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Design makes the difference at Kick

An emphasis on design and branding is what distinguishes agencies like Kick from traditional advertising firms.

A wall of Kick-designed products at the firm's office.
Photo by Bill Kelley
A wall of Kick-designed products at the firm’s office.

What do you call a product or package design that’s so inventive and attention-getting that it literally pushes a competitor off the shelf? Stefan Hartung and Mary Kemp, founders of the Minneapolis-based marketing and design agency Kick, named it a “Shelf Kicker™.”

Adding a new product to the glutted cereal aisle is a good example of a situation where you need to kick some shelf, explains Hartung, Kick’s executive creative director. Studies show that only about 30 percent of in-store products of all types sell well and will stay on the shelf. The other 70 percent are known as “slow movers,” and they’re vulnerable to a well-designed, eye-catching newcomer.

“You know how you go someplace like Walmart or Costco and there are all kinds of cereals to choose from, well, you need to kick somebody off the shelf if you want to add one and we’ve been super successful with that.”

The cereal client he’s referring to is Malt-o-Meal. Remember them? Well, in consultation with Kick, the company developed a new brand, Bear River Valley cereal. Inspired by the cereal maker’s eco-friendly stance, Kick created a brand identity and packaging for it that reflects the geography and the outdoor ethos of the Rocky Mountain area, where the cereal is manufactured. The result? A new-to-market cereal in short order became a Shelf Kicker nationwide.

This emphasis on design and branding is what distinguishes agencies like Kick from traditional advertising firms, which are more focused on the placement and promotion of products — and on crafting an image of the client company. Kick and other agencies like it focus on the consumer’s experience of the client’s product, which means they take a more active collaborative role in making products happen than traditional agencies do — from conceiving brands to designing the packaging,

“Ideas That Kick”
Since they opened in 2001, Hartung, Kemp and their creative team have been coming up with what they term “ideas that kick.” So, in July, they turned their focus on themselves and rebranded the company as Kick after going by HK since 2005 and HartungKemp before that.

“Now our name reflects what we do,” Hartung says before adding with a laugh that they would never advise a client to use their last names as a company name. “Names don’t have anything to do with what the company does, abbreviations don’t mean anything. We knew that 11 years ago; we just couldn’t decide on a good name for ourselves until now.”

Kemp, Kick’s brand strategist, says the name change also gives a nod to some new growth opportunities the agency is pursuing, such as licensing their own brands and doing more product design. So far, Kick has licensed two brands, Yum Dilly™, a line of candy and cookies, and Little Bo Bleep™, a humorous, irreverent product and packaging line featuring the artwork of Kick’s designers. “We’ve always tried to be innovative in the business deals that we do and this allows us to bring more creativity and possibility into our growth strategy,” Kemp explains.

Stefan Hartung and Mary Kemp kick-started their agency in 2001.
Photo by Bill Kelley
Stefan Hartung and Mary Kemp kick-started their agency in 2001.

As for product design, Hartung recently became the design director for Juil, a startup shoe company offering sandals with Energy Flow Technology™ — copper conductors that are said to connect wearers with the earth’s natural energies. Already popular with yoga enthusiasts and those who believe “stylish sandals” doesn’t have to be an oxymoron, Juil shoes will soon be joined by a line of clothes and jewelry, also designed by Hartung. “It’s been really fun because like the cereal market, the shoe market is completely, utterly full. So pushing design forward to make something people really like and want is the goal,” he says.

Design to the Rescue
Pushing design forward has other positive consequences for clients as well, according to the Kick duo. Advertising is struggling, while good product design is increasingly seen as a major factor in making a sale. TiVo has driven a big, fat stake through advertising’s heart by making it easy to skip ads. Amazon and the rest of the Internet, have given shoppers unprecedented access to information and product choices. And Target, among others, has made good design ubiquitous. Today’s consumers want choice and change, and feel little, if any, brand loyalty. They know good design when they see it, and that, maybe more than anything else, motivates them to buy.

No Special Sauce: Just Insight
So what’s the award-winning strategy that sets Kick apart from the pack? There’s no secret recipe because it’s not that simple, says Kemp: “Every agency will tell clients they need to come and buy their [special] process which is X,Y and Z, but everybody’s process is similar in one way or another so that’s not important.”

What matters, she says, are the insights an agency has to offer and the only way to generate those is for the agency to be curious, ask questions and listen. “Stefan and I have years of experience working together so our insights process works really well, and that’s why we stand out for getting results after results after results.”

What Women Want
Intuition, good listening, good observation skills — whatever the winning combination is, Kick has a reputation for figuring out what women want. That matters because research shows that women make at least 80 percent of all buying decisions. “I bet it’s even more than that, really,” says Hartung. “That’s why most products, even dog food, are targeted to a female audience.”

Add to this the fact that about 70 percent of all buying decisions are made at the store while standing in front of a shelf and the need for Shelf Kickers™ is obvious. But Hartung downplays the idea that Kick represents something “brand”-new. “Advertising has changed, but we haven’t,” he says. “We’ve always known the importance of good design and our branding and packaging always communicates very strongly with consumers.”

Tapping Into Global Trends
Kick looks for design inspiration all over the world. Their trend team searches out what’s hot and new globally and reports back so the agency can help give clients an advantage by anticipating what’s next.

Kick also has two agency partners, one in Germany and the other in South Africa, and they plan to add more international partners in the future. “We’re trying to broaden our reach and look for trends all over the world,” says Hartung. “In college we learned that everything has been done — so go out and observe and if you find something you like, find a way to make it different or better.”

Meleah Maynard’s last article for The Line was a profile of adman/artist Robb Burnham, in its June 29, 2011 issue. This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.