. “It is more about observing, coaching, suggesting, and enchanting what they already have. Sometimes it seems like curling. The stone is moving and you try to influence the trajectory.”
ALONE IN THE CROWD
Standing out in a jostling, over-saturated marketplace is a personal art as much as an analytic science. “In a world that’s so frenetic and hyper-connected, I like to capture people’s attention with a stopping point that says wow, that’s nice,” says Murphy. Walking by the commanding facade of Fore Street, the confidence of the James Beard Award-winning restaurant arrests your attention. The understated yet authoritative sign is vintage Murphy.
Dana Street, co-owner of Fore Street, tapped Murphy’s empire for help in 2005. If you read between the lines in the restaurant’s logo, you understand Murphy’s genius. “I have a special spatial relationship. A signature look that has a certain sense about it. There is a general feeling of the nuance of the design,” he says, struggling to define his own timeless style. Like a succulent prime rib, “you can tell when it’s well done.”
THE BLACK DOG REDUX
The team at More and Co. is always on a creative mission. This season imaging a more artful, contemporary Maine is their focus.
Christopher David Ryan was riffing with the word Maine one day and discovered that by inserting two letters it became “imagine.” At his creative shop, More and Co., on the edge of the Old Port, such eureka moments seem to pop like kettlecorn. The graphic designer has an impressive work history that includes Victoria’s Secret and Starbucks. He printed the “imagine” design on cotton tees and displayed them in his High Street boutique. The limited-edition shirts sold out within days last summer.
This summer More and Co. will tempt crowds to buy more. The company’s jet-setting quartet of photographers, illustrators, writers, and artists have decided to scale back their client work and focus instead on their own stream. Now they are intent on Maine 3.0. “The coast is beautiful and lobsters are great, but there is so much else happening,” says Ryan, a Texas native who moved to Maine from Brooklyn, lured by Portland’s creative juice. “There is such a romance to Maine. There is the opportunity to give the state the type of visual recognition similar to California.”
If Ryan and partner Lynsey Sullivan Waite are right, their new line of lifestyle apparel, Imagine Maine, will help achieve it. Accompanying the rollout this summer is a campaign asking Mainers how they “Imagine Maine.” Is it rugged individualism? The coast? Lobsters? Lighthouses? The answer is all of the above, plus a host of intangibles accruing daily.
“There is something very special happening here and we would like to share it,” says Ryan. Fed up with “the lobsters with googly eyes” that tourists are faced with in souvenir shops up and down the coast, the company hopes to change the iconic conversation. “I don’t think anyone looks to this state for design,” says Ryan, who is thinking big. Beyond Maine, he is eager to give the Atlantic Northeast the same cachet as the Pacific Northwest.
The first step is to imagine Maine in all of its roiling energy–to see it afresh, not through the prism of the past. “We are looking to connect that with our location. If it does lift the visual aesthetic of the state that would be amazing,” said Ryan.
TRADING NEW YORK FOR PORTLAND
Trading in three-martini lunches, designer suits, and rush-hour traffic for pour-over coffee, hand-crafted beer, and a pleasant walk on the cobblestone streets, Kast is the Mad Man that got away. After starting his career at Doyle Dane Bernbach in New York, which inspired Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Kast has changed as radically as the industry has. Driven by ubiquitous technology and nonstop messaging, advertising now must embrace branding.
Before starting the Brand Co., he ran his own marketing firm in Portland, called Crank. From 1996 to 2004 he helped companies like Dell Computers and Nextel hone their message to the world. But when the fast-talking New Yorker approached local companies, he struck out. “We couldn’t get work here because we were too edgy.”
A decade after Crank, Maine’s business landscape has let its hair down. Entrepreneurs, who can now live anywhere, are picking Maine to launch, reboot, and begin again. With a lively startup scene in Portland, young farmers breaking ground inland, and a variety of ventures along the midcoast, opportunities have never been richer for brand companies to step in and help.
To understand the reality you have to imagine it.