Interview: The backstory of the Estancia Serenova brand
This online interview was originally part of a student project for an entrepreneurship class. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Zander: Hi, thank you for your time. So, how did you get into brands in the first place?
Willow: When I was almost three, my mom took me to a place where they tested me for intellectual development. All that I remember about it was I was sitting alone with a young lady and there were toys on a table, like wood pieces in different colors and shapes. She asked me to arrange them in a certain way and so on. A few months later I was enrolled in a preschool for gifted kids (when I was a teenager, mom told me that they literally freaked out because I had an insanely high IQ for that age as they’d never seen before). I’m not bragging about it, that was a long time ago and it is no indicator of my present state.
But I was a nerd and I spent hours staring at geometric shapes or maps, always first to point out minute details, subtle differences in colors and shapes, and of course, typos (at age 3 I was already reading at a third- or fourth-grade level). I was also really obsessed with stuff like product packaging, book covers, traffic signs, and so on.
They were tell-tale signs of the autistic spectrum, but neither I nor my parents were aware of that back then.
I grew up in the 1980s and it was when lots of businesses were doing so-called “corporate identity” campaigns, designing or redesigning logotypes, revamping product packaging, changing the names of their companies, and so on, especially during the latter half of that decade and into the early 1990s. I was literally obsessed with observing all those changes happening in town.
By the time I was entering middle school, I had made up my mind that I’d be either in graphic design or in publishing.
In fact, as early as I can remember, I spent my free time designing mockups of made-up corporate brochures, newspapers, or product packages. When I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, I even entered in a contest in which a city government was seeking a design for its new emblem. The final adopted version of that emblem appeared suspiciously close to (but not identical to) my design, though I wasn’t notified the winner.
I also remember how brands personally affected the way I made choices. For example, in 1991, Pepsi redesigned its packaging entirely. Until then, I liked Coca-Cola products, specifically Sprite. All of sudden, Pepsi came in this futuristic blue cans and the slogan “the choice of a new generation.” I became a convert to the cult of Pepsi! (Laughs)
For most of my life, I have been a keen observer of brand trends. And unlike most people in this discipline, I’m both a visual and word person.
Anyway, back to your “actual” question, I began taking branding projects as a side gig around 2009. I’ve worked with a coffee shop, a cultural organization, and a handful of community and activist groups. It became more of a serious endeavor a couple of years ago, however.
Zan: What is a brand to you, anyway?
Wil: People mistakenly think of brands as names of businesses or products or something that describes the businesses. But actually, brands are not descriptions of products, services, or companies. Rather, a brand is a touchstone that evokes a specific emotional response in anticipation of a certain experience. What do you think when you hear “Starbucks,” or “Ben & Jerry’s,” or “McDonald’s”? You imagine yourself sitting in a seat, subconsciously visualizing the smells and sight and sound that are part of that experience. It’s different from thinking about just coffee, ice cream, or hamburger. You prefer them over Dutch Bros., Baskin Robbins, and Burger King because you have a very different kind of experience there, even with a similar line of business and very similar products they have to offer. Most people follow brands like religions, whether or not they are aware that they do. Brands, therefore, build a community of loyal followers, who make the brands theirs, and part of their lives. Contrary to what most people think, businesses don’t own their brands, their customers do.
Zan: Why do you think it is important for small businesses to have a strong brand identity?
Wil: Many small businesses neglect brands. They either have a very weak and inconsistent brand identity or nothing at all. Some make their businesses about them, the owners. Every once in a while, this “personal cult” kind of branding works, especially if it’s presented in a humorous and self-deprecating kind of way — in Portland, there were Tom Peterson’s, Scott Thomason (Thomason Autogroup), Junki Yoshida (of the eponymous teriyaki sauce fame), and of course, good old Fred Meyer — but mostly, it won’t because consumers tend to be antagonized by business owners who appear to be “it’s all about me, me, me, my family, my dreams, my passions, my visions, my lifestyle.” They’re there looking for what’s in it for them, they don’t care. Also, maybe because of the culturally-ingrained gender norms, such “personality cult” brands almost never work unless you are a guy. At the end of the day, it is and should be about what kind of experience customers can have, what kind of differences you’re making in the community, and whether they’d like to come back again and again because their experiences are so great they want to have more of them and share them with their friends.
Other reasons why you should have a solid brand are memorability and differentiation. Let’s say you have a corner store. There are already lots of them in a typical city like Portland and many mom-and-pop kinds of stores don’t have memorable brands so you wouldn’t even remember what their stores are called. Then they’re competing against global and regional brands such as 7-Eleven, Jackson’s, and Plaid Pantry. What makes their store different from others in their neighborhood or the big players? Why should their customers come back to their store when there are so many choices?
Zan: What do you mean by “businesses do not own their brands, customers do”? Can you elaborate more on that?
Wil: Yeah. As a business owner, you produce brands. You create them and present them to the world. But ultimately, brands fail unless customers make the brands their own. Think of Harley-Davidson. It’s a full-fledged international community of motorcycle enthusiasts with a strong culture and a sense of camaraderie. Apple used to be really that kind of brand, too: there were Macintosh user groups in almost every major city, there were magazines and events dedicated to Mac users, and so on. Before Apple became more about iPhones, there was a very tight community of computer users and geeks who stood behind the Apple brand with a fierce sense of loyalty.
Zan: Speaking of brands, what are some of your best brand projects?
Wil: As I said earlier, there was a coffee shop in Southeast Portland.
In recent years, though, there’s this retreat center called Estancia Serenova. I’m still on that project. About two and a half years ago, I had this individual whom I knew for several years in a different context telling me that she wanted to start a retreat center on the land she had just purchased. It is a magnificent place surrounded by mountains and trees and I fell in love with it at first sight, but frankly, I felt that a retreat center could be the only productive use that land could possibly have by any stretch of the imagination, so that was a fabulous idea. At that time, the place was also occupied by some kind of agricultural research-and-development business. They weren’t doing very well. But the initial idea was for this retreat center to coexist side-by-side with this R&D facility, which, no longer is the case.
Zan: How did you conceive the brand, and how did it evolve?
Wil: My typical process is to start brainstorming with business owners by having them dump all the words they can think of in relation to their business, their mission, and purpose, products, and services they’d like to offer, and their stories. Once they do that, then I analyze the words and group them into four or five common themes and start from there to develop a concept.
In this particular scenario, the ideas behind this proposed retreat center were around healing, renewal/regeneration, nature/back-to-earth/sustainability, community/connection, and spirituality. So I played with that and came up with two candidates: (1) The GroundsWell Sanctuary, and (2) Serenova.
Personally, in the context of that time, the first one seemed like a better fit. “GroundsWell” was actually a play on words between “groundswell” leading to a shift in consciousness or social change, and the state of being “grounded well.” But it sounded way too “hippie” or “cultish” to many people, especially with a loaded word such as “sanctuary,” (and these last couple of years, it is also politically loaded with lots of high emotions running on both sides) and it evoked the imagery of dirt and mud so that one got dumped.
So we were left with the other one, “Serenova.” When I came up with “Serenova,” it was also a play on words with multiple meanings to be inferred: First, it was a form of a Spanish word renovarse. Here “se renueva” would mean “it renews itself,” or a better English translation would be “it is renewed” or “refreshed.” The other meaning that is overlaid is from two Latin words, “serenus” and “nova,” or serene and new. The downside of this one was that it sounded “too clinical,” like a plastic surgeon’s office, a pharmaceutical company, or even a beauty salon. It felt too sterile, it could even be a brand for a tech company serving the healthcare sector. So I went back to the drafting table and tweaked the Serenova brand, to make it sound less “clinical.”
The only way I could have accomplished this was to add one more word to it, and exactly one more word. Brands that are more than two words long inevitably lose their strengths and effectiveness because most people cannot remember or say long brands with a consistent accuracy. What I did here was to balance out the very ethereal feel that comes with “Serenova” by grounding it to another word that is strongly associated with a sense of place.
I spent several hours looking up dictionaries and encyclopedias, and also searched the Internet for similar kinds of businesses elsewhere in the world. I found that in South America, particularly in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, many former cattle ranches and plantations were converted into upscale resort accommodations that cater to a highly experiential kind of tourism, and they are called estancias. Now, the word estancia itself generally refers to what we call ranches or manors, and it’s synonymous to ranchos in Mexico and haciendas in some other parts of Latin America. In Argentina, most estancias are vast, covering tens of thousands of acres. The tourist estancias are good examples of rural economic redevelopment and bringing tourism to the areas less traveled. They sell the charm, hospitality, and experiences of country living albeit in a rather packaged kind of way. In any case, I liked how the word “estancia” sounded. It is just unfamiliar enough to typical North Americans to create intrigue and inspire curiosity, and it flows rhythmically well when you say it. And unlike the word “rancho,” it does not have a strong connotation (for U.S. consumers) of being a place in Arizona, California, Texas, or Mexico. And in retrospect, “la estancia se renueva” actually can be loosely translated as the ranch that is refurbished! That place was actually called the “Owl Tree Ranch” about a decade back (something I found out about much later), so that’s very apt, even though there’s no evidence that it has ever been an actual working ranch with cattle.
Then we’ve got a set of sub-brands. In the case of this retreat center, I believe that placemaking would be an important way of creating positive guest experiences that make their stay there special. Like car manufacturers have their principal brands (such as Toyota) but they have distinct brands for their product lines (such as Camry, Corolla, Scion, and Lexus, all with different levels of amenities and features), we’ve got to have distinguishable brands for each of the buildings, rooms, and various outdoor features. So, after a period of research into local history and legends, I came up with sub-brands for each building, each room, and even the roads running through the retreat center grounds. They are mostly inspired by the geography and history of the area. For example, the main service road is called Dory M. Walrod Place, named after the late town physician who used to live there. Then we’ve got the Alice Tarbell Cultural Space, named after one of the earliest settlers to the village in which we’re located. These sub-brands are just as important in the overall brand communication scheme. Distinguishing your products is quite important because such sub-brands can offer choices and can appeal to more diverse demographics as well.
Zan: So, the fewer words the better?
Wil: Indeed. Inexperienced amateurs tend to make their brands and company names (they can be different, or identical) too long hoping that they would encapsulate everything they want to do. But again, most people cannot recall a brand that is more than three words long. Longer brands almost always get “chopped” and bastardized by consumers and the general public. Very few people actually say “Whole Foods Market,” it’s almost always “Whole Foods” to them. You can potentially get away with three words, but certainly not four words or more.
Another reason why your brand should be short and non-descriptive is that your business may evolve in different directions down the road. You might decide to develop a new product or switch the focus to something else entirely. Then you’ll have to rebrand to be in line with that change. For example, you may start a “Zander’s Restaurant,” then two years later, you decided that running a restaurant isn’t so rewarding, so you switch to event catering or manufacturing packaged food or making dog food. Now you’re no longer a restaurant, so you’ll have to spend money rebranding everything only two years into the business. That kind of thing can be avoided if your brand was simply “Chez Zander” (CheZander even?) or something like that in the first place.
Zan: What about the visuals, though? How was the design process?
Wil: Okay, here are some examples of the original lockup and the latest one.
I designed the first one back in the spring of 2016. Again, I drew ideas from the collection of words. What I did in this particular project also was to take a photograph taken at the location and sampled the colors from the picture using a graphic design software (namely, Inkscape). I extracted a set of four colors and made them the official color palette of Estancia Serenova. The green was from the forest. The brown was taken from the tree trunks. The blue was taken from a typical cloudy sky of Western Oregon. And the pink was taken from one of the wildflowers. This way, the brand marks are rooted in nature, further grounding the brand in the sense of place.
I designed the Estancia Serenova emblem with some inspirations from boutique hotels and retail apparel sector, with a thought that the brand would appeal primarily to the urban female population. It was designed within two interlocking geometric shapes that look somewhat like a flower to some and a ring of chain for others — symbolizing blossoming of life as well as a human chain of friendship and community — and accented with natural and subdued colors that recall the vast sky above, green leaves of the woods, and the ground upon which all stand. At the center were two interlocking S-shaped flames joining together as they rise.
The desired overall effect was to evoke a feeling of a natural, simple elegance that appeals to a refined consumer taste.
The new version has been phased in since the summer of 2018 and it simplified the color palette to use fewer colors. And the green is now a shade lighter, the color of early summer. It also incorporates the new slogan, “Come together. Come alive.” The oval is one of several lockup options, and the drawing of a walnut branch is in reference to the three old walnut trees that have become a kind of landmark in this retreat center. And I’ve taken out the flames from the image especially in light of all the recent tragedies involving forest fire, and certainly, we don’t want that anywhere near the retreat center! The introduction of a new design notwithstanding, the overall design theme and visual language remain unchanged.
The choice of typefaces used in the wordmark are Alex Brush and Cinzel. The first typeface is a “script” typeface and has a very dynamic look. I contrasted it with the second typeface, which projects stability and groundedness, like letters carved onto an ancient Roman temple. So it symbolizes the balance between movement and silence, action and thoughts, outward growth and inward deepening, playfulness and refined elegance. In other places, the typefaces used are Fanwood (serif) and Chivo (sans-serif).
Zan: What advice do you have for those who are starting their own business, when it comes to branding?
Wil: First, step out of your brain and reach out to someone (who is not your friend or family member, if at all possible) for feedback. There is a reason why brand strategists and designers exist as professions. You’ve got your own dreams, fantasies, and such, and you’re often too invested in them that you don’t know how others would perceive what you have to offer. Every word you use has a meaning and connotation that you may or may not be aware of, and every idea you promote has a consequence. Do your research and give lots of thoughts to your brands.
Second, have a solid brand document. Without a brand document or a brand manual, you won’t have a consistency in presenting your brand and that leads to a brand dilution. A brand isn’t just about coming up with a name for your business, or “logo design.” It is an all-encompassing plan to package and present your business, products, or services in order to evoke a positive emotional response from potential customers, the general public, and other stakeholders. It includes visuals, words, sounds… a brand engages all five senses as an invitation to an experience. Your brand can be the last thing that stands between a prospective customer’s decision and indecision, and between your product and your competitors’. In order to build credibility and a loyal customer base, your brand must be consistently deployed at all times.
Third, be original and never be a copycat. You can get into a serious legal trouble for this (trademark infringements and copyright violations), and that aside, the best way to differentiate your business from the others is to have your own voice.
Zan: What is the recent trend in branding, and how has it changed from the past?
Wil: In the 20th century, brands used to be symbols of quality and value. People looked for brands as assurances for a certain quality standard or a promise of a good deal. As we entered the 21st century, the world of commerce had changed from uniform mass consumption to individualized consumer experiences, and along with it, brands have become symbols of experiences and even a sense of community or sub-culture one can become part of. The latter, the sense of community, is increasingly mediated by social media and online review sites, as well as various fan blogs, podcasts, and YouTubers who become unofficial brand evangelists.
One of the most notable changes during the past 15 to 20 years is that brands no longer explicitly describe or even imply what kind of products or businesses they are. This change most likely happened first within the IT sector, with companies such as Yahoo! and Google, but this trend has spread to other industries such as hospitality and even churches during the past decade.
Zan: Churches, I didn’t think of that.
Wil: Yes. I was an Evangelical Christian since I was 15 years old and I originally joined a fundamentalist Baptist Church (don’t ask me why, long story!). But I noticed how the “trendier” churches back then weren’t calling themselves “churches,” but instead, something like “Christian Center” or “Christian Fellowship,” ostensibly because “churches” sounded too old-fashioned, pompous, ritualistic, or rigid. Many of them had worship services that felt like a rock concert, in a building that looked more like a community college campus than a church. That was back in the 1990s. Then maybe 10 to 12 years ago I began noticing newer churches even dropping those labels and calling themselves like “Mosaic” or “The Bridge,” “Renaissance,” or “Branches.” They are part of the so-called Emerging Church movement, a countercultural offshoot of the Evangelicals. You can’t even tell what those places are, but that’s the whole point of their brands.
Zan: Do other non-profits also rebrand?
Wil: Yes, in recent years, the Housing Authority of Portland became Home Forward, and Portland Women’s Crisis Line became Call to Safety. Sisters Of The Road Cafe dropped the word “Cafe” in the early 2000s when it had come to a realization that their real purpose wasn’t just serving food but it was about community-building.
Zan: Should brands follow trends, or should they be more timeless?
Wil: You need to strike a balance between being in touch with the latest brand trends and looking into the long term. A successful brand has to last for a generation, that is, the minimum of 15 to 20 years because you need stability to build credibility and to grow. If you keep changing your principal brands every other year, you will lose credibility and people will look at you like you aren’t serious. If you have sub-brands for specific product lines, they can be changed more frequently as long as they are firmly associated with your principal brands.
The general trend that I see — and I believe it is irreversible for a fairly long time to come — strongly favors non-descriptive brands as the brands should embody experience and the community, rather than products or services. Such brand strategies also make a space for unexpected future evolution into other products and areas as necessary.