Lillian Berni, the family
matriarch, met her husband Alan at Pratt Institute where she was
studying interior design and he industrial art. She describes Stephen
as her handsome son, the master of the group and then says she's
saying that because he's in the room. Mrs. Berni, who has a home
in Florida and summers in Stamford, is equally enthusiastic on the
subjects of Stuart and her daughter Eve, a fine art painter who
lives in California.
"Dad had a lot of New
York energy,' said Stuart. "He was a fabulous designer, a New York
entrepreneur. He was challenging to work with because he was something
of a perfectionist, and because he started the business, he knew
all aspects of it. He knew how to carry the ball effectively and
rarely passed it off to someone else. Here, we permit people to
be more self-motivated."
"Mr. Berni would be very
proud of what we've done here,"said Mrs. Berni of her husband Alan.
"I love coming into the office, being amongst the career world and
I'm very proud of my family. I have full confidence in everything
Way, way before brand
became the ubiquitous business term du jour, Berni Design was helping
companies ensure they were projecting the right image to consumers.
In fact, Berni Design has contributed to eleven of the top 100 brands
of the twentieth century, as listed in the New York Times, including
Kraft, Sears, Campbell's, Coca-Cola, Colgate, Wal-Mart, Birds Eye
At first, the company
did a lot of commercial and graphic design, still specialties today.
Then an epiphany changed the business. And package design decisions
moved "from the back room to the boardroom", as Stuart likes to
Decades ago, Alan Berni
designed three packages for a now defunct cologne called That Man,
for Charlie Revson of Revlon. As he showed all three designs to
Revson, he pointed to one and said to Charlie, "This is our particular
recommendation." Charlie wanted to think about it overnight.
"It was clear to everyone
that packaging decisions were being made based on what someone's
wife thought," remembered Stuart. "Stephen thought we should be
doing that research for the Charlie Revsons of the world, and be
able to say, ' The consumer is going to buy this one.' "
So Berni Design began
asking people about their preferences and reactions to various products,
using research that included focus groups before anyone knew what
focus groups were.
"We did this in the seventies,
and we were really ground breaking in that area," Stephen said (Stephen
describes himself as chairman or eldest brother, "depending on how
the day is going"). "Picture yourself sitting in front of three
bowls of ice cream. We'd show people three different packages and
they'd taste three different bowls of vanilla ice cream. Then we'd
ask them what they thought of each and the ice cream had actually
been the same in all three bowls. They would say, 'That one's much
creamier, and that one's much lighter, so I'll feed it to my husband
because it's better for him: We were testing how packaging affected
their perceptions. It was the same ice cream, but the results were
That kind of testing
is called "sensation transfer", Stephen explained.
Then the same people
were asked to look at a shelf with the ice cream displayed on it.
They'd be asked which they'd choose, assuming they were comparably
priced. Some packages might lead consumers to consider them items
for special occasions, while others might seem to be for kids.
The last and perhaps
the sneakiest test was given in a rather offhand manner, as the
test groups were thanked for their participation. "We asked, "Which
products would you like us to send to you?" It's another way of
seeing what they really liked," Stephen explained. The test was
designed to eliminate the "conspicuous consumption" factor, the
chance consumers in a testing environment chose a certain product
because it appeared to be the most expensive.
But testing of this dimension
needs a more broad-based demographic than New York City could provide
in the way of shoppers. "Our business is in the area of brand-building,
and part of that is getting the opinions of consumers. You really
can't get the pulse of the market from a New York City consumer,"said
Stephen agreed. "Creative
design and fine arts have been centered in New York, but we found
that, as well as doing commercial design, we did a lot of research,
and in Greenwich we had access to an audience of different demographics-Port
Chester, Westchester, Stamford, Bridgeport."
"My Dad used to keep
his yacht down here, prior to going south for the winter, so one
lazy afternoon we were cruising down the harbor with the family,
and taking a look at all the properties along the river," said Stuart.
"We were just about ready to sign a lease at Greenwich Plaza, where
we were going to take a whole floor. Then we saw the building, with
a sign out front that said AMT Properties. My brother's tenacious
in terms of scouting out things. We called them. They were an experimental
juice manufacturer, making fast-frozen juice, and they'd decided
that day to sell the building. They said, 'Geez, it's amazing you
called the day we decided to sell.' So we bought it over the phone
that afternoon. It was a big Quonset hut three stories, open. It
was used to arm PT boats during World War II.'
The space that Stuart
described as "fabulous" was almost designed as a huge cantilevered
space, with trees in its center. But the architect suggested floors,
and so the Bernis sailed right into the office rental business.
They kept the first and fourth floors for themselves, and decided
to lease the second and third, That turned out to be easy and lucrative.
"At that time Jok Lehmkuhl,
then the chairman of the board of Timex, was interested in moving
his operation out of the Seagram's Building, and he didn't want
to commute anymore, explained Stuart. Lehmkuhl was in his seventies.
But after seeing a cardboard model of what the space would look
like, he crawled to the top of the third floor of the building,
which was under construction, "He said, 'If you can deliver a building
that looks like this model, I'll take it.'
And the space was rented
at a rate the Bernis arrived at by considering what Timex had paid
for the Seagram's building, which was premium space. Thus the two
floors in an old PT factory became the most expensive office space
rented in all of Fairfield County.
Today, Berni Design is
captivated by brands. Stuart Berni even began giving out awards
last year-the Berni Bests and the Berni Bombs-to identify products
that clearly do or don't express their brands through their packaging,
and those that are also memorable and user-friendly.
Winners included General
Mills' Columbo Yogurt, which has a spoon in the lid, and Kellogg's
Special K Plus, which advertises its calcium content through a milk-carton-shaped
package. Losers included Smart Water, which lost because of what
Stuart Berni calls the "disconnect" between being smart and buying
"There are companies
now that have realized that the consistency between imaging and
identity is very important," he explained. For example, take Dr
Pepper, a Berni client. While the Dr Pepper logo will remain the
same worldwide, to establish recognition, marketing techniques are
customized to local markets. "The hope would be that the manufacturer
has a consistent brand image," explained Stuart Berni.
Here in Greenwich, Berni
Design did just that, Stuart, who has two teenage children, used
his branding skills to make Arch Street, Greenwich's teen center,
a more attractive destination for local youth. The words "teen center",
decidedly not luring to teenagers, were removed from the center's
name, The logo was fashioned to look friendly.
But what are the limits
Should even the Town
of Greenwich establish itself as a brand?
Stuart Berni thinks so.
He thinks Greenwich has
a reputation as a Rodeo Drive East, and he'd like to change that.
After all. Greenwich has an excellent symphony, several libraries,
a beach park, hospital and terrific schools. Then there's the proximity
"Is the image of Greenwich
tainted in a negative way? There are some areas that could be repositioned
to enhance it he said. "So that it continues to be a desirable environment
people want to come into, so the real estate values continue to
increase, so the tax base increases to fund things like the hospital."
In Australia, it's the
Sydney Opera House. In Paris, it's the hiffel Tower. But what's
a good image that says "Greenwich"?
"The only thing we've
come up with that you can develop an icon around are the ferries
- they have high visibility," said Stuart, thoughtfully. Then, he
added, there are Greenwich's white fences, and the steeple of the
Second Congregational Church. Perhaps these elements could be combined
on a coat of arms, which would serve as the town seal. "A coat of
arms has a sense of heritage and tradition that speaks to the history
we offer:' That's what Berni Design did for Arrow shirts - they
gave them that coat of arms over the breast and made them seem established
"I think Greenwich has
a certain brand now," said Stephen. "And I think you have to evaluate
it, understand where it is now, and see where it should go in the
future. What should it be known for? As a generally friendly town?
Or one that's more philanthropic? Should it draw people, or be a
On Steamboat Road, the
Berni Design building is a visual icon, a summation of the company's
own brand. The multilevel third floor is wrapped in glass with magnificent
water views. There's a shaded dock used for meetings as well as
entertaining. Tommy Hilfiger has offices there. To Stephen Berni,
the renovated boat factory is a good example of what brand building
is all about.
"You can improve on
what you have," he explained. "You don't have to start from scratch
to build a brand."
Take Marcal. The paper
towel company was about to improve the quality of its product and
raise the price, when it decided the packaging should send a different
message, one that didn't say "we're cheaper and less absorbent".
So a graphic that suggested a quilted towel absorbing a spill was
added; the word towels, which stated the obvious, was removed, and
the type style and colors were updated.
Back to Leonardo DiCaprio.
Is establishing one's self as a brand a bit strange? Is that taking
brand-building too far?
"I think it's great that
people are taking that initiative," Stuart said, citing Oprah Winfrey
and Martha Stewart as two people who've succeeded at this. "When
I mention their first names, you know who I'm talking about, It's
important for these people to be able to build a brand image, because
it builds consumer confidence at the IPO."
"If in fact his name
brings panache, or style, to a product, that makes money," explained
Stephen. "When Michael Jordan wore sneakers, everybody wanted to
"The important thing
for any brand is building trust," said Stuart. "And that's something
that I think is an admirable trait for anybody to be pursuing."
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