SecretPenguin 8/27/15 08/27/15 10:04:45 AM
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This portrait of Dave Nelson, founder and creative director of SecretPenguin, is as innovative as his team’s ideas for branding businesses. – Photo by Andrew Marinkovich/Malone & Company
Skateboarder’s Talent, Put to Use
Branding, Gives His Company ‘Air’
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
There are few creatures more appealing than a penguin, and what is more fun than a secret?
When you put them together, you get Omaha’s SecretPenguin, a firm that’s not much of a secret any longer, but is definitely fun.
The branding firm has emerged in the past year as one of the most dynamic in the region, with former professional skateboarder Dave Nelson leading the charge.
Taking the creativity needed to be at the top of the skateboarding game, Nelson has developed a shop that never hesitates to experiment with ideas needed to brand companies in a way that will make them stand out in today’s crowded marketplace.
It all began innocently enough as a little penguin character that Nelson would hide in his artwork.
“When I started traveling more for skateboarding, I wanted a way to hide “it” wherever I went, so I had stickers made,” he recalled. “I’d pass them out on tour, and pretty soon I was getting e-mails from all over the world telling me where the stickers were stuck.
“So, I bought [the website name] SecretPenguin.com to post the stickers’ whereabouts.”
Nelson is the founder and creative director of SecretPenguin, a firm he has branded as “an experiential branding agency.”
He spent seven years touring as a professional skateboarder, passing the time on the road by designing for the companies that endorsed him. That was followed by design work for booking agencies and management companies, as well as other skateboarders.
“I put the design work up on [the existing] SecretPenguin.com, and over time, the name just stuck,” he recalled. “We create, refine and manage brands to stand out in a busy world.”
During the past 15 years, he has overseen the creation and refinement of more than 100 brands. Nelson also co-founded Omahype.com – an online events calendar showcasing the creative events in Omaha, was co-founder of Skate for Change, an organization focused on skateboarders giving back to their communities, and serves on the board of directors for The Bay, which is a skate park, music venue, artist studio and gallery for kids to express themselves.
Nelson lives in Omaha and is married to Sara Jean, whom he describes as an incredibly smart and caring individual who is an RN in the intensive care unit at Nebraska Medicine. The couple has a daughter named Olive Jane and a son named Baby Bob.
“Our mission is
to create a better
(and more fun) world.”
Located in the Tip Top Building with Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, in the Co-Lab Space at 1516 Cuming Street just north of downtown Omaha (with a Portland outpost mentioned on its website), Nelson said there are several other key players in the operation.
One of those is Justin Steube, a designer who grew up skateboarding with Nelson.
“I didn’t know how to hire people before hiring him,” Nelson explained. “But, I knew how he skateboarded.”
Nelson described Steube as a creative problem solver who was determined and adaptable. “When he’d fall, he’d get back up, reevaluate the situation and try again.”
He also noted that when Steube landed a good trick, he didn’t get cocky.
Steube “handled things well under pressure, when things went well and poorly,” Nelson elaborated. “I thought those characteristics would translate well to [the work environment] and they did!”
That led to a process of hiring team members based on the characteristics possessed by a lot of skateboarders. You can view a video of Steube on his skateboard at the SecretPenquin website: secretpenguin.com.
Other Omaha-area employers may want to take note.
Alison Hult was a SecretPenguin client for about five years and had previous experience as a marketing director.
“When it was time to hire an account director, we didn’t want a typical sales person, we wanted someone that truly understood the challenges that marketing directors had,” Nelson said. “So, we hired Alison.”
Lauren Harrison joined the company this year as project manager and account director. “She has more degrees than I can count, and is very organized and accountable,” Nelson stated.
Jason Meyer is SecretPenguin’s multi-dimensional designer and helps create branded features within the clients’ environments.
“Previously, he was at Urban Outfitters designing the displays in their retail spaces,” Nelson said. “He also turned down a job to design the set for Taylor Swift’s tours.”
Andrea Walters is the lead on the company’s brand management for its ongoing clients.
“She was previously at Omaha Performing Arts, and has done some great branding for companies like Omaha Girls Rock, True Blue and Love Drunk,” Nelson emphasized.
Nelson said the work with local skateboard shop, BBB Skateshop, and the other jobs he found while still on tour took him to “a tipping point” that pushed things further along.
“The NFL/United Way hired us for some campaigns because they liked the style they saw that was so prevalent in the action sports industry,” Nelson recalled. “After that project, we realized how big an effect a style like ours was in industries that weren’t expecting it.”
From there, SecretPenguin used its style with restaurants like Blue Sushi Sake Grill, which has brought SecretPenguin more work with places such as Blatt Beer and Table, Plank Seafood Provisions and now, Flagship Commons Food Hall that is moving into Westroads, which will include all the fast-casual restaurants that will be a part of that project.
“Core Bank was another tipping point that I believe showed our team was capable of taking a very serious industry and making it approachable,” Nelson proudly said.
So what is this style or philosophy?
“Our mission is to create a better [and more fun] world,” he said, “from working with brands, such as restaurants, that make communities more unique to non-profits that make communities more healthy.
“We only take on work that is a good fit for both of us.”
Makes Big Impact
As “an experiential branding agency,” Nelson said SecretPenguin focuses on the experience people will have with the brand rather than simply the visuals. He calls that a subtle difference that makes a big impact.
“For example, when designing the kid’s bank for Core Bank, rather than just slap a logo on it and some cool design and call it good, we put check marks encouraging the child with each milestone of saving in the bank,” Nelson said. “Details like that make the difference for a kid who throws some change in a bank compared to the kid being aware of the importance of saving and making a plan for it.”
Nelson said the Omaha area is good for a company like SecretPenguin because there are so many thoughtful people in this area. “It’s really fun to work with like-minded folks,” he grinned. “Also, the overhead is low here. We’re right in the middle when we need to travel.
“Just all around, from a business perspective to a personal perspective, Greater Omaha is a good place to be.”
SecretPenguin only does two things, but it does them very well. It creates or refines brands, and it manages brands through marketing campaigns.
Among the campaigns you might know are:
• The Greater Omaha Chamber’s “We Don’t Coast.” Nelson said his firm used SecretPenguin’s Iceberg Build™ Process to gain insight for the Greater Omaha’s new brand, “and then we lead the effort on executing the branding.”
• LOCAL Beer, Patio and Kitchen: “This business celebrates the local breweries with 60 local beers on tap, and over 100 available by tap, bottle and can.”
• Jams – An American Grill: “We rebranded Jams to be more current while keeping the same guests, as well as attracting a younger demographic,” Nelson said.
• PJ Morgan Real Estate: “We rebranded PJ Morgan to honor what’s been built, and to represent the current leadership.”
• 24 Hours of Impact: A day where people are asked to devote an hour to a chosen cause.
Nelson has boxes of awards cluttering up his basement, but he said client testimonials are the best recognition. Still, others have noticed and, earlier this year, SecretPenguin received one of the Greater Omaha Business Excellence Awards from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
His future goal is to “continue working with brands that make different communities unique and healthy!”
Does that or could that include marketing a legal firm?
“We haven’t. Not opposed to it,” Nelson stated. “The right opportunity just hasn’t presented itself.”