El Fenix project feeds creative spark at Dallas branding firm09:47 AM CDT on Monday, July 20, 2009
by Cheryl Hall
is in the midst of the greatest branding challenge in his 12-year marketing career. That's because the 35-year-old owner of Dallas-based One Fast Buffalo doesn't want to be the guy who screwed up El Fenix.
Mike Karns, the new owner and chief executive of El Fenix, hired Jenkins four months ago to help return Dallas' Tex-Mex icon to its glory days.
Jenkins, a Lake Highlands native and lifelong El Fenix aficionado, sees this as a restoration project, not a rebranding effort. "In the '50s and '60s, El Fenix had style and class – an I Love Lucy and Desi Arnaz feel. But since then, the aesthetics have slipped.
"I'll go there no matter what, because I love the food, the authentic service, and the prices are great. El Fenix cult members get that. The problem is that noncult members have this perception that it's like a Pancho's. There's no reason it can't have more style and class now and still be true to itself."
Clients such as T-Mobile USA
, Peterbilt Motors Co
., Rockfish Seafood Grill
and Haynes and Boone LLP
currently get branding expertise from Jenkins and OFB.
Karns hired Jenkins seven years ago to design a corporate logo for Karns Commercial Real Estate. He says Jenkins is a perfect fit for the El Fenix task, given his artistic and creative abilities and the fact that "chili con carne runs through his veins."
Brands need a color scheme. Jenkins is going with bright, bold and the glimmer of gold. Icons need instant recognition. A red El Fenix oval and an updated phoenix have officially supplanted more than a dozen logos that indiscriminately cropped up over the years.
Jenkins intends to integrate the brand essence into everything visual – menus, product labels, uniforms, restaurant decor, Web site, napkins, matches and billboards.
And to think all Karns wanted at the outset was Jenkins' opinion on a label that another graphic agency had designed for its jars of queso.
Instead, Jenkins and his creative crew spent five weeks doing a "brand diagnosis" – eating at El Fenix and talking to patrons and employees.
"Ben studied 90 years of history and design, and pulled it together for me," says Karns. "We're restoring the authenticity of El Fenix in the marketplace."
Jenkins believes branding is all about selling your soul in an honest way. "Authenticity is huge. It's the only thing that truly differentiates you."
Jenkins has never been afraid to be himself.
He played quarterback for Lake Highlands High School and was its star baseball player. But he also loved to draw and paint. "I had my art friends and I had my jock friends, and they didn't talk to each other," says Jenkins, who graduated in 1991.
He went to Mississippi State University
on a baseball scholarship
and majored in fine arts
. After graduating in 1996, he joined the Philadelphia Phillies
' minor league team. It was his dream come true.
"But I got super-bored. I loved the baseball part. But in minor league ball, you sit in a motel, eat at 7-Eleven for dinner; you ride buses," he recalls.Off the bus
Instead of soaking up soap operas with his teammates, Jenkins used his downtime to create logos for local dry cleaners and shops in the towns he passed through. He designed album covers for wannabe bands.
Jenkins lasted a season and a half before deciding to go to graduate school. His selection process was based totally on applying to U.S. News & World Report's top five graphic design schools
. He was accepted by the top-ranked School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
As part of his master's program, he spent a year on an American Indian reservation in South Dakota making a documentary film.
"It flipped my world view upside down," Jenkins says. "I'm a suburban kid from Lake Highlands. It's great, but it's Pleasantville. There I was, sitting in one of the poorest places in the country. It told me that no matter what, I'm going to do what I love to do in the way I want to do it."
That's also where he came up with the name One Fast Buffalo
He relates to the buffalo's story of coming back from near extinction. Add in fast, and you've got an anomaly.
"The cool thing about the name is people always ask about it," he says. "The point of branding is to create a little mystery."
It's also a mouthful, so the agency mostly goes by OFB.Research in an RV
Jenkins and his 12-person staff often do free-wheeling research and creative work on the road, piling into an RV and eating in small-town diners. "We drive around, see things, collect things and get input. We fill each other's tank with creative energy," he says.
For Christine Edgington
, 25, who handles the agency's business side, her biggest challenge is also the thing she loves the most. "Every single day that I wake up and come to work, I'm working on something different."
Last year, OFB became one of T-Mobile's three key agencies and Peterbilt's agency of record for traditional and digital marketing.
When Jenkins made his sales pitches at T-Mobile headquarters in Seattle and Peterbilt's offices in Denton, he knew he was going up against some of the biggest agencies in the world.
So he wore his typical dress-for-success attire: well-worn blue jeans, old boots and a belt with a huge American Indian buckle bought off eBay.Atypical dress code
His three accompanying creative team members adhered to OFB dress code: Boots and jeans are musts, but above-the-waist attire is up to the individual as long as he or she sticks to agency-branded hues of brown, black or white.
"We definitely have our own feel when we meet with new clients," Jenkins says. "They go, 'Whoa! This is different.' "
OFB's year started in a downturn after several clients cut back in late 2008.
"We weren't getting fired, but they were saying, 'We can't spend money,' " Jenkins says.
He sulked for a month or so. Then he rallied his troops. He told them his goal for the year was to not to fire anyone. They agreed to waive bonuses, take salary cuts and do without office perks to keep that from happening.
So far, he hasn't had to do any of that.
The second quarter was better than last year's, and OFB has received a stack of requests for proposals in the past three weeks.
That's because Jenkins hired three sales reps to scout for new business. "We're 10 years old, and we've never done any marketing of ourselves."
He also came up with an unusual payment for one new client.
The owner of Cowboy Chow
restaurant in Deep Ellum
couldn't afford One Fast Buffalo's rates. But Jenkins likes the concept, so he agreed to be paid with a stake in the open-range, kettle-over-fire restaurant. "If the restaurant does well, we'll do well."
If it doesn't pan out – hey, he and his crew will have had fun on the job.