To fully illustrate the idea of brand evolution and the considerations involved, we need to tell you a story.
This is the story of a boy.
No, that’s not right.
This is the story of a man.
No, still wrong.
This is the story of a toon — Cartoon Shaun.
This is the story of a cartoon and his coming of age, from mulleted star of the crossword puzzle corner in his own company’s newsletter, to the leader of a company that hit No. 128 on the Inc. 500’s list of Fastest Growing Companies. This is no ordinary slapstick tale of a toon who conquers his fears. No, this is about one graphic in four different costumes, created by a freelance artist for less than $75, and how he became a vital part of the branding for a company on target to become the largest print newsletter company in the world by the end of next year.
Now we don’t kiss and tell, but in the three years Cartoon Shaun has been gracing mailers, book covers, websites, and global marketing campaigns, he’s helped accrue the kind of revenue that would make Bugs Bunny ask, “What’s up, Doc?”
So what is up? What’s the story? How did this boy wonder grow up to be the 2014 Marketer of the Year?
Cartoon Shaun and his real-life sidekick, Shaun Buck, did something every small business owner can learn from: They found who they wanted to be as a company, created a brand surrounding it, and were not afraid to let that brand grow into something bigger and better than originally planned. They started out young, fresh, and comic-book cool, but by reigning in a font here, refining its tastes there, narrowing its focus, honing in on the perfect visual and psychological choices for their ideal demographic, and hammering it home with excellent execution by a talented team, they managed to turn their little-guy brand into a fully grown name in the direct-mail world — an ideal example of brand evolution.
This is the story of how a company’s branding can put on its big-boy pants, while still remaining true to its roots.
The Honeymoon Period
In February 2013, Newsletter Pro debuted its first eight-page newsletter — complete with a young Cartoon Shaun smiling out from a masthead of orange and white. Newsletter Pro’s logo was scripted across the top in a comic font, playing up the fun and approachability that defined the company’s philosophy at the time.
Inside and out, our mailers accentuated the personality of the company through playful graphics, bold fonts, and fun headlines. These choices helped show our clients who we wanted to be to them as well. Newsletter Pro, then, was a young company experiencing the ride of a lifetime, full of blazing ideas. We were having a blast expanding, and we wanted to lean as far away as possible from the pre-templated newsletter your Uncle Barry makes on Microsoft Word every Christmas.
Even then, we knew the power of direct mail. After all, don’t you still find Uncle Barry’s Christmas newsletter in the mail stack on the counter long after Memorial Day?
We blended the timelessness and staying power of newsletters, with a sense of engagement and fun that we knew was possible and necessary for a successful direct mail campaign.
We took risks, and our talented designers made even our riskiest marketing choices look damn good. Our newsletters were a blast because we knew the lesson every business has to learn:
Before you can tell your clients who you are, you first have to be able to tell yourself — only then can you maximize your media and communicate through color, iconic symbols, and who knows? Maybe one day, you too can have your very own Cartoon You.
Early Brand Evolution – Where in the World Is Cartoon Shaun?
Then, in September 2014, something happened. Cartoon Shaun went missing.
Fresh off our GKIC Marketer of the Year win, and already experiencing growth rate percentages in the thousands, we made a shift. The masthead became lean and stark — yet somehow still warm. For the first time, Newsletter Pro’s logo was ready to take flight.
As a nod to the sense of joy and fearlessness that Newsletter Pro was founded on, the logo left the cartoon behind and became an icon — a paper airplane — ready to soar with our clients’ marketing messages. Newsletter Pro was flying high, and we decided to take our clients with us.
As for Cartoon Shaun, he was becoming less of a masthead and more of a mascot. He stood for pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and creating a hot marketing strategy in a niche that others in the industry thought had gone cold. He stood for out-of-the-box thinking and straight-talking advice. We wanted him to stand by that advice, literally.
Cartoon Shaun hung up his chef’s hat and his superhero costume, got his mullet trimmed, and made the move from the masthead to the signature of Shaun’s always insightful, always entertaining cover letters. And that’s where he remains to this day.
As it turns out, knowing who you are is one thing; knowing who your clients need you to be is another. When we traded a look of all fun and games for a look a little more buttoned-up, we were telling our clients, “You can count on us. We’re all grown up now, and we’re ready to make you some money.”
Leaving Room for the Client
Over the course of the next two years, from 2014 to 2016, Newsletter Pro’s brand evolution were less obvious, except to an expert eye. Good thing we’ve got a few of those lying around here.
Flipping through our collection of in-house newsletters, it becomes clear that with each passing month, lines have become a little straighter, graphics a little more trained. Our text sizing, spacing, colors, and kerning start making each page of the newsletter look a little straighter.
The fonts from our header begin appearing throughout the newsletter and our other branding materials. Our bright orange shifted from BSU Bronco orange to something a little more sophisticated — an orange that was a little quieter. Our blue got deeper. Our killer comic book graphics started to become fewer and farther between.
Was Newsletter Pro getting old?
Had we lost our touch?
Not in the least.
You see, we finally realized that all those previously busy pages, while great when we were finding our feet, were all about us. But as a company whose major selling point is a completely customizable product, we weren’t leaving a lot of room for our prospects and clients to see our success as a mirror of their potential.
Maybe it’s because our company is almost 70 percent women, but we finally figured out the power of a little mystery. In today’s sleek-line and dialed-back designs, there may not be a lot of jokey punning, but there is a whole lot left to the imagination. A client could look at the pages of our newsletter and imagine themselves in our masthead — imagine their own celebration on the Inc. 500 list.
Our branding, our content, our newsletter, and our blog started being less about telling everyone how great we were, and more about helping them to be great. That kind of leading by example doesn’t require mind-blowing visual effects, or a neon orange you can see a block away.
We realized that our clients are the point. The product, the service, and the client relationships we help you build are the point.
Cartoon Shaun is all grown up now, and he’s learned a lot about building a brand identity that serves you as well as your customers — while maintaining the ideals your company was founded on.