All posts by Mark Nead

Ignoring the Warning Signs of a Weak Brand

Every day we come across signs pleading for our attention. Some are more obvious than others, like a chest pain indicating a pending heart attack, or a warning light on the dash of a car indicating a potential problem. One is much easier to ignore than the other.

It’s like the mayor of Cleveland once said, “The problem is we have a problem. It’s not that we don’t know what the problems are; we’ve known those for years. It’s not that we don’t know what the solutions are; we’ve known those for years. The problem is we haven’t done anything about it.” Yes, sadly this was an actual statement. I’d by lying if I said it wasn’t relatable though. Embarrassingly, it’s what inspired this post. 

So, about that warning indicator. My Acura MDX politely alerted me last week that there was a potential problem with the charging system. I’m not sure what that is, which made it even easier to ignore. I do know that our cars are really intelligent these days and that maybe we ought to listen to them when they want our attention. But like a lingering cold, I assumed this would go away on its own. Fast forward several days later to me stranded on the side of the road in a car with a defunct alternator, a weak battery, and the regret of a young boy who was asked to clean his room, which he ignored and was now being punished. As I tell my own kids, actions — or in my case, inactions — have consequences. 

Think about all of the signs we see in business, yet ignore, out of convenience. If you’re struggling to attract top talent, perhaps it’s indicative of a brand message that fails to connect with recruitment prospects. Or is there a culture issue to address? These are signs. 

Our businesses give indicators every day that signal how they’re performing. Google Analytics provides clear metrics indicating your website’s performance. They’ll tell you specifically what pages or content attract visits on your site, as well as what’s turning them away. That’s pretty awesome information — if you choose not to ignore it. 

Social media tools give us all the indicators we need to understand how well we’re engaging with audiences. Your CRM application alerts you to the qualified leads in your pipeline and the probability of engagement.

Perhaps most important of all are the signs indicating the strength of your brand and stakeholders’ loyalty to it. A steady drop in sales leads may indicate failure to clearly articulate the value of your products or services. Does your brand tell a compelling story, or is it just another “me too” in the sea of sameness. Or perhaps it’s inconsistency in communications that leave your prospects wondering what you do and how it benefits them. These signs are indicative of a larger problem, and the worst thing you can do is ignore them. 

See the signs. There are plenty that indicate where your brand is strong, and where it may need work. Pay attention to them. 

And remember, you can’t spell ignorance without ignore.

Congratulations to Cleveland Whiskey, Innovator of the Year!


By John Ettore

Cleveland Whiskey recently won a series of gold medals in industry competitions and was named Whiskey Innovator of the Year at the 2016 Berlin International Spirits Competition.

The company’s new line of “Cleveland Underground Select” bourbons recently won Gold Medals at the San Francisco and Berlin International Spirits competitions as well as a Double Gold and Gold at the recent Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention in Las Vegas.

This high-profile recognition comes on the heels of some other recent attention for the company’s products, which use an innovative accelerated aging process. Last year, included Cleveland Whiskey’s Christmas Bourbon® as a top-ten holiday gift, and Global Trade Magazine spotlighted the company’s exporting efforts to Europe and Asia. In March of 2015, President Obama brought a crush of media and public attention to the six-year-old company when he toured Cleveland Whiskey’s distillery while visiting the manufacturing innovation center where it’s headquartered.

“We’re proud the industry is recognizing both our innovation and the unique natural flavors we’re bringing to market, using a series of truly transformative woods such as black cherry, sugar maple, hickory and apple,” said Tom Lix, Cleveland Whiskey’s CEO. “No sugar, no syrup, no artificial flavor or color. All the flavor comes from the wood.”

All this attention is providing momentum for Cleveland Whiskey’s aggressive domestic and international expansion. With distribution in 12 states, last year the company began selling its products in Germany, France, Belgium and Switzerland, and more recently it began selling spirits in Japan.

CEO Tom Lix is unquestionably upbeat about the global opportunities for his company. “In the west, there’s been a return to the culture of cocktails. And with millions of people newly joining the middle class every year in India, China and South America, the global demand for brown spirits is at an all-time high.” With Cleveland Whiskey’s patented pressure-aging technology, which shortens the time to market, the company is uniquely positioned to meet that exploding demand through just-in-time production.

Walking the Walk: Next Steps Forward

Blog_boondockwalker_wtwI made the jump in 1999, leaving my role as Art Director at Progressive to start my own firm. It was before “branding” emerged as a business buzzword, and long before Flo came to be. In one of my last concept meetings at Progressive, Glenn Renwick, now CEO of the insurance behemoth, reminded me that if we’re going to make a bold advertising statement we must live up to our claims. In other words, we must walk the walk. Otherwise, we risk our reputation and brand loyalty.

Glenn’s words have always resonated with me. Do what you say you’re going to do. That’s how great brands are built.

I launched Nead Design Co., a branding & design firm, as a seasoned designer, yet rather new to the world of branding as an accepted discipline. My limited experience with brand was what I had learned through Glenn, who challenged me and a young team to get to the heart of what Progressive did best, and build a brand around that. It had much less to do with a logo or design, and everything to do with the experience they delivered at every interaction. Glenn’s insight was ahead of its time, and even more relevant as I write this 17 years later.

Among the vast knowledge and experience I gained from Progressive were critical lessons that I’m still guided by today: Don’t ever get comfortable. Be open to change. Challenge status quo. Take bold risks. Learn to fail. Some lessons I’ve embraced more than others. The failure part I’ve mastered. The key is that I’ve learned along the entire journey, and am so much better for it. That’s how business (and life) goes. You stumble and fall, pick yourself up and find a better way next time.

Forward 8 years to 2007, when I merged my firm with another and joined two new partners to form Boondock Walker — a brand foundation and design firm. We found the curious name to be an excellent metaphor for our way of problem solving and discovering new opportunities for our clients. We adopted “Walk the walk” as our tagline, which we found perfectly befitting for our line of business. A brand is a unique claim of distinction and a promise, so what better mantra to align our business with and help clients aspire to.

As Boondock Walker, we’ve had much to be proud of. Since our inception, we’ve been the digital agency of record for one of the worlds largest flooring manufacturers. We’re privileged to work with large enterprises who span the globe, to early stage ventures digging in to make their mark. From bold innovations born out of the Cleveland Clinic to those distilled up the street at Cleveland Whiskey. From health care to manufacturing to professional services, amazing clients entrust us with their brands. For that, I am eternally grateful.

I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with some amazing people on this journey. Whether as a team member (aptly named “Boondocker”), client or strategic partner, each has impacted our continuous evolution in some way. Brian Willse, my business partner of 8 years, is no exception. The mutual respect and admiration we’ve enjoyed is rare in business partnerships, and I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to defy the odds.

In 2015, Brian and I came to the realization that our business model needed retooling in order to better position ourselves for a quickly changing industry. The brand ecosystem that a client must consider today is radically different than even a few years ago. Our ability to respond to our clients’ brand and communication challenges required a new model. Further, we realized then that we both needed something different from the business. Status quo wasn’t an option, and change was necessary and inevitable.

Months later, Brian and I made the difficult decision to amicably part ways. Brian has since pursued exciting opportunities in new creative ventures, while continuing to grow Prayers from Maria, an amazing organization dedicated to eliminating childhood cancers.

Me, well, I’m working on Boondock 2.0 and can’t wait to share what’s ahead. We’re continuing to build on the experiences of our exceptional team, challenge expectations, take bold risks, and find new and better ways to helps clients build great brands. It’s such an exciting time to be in this business because we have all the tools and information we need to make sound, qualified decisions. The traditional agency model is quickly dying, as it has failed to transition to the kind of multi-disciplined strategic and creative resource that clients need today.

Boondock 2.0 will be even more nimble, visible, collaborative and resourceful. We’re aligned with the best of the best to deliver the unique disciplines that each client requires. We’ll continue to keep brand and design at the core of our focus. And walk the walk.

Here’s to positive change and good things on the paths ahead.

Walk the Walk.

Is there a business buzzword more trendy than “branding.?” Brand image. Brand equity. Brand loyalty. It’s a branding phenomena, and with good reason. Branding matters. For every successful company, their most valuable strategic asset is, without a doubt, their brand. View this interactive booklet.

Boondock Walker a Proud Sponsor of We Manufacture CLE

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 10.04.26 PMWe’re thrilled to be among the supporting sponsors of We Manufacture CLE, a new initiative highlighting the incredible manufacturing companies that define our region. The campaign, created by our partners at SyncShow, is intended to raise awareness of these companies and the products & environments we use every day, made right here in the CLE. Additional supporting sponsors include Magnet, WIRE-Net, Integrity Staffing and Meaden & Moore.

Ohio has the third largest number of manufacturing companies in the country and the largest per capita. Cuyahoga County has more than double the number of manufacturing jobs than any other county in Ohio.

Stay tuned for regular updates including a new manufacturing company to be highlighted each month.

Boondock Featured on Agencies Drinking Beer Podcast

This week on Agencies Drinking Beer, a Proposify podcast, Founders Kevin and Kyle interview Brian Willse, Mark Nead, and Megan Conway of Boondock Walker. Brian, Mark, and Megan talk about how they use the power of brand to help early-stage businesses seek investment, launch their companies, and establish a message that resonates with their target audience. You’ll also learn about the benefits of focusing on a niche market, and how Megan “knows stuff.”

Listen to the Podcast.


Cleveland Whiskey Taps Boondock Walker

Collaboration to bring radically different whiskeys to doorsteps.


You’ve likely heard the buzz about Cleveland Whiskey, a local company developing disruptive technology to dramatically accelerate the maturation and flavor development of distilled spirits. Perhaps you’ve even had the pleasure of enjoying it. Now in 12 states, Europe and China, Cleveland Whiskey has partnered with Boondock Walker to strengthen the existing brand while bringing a very exciting new subscription program, Cleveland Underground, to market.

Cleveland Underground bourbon’s are radically different. Tom Lix, founder, and company are creating small custom (and often experimental) whiskies which push the boundaries of tradition, expectations and flavor. Select bourbons and whiskies are finished with woods that range from black cherry and sugar maple to persimmon and pistachio. Some are infused with rooibos and hibiscus, or rested in barrels that include histories of Jamaican rum, craft beers or habanero peppers. Stay tuned! It’s coming soon…

This relationship. Where’s it going?

Why Alignment with Your Client Matters

A risk management firm proposes to reduce the total cost of risk to your business.

A medical technology innovator claims to improve patient outcomes.

A brand development firm says they can increase brand awareness and equity.

Each of these value propositions may be actionable and made with the best intention. However, none can be achieved with any measure of success without full engagement from the client company being propositioned.

A risk management firm may employ the most highly skilled risk specialists with proven expertise in uncovering hidden liabilities. But if the client company isn’t resolved to take disciplined action to change their high-risk culture, failure is inevitable.

Creators of a groundbreaking medical device can never anticipate improving patient outcomes if their users — the physicians and nursing staff — don’t believe in the potential impact, or worse, view the technology as a hindrance to providing personalized, one-on-one care.

In the same way, if a client invests in a brand development initiative but dismisses the effort as “marketing” or view it as a necessary evil, they’ve missed the entire point. A new value proposition posted in the lobby entrance does not make a brand, nor will it make a beans bit of difference in delivering a better customer experience if those values aren’t embraced internally.

It simply doesn’t matter what business you’re in or the value promise you make. If all those responsible for delivering on that promise aren’t fully engaged with a genuine, all-in commitment, the efforts are futile.

Years ago, after painstaking efforts to lead a client through a much-needed brand repositioning, it became quite clear that they weren’t willing to invest themselves fully in the process. They saw the problems, yet gave every indication that the cultural changes required to fix them were more than they cared to take on. We’d joke internally about adopting the new tagline “We care more than you do” — a jaded perspective on a relationship that had gone from rewarding to resentful. Our objective with this particular client was to unify their several divisions, who operated as silos, under one brand vision. And we weren’t willing to compromise our integrity or commitment to strengthening their brand, all the while knowing that they didn’t share that same level of commitment. You can lead a horse to water…

It’s important to recognize the signals from your client that indicate your efforts may be in vain. This can be tough, as not all clients show the telltale signs until you’re already engaged in the relationship. But it’s better to put a screening process in place and be selective in choosing prospective clients than exerting extraordinary efforts in trying to change them. Your qualifying efforts is time well spent, and will more than likely help you attract the clients who really value what can deliver.

Here are several questions to consider when prequalifying a client:

Can the prospective client clearly define the objectives?

New business development is a delicate dance of both selling and a buying. While it’s important to sell your recommendations to the client, it’s also critical that you buy into the client’s interpretation of the project, their culture and perceived ability to execute on your plan. A poorly-defined project often indicates that the client has not fully defined the scope of work or the objectives they seek to accomplish. Avoid continuing too far down the sales path until these are clearly defined.

Who decides?

It’s obvious, but worth repeating. Don’t waste your valuable time negotiating with non-decision makers. If what you’re proposing will impact a client’s business, you should have the ear of the actual buyer, or at least a strong influencer of the final decision maker. In cases where the selection responsibility is delegated to a committee, make an effort to connect with the decision maker through the individuals involved on that committee. If access is denied, this may be an indication that it’s time to move on.

Is the client forthcoming with their budget?

While it’s not always comfortable asking a prospective client if a project is funded, this is critical information that’s needed to qualify the opportunity. A qualified client is generally willing to disclose budget and discuss specific project expectations. On the other hand, an underqualified client won’t reveal budget (or will claim to have no dedicated budget) and will focus more on cost than the deliverables and objectives.

Are they transparent?

Legitimate companies will be transparent in communicating their challenges to you as a prospective partner. If not, you risk time and resources selling them something they may not value. Further, if they aren’t open and candid, you won’t be able to accurately assess how or if you can help them. Sure, they may be less willing to disclose sensitive information in the pre-qualifying stage. But you need to have a mutual understanding that, once engaged, you’ll have access to the insight that’s needed to gain a full perspective of their organization and their obstacles to success.

Is this a good fit?

During this “dating” phase, ask questions about the prospect’s goals and how they are measured. Their answers can reveal a lot about their internal culture and what will be expected of you. Are their expectations realistic? Does your culture align with theirs? Is there potential for a relationship built on trust and respect?

The short of it: Not all revenue is good revenue, and not all prospective clients are worth pursuing. If your goal is help your client accomplish a critical business objective, alignment and shared vision with that client is the only path there. Be willing to go to the ends of the Earth for them, but only if they’re coming along too.

Why Your Early Stage Business Needs a Brand Foundation

$78 billion. With a “B.”

That’s how much Coca-Cola, the 2nd most valuable brand in the world, is worth. That’s the value of the brand alone. It doesn’t account for their factories and bottling plants. No fleet of trucks. No inventory. Only the brand.

We know definitively that strong brands enjoy higher profit margins. They also get more repeat business, tend to attract the best employees, and are more resistant to competition. This is just as true for small enterprises as it is for large corporate behemoths.

Why then, do so many early stage businesses focus almost entirely on product development and neglect to nurture their brands?

In the early stages of a startup, 80% of business owners focus on the product, while only 20% focus on the brand and marketing.

This is a mistake. Business founders must deeply understand the value of a solid brand foundation. Even in Silicon Valley, where branding, positioning and storytelling tend to be overlooked, these disciplines are becoming more widely embraced for their critical strategic value. This trend is underway as the barrier to entry for early stage businesses continues to fall, while the competition among these startups increases. Those who have the best stories to tell and build the most engaging brands will find success.

For entrepreneurs and business owners, here are some key fundamentals to consider when building the foundation of your early stage brand:

Understand that your brand is not a logo.

In my early years of business I had a client who spent an extraordinary amount of effort (and dollars) developing a logo and an inventory of promotional items, long before he had landed his first client. As an early-stage business leader, avoid getting caught up in the identity hype. Recognize that a logo is only one element of many that reflect your brand. It’s a unique claim of distinction, delivered consistently by your people and the company behind the logo that influence the brand most.

Go deep to go big.

Talk to any architect and they’ll confirm that the most essential aspect of designing a building is the foundation. While the structure above the surface gets the most attention, it’s the foundation that must support the weight and ever changing conditions. The taller the building the deeper the foundation must be. For example, Chicago’s Sears Tower is one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers at 1,454 feet tall, 110 stories high. Its foundation is 100 feet below the ground.

Like any of the world’s tallest structures, a foundation is critical to the stability and future success of your early stage brand. A well defined brand foundation is a fundamental element of your strategic infrastructure. It’s the foundation on which your company’s unique values and beliefs are built. It’s the foundation that will define why a prospect should consider your brand over others, and sets an expectation of value in their minds. The brand foundation is designed to unify the actions of your organization, from decisions and behaviors, to communications and problem solving. Aligning with a core idea behind your brand will provide clarity, context and meaning.

Focus on building a brand that matters

You should have compelling answers to each of these questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • Why does it matter?

The answer to the third question is the most critical, as it’s what forms the emotional connection that you should strive to build with every stakeholder, be it an employee, investor, prospect or client. It’s not the product or service, but the story that forms this connection. It’s where brands gain value and loyalty. Without a clear, articulate understanding of why your brand matters, your business is at risk of being undervalued or disregarded. Realize that brands exist in people’s heads, and take the steps to ensure that yours is human and engaging. Focus less on product or service attributes and more on the real problems they solve for your audiences.

Top down. Inside out.

Your brand is an extension of your company, whether you’re a team of 1 or 100. It reflects your values, beliefs and culture. It’s why you exist. So make sure it’s the leadership team guiding the brand initiative. Delegating the role to anyone else or simply “signing off” on a direction won’t cut it. Only with the proper leadership and guidance can a brand reach its potential, both within your business and to the outside world.

Seek external guidance.

Given the aforementioned, recognize that the discipline of developing a brand foundation and strategy is highly specialized. It requires the right team with the experience and insight to lead in the proper direction. Your internal marketing support is most likely not that team. A fledgling brand can’t afford to take shortcuts. If you think the cost of building a strong brand is too high, consider the cost of building a weak brand.

Stand for one thing.

The strongest, most engaging brands stand for a single, potent idea that resonates with their audiences. Now is the ideal opportunity to transform message into meaning. Create a powerful, evocative idea that effectively tells your story and engages.

Live the brand.

Successful brands foster a culture where employees — the most influential brand ambassadors — believe in, celebrate and are passionate about delivering the brand promise. Make sure each and every person understands their role in fulfilling that promise. Be authentic, and walk the walk.


The sad reality is most brands are boring, especially in categories that have become commoditized. But you have the opportunity to be different — to build from a solid foundation, to be new, distinctive and compellingWhen done well, your brand can be your greatest differentiator — and your strongest business asset.

Now go build something great.

Boondock Sponsors Flashstarts Demo Day

Cleveland’s startup accelerator hosts signature event.

14814257480_9fac0b9be1_kOn Wednesday, August 19th 2015, eleven startup teams graduated from the startup accelerator and presented their unique innovations to an audience of investors, mentors, supporters and media. Presentations were held in the Music Hall at House of Blues Cleveland. Flashstarts provided each startup team with an initial investment of $25,000 and awards select startups with a follow-on investment. The teams had access to Flashstarts’ extensive network of mentors and resources, as well as 22 interns with skill sets ranging from finance to marketing to software development.

Read about the 2015 Accelerator Class.