This past January, when we started working on a blog to recognize 25 years of Brand Fuel, we started with a list of bullet points of our company memories. Our list went super long. Like not worth reading it long. A lot of things can – and did – happen in 25 years, so we decided to wax poetic about those formative early days, fashioning a time capsule of sorts.
Most importantly, we’d like to acknowledge that it’s not lost on us that we made it this far – and that we could not have done so without you. We feel extreme gratitude towards our super talented and loyal team (“Fuelians”), trusting customers, and hard-working vendor partners. Thank YOU.
So, welcome to the untamed, offbeat, and whimsical world of Brand Fuel, a once-little agency with big dreams. Since our founding in 1998, our company has been experimenting, blazing trails, making some mistakes, and challenging a commoditized industry, while leaving a trail of original ideas in our rocket’s wake. And it all started with middle school friends who retained a sense of friendship, respect, trust, and love for 40 years.
From our humble beginnings, we have created a story filled with transition, camaraderie, and an unwavering commitment to fueling the fun. So, grab a seat, buckle up, and embark on a journey through the early days of Brand Fuel.
Transition Time and Debauchery:
Ah, transitions. They can be a little challenging. But very often, they lead to something extraordinary. From our 1999 rebrand from Clockwork Advertising to Brand Fuel, the stage was set for adventure and rebranding for future clients. And it started with a marketing stunt. Wearing “jet fuel” backpacks filled with coffee in the morning and beer in the afternoon, Robert and Danny personally drove around town in a Brand Fuel branded billboard truck, visiting 100 clients, and distributing drinks in branded travel mugs along the way.
When we opened our second office in Norfolk, VA only a couple years in, and after it proved a success, we felt like we’d be able to break through brick walls and glass ceilings. We grew and moved into larger space 5 times in the first 7 years!
We also created some long-standing traditions. For better or worse, these traditions continue to garner chuckles. First, our C-Suite always has our corporate strategic retreats at a Shoney’s in Emporia, VA. We do this because we choose not to waste company money on executives eating succulent meats and drinking fine wines at lavish golf resorts in Hawaii. This cost-saving choice sent a message of parity to our team. Second, our team gets dressed in original costumes each Halloween and then they show up to eat lunch at The Waffle House, where WH employees vote on the most original costumes. It’s weird, but it works, complemented by all the scattered, smothered, covered, diced, and capped hashbrown Brand Fuel historical glory.
Pizza, Showrooms, and Bathroom Offices:
Brand Fuel is very much a friend-based founding story with humble beginnings. Picture this: a small office with 4 sweaty dudes, right next to a Domino’s, where the intoxicating scent of hot cheese wafts through the air. Cheap pizza-fueled brainstorming sessions and late-night munchies were our norm.
Interactive showrooms were always a vital part of our offering, showcasing our creativity, even hosting a band that we hired to play when staff arrived to work one Friday. And we shall never forget Robert’s first office, which boasted the luxury of having an executive bathroom. We were never allowed to use that executive throne. And in insult to injury fashion, in that first office, we had to share (i.e., wait for) a computer with CorelDraw if we wanted to produce artwork. But we always had freshly squeezed, fat-free water for our guests.
We recall a spinner wheel game we used as a sales team incentive with prizes like “something from the company fridge” and “high fives from the owners.” The prizes were not lavish, but the laughs were plentiful.
Throwing Each Other to the Wolves and Learning Experiences:
In any partnership, there are moments of tough love and valuable lessons. When Danny went on his first vacation, he didn’t hold back when he threw Robert to the wolves with a heap of “My MBA didn’t teach me this!” work. That industry learning curve for Robert turned out to be a pivotal experience that helped shape the company’s future success. After all, sometimes you must let your colleagues spread their wings and fly, even if it comes with a few expletives along the way.
Refining Roles, Settling In, and Challenging Growth:
Defining roles in a dynamic company can be a challenge. Especially among partners who have known each other since they were 13 years old. But instead of getting stuck in the quagmire of rigid definitions and who was contributing the most in the time-honored Sales vs. Ops battle, Danny and Robert settled on a balanced and more flexible approach. Each did what they loved and were good at, and they filled in the rest with an incredible team (thank goodness for Allison McLain). They also did not let titles get in the way and in a true reveal of equity, they anointed each other “Co-Presidents.” This love and respect propelled Brand Fuel forward.
Robert and Danny also earned the nicknames of The Glimmer Twins, “Mick and Keith” (thanks Michele Bell) – we will let you guess who is who.
And when they ran into a decision-making impasse where they could not agree, they usually relied on an iconic 70’s game (um, “management tool”) and promotional product to make the decision for them – The Magic Eight Ball.
Fake It till You Make It, Microbrews, and Free Tees:
Every success story has its fair share of failures, and Brand Fuel is no exception. In that first year, prospective client Duron (now part of Sherwin-Williams) flew in to meet with our small but mighty team of 4 to see if we had the right stuff to earn their account. We faked it. Big time. Our friends came to the office and staged brainstorming and shopping activity, and things were going swimmingly until we took our guests to the wrong office suite when showing them our “in house” embroidery facility. We did not win Duron over, but it was not for a lack of inventiveness.
And who could forget the Southeastern Microbrew Festival? Selling festival T-shirts and drinking copious amounts of festival beer was the perfect recipe for disaster. When the rowdy crowd began to flash us (yikes!) for free shirts, we realized the power of our medium.
We love and believe in the medium that we once called “advertising specialties, that graduated to “promotional products,” then “swag,” and now is proudly called “branded merchandise.”
Embracing Tech Dreams, Navigating Personalities, and Rocket Mishaps:
Brand Fuel set out to be a technology company. We proudly built one of the world’s first e-commerce storefronts for companies. We cut our teeth on Interpath, our first client, which ignited our tech dreams and paved the way for massive future growth. Along the way, we had failures with some of our platforms and fulfillment houses, but darn it, we worked hard to overcome, learn, build a talented tech team (Eric Granata, FTW!) and we rebounded with “technology” as our calling card to this very day.
Rocket Day, Music Anthems, and Big Wins:
Once, at our annual client appreciation event, Rocket Day, we made creative model rockets that we launched near the airport (pre-911). Shooting rockets into the sky near an airport is not a good idea. But hey, no one was injured or arrested!
It’s also important to remember our music roots. Our love of music has been embedded with much of our work and branding. The early office soundtrack of CCR, Link Ray, The Ramones, Tom Petty, The Clash, and Johnny Cash played nonstop on CDs, fueling our team’s creative spirits. Oh, and let’s not ever forget The King of Promotions, Elvis Presley, who always got us through the tough times.
Of course, no celebration would be complete without recognizing those early, big wins from clients who trusted us like BCBSNC, Quintiles, and Anthem, proving that a free-spirited “strategy first, product second” approach could yield significant results even in RFP-driven, corporate environments.
As we wrap up our whirlwind tour of Brand Fuel’s early memories, we can’t help but marvel at the rollercoaster, er, rocket ride. We’ve been through it all – dotcom busts, Sunshine Acts, 2008 Economic recessions, PHARMA Guideline changes, rebrands, 20+ lease deals, ERP challenges, COVID-19, and being girl dads. Robert and Danny proudly navigated parenting 4 daughters who are now onto college (massive thanks go to their wives who put up with their business-building shenanigans, late hours, and excuses.)
Proudly, Brand Fuel has emerged as a free-spirited challenger agency that stands tall in the branded merch industry. Through it all, the heartbeat of Brand Fuel has remained strong—the unwavering commitment to fueling the fun, integrity, being an original, and making a positive impact. With a newly minted B Corp certification and an enhanced focus on social impact and sustainability, we plan to continue to evolve. And we can’t wait!
Thank you for believing in our team and our work. Happy 25th anniversary to us!
– Robert & Danny, Co-Founders, Co-Presidents and friends