#Exceptions 7: Creativity, Constraints and the Rebrand of Grado Labs
Johnathan Grado: My company has never worked with any type of agency, ad agency, design agency, branding, anything. It's not our 64th year. It's not our 66 year. It's our 65th year. We build what we like. If people like it, that's great. I want to see something new, but at the same time, you don't want to throw away the past. My dad will say that he's really happy to have young blood around the company. And then when I bring something up, he'll be like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
Jay Acunzo: This is Exceptions. The show about why building a brand matters more than ever for B2B companies today. I'm your host, Jay Acunzo, author of the brand new book Break the Wheel. And I'm partnering with Drift to bring you this series because Drift is all about putting the human experience and making it a good experience at that back into the B2B marketing and sales process. They're changing the way that businesses buy from other businesses. Throughout the series, we go inside some of the world's best B2B companies or, well, usually that's what we do. However, today we go inside a consumer company. Yeah, that's right. Good old B2C we're venturing outside our B2B bubble to see what lessons we can find to bring with us as we return. This brand that we profile today cares deeply about well Brant so much so that despite decades in business, they've never actually run a single paid ad, zero campaigns, zero agencies. Also zero things that smell like most consumer companies when they promote their brand, right. We think about consumer campaigns as blanketing the world by force with a logo or an ad campaign, not the case here. And that's especially weird, not only for a B2C company, but in this company's industry. See this industry is consumer electronics. This company makes headphones. That's like one of the most ad happy consumery types of consumer businesses. As we'll see, there are certainly some differences between B2B and B2C, but I was shocked, shocked at the specific things that we're going to go over. That seemed so eerily familiar. So today we go inside the recent rebrand process of Grado Labs. Grado makes as I mentioned; headphones, and they work out of not a state- of- the- art factory, but a refurbished fruit shop in Brooklyn, a building that housed the Grado family starting in 1918, when they immigrated from Sicily to the US. This company and really that family have been building consumer electronics by hand. Yes, by hand, since 1953, the business began when Joseph Grado started making phono cartridges for turntables. Those are those little pieces that go on the end of the arms on a turntable for all of you, millennials out there. And also me. I had no idea what that was, but then in 1990 Joseph's nephew John Grado, who had been helping with the company since he was 12 took over as CEO. A year later, he starts making headphones and the rest is history, family history. This year marks their 65th anniversary. And after 65 years of virtually no change to the brand and a Haphazard brand at that, it was time to refresh it, to improve their consistency. And yet to somehow maintain their tradition and legacy at the same time. You see, even though they didn't have a whole strategy or even any coherence to their initial brand, they're still beloved by tons of customers, including plenty of professional and celebrity musicians. This is where their VP of marketing and son of the CEO, Jonathan Grado comes in and yes, he's got the same name as his dad will call the dad and CEO. John will call the VP of marketing Jonathan. And that is where our story begins. I sat down to talk to Jonathan and asked him if the great old brand became a person in a customer's life, who would that person be?
Johnathan Grado: So some people might see us as a friend to hang out with. Who's like their hipster friend and another person might see us as like, they pour themselves some nice scotch. And it's funny that in both examples, I imagine them having a mustache. This guy just has a classy mustache drinking scotch in a really rustic room listening, just high end audio.
Jay Acunzo: So that's Grado Labs your sophisticated audio file, hipster friend, or maybe the sophisticated music savant. I guess it's all specific to your experience of the brand. And that's something that's both a blessing and a curse when you build your company. As we'll hear about later today, looking at Grado's Instagram, you'll see images of their slick handmade headphones posed next to lattes and record players. And of course in the hands of plenty of stylish millennials is that some exposed brick I see. Oh wow. My millennial senses are tingling. Anyways, the person who uses Grado cares deeply about quality and craft. They depend on their headphones to play the soundtrack of their lives. And oftentimes because they're musicians, they actually make their own soundtracks. So Grado is deeply embedded in the music industry. Over the past few decades, the company has built a cult following. It's even used by celebrities like John Mayer, Elijah Wood, Jimmy Fallon, and George Martin who is the legendary Beatles producer. Are you turning green yet? Because, this is the kind of company that B2B marketers envy. Always, whenever we feel stifled in our creativity, in our attempts to build great brands, we long for what Grado seems to be. A cool creative and limitless consumer company. And then there's us.
Speaker 3: My job is to speak to clients on the phone about quantities and type of copier paper. I'm boring myself just talking about this.
Jay Acunzo: We're in B2B. And we disassociate ourselves from our apparently more creatively free counterparts in B2C. We sell business intelligence, software, or industrial manufacturing tools. We talk about lead gen and analytics and sales ops. And look, I know we enjoy this stuff, but it's not like we were students longing for the days where we could promote that kind of thing. I mean, how much cooler did it sound to young you to go and market headphones. As a result, the history of B2B brands may as well be Dunder Mifflin paper only without Michael Scott, at least I hope so for the sake of your Toby.
Speaker 3: Why aren't you the way that you are?
Jay Acunzo: My point is that in B2B, the classic idea of how creativity works is that we spend endless amounts of time and money hire seven agencies in 17 freelancers, pass the project through dozens of brainstorms and seemingly hundreds of stakeholders only to tweak the font when all is said and done. As marketers have to announce to the world that the idea is like the biggest thing since, the first guy who put peanut butter inside of chocolate. Give me a break. Is that really creativity and B2B, because as for the new creatively unbounded ideas that you come up with, no, okay. I'm obviously exaggerating, but maybe sometimes working in B2B, you feel stuck and perhaps a little envious of B2C companies like Grado, they seem to have endless creative freedom and you and I seem surrounded by bureaucracy and archaic ideals. Since you were five, the world has been telling you to think outside the box. Yet you find yourself trapped inside of one. But what if I were to tell you that everything we think we know about boxes and creative freedom is wrong. Our first grade teachers maybe made us afraid of those boxes and every consultant we hire or a guru we follow might encourage us to think outside of them. And even that boss occasionally says, Hey, let's think outside the box, but we've spent so much time fearing that box that we've actually stunted our creativity. So it's time we unlearn those lessons because let's be real. There's always going to be limits, which is especially true during a rebrand because you're not starting from scratch. It's how we innovate within that box, within our limitations that makes or breaks creativity. That's the reality. And that's what Jonathan, Grado the VP of marketing at Grado labs had to learn when he decided it was time to rebrand his company. Quite literally, one of his tasks was to create a refresh version of the box, but there were all these concerns.
Johnathan Grado: We have some limitations because we handled everything in Brooklyn. We also have to have our storage there as well. And we can't have thousands of boxes that have 15 different designs on them. So we need to have the same box that is also foldable.
Jay Acunzo: And these concerns seemed to follow him throughout the entire process of rebranding the company. The box, it seems was just the culmination or a perfect example of it all. Let's start from the beginning here, Jonathan yearned to evolve the brand across the board. It had been 65 years after all. Things were starting to feel stale and they were definitely not consistent across the business, but unlike most of us, Jonathan had to consider not just the legacy of his employer, but the legacy of his family. No pressure, right.
Johnathan Grado: The most difficult part was letting my dad down. For him to be like you convince me to spend all this money and to spend a year working on this. And no one likes it. Not that he would ever tell me that, but yeah, that's the thing. Cause their family, it's not like, someone's like, oh, go back to the drawing board and do it again. It's a family member telling you, oh, you put a lot of work into this. It sucks. Well, my dad basically raised us on. We build what we like if people like it, that's great. If they don't, there's a thousand other ways for them to listen to music.
Jay Acunzo: That was the attitude they weren't in it to sell. They were in it to create. They didn't really think about marketing back then. So yeah. Grado Labs may sound like the cool hipster who knows indie music or the scotch swilling sophisticate, but at their heart and soul, they're more like this. Yes. I feel right at home. And so too with the great house.
Johnathan Grado: My family is very old school.
John Sr.: I wasn't looking to go out and push and push and push because I like what I do. If a machine breaks, I go down, I'm working on the machine.
Johnathan Grado: If the headphone sounds great, it doesn't really matter what it comes in because the end product sounds great.
John Sr.: I come to work like, you know, I'm driving a truck working in a garage.
Johnathan Grado: If it comes in a paper bag, if it comes from a couple of different boxes that don't really mesh well together, it doesn't matter if
John Sr.: We want it to grow it mega big. Maybe we could have, but then maybe I'd be sitting in an office dealing with accountants and stockholders, in banks and stuff. And I really have no interest in that.
Jay Acunzo: Obviously that second voice you heard was John Sr.
Johnathan Grado: We've never had any type of official branding. I don't know where our logo came from. It's skate from somewhere in the 70s or 80s. And I was just very, very gung- ho about, we need to rebrand for our 65th year. It's not even a rebrand. We just need to brand in the first place. Our envelopes look the way they do, because when we ordered envelopes, they were like. What should we put on them? And we said, Grado Labs, and they were like, okay. And they just put Grado Labs on there. There's no cohesiveness to these little branding aspects.
Jay Acunzo: Grado's brand was never actually considered before. It just sort of emerged organically from years in the business. They were defined by that Grado sound by being a family company and for that handcrafted quality. But now it was time to pull all of that together, preserve what was great about it and come up with a coherent brand. But first Jonathan would have to convince the CEO
Johnathan Grado: My dad will say that he was really happy to have young blood around the company, which is just me. And now my brother, which I can't forget to mention, he'll frequently say that he likes having a fresh set of eyes to see things. Then when I bring something up, he'll be like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. My company has never worked with any type of agency, ad agent ever. Ad agency design agency branding, anything social media agency never been, it's always been in- house. It's always been a family member. So I finally convinced my dad to work with the design firm because it's not our 64th year. It's not our 66 year. It's our 65th year. I basically told him we've had 65 years to perfect our sound like why not spend some time polishing up our edges kind of thing. That was the sentence that got him to be like, okay. I told him, I'd start looking for a couple of Brooklyn design firms. What I didn't tell him was I already had a list.
Jay Acunzo: We picked out a design firm called High Tide and they got to work. And the whole time he's keeping his dad clued in every step of the way. Jonathan knows that he's old school and is wary of change. And by now he's used to hearing
Johnathan Grado: Well, no, well, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Jay Acunzo: So you look at Grado Labs and you see all those beautiful photos on Instagram. You see these passionate replies from people on Twitter who adore this brand because Grado has a fervent fan base. And of course you see the celebrities who use their products from the cheap seats. It looks like Jonathan VP of marketing at Grado Labs has it all. A total, wide open creative field to work in. But then he talks to that CEO to his dad and he's saying, well, he is old school. I mean, that's the reality I have to face. It's not that I get permission to just run in every direction because I sell headphones. I still have to go through a CEO who has some sort of idea that doesn't really align with mine all the time. I mean, if I were to white label, this whole conversation, this episode so far, I'd be like, this sounds like a B2B company. All these restrictions, all these constraints, all these issues that he had to deal with to be creative. That sounds like it's all the same problems that we, as B2B marketers would bring up. But the difference is Jonathan, doesn't let these reasons stop him like at all. Thanks to both his personal conviction around his ideas and what the brand should be. And due to the fact that brand matters a ton in his space. He pushes forward. We all face these same realities that Jonathan does, even though it's in a consumer space and we're in B2B, we care deeply. And I know you do about the brand experience we provide to our customers, to our prospects, to our audience. And we believe that brand matters today. More than ever before in B2B, it's the moat around our company. To Jonathan, all his dad's knows, just help him identify the walls of a proverbial box, not a literal box of figurative box within which he can innovate.
Johnathan Grado: So the different kinds of notes from my dad are the laugh note. No, that's a hard, no, that's a hard pass, but then there's the regular. No, no. Which, you can always work around. And then there's the, well, talk to me more about it at dinner and that's, that's the one that's like, I there's no need to jump over a hurdle with this one. I could just like, show him some examples. You have to know the battles you can win. And I don't even say it's a battle because it's not a battle. It's just, I have an idea. I'll run it by him. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't. But I knew that this rebrand is something that is so important.
Jay Acunzo: So this brings us back to our box. In this case, not the metaphorical one, not the limitations of our resources, the literal one, the new packaging for Grado.
Johnathan Grado: It's the first thing they see most of the time, they don't listen to the headphones and then see the box. Most of the time you see the box first. So it's that really, that first impression when you're dealing with packaging design. It's not just what it looks like. It's also the cost of production. It's also the sizing and it needs to have this thing where it can fold. And so there's a lot of hurdles we gave to the design firm. That's like go crazy and have fun with this box. Great. Also they all need to look the same. Also. They need to fold and it's like, oh, okay.
Jay Acunzo: The boxes are almost done. And then of course his dad as a CEO does a very CEO thing and asks a simple question about one tiny detail that could blow it all up. He asked Jonathan, can we make the label bigger?
Johnathan Grado: Actually? You know what? This is a time I gave him the ha ha no! So it was a reversal because he still wanted to make the text bigger. And I really think that's a bad idea and it's a little piece of the whole branding puzzle. We put so much time into a couple of words on a label and in the grand scheme of things. I don't want to say, does it not matter at all? I feel like when we're so wrapped up and that's another thing, because it's a family company, it's not just a company you're working for you. It's your last name? It is your family company. It's these little things where it's like, is anyone going to notice, but us, we're in it, we're in so deep. We're like maybe, this should be like this. And like, I'm going to notice this every time I log onto our website and then I see other people using it and they immediately skip over the one thing I thought they'd get hung up. No one sees it, but us. And it's just because you're so deep into it.
Jay Acunzo: Jonathan and his father got caught up over the label size. I know that might seem kind of ridiculous, but if you've ever been through a rebrand yourself, you know how that tiniest little details, breed tons of passionate opinions from stakeholders. If you ask me, I think it's because it's a change, right? And people have strong opinions about change. Whether because they fear the unknown or they just really want it to go well, because they think everybody's paying as much attention as they are, or maybe their intent is really good and they're craft driven. And they know that every tiny detail, even though the consumer, the buyer does not actually understand those little details, it all adds up to make a great experience that people love. In Jonathan and John's case, the past is really important for Grado Labs. You don't just throw it away, you have to consider it. And that might actually make you discuss the label size a little bit more than seems logical.
Johnathan Grado: It's just these little tiny things where if someone just sees something that's unrecognizable, I don't want to even risk them losing the memories they have of listening to music. So that was my main, big stipulation was that I want to see something new and a tight cohesive brand. But at the same time, I don't want someone who has been with us for decades to see something completely new. Like they don't even know who we are.
Jay Acunzo: There's like this balance or this dance between you have a vision, you have history with the company, you are the company, there's all these things you have that someone else working on developing your brand does not have. Right. And you try and set the walls of the box upfront. So it's like, here's our parameters. Here's our ideas. Here's our guidelines. Here's more information than you possibly need, but we're setting up the walls of the box, so that you can then do your work and play and experiment within the box. And I think step one is to do that. And the mistake people make during step one is they don't spend enough time articulating themselves and what their goals are and their purposes are.
Johnathan Grado: I have some friends that are rebranding their companies right now, and they're working with the company and they're starting from scratch, but they're not, they're not really being descriptive. And their design firm has already come back to them showing them ideas. And then he was like, man, I hate all of this. And I saw his email to them. He could not have been any less descriptive that he just basically here's my idea. Tell me where to send the check. I'm sure it'll be great.
Jay Acunzo: Can I go on a rant for a little while here? Because the great misnomer of creativity is that freedom yields better ideas or better work. And that is just not true. Study after study shows us, it's almost unanimous that it's not true. There's even a book I love and would recommend to you called The Creative Conspiracy by Lee Thompson of the Kellogg School of Business. But, but whether it's Thompson's research or somebody else's studies routinely show that when we know our constraints from budget to time to team and more, we generate more ideas and more effective ideas, quantity and quality together. One of my favorite studies comes from the University of Illinois. Not only does this study hint at the power of constraints, but it debunks that refrain we've heard since we were little to think outside the box. And it does so by researching well people while they're little. The researchers broke a group of kids into four different teams and they asked them to do the same thing each time. Find some carrots hidden in a backyard. The first group was sent into the yard with no fences around it. No restrictions. The next three groups were given various sizes and shapes of fences. And those three groups were more organized and more successful in finding those carrots. It seems that creative freedom doesn't work. That idea is so, so hard to swallow. If you love creativity, I mean, I make a living writing books. My first one Break the Wheel just came out in October. I love to write blog posts and books. I love to give speeches for a living. I make shows for a living. You can't find a person who adores the big idea of creativity more than me. But creative freedom doesn't work. And I would argue that create a freedom may not even exist. Just think if I told you, you could write an article for me about anything at all that you wanted, what is your brain automatically do? First and foremost, you're like, okay, an article equals this thing in my head. And then you're like, well, J when do you want this article by. You think about topics and lengths and sources, you wonder when you'll find the time to write this thing and where you'll do the work. Will you sit at a desk or do you have a standing desk? You may even want to ask me if there're any topics that I'd like to read about why? Because your brain is automatically saying subconsciously, if we're going to succeed we need some constraint. I think we should follow that impetus. Creative freedom doesn't work. It may not even exist, but that's fine. That's totally okay because that's how creativity works. In fact, when we need to be creative, constraints are our strengths > Being in B2B for me has always been my cheat code for creativity, because I have constraints that are clear than many B2C companies. I can be more precise with my exact audience. It's still pretty broad, but I know for example, where they work, what size company, what job function and so on. Whereas when you're great though, or any consumer company, really, you don't have those precise ideas. Instead, you need some kind of emotional or mental state that's shared by all of your customers. We might have that too in B2B. In fact, I think the greatest brands do identify that kind of psychographic information to go with the demographics and the job functions. But Grado lacks that specificity which can be harder on their creativity, not easier. B2B might come with more constraints, but that is a great thing. If we want to be more creative.
Johnathan Grado: If I knew that all of our customers were 27 year old guys who lived in New York, who are fan of rock music, and that's all they listened to. That's so much easier to design for that kind of person. But then you start thinking like, well, will this kind of person like this or this kind of person like this design? And I mean, if you like music, you might like us and that's almost everyone on the planet.
Jay Acunzo: But then you start to learn about the history and that appeals to some people, not others start to learn about the handmade headphones and that appeals to some people, not others. More, you go deep with the brand and this applies to any brand. If it's well articulated, the more you start to just like we're doing in projects, put up walls of the box to be like, here's how you compartmentalize us and what we stand for. Working with an old school CEO, Jonathan has become a master of building within his limitations. And because of that, like father, like son, he's learning how to set these limits as well. And that proved pretty useful during the entire rebrand project. He knows when to say, ha ha no, when to, eh, no. And when to say, well, let's talk. And because of that skill passed on from Grado to Grado, the company both during the rebrand and in the decades leading up to it has been able to adapt throughout those 65 years of business.
Johnathan Grado: We've been building phono cartridges, return tables since 1953, my dad was able to adapt when people weren't buying cartridges anymore. He saw that headphones would become a thing and that music might be more portable one day. So he started building headphones in the early 90s, and here we are now. I mean, I think this branding and even things I started doing years ago with like our social media and really building that brand personality, but without being too salesy and like beating it over people's heads. I think it's just, we've always been able to adapt. And I think what I've been doing will hopefully be seen as another adapting to the times. I hope that I was able to keep the company going for another 65 years
Jay Acunzo: In B2B. We might kick and scream and fight against our constraints. We might look longingly at consumer companies and think they have all the freedom, but remember, no, when you need to be creative constraints are your strengths. This episode, it was written and produced by Stephanie Cone and hosted by me, Jay Acunzo. What did you think about this episode? By the way I know was different. And that was intentional. I'd love your feedback to make sure that you like when we remix things like this. So you can email me Jay @ unthinkablemedia. com or tweet at Jacunzo. Thanks to Drift for making this show possible. Drift has all kinds of podcast series in their main podcast feed called Seeking Wisdom, so if you're not already listening there, head over to your podcast, player of choice, pull up seeking wisdom and subscribe for free. They have all kinds of shows about getting better every day, about growing businesses about building products. It's a wonderful kind of cornucopia of stuff. There's a word I would only say to you in the fall anyways, Drift offers conversational marketing and sales software to help your B2B company, put the people back into all of this stuff. You can learn more @ drift. com. The team at Drift wants me to ask you to give us a six star rating, six stars. Cause they only accept six stars. I tried to do this once and I got confused. Cause I think, cause I know math is hard, but I could only count to five, five stars are physically possible. So yeah, if you give me five, my feelings won't exactly be hurt. I dare you to give me four. Don't even think about giving me four. Don't even try it. I'm watching you. I mean, I'm not really watching you. That'd be kind of creepy. I mean, I'm not, I'm not like Facebook over here, boy. All right. So our subject let's move on. Can you give us five stars and I'll feel you sending me to six because we have this connection. Don't we? Ah, I got to go outside more often. All right. That's all for this week. I'll talk to you on the next episode of Exceptions. See ya.