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The Art and Science of Story Telling

The team at BRIGADE

The team at BRIGADE shows off the many honors garnered at the recent Ad Club of Western Mass. award show.    Photo by Stephanie Craig Photography

It was just a few weeks after Kirsten Modestow and her husband relocated to Western Mass. from San Francisco that she got the phone call that would ultimately change her life. The person at the other end was looking for someone to do some freelance work for a fledgling vodka brand called Svedka. As many people know, Svedka has gone on to become the top-selling imported vodka in the U.S. What they may not know is that, with that notable first client, Modestow created the marketing firm BRIGADE, one that has certainly built on that solid foundation in every way.

Kirsten Modestow says the branding company she would call BRIGADE (yes, all caps) was started on her kitchen table.

Which doesn’t exactly make it unique; many startups are blueprinted in such a setting. Which makes this one different is what happened after it was conceived.

For starters, that kitchen table would later become an official work station for one of the first hires, and soon other parts of the house were absorbed by additional team members as they came on board.

“The first person was in the living room, the second person was at the dining-room table, the next one was in the spare bedroom … then we all moved into the garage,” she explained. “When there was no room in the refrigerator for people’s lunches, we knew it was time to go.”

By that, she meant move into larger quarters, which the company has done a few times, but we’ll get back to that later.

The other thing that separates BRIGADE from other ventures hatched on the kitchen table is the pace of growth. Indeed, over the past 13 years, the company has expanded to 35 employees, most of them artists and designers who commute to the current home on Route 9 in Hadley from across Western Mass. and well beyond.

And their client list includes a number of prominent national brands, including Svedka vodka, the Wyndham Hotel Group, Black Box Wines, and Vertical Water, as well as some local businesses, such as Esselon Café, just a few hundred yards down Route 9.

Actually, Svedka wasn’t a national brand when Modestow was hired as a freelancer to help with a branding campaign. It was a fledgling vodka label looking to break out — and it did, big time; a few years ago, it surpassed Smirnoff as the top-selling imported vodka in the U.S.

The team at BRIGADE designed packaging for Svedka strawberry seltzer.

The team at BRIGADE designed packaging for Svedka strawberry seltzer.

“We’ve been along for the ride,” Modestow said, noting how the growth of Svedka and BRIGADE have mirrored one another. “Over the past 13 years, we’ve grown with them.”

But BRIGADE hasn’t outgrown Modestow’s kitchen table, then a space on University Drive, and then a totally renovated foreign-car sales and service shop further down Route 9 because of one client — although Svedka certainly has played a huge role in that transformation.

Instead, it’s been the company’s ability to work with clients to create branding that resonates, builds name recognition, and drives sales, Modestow explained, adding that this is what branding, the company’s specialty, is all about.

Elaborating, she said BRIGADE focuses on helping clients tell their story, and to do that, she and her team must first understand what that story is and then develop effective ways to communicate it.

“We get to know a client by doing an audit of their existing brand,” she explained. “We always see it as the client being the expert in what they do in their industry, and we bring in the branding piece, so it’s crucial to work with them as a partner.”

That was certainly the case with the new coffee bags the company created for Esselon Café. Coffee had long been a key ingredient in the restaurant’s recipe for success, said Modestow, but a while back, its leaders decided a new look was needed.

“People are more open to working with remote agencies. Before, it was a case where you went to an agency in one of the larger cities. Around 2006, when we started, there was a willingness to work with people who weren’t down the street, and that had a lot to do with our success.”

“We worked with them to determine how to capture the heart of Esselon and capture who and what Esselon is,” she explained, adding that BRIGADE came up with new packaging that drew on the Western Mass. landscape — specifically the Seven Sisters portion of the Holyoke Range — as well as new language: “All roads, bike paths, and quests for the best cup of coffee lead to Esselon Café.”

Kirsten Modestow

Kirsten Modestow

“The whole idea is that they’re on the bike path and everyone comes to Esselon; the place is packed, and you have to park illegally,” she explained. “We decided to embrace all that — we have these bike paths and roads that wrap around the bag, and we told this café story, and it’s been awesome for them; the bag is loved by Whole Foods, and retail sales have tripled because of it.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how BRIGADE has moved well beyond that kitchen table and grown its own brand by delivering services that tell a story and generate results.

Seeking an Ad-vantage

Modestow told BusinessWest that the BRIGADE story really starts in Boston, where she worked for the acclaimed marketing agency Hill Holiday Advertising and such clients as Dunkin’ Donuts.

When the dot-com sector was at its pinnacle, however, the place to be was San Francisco, and Modestow went there and had the opportunity to join a firm and work with brands such as Electronic Arts Inc. (EA), the video-game maker.

Her firm eventually closed its doors, however, after losing one of its mainstay clients, and Modestow and her husband were at a crossroads.

“I could afford to live in San Francisco for about four and half minutes after that,” she joked. “I think we sold our house within seven days and left.”

The two then made a pact of sorts. They would relocate to wherever one of them found a job first.

“He beat me by a day; he got a job in Western Massachusetts — he’s originally from Worthington — and we came here,” she explained.

And it wasn’t long after they landed that she got that life-altering phone call.

“Someone called and said, ‘I have a freelance opportunity for you on this startup vodka brand called Svedka,’” she recalled. “Over the past 13 years, we’ve grown with them and helped them along the way; they’ve been really wonderful to us.”

As noted earlier, the company quickly outgrew Modestow’s kitchen table, refrigerator, and garage, and settled into that space on University Drive, above the popular Hangar restaurant. It wasn’t exactly a long stay, though, because the company continued to grow at a rapid rate, doubling in size from five to nine employees in a few years.

It then relocated to the foreign-car shop — a site that required a massive renovation effort — but outgrew that in just over a year, as Modestow recalled, adding that the next home is intriguing on many levels.

A portion of the 8,500-square-foot facility was home to a Registry of Motor Vehicles office, and even though it’s been closed for quite some time, people still walk in the front door looking to renew their driver’s licenses, said David Bosch, the company’s operations manager.

Another portion of the facility has home to Zoe’s Fish House, he went on, adding that, while BRIGADE renovated all the spaces into work areas, including a banquet facility that never became reality, it kept the bar intact.

The company doesn’t have a liquor license, obviously, but it does use the bar for company functions, said Bosch. Meanwhile, it’s an unusual decorative touch, and it give the company a chance to showcase many of the brands it has helped develop in what would be described as a natural setting.

The space is wide open, said Modestow, adding that this the desired environment for a marketing firm where people work together to create solutions for clients.

“We work in branding, and a lot of that is people coming together to solve a problem,” she explained. “So being in a very open space, one that’s conducive to gathering, is important.”

BRIGADE should be in this home for quite some time, because there is not only ample room to grow, but plenty of business coming through the door as the company continues to build strong word-of-mouth referrals.

The new coffee bag that BRIGADE created for Esselon Café has helped spark a surge in retail sales.

The new coffee bag that BRIGADE created for Esselon Café has helped spark a surge in retail sales.

Indeed, as noted earlier, Svedka has been a dream first client and solid foundation for BRIGADE. But the company has been able to build on that foundation, said Modestow, and for several reasons.

One is the large number of contacts she made from her previous career stops, and the experience she gained working for national and global clients, a tremendous asset in this business, as in any other.

“Having the exposure in Boston and San Francisco enabled me to work on some high-caliber clients and hone my skill set that I could then pass on to people here,” she explained. “We started off with an ability to work on those high-caliber clients; we’re really good at it, so we’ve attracted through our work the attention of others.”

Another factor is a growing willingness among corporations to work with agencies not based in New York, Boston, or Los Angeles, or whatever major metropolis the corporation was based in or near.

“People are more open to working with remote agencies,” she noted. “Before, it was a case where you went to an agency in one of the larger cities. Around 2006, when we started, there was a willingness to work with people who weren’t down the street, and that had a lot to do with our success.”

Getting the Message Across

But easily the best reason for the company’s success is the results it has garnered for its clients, said Modestow, adding that more important than the awards the company has gained for its work — and it has won many — are the gains registered by the companies looking for help with their brand.

Which bring us back to Esselon Café.

That new packaging has won a number of awards for BRIGADE, said Modestow, but the bigger story is that dramatic rise in retail sales at Whole Foods and other locations.

It came about through that art and science of storytelling and creating a brand that speaks to who they are.

When asked about the methods for gaining such results, Modestow returned to the subject of effectively partnering with the client to solve a problem or revitalize a brand.

The client knows their industry, their product or service, and their story, she went on. BRIGADE essentially takes that insight and uses it to create a brand that conveys the story in a way that resonates.

Steps include the brand audit she described earlier, and also creation of brand strategy.

“We would work through positioning statements with the client, help them figure out their key messages, how they’re different, how they talk about themselves, what their voice is, and more,” she explained. “And once we have that platform, then we would go into the visual component of all this — bringing it all to life visually through some kind of toolkit, which might be a refresh logo or packaging or a new website. We’re helping them see how this language and this new positioning can visually come to life.”

As the company creates these strategies and brings them to life, it does so not with a hard focus on targeting specific demographic groups — a mistake some companies make when marketing and branding — but building a brand that’s “authentic.”

“I don’t think you build a brand to speak to a specific group of people,” she told BusinessWest. “You build a brand that’s true to who the brand should be, and then it resonates with the right people.

“A mistake you see is when companies think the key to their success is going out and capturing the Millennials,” she went on. “Well, the Millennial doesn’t want to be captured — you have to find them because you have something compelling that made them want to believe in you. It’s about consumer experience and storytelling; people want an authentic experience with a company.”

As an example of how the firm partners with its clients, Modestow referenced the Wyndham Hotel Group and some of its specific brands, including one in particular — Travelodge.

“It was kind of an old brand with old, tired signage,” she explained, noting that, at the time, Wyndham hadn’t put much emphasis on branding, but has since changed that attitude. “We helped refresh the Travelodge brand, we helped them with an ad campaign, and we helped them with a new way to talk about themselves.”

Another example is work with Svedka to launch a new line of spiked seltzers. The company designed the cans in a way that were true to the Svedka brand but also resonated within the growing spiked-seltzer product category, said Don Magri, the company’s chief financial officer.

“They came to us with a good amount of research that they had already done on their consumer and who they were really trying to target,” he explained. “You go through iterations, but you’re really trying to creating a design that is true to the brand going into a new category, but also hitting the demographic they’re trying to reach.”

Looking down the road, those at BRIGADE said they look to continue providing clients with what they call ‘responsive branding,’ so that they are ready for the future and their brands are as well.

In short, they aim to do what the company’s done from the beginning — grow with its clients.

“We want to grow and create new opportunities for our employees and then for the people who don’t work here yet,” said Magri. “Growth for the sake of growth is not something we’re interested in, but growth for the sake of growing our skills and growing our client base and securing our client mix is our plan.”

Bottom Line

In other words, the company is going to continue doing what it’s been doing from the start, back when work was being done on Modestow’s kitchen table and her refrigerator was getting filled with employees’ lunches.

The company has come a long way since then — a quick tour of the facilities at 195 Russell St. make that clear — but the guiding principles remain the same.

And those are to tell the client’s story and create an authentic experience that resonates. When you that, it’s a lot easier to do what BRIGADE has done with and for Svedka and all its other clients — be along for the ride.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

People on the Move
Michele Cabral

Michele Cabral

Michele Cabral, a former accounting professor and interim dean of Business and Technology at Holyoke Community College, has been appointed the new director of Training & Workforce Options, a workforce-development partnership between HCC and Springfield Technical Community College. Cabral succeeds Jeffrey Hayden, who maintains his position as HCC’s vice president of Business and Community Services. As director of TWO, she will also continue in her position as director of the Massachusetts Casino Career Training Institute (MCCTI), the gaming school HCC runs jointly with STCC and MGM Springfield at 95 State St. in Springfield. Before being named director of MCCTI last fall, Cabral served as interim dean of Business and Technology at HCC, where she was a member of the project team that helped bring the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute to life. Cabral holds a bachelor’s degree from Westfield State University and an MBA from Elms College. She joined the faculty of HCC in 2014 as a full-time professor of accounting.

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Kevin Bramlett

Kevin Bramlett

Adam Cincotta

Adam Cincotta

As part of the previously announced organizational change to position the company for future growth, OMG Inc. promoted Kevin Bramlett and Adam Cincotta into new business-unit leadership positions for the Roofing Products Division. Each will oversee all facets of their respective business unit, including strategic sales and marketing activities, planning, forecasting, and manufacturing, as well as business-unit profit and loss. Bramlett was named director of the metal accessories business unit, which is predominantly OMG EdgeSystems, the company’s line of fascia, coping, and water-control products. Bramlett has been with the company since July 2012, most recently as the manufacturing manager for the OMG edge business. Before joining OMG, he was a mechanical engineer with Thermo-Fisher Scientific. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Cincotta was named director of the adhesives/solar business unit, which includes OlyBond Adhesives, the industry’s popular line of insulation and fleece membrane adhesive, as well as its OMG PowerGrip line of solar anchors. He joined OMG Roofing Products as a product manager in 2014, and was promoted to group product manager in 2017. Before joining OMG, he was with Lenox Tools/Newell Rubbermaid, where he worked as a senior product manager. He holds a bachelor’s degree in applied economics and management from Cornell University and an MBA from UMass.

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Kelly Marcroft

Kelly Marcroft

Kelly Marcroft, Holyoke Medical Center’s director of Emergency Services, has been selected to join an expert panel to improve patient safety in emergency medicine. The panel was convened by the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety, a Massachusetts state agency that catalyzes the efforts of providers, patients, and policymakers working together to advance the safety and quality of healthcare. The goal of this expert panel is to develop, aggregate, and disseminate practical recommendations and tools to support the efforts of Massachusetts acute-care hospitals to advance the safe delivery of emergency care in their facilities. The panel will deliberate on and endorse a set of core safety competencies that all Massachusetts emergency departments should foster, as well as create a set of best-practice standards, tools, and resources to share throughout the greater emergency-medicine community in Massachusetts. The expert panel consists of nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and doctors from several hospitals throughout the state, including Baystate Health, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Lowell General Hospital, Sturdy Memorial Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, and UMass Memorial Medical Center. The group first met on June 26 in Boston and will continue to meet monthly over the next year.

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Angela Barahona

Angela Barahona

Country Bank announced that Angela Barahona has joined its Commercial Banking division as vice president of Business Development and Cash Management. She brings 17 years of experience in the industry, having held various positions over the years in customer service, management, municipal and government banking, business development, and corporate cash management. She is currently working toward her associate degree from the New England College of Business and Finance with a concentration in business adminstration. Barahona began her financial-services career at Country Bank in 2001 in its retail banking area. A relocation in 2006 to the eastern part of Massachusetts brought her to State Street Bank Corp. in its wire division and later to Century Bank. For the last 13 years at Century, she held various positions working her way through the ranks, where she found her passion in helping business customers.

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Clare Lamontagne

Clare Lamontagne

Holyoke Community College recently welcomed Clare Lamontagne as its new dean of Health Sciences. Lamontagne, a registered nurse who holds a Ph.D. in nursing, brings 40 years of experience to HCC as a nursing educator, administrator, clinician, and consultant. For the past seven years, she has been a member of the full-time nursing faculty at UMass Amherst, having also served there as director of the undergraduate nursing program. She began her career in 1978 as a charge nurse at Ludlow Hospital after earning her associate degree in nursing from Springfield Technical Community College, where she worked as a member of the nursing faculty from 1988 to 2011. Lamontagne holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing from American International College, a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Connecticut, and a Ph.D. in nursing from UMass Amherst. She has also worked as a nurse at Baystate Medical Center and as a volunteer at the Pioneer Valley Free Health Clinic in East Longmeadow, and has taught in the nursing programs at UConn, Elms College, and Baystate Health.

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Alta Stark has been named director of Communications for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield. She is responsible for developing, writing, and producing various printed and electronic publications, providing printed materials and signs, publicity for events, advertising, and technical support. She will also work to cultivate and maintain relationships with local, regional, and national media, as well as Catholic media, and produce content for the Sisters of St. Joseph social-media sites. Stark is a communications professional with more than 30 years of experience in marketing, advertising, public relations, and the news media. Most recently, she taught graduate-level online courses in public relations for Western New England University. Previously, she served as the director of Marketing & Public Relations for JGS Lifecare in Longmeadow, successfully rebranding the 106-year organization and helping launch the Sosin Center for Rehabilitation. Stark has also served as senior Communications specialist for Baystate Health and Communications director for the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield (now the Springfield Regional Chamber) and the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. She also spent nearly a decade producing award-winning broadcast news in several markets in the Northeast, including WWLP 22News. Stark holds a master’s degree in television, radio, and film with a concentration in broadcast news from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and graduated cum laude from Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts with a bachelor’s degree in advertising design.

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Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County (BBBSHC), a program of CHD, announced the appointment of Claudia Pazmany as its new advisory board president. Pazmany, the new executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, joined BBBSHC as an advisory board member in May 2016. She served on the development committee and led the efforts to celebrate outgoing Executive Director Renee Moss, while simultaneously serving on the search committee to hire her replacement, current Executive Director Jessie Cooley. “Claudia’s successful 17-year history in professional fundraising has made her a true steward of her craft in philanthropy, and this is part of what drew her to us,” said Cooley. “Claudia is also passionate about the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters, with contagious enthusiasm and innovative ideas, and she will help lead us into the next phase of our program’s growth.”

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Krish Thiagarajan, an expert on marine renewable energy and energy-producing offshore structures, has been appointed to the endowed chair in Renewable Energy in the UMass Amherst College of Engineering. Thiagarajan will collaborate with state Department of Energy Resources staff on renewable-energy research and projects. His studies focus on harvesting energy from waves in marine environments, and his expertise will broaden and strengthen the research program in renewable energy at UMass Amherst, which has long been a national leader in wind energy. Thiagarajan came to UMass Amherst last spring after serving six years as the presidential chair in Energy at the University of Maine, where his research attracted more than $22 million in funding. At Maine, he also led the Marine Ocean and Offshore Research (MOOR) Group, which studied how human-made structures interact with the complex ocean environment. Thiagarajan completed his bachelor’s degree in naval architecture at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras. He earned a master’s degree in ocean engineering at Memorial University of Newfoundland before pursuing further graduate studies at the University of Michigan, where he was awarded master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, and naval architecture and marine engineering, as well as a Ph.D. in naval architecture and marine engineering.

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Mika Nash has joined American International College (AIC) as executive vice president for Academic Affairs. She comes to AIC from Champlain College in Vermont, where she served as dean of Continuing Professional Studies. Nash has more than 20 years of experience in the field of higher education, with the majority of her career spent in senior leadership. In her most recent role, she was tasked with the development and administration of all academic and operational responsibilities associated with running the Continuing Professional Studies academic unit with management oversight for all curricula, academic programs, academic policies, articulation agreements, eLearning, faculty recruiting, training and development, and building student, family, and academic support services. A particular area of interest and scholarship for Nash continues to be technology innovation to expand the student experience and engagement in course content. Prior to joining Champlain College in 2007, Nash served as dean for the School of Hospitality and Restaurant Management at the New England Culinary Institute. She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Vermont. She has a doctorate in higher educational leadership and policy studies.

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Scott Higgins

Scott Higgins

Erin Wilde

Erin Wilde

HUB International New England, LLC, a division of HUB International Limited, a global insurance brokerage, recently announced that Scott Higgins joined the agency as an account executive for Commercial Lines, and Erin Wilde has come on board as a client relationship manager. Both will work in the East Longmeadow office. Higgins will be responsible for servicing medium- to large-sized businesses with a focus on property and casualty products. Having first started his career as a collision repair manager with GM for more than 20 years, he has a vast background in providing settlements for collision repairs. From there, he held various positions with MetLife and MetLife Financial. Wilde will work closely with the HUB New England Employee Benefits team to service existing clients with marketing, benefits communications, regulatory requirements, cost-saving measures, and enrollment, as well as assisting with new prospects. Having worked in the employee-benefits field, including stops at Bank of Tampa and Sullivan Benefits, she has a background servicing nonprofits.

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Springfield Technical Community College announced that Erica Eynouf was named dean of Library, Matthew Gravel was named dean of Academic Initiatives, and Inder Singh was named assistant vice president/chief Information officer. Eynouf joined the college in September 2012 as a reference library, and had served as interim dean of Library Services since August 2017. She holds a master’s degree in library science from Simmons College in Boston. She received her bachelor’s degree in critical social theory from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. Gravel was most recently dean of Enrollment Management. He joined STCC in August 2001 as the director of Academic Advising, became registrar in March 2005, and was promoted to dean of Curriculum in January 2012. Among his job responsibilities, he will plan and manage academic initiatives and program review efforts. He earned a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a bachelor’s degree in English from UMass Dartmouth. Singh had served as interim AVP/CIO since January. Previously, he served as CIO at Union County College in New Jersey and worked in IT leadership positions for 28 years at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He holds an MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Delhi University, India.

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Kathleen Anderson

Kathleen Anderson

Holyoke Medical Center announced the appointment of Kathleen Anderson as the hospital’s director of Community Benefits. She begins her new role on Aug. 27, providing programs and services to improve health in communities and helping to increase access to healthcare. She will succeed Helen Arnold following her retirement after a 42-year career with Holyoke Medical Center. Anderson most recently served as president of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce and its affiliated Centennial Foundation. Prior to that, she served as Holyoke’s Planning and Economic Development director, as well as chief of staff for two Holyoke mayors. She serves on the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development’s Economic Assistance Coordinating Council, and chairs both the Holyoke Salvation Army and Economic Development Partners of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council.

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The duMONT Co. and Hassay Savage Co. announced the promotion of Cynthia Cote to president of both companies. Cote joined duMONT with new ownership in 2016 as the company’s chief financial officer. Both duMONT and Hassay Savage companies are leaders in linear industrial broaching technology. In 2018, the companies will break ground on a new manufacturing facility to prepare for additional growth through research and development as well as acquisition. In addition to her accomplishments in manufacturing, Cote and her husband own and run a construction company and a real-estate management company in Shelburne Falls.

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HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts recently named Kathy Casagrande as director of Case Management and Mary-Anne Schelb as Business Development director. These leadership-team members will support initiatives to uphold high-quality patient care at the 53-bed inpatient rehabilitation hospital located at 222 State St., Ludlow. Casagrande has been a social worker and case manager in a hospital setting for more than 30 years. She received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Western New England College in 1985 and began her career at HealthSouth Western Massachusetts in March 1996 in the capacity of discharge planner. She was promoted to case manager in 1997. Schelb serves as director of Marketing Operations at HealthSouth Western Massachusetts. She began her career with an accounting certification from St. John’s School of Business and found herself drawn to a more health- and wellness-based path as a holistic health practitioner holding master/teacher certifications from the International Center for Reiki Training. In addition, she is a certified cranial sacral therapist in Profound Neutral from the Neurovascular Institute.

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Zoar Outdoor recently trained five new guides to lead its canopy-tour experience in a 40-hour process that covered topics from safety to assessing the guest’s state of mind. All five guide candidates aced written exams and technical drills on June 15, the last day of the training. Hired for the remainder of the season, which ends in November, were Brian Schempf, Matt Drazek, Haley Rode, Abby Schlinger, and Tynan Hewes. All of the trainees had previous experience riding a zipline, and they all also had outdoor experience ranging from hiking to mountain climbing. Zoar currently has 43 guides for its zipline canopy tour, which was the first zip tour in southern New England.