Expand the Brand
Maureen Smullen’s design firm takes what’s common and marries it to existing brand names to generate new lines of revenue-producing goods.
By CONOR DOUGHERTY
Logo-inscribed coffee mugs are a dime a dozen, right? Not to Maureen Smullen, whose sees to it that those mugs, T-shirts and shopping bags somehow stand out from the crowd and in the process, extend a popular brand like Barbie or Scooby-Doo.
Smullen is principal and creative director of Smullen Design, a decade-old graphic design shop in Pasadena that works on everything from annual reports to packaging to direct mail and special events.
Smullen’s 1997 design of a logo for Mann’s Chinese Theatre, for instance, has been incorporated into a line of merchandise, including apparel, jewelry and housewares. The new design brought an additional revenue stream through license fees and protection of intellectual property.
“It doesn’t make a difference if it’s direct mail or Barbie,” she said. “It’s all about getting someone’s attention and holding it.” A distinct logo, she added, “is not only a way to promote your brand, but also a way to protect it.”
To those responsible for making consumer products shine, even simple designs can mean the difference between extending or killing off a brand.
“Half the battle is getting a manufacturer to visualize how your brand could work on the products they make,” said Suzie Domnick, vice president of marketing at Art Impressions, a marketing and branding company in Canoga Park. “If your brand isn’t positioned as compelling property, you can easily be replaced.”
Domnick, formerly vice president of worldwide marketing and consumer products at Warner Bros., most recently worked with Smullen on extending the “So Girly!” line of stickers and scrapbooks into broader categories such as accessories and T-shirts.
“She’s really good at turning design into product,” Domnick said.
And it’s more than slapping a character or brand name on a new line. “You have to take everything from a bike to a backpack to a bunch of different pencils and make it have a focus,” said Betsy Clapp, owner of design firm Studio B and a former creative director of international Barbie licensing at Mattel Inc.
While at Mattel, Clapp brought in Smullen to help develop a line of branded Barbie furniture, manufactured by P.J. Kids, that had to be cute enough for young girls but also appealing to teens.
“All I had for parameters was the bed had to be white-washed wood and it had to grow with the girl so it didn’t look babyish or young to a teenage girl,” she said of the six-week project. “If it’s any kind of retail property we like to know what kind of stores it’s going into. There’s not a lot that can beat going to the stores for research.”
Research and brainstorming with company executives refines the idea for the product, while at the same time assuring it can be manufactured easily and cost effectively. For Mattel, samples were introduced to retailers at a trade show a month later, and became available in stores late last year.
“There are many designers who can make something beautiful, but if you can’t manufacture and market it then it’s really worth nothing,” said Clapp.
And with licensing comes the risk of “allowing someone else to take care of your baby,” said Carole Francesca, chairman of the Licensing Industry Association, a licensing trade association. “The graphics are what make a license live longer it becomes a new product line rather than just an item.”
Smullen, a Glendale native, received her degree from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and started her career as a freelance illustrator, working mostly for advertising agencies. After four years in the ad business, including a stint at J. Walter Thompson, she took a corporate job at Lockheed, drawing portraits of company executives and aircraft.
Laid off from Lockheed in 1990, she returned to Thompson for a year before starting her company. The L.A. economy was souring, but increasingly powerful home computers made it possible for Smullen to start a design business with limited overhead.
In Smullen Design’s first year, the firm took in $60,000. The company has since grown to about $700,000 and three full-time employees, although part-timers are routinely brought in.
As Smullen explains it, clients contact her with a request, give her a vague idea of what they want and how it should look, at which point she begins putting the graphics together. “One of the biggest challenges is to gently explain to my clients that you can’t put everything in a logo,” she said.
“It’s kind of like working with a recipe,” she said. “There are a thousand different ways to make an apple pie, but it’s not like you’re going to use peaches.”
Profile: Smullen Design Inc.
Year Founded: 1990
Core Business: Graphic design
Revenues in 2001: $800,000
Revenues in 2002: $900,000 (projected)
Employees in 2001: 3
Employees in 2002: 3
Goal: To expand into the media buying and manufacturing areas.
Driving Force: Helping clients turn design into a business tool.