Date of Birth’s John Mastro on the power of strategy, and why brands must evolve to stay relevant
Born in 2015, Date of Birth was founded by experienced brand design specialists. Since then, the Melbourne-based agency have created and evolved brands of all shapes and sizes – helping both start-ups and existing companies with everything from their strategy and identity to packaging and retail presence. To find out more, we caught up with Founder & Chief Creative Officer John Mastro; speaking about Date of Birth’s unique philosophy, their revamped website, ambitious plans for the future, and much more.
PT Hi John! How’s everything going?
JM Great! We’re heading into summer in Melbourne, there’s some excitement in the air and new opportunities at Date Of Birth.
PT Can you summarise what the agency does, and what services you offer?
JM We’re a branding agency creating the next generation of brands for today, and our services include brand strategy, brand identity and experience design. We work across all industries but have a special focus on retail; launching some of Australia’s most innovative brands. We cater for established brands, start-up brands, traditional brands and out-of-the-box, shake-up-the-system brands – ultimately we bring brands to life with great design, unique ideas and sharp strategy.
Our approach to design is very transferable.
PT Where did this focus on retail come from?
JM My co-founders and I have over two decades worth of experience in retail design, so it was only natural for us to use that experience and knowledge to our advantage. We’re an agency that likes to create brands that not only look great, they work. This focus on purposeful design naturally led us down the path of retail brand design. Clients come to us seeking help with creating a brand that cuts through the noise, they realise the need to lean on an agency that has years of retail experience, connections and strategic ideas. One project led to another and now we’ve developed a bit of a reputation – we love it and of course, we don’t ignore other sectors, our approach to design is very transferable.
PT What was the driving force behind your new website and branding, and what do they both mean for DOB?
JM We needed a website that better reflected our values – we create disruptive brands, brands that cut through the noise and challenge the status quo. Our previous branding wasn’t representative of that, we needed to take the very advice that we give our clients, which is to evolve. Now we can showcase our skillset for all to see, and hopefully, it will inspire people to start something of their own or evolve and nurture what they have.
PT Many agencies tell us how challenging branding themselves can be – was this the case for you? How did you approach it?
JM It is challenging working on your own brand while you are so committed to servicing and working with our clients on theirs. It's a matter of allocating time and resources but also trying to take the same approach that we apply to our clients’ work. Ultimately it’s all about the work, telling our story through our clients’ work and showcasing what we are capable of.
Brands don’t necessarily need to change, but they do need to evolve.
PT ‘Brand Evolution’ is listed as a key service you offer at DOB. How does your process for these kinds of projects differ from new branding projects, and why do you think it’s important for brands to not always start from scratch?
JM Brands don’t necessarily need to change, but they do need to evolve. There might be a need to reach a new audience, introduce a new product, or simply catch up with the times. This is what we call a ‘Brand Evolution.’ It’s not about scrapping everything and starting from scratch – just improving what’s there already and leveraging existing equity. Our process is more focused on identifying visual elements that audiences recognise and associate with a brand. We call these ‘Brand Codes’ or ‘Distinctive Brand Assets.’ We then think of creative ways to express these assets across all brand applications; creating new and memorable brand experiences. We believe it’s important to evolve to stay relevant and connected with the modern world. As part of the journey, we work with our clients on redefining their strategy, positioning and conceptualising their evolution. We love playing a key role in transforming brands.
PT Do you ever meet clients who are reluctant to evolve, or perhaps don’t understand why you’ve proposed a certain direction?
JM We always try to back up our designs with evidence or strategic insight. It’s difficult for clients to ignore their personal preferences over what their customers want. We’re brutally honest with our clients and challenge them where appropriate. At the end of the day, our clients come to us seeking our experience and expertise. As part of the journey, we focus on building a strong relationship with them so that we can have the ‘hard brand’ conversations. Collectively, the process is very collaborative and we try to find the best possible solution for our clients and align it with their business objectives.
PT You’re involved in several ongoing partnerships with companies such as Chemist Warehouse and Startup Victoria. Can you tell us about them, and what the partnerships have involved?
JM Both partnerships represent the breadth of clientele at Date Of Birth. Working with a powerhouse such as Chemist Warehouse, Australia’s leading pharmacy group, has allowed us to work on their brands at scale, as well as working collaboratively with their suppliers in consulting and elevating their brand identities and experience through design.
Startup Victoria has given us the chance to give back (we were a start-up once), but also nurture some of the incredible ideas coming out of Melbourne. We currently provide a range of support and mentoring services to the community as well as bespoke brand packages to enable their growth.
PT Do you have a specific project that you think encapsulates the DNA of the studio?
JM ROCC Naturals – who thought toothpaste could look so good? ROCC encapsulates our desire to challenge categories and the norm. That aisle is full of Colgate and Oral B, we wanted to be brave, bold and different. ROCC grabs attention in-store and delivers a story that has garnered large retail success. We challenge our team to create something new every day, this project encapsulates our way of thinking.
PT Were there any difficulties getting the client on board with your proposed direction? What was the development process like?
JM Through our brand strategy, we identified pretty early on that there was an opportunity to be different. Our client came into this project wanting something a little safer. However, they were incredibly receptive and ultimately agreed that disruption would help them achieve recognition and growth much faster. They trusted our process and the outcome has earned them multiple nominations and media… as well as sales of course!
PT What do you feel have been DOB’s most successful projects, and why?
JM By far, our most successful projects have an element of brand strategy as part of the scope. It allows us to fully rationalise our concepts and ensure the design meets its intention. By making design more measurable you’ll have an easier time creating great-looking, commercially viable outcomes – that’s what our clients demand.
PT Whereabouts in Melbourne is DOB located? What do you most enjoy about the area?
JM Right now we’re all wired into the cloud. We made a decision in 2020 to go remote and utilise technology to facilitate our design process. It hasn’t always been plain sailing… but six lockdowns later we’ve perfected it. It’s given our team more freedom and a better work-life balance. However, we’re looking to switch to a hybrid model in 2023 and find our new home in one of Melbourne's many laneways.
PT Is there anything that you know now about remote working that you’d wish you’d known back in 2020?
JM iMacs are heavy and don’t transport very well!
We adapted pretty quickly to working from home, the challenge was maintaining the ideation workshops, in person, this process is fun, engaging and collaborative. Online it was a little stale at times… however, adversity has never stopped us before! We created a virtual studio and utilised the many tech platforms out there to share ideas and recreate that loving studio feeling.
We want to challenge the notion of what a branding agency does.
PT Alongside DOB’s new brand and website, what future plans do you have for the growth and development of the agency?
JM Being distinctive and different isn’t just for our clients. We want to challenge the notion of what a branding agency does. We feel agencies haven’t evolved as much as they should have.
From a design perspective, we plan on building out new processes and increasing the measurability of our work – this is all about optimising design effectiveness and increasing the value of a branding agency. We absolutely LOVE what we do, and do everything we can to grow our creative thinking to develop our design excellence. We’re also exploring a ‘DOB Workshop Model’ and of course, the incredible advancements in 3D and AR Design.
We pay close attention to what clients in our industry really need, it’s so much more than what most agencies offer, especially those clients wanting to do something a little brave and ambitious. We’ve identified the need to integrate manufacturing and distribution support for our clients – at the end of the day, we see ourselves as retail brand experts, so strategy and design are only the beginning.
Utilising our extensive retail network and partners, we are now able to help clients manufacture and gain retail distribution – from ideation to shelf. We’re proud to be one of the first to offer our ‘Design It, Make It, Shelf It’ service.
PT Sounds exciting! Can you tell us a bit about this ‘Workshop Model’?
JM We have all sorts of clients in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Our industry sometimes tries to fit clients into perfect packaged services… we know that’s never the case. We want to develop workshops that can help achieve the results our clients are looking for but at a budget that suits them. Sometimes they might just need campaign ideas (without the execution). Our workshop model will address that in a format that feels more collaborative and functional.
PT What inspires you the most about working in design? How do you think branding will evolve in the future?
JM Design shapes our world, brands need to adjust or be forgotten. I love how design is becoming more purposeful, that perfect blend of art and science. In a world with an ever-spiralling paradox of choice and an endless list of platforms to communicate on – design has the ability to influence change and improve our experiences.
How does this impact the world of branding? I believe it only expands the definition of what a brand is. People no longer work for companies, they work for brands, they eat brands, buy brands and sleep with brands – the bottom line is that ‘brands’ need to evolve.