Building a Brand from Beans to Bottle
By Allie Rocovich
Content Strategist, Scout
Commonwealth Coffee Company produces and sells cold brew coffee. Founder Olin Nelson, who refers to himself as an alchemist, discovered his passion for cold brew while working a standard job at the Federal Reserve in Boston. “Coffee was the only salvation from the 9-5,” he says, so he began to produce batch after batch in his own apartment at night and during weekends. Over time, he became good - really good. So good, in fact, that he has since quit his full-time job to pursue his own business full time and share his craft with the entire city.
Olin discovered Scout through IDEA, Northeastern University’s student-led venture accelerator. In fact, several of Scout’s clients -- all of whom are founded or led by at least one person who is currently a student, alumnus, faculty, or staff member of the University -- discover our studio by way of the same means. Olin first contacted Scout in July 2015, and we chose to work with him shortly thereafter. After reviewing his application and speaking with him in person, we learned that Olin had a deep understanding of his product, his target market, and his ideal brand. In turn, we were confident that our own expertise in design thinking could help him craft that brand and reach that audience.
Almost as soon as students returned to campus for the Fall semester, Christina Allan and her team met with Olin for the first time. Christina, the Project Lead, was a sophomore studying Interaction Design and Business, and she was supported by Cassie Hlinka and Molly O’Neill, a junior and middler, respectively, who study Graphic and Information Design. Together, they reviewed and signed a project proposal, which stipulated that the team of three would craft Commonwealth Coffee Company’s brand, logo, labels, and website over the course of four months. In exchange, Olin agreed to be open-minded, participatory, and responsive to all requests for information.
To begin, Christina led her team and Olin through a design sprint to define Commonwealth Coffee Company’s current and ideal brands. A design sprint, a term coined and popularized by Google Ventures, is a short period of rapid prototyping and testing that seeks to compress months of research and experimentation into a single week. At Scout, we regularly use design sprints to compensate for the relatively short period of time we have to complete an engagement: 4 months. It enables us to start the flow of creativity, to open our minds to new possibilities, and to re-evaluate any and all assumptions.
Through this design sprint, Christina and her team discovered several key insights. First, Olin closely associated his product with the “Third Wave of Coffee,” which views coffee as an artisanal product rather than a commodity. Second, Olin is exceedingly proud of his connection to the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts - after all, his company’s name is a direct reference. Third, his coffee is never hot - a simple characteristic that is easily overlooked by the average consumer. Christina, Cassie, and Molly used these insights to parameterize CCC’s brand. In other words, they used the words “artisanal”, “Boston”, and “cold” as guidelines for their designs.
In accordance with the project proposal, the team took the next step of designing a logo. Olin preferred a logo-type, as opposed to a logo-mark, and we agreed. A logo-type is the use of a company’s name as its visual mark or signifier. Google’s logo, for example, is a logo-type because it literally spells out the company’s name. A logo-mark, by contrast, is a graphical, emblematic, or symbolic representation commonly used to increase public recognition. Apple’s logo, for instance, is a logo-mark because it identifies the company through the use of an image rather than text.
Olin and our team agreed to the use of a logo-type because the word “Commonwealth” inextricably associates his company’s brand with the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts. As opposed to Stumptown Coffee, a national distributor of cold brew coffee and a market leader, Olin wanted his company to be recognized for its roots in the commonwealth and its loyalty to the tastes of the Northeast.
An initial round of designs produced Design A, shown above. Deeper discussion, however, revealed that a visual association with the process of cold brewing would be more effective in communicating CCC’s artisanal brand.
The team, therefore, produced a second round of designs, the strongest of which was Design B, and presented it to Olin during a bi-weekly client meeting. While he shared his appreciation for the team’s efforts, he stressed a key difference between wooden barrels and stainless steel barrels. On one hand, he said, wooden barrels (such as that shown in Design B) are used to prepare wine and whisky. On the other hand, stainless steel barrels are used for beer and cold brew coffee. He continued by sharing his fondness of Bubba’s Barrels, the producer of the barrels he himself used. He highlighted the company’s logo, paying special attention to its straight edges and periodic rims.
These, he said, are sure signs of the process of producing cold brew coffee, and he urged us to consider using them ourselves. So, Christina and her team returned to the drawing board, and they developed a new concept that incorporated the best of Design B and Bubba’s Barrels’ logo. With the addition of a gauge at the base of the barrel - an allusion to the coffee’s temperature - the team produced a logo that encapsulated CCC’s brand and pleased Olin.
Next, Christina and her team used their logo design as a platform for designing labels. From the beginning of the engagement, Olin emphasized that his product would be differentiated, in part, through a line of cold brew coffees that included standard, single-origin, and seasonal blends. With this in mind, Christina and her team devised a series of systems that simultaneously differentiated one blend from another while also upholding consistent brand elements. It was a particularly tough challenge, and the team responded by producing computer-generated illustrations of iconic Boston: The Prudential Center, the Citgo sign, and the MBTA’s ‘T’ logo, among others.
During critique, however, they realized that the illustrations implied “processed” and “mass-produced” as opposed to “artisanal” and “hand-crafted”. Julia Wilson and Nathan Hulsey, Scout’s Executive Director and Design Director, respectively, encouraged the team to think of alternative solutions. Through a second design sprint, they arrived at hand-drawn illustrations, and they quickly produced a new series of illustrations that were considerably warmer, more inviting, and more representative of cold brew coffee’s homemade, artisanal qualities. The result was spectacular: a series of illustrations for each of Commonwealth Coffee Company’s five blends of cold brew coffee: Beantown, Summer, Fall, Festivus, and Spring.
Of course, each label required additional elements. To describe his brewing process and share the origins of his ingredients, Olin suggested the use of an infographic. While we acknowledged and pursued his ideas, Christina and her team concluded that a collection of text and additional imagery would be more consistent with the company’s brand and the series of hand-drawn illustrations that had already been produced. Additionally, the team felt that this solution would draw greater attention from the consumer, which would conceivably increase brand recognition and loyalty. Again, the result was spectacular. Christina and her team created one label for each of the company’s five blends. They differentiated each blend using color and connected each blend with the company using structural consistency.
When we hit a point where we thought our ideas exceeded our skill level, we just tried to execute them anyway—and we succeeded.”
Christina Allan — Project Lead
At this point, the engagement had neared its end. As a final measure, Christina and her team designed the company’s website using Squarespace. Though they, and Scout generally, often design and develop websites themselves, the size of Olin’s business justified the use of Squarespace, an intuitive and simple content management system.
Reflecting on their experiences, Olin gained as much from Commonwealth Coffee Company’s partnership with Scout as the members of the design team. On the one hand, Olin discovered that design creates real business value, and his company’s brand is more robust and more engaging with his target customers as a result. On March 11th, for example, Olin and his team successfully launched their newly branded product at Formaggio Kitchen in Boston and Cambridge.
On the other hand, the team developed a deeper understanding of student leadership and refined their technical design skills. When asked about her project experience, Christina said, “When we hit a point where we thought our ideas exceeded our skill level, we just tried to execute them anyway—and we succeeded. I’m a better designer now that I go into projects with the mindset
that I can sit down and learn how to make any of my ideas a reality.” Molly, meanwhile, is now Commonwealth Coffee Company’s designated freelance illustrator and designer. When asked about her experience, Molly said, “The whole project showed me
how the design process works and how you have to iterate and iterate until an idea sticks and resonates with the team. It showed me the importance of staying positive and pushing through the rough patches of the design process in order to come out on top with not only stronger designs, but a stronger team as well.” Cassie, finally, is now the Digital Design Co-op at America’s Test Kitchen, where she is applying lessons learned from her experience working with Olin, Christina, and Molly.