A new product breathes new direction into an old-school client and into the folks hired to brand it: that is, Pinch.
In early 2005, Columbia Forest Products, North America’s largest maker of hardwood plywood, responded to tightening California emissions regulations and a growing architectural community focus on indoor air quality by completely reengineering its manufacturing process. Propelled by development of a new formaldehyde-free adhesive resin, the company converted all of its production to formaldehyde-free panels under the trade name PureBond™.
Developed at Oregon State University’s School of Forestry using funding provided by Columbia, the new adhesive is itself a case study of the principle of biomimicry, wherein science derives synthetic products and processes in imitation of similar processes found in nature. PureBond creator Kaichang Li manipulated special soy proteins to emulate the proteins secreted by mussels which allow them to cling to rocks even when submerged or pounded by surf. Li’s creation delivered phenomenal adhesion, flexibility and exceptional water resistance. It also cut formaldehyde content of Columbia’s manufacturing process to zero.
As a result of the conversion, Columbia eliminated formaldehyde from all of its decorative panels — veneer core, agrifiber core and composite — and cleared it from the air in all its production plants. Good news for everyone, including employees. The no-emission panels themselves perform better than their urea-formaldehyde predecessors in use, and do so at no increase in cost.
Since April 2005, more than 15 million PureBond panels have gone into manufacture of high-end cabinetry, furniture and case goods for residential, commercial and institutional use. And Columbia Forest Products has become a sustainability leader in the wood products industry.
A success story, indeed. But, in the beginning, PureBond was an idea that had to be sold. And Columbia asked Pinch for help.
“I didn’t have much to do with selection of Pinch other than fielding a phone call from Eric Hillerns," says John McIsaac, Columbia’s corporate communications director. “That was several years ago, and at the time, we were looking to decrease our overhead. I understood graphic design firms were by nature less pricey than full service agencies with all their infrastructure and multiple-disciplines, so I steered Eric to Elizabeth Whalen and suggested he ask her himself.
“If memory serves, Elizabeth gave Eric an assignment for our EcoColors project, and then the Appalachian Traditions product line launch. He did a fantastic job on both, delivered terrific work for a reasonable price. Both our company and Pinch were moving in a more sustainability-oriented direction then, too, so the fit was very good."
“Launching PureBond wasn’t just one project," Whalen says. “It was a bunch, addressed over time. I didn’t go to Pinch specifically for this, either; it was just the next job in a long sequence, extending from our mutual green interests. But I especially liked them for PureBond because both Eric and Adam have a strong business demeanor as well as design skills, and creating a cohesive brand character is right up their alley. They spend a lot of time, both big- and micro-picture, learning what a product is, how it’s going to be used, what kind of promotions will be done, what messages need to be communicated, how it relates to the competition, and so forth. And they did that here.
“Plus, PureBond was a special case for a couple reasons: One, it was an ultra-green product with a strong environmental story, and two, the way we made it caused a real revolution in the hardwood plywood industry. Those things shaped a lot of the marketing we did, especially on the collateral side."
“We knew the company was trying to develop a formaldehyde-free plywood product," Hillerns relates, “so we had some warning that we might have to compete with other firms for the assignment. But Elizabeth came to us and said ‘You’re already on a lot of this, so let’s just keep going.’"
Columbia Forest Products is an older firm with much on the line when identity refinements are considered. “Stuff doesn’t happen until the company needs it," Adam McIsaac says. “Maybe that’s because their business is so organic. Don’t forget, in just a few years, this firm has transitioned from an old-line industrial enterprise, selling rectangles of wood, into one of the leading lights of sustainable building."
Logotype, pattern, and brand color developed for Columbia Forest Products' PureBond formaldehyde-free hardwood plywood.
Oddly, the first guide for PureBond was a background color. “It came from a tradeshow screen and was supposed to be interim," McIsaac says. Even though it turned out to be difficult to reproduce consistently, the hue endures as PureBond’s signature color.
“Pinch turns my projects quickly," John McIsaac says, “without the quality suffering. But I’m very direct and don’t demand miracles; when I request speed it’s for something simple like a fact sheet. Pinch can handle those sometimes in a matter of hours.
“One thing: Eric’s approach to client relations is very agreeable, and that’s made things move smoothly. He’s gentle and flexible, but brings creative leadership. He’s accommodating, but also leads you down the right path, and is sensitive to the kind of communicating that’ll be most productive in a given situation. That’s a gift few creatives have, and it serves Pinch well."
“They also maintain an electronic project center for clients, which is helpful for me," Whalen adds. “I like that thing; it keeps me up to date. I was leery of it at first, but it’s since become invaluable — there’s a record of everything that happens, I can access it from wherever I am, and it saves time — especially for someone like me who goes through periods when I’m forever on the road."
Pinch actually installed that system specifically for Whalen, at a time when numerous projects were going, and progress communicating was overwhelming her. Adam McIsaac had read about Chicago-based 37Signals’ Basecamp collaboration software, so Pinch decided to put it in play.
“Elizabeth loved it immediately (and, in fact, it’s changed the way we work with other clients)," McIsaac says. “As it began to normalize, it was enlightening to learn how many of the previous snafus had occurred simply because people had forgotten details. This project center ended that, posted all progress reports and comments in one place, eased people’s minds and created a sense of better service. Now, we encourage clients to move away from email and make all postings on the center only." The system itself is a common tool, no miracle, and it’s very consistent with Pinch’s style because it involves the client in authorship decisions, requires fewer people at Pinch’s end, and exercises economy on several fronts.
“The PureBond project covered a range of activities," Whalen reports, “from original identity and logo, to trade shows, to brochures, to product sheets, to website presence. Detail, like colors (a non-PMS custom mix), typefaces, names, positioning lines, attitudes, they handled it all. The only thing they didn’t do was the advertising.
“My favorite thing is that PureBond’s brand character has become cohesive and memorable. It communicates the same message and feel regardless of medium. This was our goal, and we achieved it.
“One of our prime audiences was architects and designers, a sophisticated, aesthetically-aware group that also has strong green leanings. Fielding a brand story that spoke clearly to them was critical. Well, over the period since we started on PureBond, we’ve received repeated compliments about how helpful, informative and guiding our materials are. Everyone enjoys using them."
More tactical collateral, following elegant, rational standards developed for Columbia: emissions information sheet, formaldehyde FAQ.
John McIsaac points out that a big aspect of PureBond — and Columbia — is leadership in sustainable products.
“I think Pinch has done well at understanding and communicating Columbia’s brand," he says. “They’ve traveled with us from the beginning to the influential position we own now. And interestingly, the work they’ve done with us is beginning to shape the way they do business themselves. A development thrust for them is green firms like Columbia. When they specify projects for reproduction, they use only FSC-certified paper and vendors. And their new Pinch House studio space incorporates sustainable building materials and water and energy economies. Not the most common thing to have happen between a vendor and a client."
Hillerns concurs. “The PureBond project was in many ways a road-to-Damascus moment for Adam and me. I think that we would have been interested in sustainable business principles eventually, but PureBond, and the people we met through the development process (at trade events, for example), have a movement-politics enthusiasm that is very contagious. PureBond provided the education and the bona fides; we found ourselves swept up in it."
“Overnight, we pared our paper samples down to the FSC-certified grades," Adam McIsaac continues, “and suggested to our primary printing suppliers (AdPrint and Dynagraphics) that they pursue FSC Certification, which they did. We also put a comprehensive recycling program on line in the office; Pinch House is the logical extension of this. Not only is the structure more efficient than our old Pearl District office, it’s closer to our homes. We can walk to work."
Pinch has delivered much tactical work for PureBond — single-page product pieces, price sheets, and the like — but the major pieces of that brand effort, it’s profile overall, is powerful and enduring. “There’s an underlying logic, a will to make a difference for the client’s business," Adam McIsaac says. “Some of it even approaches the best work we’ve done in the studio. It shines in its category. We’re able to show it with real enthusiasm, and that feels good."
And the fact is, Columbia presents itself better than other hardwood manufacturers. Marketing people realize it’s no longer a commodity exercise, that it’s about margin now and the firm can get better margins by going directly to the architectural design audience instead of through OEMs. So they fuel their brand to support their specialness.
“I have total faith in Pinch’s ability to develop our brand," Elizabeth says. “Their package of skills and experience is one of the best in the region. They understand what goes into creating an enduring image, understand the importance of consistent elements through all aspects – even things like cover-wrap for our units of plywood, labeling, packaging, t-shirts, banners, online efforts, and on and on. They’ve had a chance to touch many of branding aspects with this project. And they’ve remained true throughout.
“Another thing that works for me is that they’re very collaborative. If I have ideas about something, they listen and we work together. Unlike other creative people I know, they’re not prima donnas. They respect — and use — feedback and comment, and don’t let their egos get in the way of working through alternatives. I feel like I share authorship with them. We co-develop message ideas and direction. It’s a pleasure to work with them.
“For busy clients, they also have a rare ability to take a project and run with it, of special value to me because I often don’t have time to sit down and talk at length. And on the PureBond project, they became so familiar with what we wanted and how I felt, they could accommodate new pieces of it — whatever they were — smoothly and without difficulty. They became an extension of our marketing group."
Note: In the autumn of 2008, Columbia Forest Products underwent restructuring, following the retirement of its CEO, and moved its operations to North Carolina. The move concluded Pinch's relationship with the company.