How I built brands
at the epicenter of innovation
MY CAREER IN SILICON VALLEY
It’s hard to imagine a world without the internet, email, or texting—let alone social media. Yet, when I began my career that is precisely what the world was like. I moved from Rome, Italy to San Jose, California in 1978 to study at the University of Santa Clara. At that time no one owned a personal computer and very few had heard of Silicon Valley. Today we live in a world where we carry powerful (and miniscule) computers in our pockets, we’re always connected, and Silicon Valley is renowned worldwide as the epicenter of cutting-edge technology and innovation. Looking back, I feel incredibly fortunate to have found myself in exactly the right place at precisely the right time in history.
THE EARLY DAYS
I started my first agency, Muccino Advertising, in San Jose in 1980 when I was just 19. At that point, I wasn’t that clear about the difference between advertising and design, but I soon discovered that designing logos and packaging was my passion. Seeing an opportunity with the emerging startups in the area, I changed the business name to Muccino Design Group and set out to conquer the world – one logo at a time.Back then, logos were drawn on paper with pencils and inked with technical pens. The process required lots of patience and a steady hand. The final design was photographed with a large stationary camera and the image was printed on a special photographic paper, known as a “stat”. Typography was handled by specialists who used expensive typesetting machines. The process often involved trial and error because you needed to provide detailed specifications for fonts, sizes, line spacing, etc. and you would not see how the type turned out until a day or so later – at which point you’d often needed to provide revised specs. By 1984, a little box called the Apple Macintosh was introduced, forever changing the design industry. The era of “stats” and “typesetters” was rendered obsolete almost instantly as designers transitioned to creating directly on a computer, previewing their designs on a screen, and delivering final art as digital files. Apple swiftly transformed into a cult, forever altering the landscape of design and branding.
MEETING MILTON GLASER
(and STEVE JOBS)
The first time I met Steve Jobs was at the Aspen Design Conference, in 1989, where I joined a group discussion on how technology was impacting the design industry. About 20 of us gathered around a big table. Milton Glaser, the legendary designer of the I NY logo sat at the end of the table, and Steve Jobs, already well known as the founder of Apple, was sitting directly across from me.
Steve and Milton (as they preferred to be called) argued eloquently about whether or not a computer would replace a pencil and what impact technology might have on our profession. At the end, they both agreed that a computer was just a tool, the same as a pencil. I wonder what they would say about AI, if they were alive today.
A few years later, I landed my first project for Apple, a campaign positioning the Macintosh as an ideal solution for classrooms. During that project, I was in a couple of meetings where Steve Jobs popped in for a little while. That said, I never had the chance to work closely with him on a design project – which is something I really wish had happened.
the launch of the most famous
ingredient brand in tech
By the early 90’s the agency’s client list was growing and the projects were becoming more significant. One of our early clients was Intel, a company that dominated the semiconductor industry. In 1999, Intel introduced the Intel Inside brand, which would become one of the most successful “ingredient branding” campaigns ever seen in the world of technology, and I had the good fortune to work on some of the initial campaigns. Specifically, my agency was responsible for crafting the retail marketing tools promoting the Intel Inside logo, which identified computers powered by a genuine Intel processor.
Few people knew what a processor was or why they should care. The Intel Inside campaigns pointed out that Intel made the “brains” powering their PCs, a brilliant consumer positioning and messaging strategy. The marketing efforts were fueled by a significant financial commitment through an MDF program (Marketing Development Funds). Companies that bought Intel chips received a discount, but the catch was that this money had to be used for marketing purposes, overseen by Intel, to promote manufacturers who featured the Intel Inside sticker on their computers. The program was wildly successful, and Intel became one of the most valuable brands in the world.
As my agency’s relationship with Intel grew, I had the honor to work closely with Intel’s charismatic and brilliant Worldwide Creative Director, Susan Rockrise (who reported to Andy Grove, Intel’s CEO considered one of the fathers of Silicon Valley). During this period, I gleaned invaluable insights from Susan, emphasizing the distinction between “design” and “branding,” as well as the pivotal roles of “strategy” and “messaging. Over the course of nearly three decades working with the Intel brand, I had the privilege to work on many significant initiatives, including the launch of Centrino (Intel’s inaugural mobile chip), the introduction of the Pentium Processor, and the design of the USB logo. Additionally, my agency also had the chance to design the exhibits at the Intel Museum and helped craft Intel’s presence at numerous trade shows across the world, including the famed Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a project that we worked on for many years in a row.
refreshing the Hewlett Packard logo
People often ask me about some of my most memorable or more challenging projects…and there are many, but one that stands out is refining the iconic HP logo.
David Roman, HP’s CMO and a good friend is famous for speaking in riddles while being very clear about his vision. David’s brief was something like this: “Make it better, but keep it the same”. I interpreted his words as a directive to handle the logo with utmost respect, given it is an extremely valuable asset. So, I worked with a team of designers and applied a very precise and rigorous approach to the logo’s letterforms with the goal to optimize the relationship between positive and negative spaces. The outcome was a set of changes that were barely noticeable to the general public, yet they brought the renowned monogram into alignment with HP’s unwavering dedication to engineering excellence. Additionally, we also increased the size of “hp” within the circle which improved legibility at very small sizes. Although nearly imperceptible, these small adjustments were exactly what David was hoping for, which led us to work with HP for many years after.
starting, growing and exiting LIQUID AGENCY
In the mid 90’s I met Scott Gardner, a fellow entrepreneur who owned an agency in San Jose. We became fast friends and started collaborating on a number of clients. We worked well together, so a few years later we combined forces and started Liquid Agency. At Liquid, we offered a powerful combination of “Strategy + Creative,” enabling us to deliver “branding” in a much bigger way. Our approach resonated well with the technology industry at a time when tech companies were transitioning into more sophisticated marketers. Before long, Liquid Agency became one of the most respected branding firms in Silicon Valley.
Our client roster grew to include Adobe, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, HP, PayPal, PlayStation, and many other prominent tech firms. We worked directly with the CMOs of some of the world’s most valuable and innovative companies. We expanded our reach by opening offices in Portland, San Francisco and New York and formed strategic partnerships in Santiago, Chile and in Nottingham, UK – enabling us to build relationships with clients from diverse geographies and industries, including: Adidas, Nike, Nordstrom, Walmart, Keurig, Visa, Silicon Valley Bank, John Deere, and many others.
To fuel its growth Liquid had acquired other agencies, and the internal culture started to change in ways that did not fit my personality. While we enjoyed substantial success (which was exciting), I felt that we were gradually morphing into a traditional agency, complete with a sizable workforce, multiple physical offices, and the bureaucratic complexities that come with such growth (which I found frustrating). So I decided it was time to reinvent myself, sold my shares to Scott and we parted ways as business partners. That said, I am very proud to have maintained our friendship to this day, and it’s great to see that Liquid continues to thrive under his leadership.
SOLID AND THE MCAFEE REBRAND:
another huge success
In 2016 I started Solid Branding. My aim was to explore a virtual business model, an approach that I thought was more innovative and agile than the traditional agency paradigm. This is the agency we proudly operate today.
One of our first big assignments was the rebrand of McAfee, the cybersecurity pioneer. A few years prior McAfee had been acquired by Intel and the company’s name had been changed to Intel Security. Unfortunately, this move did not yield the desired results. Intel had limited credibility or experience in the cybersecurity sector, and decided to sell the security division to a Private Equity firm in a deal worth $4.2 billion. Following this transaction, Solid was hired to manage a comprehensive rebrand, which included the restoration of the iconic McAfee name. Working alongside McAfee’s management team, we delivered a new positioning and messaging strategy, a complete redesign of the brand identity, and we created all new marketing assets and campaigns for the launch of the rebrand.
Fast forward to 2021: McAfee was acquired by The Investor Group for the staggering sum of over $14 billion, representing a premium of approximately 22.6% above McAfee’s closing share price of $21.21 at the time of the acquisition.
Since starting Solid I have had the chance to work on many interesting projects, but I am particularly proud of this rebrand because it undeniably demonstrates the significant financial impact of a solid strategic branding program. (pun intended).
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SILICON VALLEY HAS CHANGED EVERYTHING,
The world has changed radically since those days, long ago, when I first landed in San Jose as a bright eyed young man filled with dreams of a better future. Today, I no longer live in the Bay Area, and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to work alongside and learn so much from some of the most innovative people on the planet. I am also grateful that the indomitable spirit of Silicon Valley continues to live in me, inspiring me to challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of what’s possible.
Thank you, Silicon Valley.