Real is Beautiful Blog    

What Brands Can Learn From Real, Likable People

March 27, 2024

As an agency who believes real is beautiful, we look for inspiration in an obvious place: the real world. And for today's post, we look to common clichés of advertising and branding to find our topic: personifying the brand. Marketers often use terms like “brand personality” and “brand behavior,” or ask “what does the brand stand for,” as if the brand is a real, living person. So we are taking this metaphorical bridge from people to brands a step further by profiling real, living, breathing—but especially likable—people to see what we might learn. All brands want to be liked, right?

We started by asking ourselves, what are the attributes of a likable person? Then we mapped those attributes to the act of branding. A very subjective exercise, to be sure, but we think the parallels we’ve found are useful for all brand marketers.

This exercise in likability has inspired us at North to consider these attributes as guidelines for the brands we work with, to remind ourselves that when it comes to making brands interesting, we only need to look at people. 

Real ones.

Sound Matters: North’s Approach To ‘Vibrational Branding’

April 24, 2024

We think with light. We feel with sound.

At North, we believe music is a deeply powerful and uniting form of expression for brands. 

But so much commercial music sounds generic, conforming, and pandering. 

Why is that? 

Music is often overlooked by agencies and brands and we think that’s a mistake, or at least a missed opportunity. One only need look at how sound is perceived by human beings. The limbic system, which is all about emotion and memory, lights up when music is heard. Ever get the chills when listening to a stirring piece of music? That’s dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter, racing through your brain.

Music is dope. Sorta literally.

Our belief is that there’s a huge difference between music made for commercials, and music made with artistic intent that has commercial application. We call the latter “Vibrational Branding.”

North is an advertising agency. And our approach to brand building is data driven, but also deeply intuitive since many of us are musicians and have experience with writing, recording, playing, and releasing produced music ourselves. 

So we dig into that experience with a keen sensitivity to match brands up with artists by understanding where the two overlap in values, audience, and purpose. Otherwise, without that sensitivity, clients and artists alike feel exploited or wonder why they ever entered into each others’ worlds in the first place.

We've built so many trusted partnerships with musical artists over our 18 years, we've even created our own music library with 500+ pre-vetted, artistically-intent tracks available for licensing, syncs, editors, and music supervisors. These tracks can be easily searched by agencies and producers by mood, pace, instrumental, lyrics, genre, timbre, and more. 

Sometimes our library is all the vibration we need. But other times we need original music. What follows is our approach to inspiring original music from artists for brands, including three examples.

How do you brief a recording artist to create branded music?

Our mantra at North is “Real is beautiful.” With all of our clients we first we learn what’s real about our their brand, products, or cause. Then we understand what makes the brand beautiful to its fans and potential new audiences. With that knowledge, we develop advertising  campaigns and go-to-market strategies. 

Vibrational Branding is how music plays a part in the brand’s expression. And it’s always a part of how we bring a brand to market.

We consider ways to suggest an artist’s intentions that will serve the brand and the artist equally. It’s important to us (and to the project) that the artist and brand are both better for a partnership together. You know, sharing the vibration.

Over time, we’ve created some unique and wonderful partnerships between brands and artists, where the relationship feels mutually beneficial, grows together, and respects each others’ terms and boundaries. Good vibrations all around.

Hydro Flask: Let’s Go!

In collaboration with Hydro Flask’s marketing leadership, North developed an all-encompassing brand platform expressed through a two-word call-to-action: Let’s Go! That solution was built on insights about Hydro Flask’s audience who deeply desire an active life enriched with community, joy, personal growth, and outdoor adventures. They also indexed extremely high with music as a soundtrack to that active life. 

North had worked on an earlier project with two artists whose musical careers overlapped, and also had developed a close friendship through many years crossing paths on tour and in recording studios. 

Laura Gibson had released several highly acclaimed albums and had built a deeply passionate fan base in America, EU, and Japan - all Hydro Flask markets. Dave Depper, an incredibly gifted musician who can play any instrument ever invented, had been a fixture in many of Portland’s most beloved bands. Dave is now a full-time member and multi-instrumentalist with indie rock band Death Cab For Cutie.

We trusted them both creatively to understand Hydro Flask’s values and appeal. And, we knew Dave and Laura shared a love of the outdoors, often hiking together and scaling arduous and gorgeous climbs throughout the Cascade mountains. 

Vibrational branding brief:
Instead of asking Dave and Laura to write commercial music for a hydration bottle brand, we asked them to write a song about their time on the trail, decompressing from tour, catching up, ruminating, enjoying silences together above 8000 ft. We gave them complete artistic freedom, and only asked that they include the words “Let’s Go,” with no requirements as to where or how. 

They both loved the assignment. It was a way to make music together again after being busy with solo careers. But more importantly, it was a way to celebrate the joy of their friendship, which fit perfectly with Hydro Flask’s audience and brand values.  

They composed the song, lyrics, and produced/engineered the first recording themselves, which was used for a video anthem launching the Let’s Go! brand campaign. 

Over six years, the composition has remained the same, with that resounding earworm of a chorus that suggests in perfect rhythm to the listener: Let’s go! 

But the recordings and production have evolved. John Askew, a reknowned Portland music producer who’d worked with Dave and Laura often, became North’s right hand in helping to reimagine, remix, and evolve the recordings for dozens of streaming and social platforms. All with Dave and Laura’s collaborative input and involvement.

For the entirety of the campaign, North structured and helped maintain contractual agreements between Dave, Laura, and Hydro Flask that allowed for flexibility as a brand asset while assuring creative, usage, and royalty equity for the artists. It’s critical that contractual issues are minimized when working with professional musicians. You might say it's all part of maintaining the vibe.

Upon launch, Hydro Flask social followers were asking, “What’s that song in the video?” We wanted Hydro Flask’s social team to be able to reply with a simple link, so we set the song up for streaming in Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and many other services. Hydro Flask kicked in an incentive, letting fans know the brand would donate the proceeds of streaming up to 20,000 plays to their Parks For All cause. They hit that donation within 2 weeks. To date, "Let’s Go!" The Song has been streamed about a million times.  



State Of Oregon: Cover Oregon

When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was passed into law, the state of Oregon sent out request-for-proposals to a whole lot of agencies to build awareness for this new channel of insurance coverage. 

North responded with one idea, and it was centered on music.   

We saw Oregon’s implementation of the ACA, called Cover Oregon, as next in the line of the state’s legislative innovations and milestones, from the Bottle Bill to the Beach Bill to the Equality Act. 

In fact, Woody Guthrie was hired by Oregon in 1941 to write a song celebrating the creation of the Bonneville Power Authority. Roll On Columbia was penned by Guthrie in a small apartment in southeast Portland. Over time, the song became an anthem of sorts, still sung by elementary children throughout the state. We took inspiration from Guthrie’s elegant ode and created a new rallying cry for universal healthcare: “Long Live Oregonians.” 

Vibrational branding brief:

We sent out a call for submissions to 25 songwriters and musical artists throughout Oregon. The simple ask: help us write a new anthem and compose the song that will be sung by children for the next 100 years, celebrating healthcare for all. 

The response was overwhelming. The passion, originality, sheer quality of craft, and diversity of styles and genres was a testament to how important this issue was for artists throughout the state. Maybe because musicians especially are so lacking in means to prioritize their own health and wellness.   

We took the best of the best, helped them produce the songs to their own standards, released them as they were submitted. We produced videos to accompany the songs, which became the awareness campaign in tv, radio, streaming channels, and digital platforms. We followed that stage with 20+ films educating and preparing the public for enrollment. 

We took Cover Oregon from 8% awareness to 85% awareness in four months. Over 450,000 people logged into the portal on the day of its launch, over 50% more than the original goal. 

Infamously the website didn’t work (John Oliver and Gawker took the campaign to task but we still love John Oliver). Still, we remain incredibly proud of this work, almost entirely because of the writers and artists who rose to the challenge and created some very profound and beautiful music around an important idea.

Straightaway: Elevate Everywhere

Makers of extremely well-crafted, ready-to-serve cocktails, Straightaway asked North to develop a brand platform that amplified their culture, filled with makers and lovers of “lively liquid masterpieces.” 

After a fair amount of collaboration and happy hours, together we developed a solution built around what’s real (astonishingly good ingredients and recipes) and what’s beautiful (elevate any moment in any place with the enchantment of a great cocktail) about Straightaway. 

“Elevate Everywhere” has become the brand’s promise. To express it, we asked our friend, editorial photographer and New York Times Magazine contributor Holly Andres, to invite all her cool friends, throw the year’s best backyard hangout, holiday gathering, and dinner party, and get it all on film. Our intention was to get “real” on film.

One of the people she invited was Megan Diana, an independent singer, songwriter, and french horn player who had released multiple albums of soaring vocals, vintage keyboards, echo-y pedal steel, drum grooves: overall what she calls “Dream Country Disco.” We had worked with Megan on a really cool Portland city project where pianos were installed in public spaces throughout the city, called “Piano Push Play” but it was a surprise to see her in the cast of our shoot. 

Vibrational branding brief:

Actually, we didn’t brief this one in. This time it was more serendipitous and organic. In between shoots, Megan would pick up her french horn and dial in something wonderful and uplifting for the cast and crew. Later that night we asked her if she’d be into scoring the campaign. A few weeks later, we wrapped the edit with two Megan Diana songs giving the campaign a dreamy and inspiring vibe. 

A few weeks after that, Straightaway partnered directly with Megan to play some sponsored shows and support her while touring and recording. It was one of those times when North, like a jazz musician, went with the energy of the moment, and the match made perfect sense.   

Is your brand vibrational?

There are three ways you can work with North to make sure your brand is vibrational:

  • Branded Sound Design Strategy: Hire North to provide you with a complete Branded Sound Design Strategy - basically the equivalent of a designer’s “look and feel” for the brand, only with sound and music instead.
  • New Ad Campaign: Hire North as your agency (or for a project) and we will go through our “Real is Beautiful” process and include Branded Sound Design in the development of a new advertising campaign.
  • North Music Library: Utilize the North Music Library to find undiscovered independent artists who your agency can peruse and find songs/bands that may be appropriate for your brand.

Regardless whether you choose to work with North, we hope our approach described above will inspire you to remember sound/music in your next brand refresh. Together let's stamp out music in advertising that sounds generic, conforming, and pandering.

Click here to inquire.

Real is Beautiful

March 6, 2024

We recently noticed something profound about ourselves at North. Something we’ve been doing for decades, but didn’t realize or otherwise articulate or seek credit for. It’s an undercurrent that has always inspired the creative work we do for brands, and also an insight that arguably comes out of our agency’s deep love for art, music, and culture in general.

That something is our obsession with what’s real in the world.

In a world that increasingly asks how it can calculate, manipulate, and even fake its way into our lives, we have always chosen to ask a different question: How is this person, this product, or this brand already beautiful? Just as it is. No calculating, manipulating, or faking. That's where we start our creative process.

And now, looking back, our experience demonstrates that authenticity has always slayed audacity. Genuineness earns more attention than gregariousness. And truth not only trumps trickery, it gets your brand invited into the room. You know, the real room your audience lives in.

The Beatles / Get Back — Doesn't get more real than the world's greatest band fight inertia, boredom, writer's block, heroin addiction, a famously cold and damp studio, and their own history to dig in deep and make something beautiful.

Upon further reflection, we realized that this concept of real is beautiful even embodies how we currently operate. We hire real people, our strategic process uncovers what’s real about a brand, our media projects real to the world. To be different in today’s manufactured, manipulated world, a brand must strive to be real.

So it turns out North has always believed real is beautiful. And now we want to lift that belief out of our unconscious minds and make it plain for all to see.

Analogue / Catalogue - A recording studio in West Ireland working solely to analogue tape.  The engineer/producer Julie McLarnon has shaped her whole life and values through the lens of ‘Analogue’ proving out that real and authentic is beautiful.

But what is real? Is your real the same as ours? We’ve found it’s easier to spot fake than it is to spot real. Which brings us to the purpose of this blog.

Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar columns give us a very real sense of a complicated, painful life behind the advice.

Welcome to the #RealIsBeautiful Blog. Here, we will transparently explore together the concept of real. We’ll talk to experts. We’ll uncover research studies. We’ll point out real when we see it and then ask if you agree. We’ll explore how media choices affect the perceptions of real versus fake. We will get real with the concept of real.

We don’t have a lot of answers right now. And we may never have them all. But we invite you to join us in our pursuit.

Because we do know one thing: Real is beautiful.


Here is a sampling of how Real shows up in our work

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