Marketing Leader Series: Joe Cecere, Little & Company
Joe Cecere started 18 years ago as a designer at the Minneapolis branding agency Little & Company. He’s now president at Little, and has watched the world of design change dramatically in ways that have made his work even more exciting.
“People notice design now more than ever, and they expect good design everywhere,” he says. While brand heavyweights like Nike and Apple used to be the leaders in design thinking, now great design is everywhere, from grocery stores to your local coffee shop. “That puts more pressure on designers to stand out. It keeps raising the bar on how we deliver great stories.”
We asked Cecere what today’s rapid changes mean for designers and brands, and about the skills he looks for when he builds creative teams.
The Exciting Ways Design Has Changed
Speed is one undeniable way that designers’ work has changed over the past two decades. “People consume information so much faster than they ever have,” he says. With social media, “things get out there really fast. But we have to design well — not just fast.”
Consumers’ focus on good design also has pushed designers to expand the scope of their work. Great design isn’t limited to logos. Cecere says his team asks: “How can we as designers make everything better? Where can we look that we haven’t considered before? Finding new places that design can make an impact — that’s an awesome challenge for designers moving forward.”
Why Employer Branding Is Critical
Employer branding isn’t the most buzzed-about area of design, but it’s one place that Little has always focused its design attention. “From day one we saw a need for employer branding,” he says.
Often brands don’t pay enough attention to their employees. “The audience inside an organization are living, breathing, and communicating the brand every day. These are the people who bring the brand to life. We don’t want employees to just do the work; we want them to live the brand. But to do that they have to understand the brand.
“Employees who understand the brand are more effective and more productive. A strong employer brand leads to less turnover,” he says. “And we’re seeing trends that title and salary are lower on employees’ lists than having a purpose at work every day. They want to know what they are contributing to, and that it matters.”
He points to recent stumbles by big brands like Wells Fargo and Uber, and says that building an authentic employer brand can help steer the ship more smoothly. “Employees can see the skeletons in the closet. If you’re not authentic, employees will sniff it out, and that can hurt the business in a big way.”
How Little Uses Design to Uncover Stories
Cecere thinks it’s important for designers to “sweat the details,” the title of one of Joe’s recent LinkedIn blog posts. Good design today, he says, is about creating a complete experience. “Every touch point matters. The throughline has to be consistent.”
For a recent rebranding for a national bank client, Little looked at every detail: what someone sees on the ATM screen, recruiting materials that prospective employees read, and the brochure a new customer gets when they open an account. “It all represents what the brand stands for,” he says. “As a designer it’s about looking at all of those details. We’re using design to uncover a story, and tell it to employees and customers.”
When Cecere and his team took on a branding project for a historic theater, they uncovered the story that the theater, while beautiful and well respected, was friendly and open to everyone — not exclusive or elite. “We brought their story to life and took their voice to a friendlier place. We looked at everything from knowing where to go when you walk into the theater to the branding around each play. By creating a consistent feel and tone for every element of the experience, we can help attract new audiences and retain loyal supporters.”
Good design, he says, isn’t about one element like a logo or a sign. “We rarely get an assignment to do just one thing anymore,” he says. “We’re brought in to tell the whole story — to connect the dots and bring that brand to life through design.”
What Marketing Teams Need Now
As customers’ expectations about design have changed, so have design teams. The way Little hires is much different than when Cecere started. “We used to hire designers with the best portfolio,” he says. “We had three or four design schools that were our go-to source for employees.” Now the firm looks at a much broader scope of candidates, and values more diverse experience. “We’re hiring designers who have worked in different areas, who are also writers, who are strategic thinkers. A lot of our hires aren’t as traditional as they used to be. We’re looking for interesting and diverse backgrounds that can enhance their experience here. We look at people from ad firms, PR, business, sales. We need broad thinking.”
The agency’s talent model has also shifted toward a more flexible, distributed workforce. “We have a full-time staff, but we also draw on a bench of contractors in different areas — writers, videographers, social media people, interior designers, illustrators and architects. Our needs are so different every day, so we have to be able to bring in the exact talent we need to supplement our full-time staff.”
Clients appreciate a flexible talent model, he says. “They like that they get the consistency of our core team, but with the best talent from every specific area. We go into pitches with specialty partners already lined up. We can bring that expertise from the first meeting.”
Cecere’s current goal is to keep his team inspired and innovative. He introduces challenges every week to encourage new ideas, and gives every employee a budget to pursue creative projects and training. “We’re empowering people to do new things every day.”
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Antenna is a leader in delivering top marketing professionals to corporations of all sizes for project-based consulting, interim leadership assignments, and contract staffing engagements. With headquarters in Minneapolis, Antenna draws from its private community of experienced marketing talent to help clients balance the flexibility and expertise modern marketing organizations demand.
Little is a Minneapolis-based design and branding agency specializing in brand strategy, identity and naming, communications campaigns, employee engagement and experience design. For more than 35 years, Little has been helping companies like Target, U.S. Bank, Buffalo Wild Wings, Gap, Habitat for Humanity International, and Lowe’s tell their whole brand stories from the inside out. Little has been named 2015 Silver Midwest Small Agency of the Year by Ad Age, is a multi-year honoree of Minnesota’s Best Places to Work, and has been recognized with two Minnesota Keystone Honored Company Awards for its community giving in the Twin Cities.
Headshot photo taken by Jake Armour. Interior photos taken by Shea Design.