Cull Makes Old New

May 9, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Health-conscience product launches and an updated marketing campaign have driven Old Orchard Brands LLC through double-digit growth each of the last five years.

The company expanded its national presence with the addition of 1,200 Target stores to its distributor list and the completion of a plant in California to better serve its West Coast customers. The $120-million, Sparta-based juice maker ranks third nationally in frozen juice sales, sixth in bottled juice sales, and has become one of West Michigan’s most recognizable consumer brands.

At the outset of its five-year growth spurt, Old Orchard contracted a national firm in Kansas City, Mo., for its advertising and marketing needs. A few months later, it fired the large firm and brought its business back to West Michigan, where it has since been the responsibility of an unlikely little firm on the second story of a Heritage Hill mansion.

“I used to hear, and still do, ‘Old Orchard, who’s got their business? Who are these guys?’” said Steve Cull, president and principal of Cull Group. “We’ve been under the radar. We’ve had some great accounts, but we’re only now starting to pop our heads up.”

“When we used to call on people we haven’t worked with, it’d be ‘It’s Cull Group. You ever hear of Cull Group?’” said Vice President Jeff Seaver. “We’ve been around for 31 years.”

Cull Group designed all of the labeling for Old Orchard’s new bottle design, logo and product launches, along with accompanying brand management; collateral material and advertisements for trade, consumer and national distribution; and the corporate Web site.

Because of the situation that brought the Old Orchard account in, much of this work was on an aggressive schedule — two weeks for an ad campaign, six weeks to get the product on the shelves.

While Old Orchard is Cull Group’s most notable success in recent years, the firm’s dynamic growth since 2001 — when most agencies were laying off — has not come on the shirttails of the Old Orchard account.

Cull Group counts major players like Meijer Inc. and Zondervan as clients in some categories; other prized accounts are small startups. It has grown with Whitehall Products and helped turn around the image of a beleaguered security firm.

Over the past five years, Cull’s firm has raked in dozens of awards for its work, from the West Michigan Ad Club, Graphic Design: USA and others.

Oddly, the firm’s newfound notoriety has come as its founder reaches retirement age.

Cull founded the company 31 years ago as a one-man video operation centered largely upon international automotive accounts.

“Today it’s a whole different kettle of fish,” Cull said. “It’s a new approach, different client mix and a new direction.”

“Back off that a little bit,” interrupted Creative Director Scott Millen. “You have to play the timeline out. He got fired from his job ...”

“Do we have to mention that I got fired?”

“That’s part of the legend.”

Cull’s impetus for starting the company becomes particularly relevant when looking at his staff. Of eight employees, half were added in the past five years. Growth has been organic and controlled. Cull’s first hire, the 34-year-old Seaver, is barely as old as the company, and has been with the company for 13 years.

“I worked for companies that said they were going to have the biggest ad agency in Michigan,” said Millen, 32. “I was employee eight. Then a year later, I was eight of 50. A year after that, I was eight of 17.

“There isn’t a desire to be huge here; there is a desire to be good.”

That attitude has translated into strong relationships with client firms, many of which follow the same philosophy.

While the company initially served large manufacturers, the majority of its clients today are far from large. Cull’s firm has created a niche helping young businesses and startups bring products to market. Often, these services are end-to-end, with involvement as early as the conceptual phase. Cull Group also offers distribution, strategic planning and intellectual property expertise.

Later this month, Cull Group will test market a new product line for a St. Johns company. While the product itself is unique — a remanufactured ink cartridge designed to be ecologically friendly and cost 30 percent less — Cull saw additional opportunity in the distribution method.

“The strategy we proposed to deliver the brand to the market was different from what they were thinking,” Cull said. “They were thinking kiosks and storefronts. We developed a system to deliver it to the small office environment, because we thought it would be particularly receptive.”

The idea mimicked the coffee services that now serve many local businesses. As a result, the cartridge company launched a separate venture to manage office ink cartridge supplies. The remanufactured product will also be available in stores, but its primary distribution will be direct.

“A lot of our customers tend to be innovative companies that don’t have just one key product,” Cull said. “They are continually bringing products to market with a steady flow of ideas. The smaller companies, we’ve helped them grow and be successful, and we’re carried along for the ride.”

Millen feels that perspective devalues the firm’s relationship with its clients.

“I don’t think we’ve been carried,” he said. “We really work hard to know their business. When we started working with Old Orchard, we became psychotic juice people, sampling everything and trying to figure it out.”

“And we know that we’ll never know their product as well as they do,” Cull added. “We’re not there to tell them what to do; we’re there to help them bring products to market. They appreciate that.”

“He’s been with Whitehall for 14 years,” Millen added. “How many people in our industry can say they have a 14-year client?”    

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