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Minneapolis firm Made takes promotional products to a new level

The owners of Made have a message: Custom products don’t have to be cheap junk.

Minneapolis skyline blocks created by Made for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Courtesy of Made

If you’ve ever sipped from a can in a logo’d coozie, flung a corporate-branded Frisbee or pocketed a promotional pen, then the owners of Made have a message for you: Custom products don’t have to be cheap junk.

I’ve often wondered at the attraction of the logos we so often display (myself included). Why do we take pride or pleasure in announcing to the world our affiliation with a food company, an automaker, a bar or restaurant? But we do.

Courtesy of Made/Meghan Doll
Made founders: Kristin Hollander, left, and Michelle Courtright

Companies spend upwards of $15 billion a year to get their names in the hands of consumers via promotional giveaway items. But too many of them are missing an opportunity to connect in a more sophisticated way, say Michelle Courtright and Kristin Hollander, co-founders of Made, a Minneapolis custom-products agency.

“We’re surrounded by brands,” Hollander said. “But we try to thinking of branding differently. Let’s not just slap a logo on a water bottle.”

“Look at a bag from Whole Foods or public radio,” Courtright said. “People wear that badge with pride.”

Made, headquartered in the heart of Uptown at the corner of Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue, has grown to 15 people since the partners founded the agency in 2008. Their work combines marketing and manufacturing; they come up with concepts for branded merchandise, then source the production to factories — often in Asia, but also to a growing number of U.S. producers.

Many of their products are created for donor engagement — gifts that show appreciation to supporters and help cement the relationship while providing an incentive to donate.

Clients include Minnesota Public Radio, Columbia Sportswear, Target and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, among others. The firm makes some of its money on fees and the greater portion on the manufacturing margins of the products it produces.

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Those products include a donor engagement kit for From One Hand to Another, the foundation of singer Pharrell Williams, which provides services to inner-city youths. For the MIA, Made recreated the Minneapolis skyline in wooden buildings made from reclaimed wood. I particularly like a leather bag created for Whole Foods that attaches to a bicycle frame and neatly holds a six-pack of beer.

But creativity sometimes must yield to long-established tradition. Courtright said the familiar MPR tote bags and mugs aren’t going away: “They’ve been doing this a long time, and they know what works for them.”