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A Savage Purpose
A Savage Purpose
A struggling design firm discovered that what’s on the inside really is what counts
In 1999, Bethany Andell was working in Hollywood as an art department coordinator. In her hometown of Houston, a buyer slated to purchase Savage Brands, which belonged to her mother Paula Savage, had backed out at the last minute. Savage asked Andell to move home and help run the business, so Andell said goodbye to Hollywood and enrolled in Rice University’s MBA program, hoping to better understand the business she’d inherited. What she received was a rude awakening.
“My entrepreneurship professor taught us to design our own websites,” Andell recalls. “It struck me that Savage couldn’t keep charging six figures for web design if the average business student could now make a site in a semester.”
Reinventing the reinventor
The devaluation of graphic design services prompted Andell and her mother to reimagine Savage Brands as a more holistic branding and communications firm. During this transition, she met a CEO who shared that his company’s logo had been designed by a freelancer found online—for a total cost of $40. “I had to fight back tears,” Andell says. “I returned to the office and told everyone that we could either become the fast food of graphic design, or we could push Savage into new territory.”
We started by asking executive leadership to engage and build cultures, leading with their purpose.
Bethany Andell | Vistage Member
Around this time a friend and client shared Simon Sinek’s seminal book on leadership, “Start with Why,” which prompted Andell to consider the central role a company’s purpose—why it exists beyond profit or shareholder value—should play in shaping its brand. Andell and her team began to reengineer how Savage approached its clients. She directed Savage’s strategy and creative teams to develop experiences that would help CEOs and their leadership teams connect with their core purpose.
“Instead of starting with investor perception studies and market research to determine outside perceptions of a company, we started by asking executive leadership to engage and build cultures, leading with their purpose.” She explains, “I worried that executives might mistakenly think that putting purpose before profit means the business won’t be profitable. But many of the most successful companies—Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods—were built around purpose from day one. However, many more are stuck in the ‘money first’ mindset.”
The work proved novel and challenging, both for Savage’s team and clients. “Our designers can’t just think in a graphical medium. Instead, we have to become storytellers, experience designers and purpose ambassadors—we have to create opportunities for an employee, a customer or an investor to connect with the company’s purpose and experience the brand.” Because these experiences create strong, sometimes visceral connections, they have the power to shake up companies. “Executives have self-selected out of a company because they realize they’re not aligned with its purpose. That sounds scary, but we receive letters of thanks, both from the executive and their former company.”
Practicing what you preach
Andell believes that Savage’s own reinvention has given them the empathy to help clients through this soul-searching work. “Savage was the first guinea pig. We’re transparent with clients about where we’ve failed and the challenges we still face. We reference our own ‘messy middle’—our own uncertainty and false starts that occurred during our transition—to help them, and help us, live our brand.”
She adds that her Vistage group, which she joined in 2013, has reinforced the importance of aligning leadership with purpose. “The group always checks that your ‘whole self’ is showing up and that you’re living the same values at home as you are at the office. I’ve come to see that when a company is authentically living its purpose, your resolve to stay the course will be tested daily—but that’s something to run to, not run from.”
Savage Brands’ reinvention as a purpose-driven firm has revitalized the business and enriched the team’s relationship with clients. “We have a real seat at the table. Our work can directly impact a company’s strategy, rather than just dress it up,” Andell says. “The bottom line is still the bottom line—the value this approach delivers for our clients. What we’ve found is that being purpose-driven leads not just to more profit and more opportunity, but to better profit and better opportunity.”