sonoma kohls
by Karen Alberg Grossman
Simon Graj and Eric Gustavsen
Simon Graj and Eric Gustavsen

He describes his agency as “an overnight success that’s taken 23 years…” But however long it’s taken, Graj + Gustavsen has earned its reputation as a top marketing and branding firm thanks to the talents of its two founders: Simon Graj and Eric Gustavsen, with help from VP of Business Development Alan Zaitz. Among the brands whose images they’ve recently refined and reinvented: Disney, Carters, Levi’s, Kimberly-Clark, Waterford, Sonoma and so many more.

Q: What’s the secret of great branding in 2016?

A: To attain and maintain relevance, a great brand must capture the moment, yet stand the test of time. Staying true to one’s core DNA without capturing the moment is not enough. For example, J. Crew stole much of Brooks Brothers’ business right out from under them because they (J. Crew) were able to evolve the classic preppy look to a more modern sensibility, while Brooks Brothers remained stagnant.”

Q: Which companies these days are best at branding themselves?

A: In a sense, everyone’s in trouble because the market is changing so radically. No longer can we control the consumer with a great ad campaign. It’s the consumer with changing tastes and unlimited access to information who controls us! Until recently, a brand could influence purchasing with a compelling image; now, we’ve lost this power. If anything, young people are rejecting images that look too cookie-cutter or contrived; they don’t want to dress like a billboard for some designer. And in general, the next generation cares more about experiences than purchases. Time is their currency; they don’t need a lot of stuff. I have seven kids ranging in age from 14 to 40 so I’m living this dramatic shift in priorities.

Q: Then how does a company build a brand in light of this dramatic shift?

A: I have absolutely no idea any more…

But seriously, a brand’s raison d’etre today has to be genuine; the product needs a purpose, even if that purpose is as basic as helping customers be the best they can be. For a marketing agency like ours, it’s a process of discovery. Each client, each situation is unique. Our challenge is to discover what’s most authentic about the brand and then market that in a genuine way that promotes the benefits.

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Q: Could you give a specific example?

A: Yes. Consider our recent work on re-launching the Sonoma brand with Kohl’s. This is now a billion dollar-plus brand with a mission to simplify and improve one’s life. These are great affordable products that are pre-curated so there’s minimal duplication on selling floors. The perception we created is that Kohl’s wants to sell you less, not more. And that if you keep things simple, you’ll have a better life.

Ironically, I believe this premise rings true for many brands today. There’s so much ‘stuff’ out there that shopping has become overwhelming. Brands need to be authentic, credible and functional: if they’re just pushing product, consumers are turned off. But if you’ve created something new, especially something new that makes lives better, it’s appealing. Look at Bassett Furniture Stores and their home design studios (partnering with HGTV, experts in high definition television). Look at Lowe’s collaboration with Sherwin-Williams: the customer chooses a paint palette and the whole room falls into place around that color selection. Look at the Bridal Registry at Macys: it features product for both formal and casual lifestyles (or for two different aspects of a single lifestyle).

As a branding agency, our job is to find something good in the brand’s DNA, even if it’s not yet been defined or revealed. In other words, we’re looking to discover something that’s already there. Our goal is to help companies see the future before investing a lot of money in advertising; otherwise, it’s just a shot in the dark.


  1. I had the great pleasure to work with G&G… Graj +Gustavsen year ago on Re-Branding two great established brands. It was my first involvement with this type of Rediscovering a brands past and future. Their ability to “work from the inside out of Brands history” and Refocus its Opportunities” was one of the most exciting and creative process’s I ever have been a part of.

    Interesting to me is that over my entire career… 2 of the most memorable and creative have been branding companies, Vanderbyl Design in San Francisco, and Graj + Gustavsen, New York.

    I would only add, that unless a company or brand has the people and energy to “take action” be “committed” on a re-positioning or re-branding all that valuable work will be fabulous imagery and words on paper.

    Their must be an execution methodology and 100% commitment to leverage work at this level.

    Great to see that you recognize their capabilities, and the challenges facing all of us that love product and design.

    My personal best to those guys, Gary Wasserman Left Coast Tee

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