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It’s different in Denver. Maybe it's the thin mile-high air. Maybe it’s just far enough away from the centers of advertising to do things differently. Maybe it’s that strange orange powder that’s making everyone so happy.

Factory Design Labs calls it “the power of orange.” And it’s in plentiful supply on their Web site at www.factorylabs.com. Five thumbnails launch short, wordless films, each dedicated to the power of orange. In one a ski patrol deep in the mountains launches an orange mortar to make snow. In another, an orange suitcase descends from a baggage carousel, magically transforming canceled flights to on-time status.

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In Factory’s most ambitious film, a hapless Japanese salary-man negotiates the rainy streets of Tokyo. The guy has a face like an unmade bed. He slogs his way through the streets until he finds a mysterious set of orange headphones lying abandoned in a crosswalk. Putting them on, he tunes into another, different piece of music. Perhaps he hears a better set of instructions. We'll never know what he's listening to, but we next see him singing in a karaoke bar, getting his butt tattooed, wearing orange sneakers and dancing in a pachinko parlor. With his life transformed, he leaves the headphones on a park bench for the next person to discover.

And then there’s that orange powder dished up in a roadside diner by short-order cooks who serve the stuff by the plateful. Cops, businessmen, families, all are snorting it up. Side effects include hilarity, joy and reckless abandon.

This is not your typical approach when it comes to attracting new business clients, but that's exactly the point. Factory Design Labs isn’t looking for typical clients.

“We asked our guys to bring a unique approach to storytelling, and leverage Factory’s brand position as ‘the power of orange,’” explains CEO Scott Mellin. The Web site turns out to be an extremely effective business development filter. “If our clients don't get these films,” Mellin says, “they aren’t going to be happy working with Factory. The site has helped us form a distinct opinion about who we are, what we do and how we do it. The companies that respond recognize we can tell the stories that will bring their brand to life.”

In 2004 Mellin joined Factory Design Labs, bringing global brand experience from ski equipment maker Nordica. He transformed the business, taking Factory from its roots designing flyers for the Colorado rave scene and microsites for Hollywood movies to a more mature company with a sustainable business model.

“In 2004 we had 77 customers and we booked $2 million in revenue,” Mellin remembers. “It was a brutal, sweaty business.” Prodded by a question from Oakley’s chief marketing officer who asked, “How does a brand with a leading share of the market grow without selling out?” Factory proposed an online product configurator that let consumers customize their ski goggles and sunglasses. It now accounts for over 52 percent of all Oakley’s online business.

“That’s when we shifted focus,” Mellin recalls, “from making ads to solving complex problems for big brands.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about customer creation.” —Scott Mellin

That shift in focus not only changed the way Oakley does business online, it transformed Factory as well. Today Factory has a slimmer roster of 9 clients, served by 122 employees, who book $45 million in revenue. “What we offer today,” says Mellin, “is a full service, end-to-end solution for global brands. We’re solving enterprise problems from a strategic perspective, whether it ranges from Web site user experience to shopping cart design, to raising awareness and driving market share. At the end of the day, it’s all about customer creation.”

It’s a small client list, but it includes Audi, The North Face, Oakley, Revo and ski resorts Aspen Snow Mass, Ruby Mountain and Killington Mountain in Vermont. That client roster was one of the things that attracted their new chief creative officer, Blake Ebel from Chicago, where he worked for twenty years. According to Ebel, “The client roster offers the best products on the planet. We don’t work on brands we don’t believe in. If we can’t live the brand, we’re the wrong agency. The clients we have are the clients we are proud of.”

These premium, outdoor, lifestyle brands are a great fit for an agency based in Denver. Located in the prime shopping district of Cherry Creek, Factory Design Labs is just across the street from a North Face store, next door to an Oakley store and four miles down the road from an Audi dealership. “Location is important,” Mellin says, “since it lets us view the brand in its ideal environment and do retail concepting and secret shopping.” The location includes a deal with the landlord that let Factory design the entire 28,000-square-feet of the four-story building. As Mellin describes it, the building is “modern, super-sleek, more art museum than design firm.”

As VP creative director Andrew Price explains, “Denver stands for something. It’s about skiing, mountain biking and getting outside. That’s what we staff for. Getting out into the real world, having experiences and bringing that into the creative. After all, the mountains begin twenty minutes from here.”

Having a passion for the outdoors informs the work Factory Design Labs does for brands that are all about getting outdoors. That deep connection to the brand, and the lifestyle that surrounds it, Price says, “means we are the consumer.”

Take performance and distance running. This is the province of the ultra-marathoner and the 50-mile trail run. It’s a billion dollar industry and Factory's client The North Face had no position in it. When The North Face wanted to enter the arena of endurance running, they turned to Factory.

According to Price, “Part of the goal was to develop insights into what it meant to be a hard-core ultra runner, to get to the point where someone competing on one of these endurance runs could say about The North Face, ‘You guys totally understand me.’”

If we can’t live the brand, we’re the wrong agency. The clients we have are the clients we are proud of.” —Blake Ebel

To develop those insights and communicate that deep understanding, Price says, “Factory shoots images all over the world. We shoot video, to tell a longer story online. The ads we produce for The North Face serve as a gateway to show a bigger picture. We’re positioning the brand to make sure consumers understand that The North Face is an athlete’s story, that The North Face is more than a product, it’s a lifestyle.” It’s apparently a lifestyle that’s increasingly resonating with consumers. Thanks in part to Factory Design Labs efforts, Price says, “The North Face saw its performance business grow more than 200 percent in three years.”

To support the lifestyle needs of these long-distance runners, Factory designed The North Face Trailhead iPhone app. The trail-running app finds local trails based on GPS coordinates, then tracks mileage in real time, along with speed and altitude. Users can take photos along the way, geo-tag them and share them on Twitter and Facebook.

The North Face is also, thanks to Factory, entering the world of action sports. They are sponsoring the X Games for the first time, as well as a Park and Pipe competition in an effort to capture market share among a younger demographic. As Price explains, “While The North Face has always been a strong brand in the back country, the front of the mountain experience is defined by lift access, the Park and Pipe movement and the X Games competitions. The North Face wanted to capture this momentum as free-ride skiing is evolving to include the front-of-the-mountain.” In the spirit of “authentic integration,” Factory defined a strategy for The North Face to sponsor athletes in the Winter X Games, created TV spots and outdoor signage. Considering that 40 million viewers watched the last Winter X Games on ESPN, this is an enormous opportunity. “It’s a giant campaign for us as partners, all designed to bring The North Face into the world of the Park and Pipe skier in an authentic way,” Price says.

Chief creative officer Ebel says, “I saw the future of advertising when I walked in the door at Factory.” Perhaps he was thinking of the thousands of new iPads sporting silk-screened Audi logos on their backs, that Factory was loading with a new app.

The Audi sales app Factory created for the iPad is nothing less than an attempt to redesign the car buying experience as we know it. Factory aims to change the dynamic by making car shopping more collaborative. Stroll into an Audi dealership in the near future and, with iPad in hand, you’ll be able to examine detailed inner workings of a new Audi thanks to Factory's 3-D animations, CGI work and videos that bring technical features to life.

“The idea,” explains Price, “is that a consumer can walk into an Audi dealership, grab an iPad, and obtain a base of content that can inform a conversation with the sales rep. It's a great delivery platform for an in-store experience.” Instead of a one-sided relationship, where the sales rep has all the information, the Audi iPad app turns consumers into informed peers. At the same time the iPad enhances Audi's position as a progressive, technically advanced brand.

And when it comes to that buzz-phrase about “living the brand,” Factory employees aren’t just living it, they are driving it. A recent check of employee cars in the parking garage off Cherry Street counted 45 Audis. Now that’s authenticity. ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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