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A New Model Agency: Grip Design
by Julie Prendiville Roux

The term “experiential design” takes on a whole new meaning at Chicago-based Grip Design. Here, design is not just what a package might look like, or how a web page might read. At Grip, design is redesigned to include the entire transaction of a brand—in every aspect that’s meaningful: what it looks like, how it feels, what the consumer might wear while interacting with said brand, what he/she might listen to, read, watch, even think. And, most important to principals Kevin McConkey and Kelly Kaminski, a Grip Design is created to redesign a client’s bottom line.

“We’re commercial artists, not fine artists. A lot of people in our field forget that,” says McConkey. “We believe that our work needs to be valued as what it can do for our clients’ profitability.” And this leads to the most salient redesign of all—the firm’s own approach to the standard design offering. Self-named “A New Model Agency,” Grip, established in 1999, works with clients in one of three ways: traditional, fee-based design work; fee plus equity;
and creating consumer goods. In the fee-plus-equity bucket, Grip takes its pay by shares, thereby owning a piece of the business. Currently, they have this arrangement with four companies—Death’s DoorSpirits, Hooray Purée natural foods, Exhale Fans and Virtue Brands.

Identifying the seam of opportunity and tailoring content to a specific audience
was at the core of this campaign's success for Whole Foods Market.

These relationships have allowed the firm a unique window—a door, really—into the inner workings of its client-partners. “When you design a ‘thing,’ you tend to just do the thing and then you’re out,” Kevin says. “When you have a seat at the table, they take you seriously.” Being privy to profit margins, material costs, management styles and more, gives Grip an informed, responsible view of their part of the puzzle: consumer experience. As McConkey says, “I’m thinking about Death’s Door all the time. Knowing exactly how the gin and vodka blends are truly unique, knowing what the packaging really costs—it helps us contribute at a much deeper level.”

Death’s Door Spirits, which makes vodkas, gins and white whiskeys, are grown from organic red winter wheat and juniper berries harvested on idyllic 22-square-mile Washington Island, located in Wisconsin. The name comes from a strait of water between Washington Island and neighboring Door County Peninsula, called Port de Mortes, or Door of Death, by French traders in the 1840s. Although the name is rooted in history, one can’t help smile at its evocative, fun tone. For Grip, the name possessed the perfect tone for what they saw as the spirits’ gold: gifting. “People want to take something to a party that says two things,” McConkey posits. “I’m thinking about you and I want to give you some-thing cool, and I’m showing how cool I am by giving you this.” Grip’s pack-aging for the bottles is whimsical and beautiful, each one designed to confer a coolness and visual esthetic to any bar or home cocktail table. And, true to Grip’s mission for each client, whether an equity partner or not, the marketing is paying off. Because its client/partner has been highly successful, Grip’s shares in the company have grown exponentially since 2005.

For Death's Door Spirits, succeeding in the ultra-premium spirits market
required a "gift-able" design and careful attention to production.

Of course, building equity clients requires certain business acumen. Kaminski notes, “I am first and foremost a designer at heart, but the business and management side of things has been surprisingly fulfilling as well—and challenging, which I love.” McConkey and Kaminski previously spent time at Ibbotson Associates, an economic think tank. McConkey also served as design director at Crain Publications, helping to launch their first foray into online publishing. 

Introducing a new product category is particularly challenging, and this
Hooray Purée project required packaging to do most of the heavy lifting.

Securing a fee-plus-equity client is a case-by-case proposition. Hooray Purée started as a conversation with a venture capital consultant who had a passion for natural foods, and she developed a line of pure, pureed foods. The team developed the brand identity and packaging to reflect the fresh, vitamin-packed, vibrantly-hued fruits and veggies. Each situation takes the kind of strategic thinking not often associated with a group of designers. McConkey thinks this an area ripe for change. “I feel an obligation to share what we’ve learned,” he says. “We’re in an era of sharing, as the world keeps shifting. Ten years ago, people wouldn’t put their credit cards into a computer, yet they would hand it off to a waiter they never laid eyes on.” In Grip’s view, marketing has to be about understanding where a consumer’s heart is, and connecting emotionally. That can take many forms. “Design is simply a good idea,” he says. “That can mean anything. The future of our business is to provide a blend of offerings. And by having that blended approach, you talk to a consumer on many levels.” Prendiville Roux
Julie Prendiville Roux is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, contributing to magazines, public radio and other venues. She is owner and creative director of julieroux&company, which creates and produces radio, TV and print advertising. Julie has been writing profiles for CA since 1987.