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Design firm Little evolves into holistic brand agency

Little, one of Minneapolis’s oldest and best-known design and branding firms, has emerged stronger and more focused from a recession that left some local peers reeling and put others out of business altogether. Since the beginning of 2014, the company has signed a dozen new clients — including high-profile organizations like US Bank and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Collectively, the new accounts will add about $2 million to the company’s top line — a hefty boost for a firm with revenues of about $10 million last year.
Little is also refreshing its leadership ranks. Monica Little, the firm’s founder and principal, stepped aside last year. Into her shoes stepped competent leaders like president/chief creative officer Joe Cecere, vice president of finance and administration Kirk Grandstrand, and director of marketing and business development Traci Elder. Cecere is a Little veteran, but Grandstrand and Elder are outsiders to Little and the agency world writ large: Little hired both away from Best Buy.
The leadership change, says Cecere, brought a rare opportunity to reassess Little’s priorities and refine the company’s approach in a competitive, rapidly changing industry that’s sensitive to economic disruption. Little has historically focused on high-quality, brand-focused design; in the 1980s, the company cut its chops producing colorful annual reports for MSP-based corporate behemoths like Hudson-Dayton (later Target) and Polaris. But the past decade’s economic turmoil and technological changes drove home the need for a broader, bottom-up approach to branding.
“At our core, we still believe in the power of design,” says Cecere, “but we’re a much more holistic brand agency now than even five years ago.”
Brand strategy and effective communications, both internal and external, are now critical components of Little’s work. “We want our clients to know what they stand for,” says Cecere, “and to be able to effectively communicate that to employees and customers.”
Cecere cites the Minnesota Timberwolves as a prime example. Little is currently helping the Wolves through an “inside out rebranding,” asking employees at every level of the organization for insight into its identity and purpose. The eventual goal: a recognizable, unified brand that produces a compelling, consistent fan experience “that feels right from the moment [fans] enter the arena to the moment they leave,” says Cecere. “As an organization’s most important brand stewards, employees are integral to a positive customer experience.”
A broad-based, recession-related drop in marketing budgets and promotional spending complicated Little’s “reset,” though the company survived the downturn relatively unscathed.
“Companies typically cut ad spending after they’ve reduced costs elsewhere,” says Cecere, “but we were fortunate not to lose any clients during the recession, just individual projects.”
In some ways, the recent economic downturn was a boon for Little, despite the temporary hit to revenues. Lean times tend to disrupt “comfortable” sectors; well-run companies and organizations typically respond by refocusing and rebranding. For instance, Carleton College and the University of St. Thomas Law School, both recent additions to Little’s portfolio, are trying to remain competitive and relevant in an increasingly cluttered higher-education market.
“[These schools are] competing against larger institutions with inherent structural advantages,” says Cecere. “For organizations in such a position, the importance of effective branding and communication is clear.” Especially in a world where disruption is the new norm, and companies large and small struggle to stand out from the crowd.
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