• Transform magazine
  • March 01, 2021

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Postcard from Colorado

Postcard From Colorado

Joe Conrad, founder and CEO of design agency Cactus, speaks to Transform magazine about the distinctive aspects of the branding industry in Colorado. He discusses how much the state and the city of Denver influence the branding done by the agency, which is reflective of the local economy.

What is distinctive about the branding industry in Denver and more generally in Colorado?

Denver, Colorado has a rich history with a pioneering spirit that makes it seem like that out here anything is possible and there are no bounds to our passion, creativity and push for innovation. Denver is also a diverse city with neighborhoods that are as singular as its people. The city has enjoyed a renaissance over the last 20 years that has seen it grow into a vibrant and inspiring place to call home. With the Rockies within reach, outdoor recreation is like breathing and there are endless ways to explore. Cactus would not be the same agency we are today if we had been planted anywhere else. The creative and design community here is a tight-knit group that cheers one another's success and creates a lot of friendly competition and pushes for doing the best work. The amount of talent in the region is incredible and it’s a great place to recruit talent. There is a spirit and edge to Denver that reveals itself in the design and branding work produced here.

How much of an agency’s work with brands is informed or influenced by where the agency is located? Do you think your work would be different if you were based in another state?

Absolutely, the place an agency calls home influences the work it produces. Every city has a vibe, attractions, people and a culture that makes it entirely its own. That energy is soaked up by the creative community and comes alive in how people think, dress, talk, etc., and ultimately the work they create. That’s why when agencies expand to other cities, the work is never the same as what came out of the home office.

In what ways have you specialised your branding to work with companies largely based in Colorado? 

It’s great to have a strong base of Colorado brands that we have helped transform through our work, from small non-profit organizations and foundations to cultural institutions and large brands. We have a deep understanding and appreciation for Colorado and we have done work in every corner of the state. A brand that resides in Colorado has something special going for it and we know how to tap into it. In fact, we have branded it the 'elevation effect,' which is a part of a brand campaign we developed for the Denver Economic Development Council and its efforts to encourage companies to relocate to Denver. Overall, our branding work in the area is representative of the local economy – a strong mix of retail, restaurant, ski resort, tourism, healthcare, financial, education and technology clients.

When working with UCHealth, how did you make sure the academic medical centre retained its focus on local area hospitals while acquiring national prominence as other leading academic medical centres across the US?

Our strategy from day one was to encourage UCHealth to believe and behave like the nationally ranked academic medical center that it was and stop comparing itself to and competing with other local community hospitals. Their new competitive set should be Johns Hopkins and the Mayo clinic and strive for the same respect and national recognition enjoyed by other leading academic medical centers. We knew we would naturally draw most of our patients from Colorado and we wanted to make sure we clearly rose above any other local option. We also wanted to make sure no one ever drove past UCHealth to fly elsewhere for treatment. After securing our brand leadership in Colorado, we then focused on growing our national reputation and encouraging prospective patients to come to Colorado for the best care in the country.

What were the greatest micro and macro challenges you faced when rebranding Smashburger?

We rebranded Smashburger from the inside out and from top to bottom.  The only thing that was off-limits was their current logo. They didn’t want to change it because of the significant investment they had already made in signage across the country. We didn’t love it, so we surrounded it with great work at every turn. We focused on re-designing every aspect of the brand experience, including a completely new in-store experience so it felt more like a place where you wanted to sit and enjoy your meal.  

We took advantage of every touchpoint in the restaurant to ensure we were communicating the brand’s key messages. A big part of our work included a big improvement to the ordering process and use of digital menu boards, including the 'Smash and Dash' online ordering app and pick-up system. We created a new digital experience and helped the franchises build out their social media platforms. We also took the brand messaging to the four walls, four blocks and four miles around every Smashburger location. Our work helped grow the franchise from 65 locations to more than 400 in just three years. That year, Forbes magazine listed Smashburger as 'the Most Promising Brand in America' and gave credit in part to its strong branding.