Posted December 28, 2006 by Nick Lindauer in Makers

Is Dave Insane? Inside A Brand Makeover

The branding experts said he desperately needed help with his image and message. (He did?) They’d do the job for free. (They would?) In the end, Dave Hirschkop, of Dave’s Gourmet, was offered six distinct approaches for rebranding his company. So here’s the big question: Is it crazier to change everything or nothing? Source

I. The Brandnapping
The hostage note and the first of a barrage of increasingly grisly photos arrived at Dave Hirschkop’s office in the fall of 2005. The note, assembled from letters cut from magazines, asked: Do You KnoW wHERE YouR BranD iS? The accompanying Polaroid displayed the October 4 front page of USA Today and a gloved hand around the neck of his first-born. The next day another envelope arrived. More photos, each more shocking than the one before, and this threat: WE WARNED YOU! scrawled on the bottom white border of one of the Polaroids. One photo showed Dave’s progeny handcuffed to a water pipe in an ominous-looking basement. Another showed the blade of a table saw threatening to send a torrent of red skyward. Dave smiled.

And then there was this: one more shot of Dave’s eponymously named, five-ounce bottle of hot sauce, this time vice-gripped by headphones–headphones connected to a boom box presumed to be loaded with the CD from the adjacent jewel box: David Hasselhoff’s Greatest Hits. Dave laughed.

In the 13 years since he had created his ferociously hot Insanity Sauce (spiciness in food is measured in scoville units; Insanity Sauce has a rating of 180,000, compared with 5,000 for Tabasco), donned a straitjacket at trade shows, and professionally jettisoned his last name to stake a more indelible claim in the minds of his loyal customers, Dave had received some wild fan mail but never a hostage note. This practical joke, or whatever it was, intrigued and energized him. No surprise there–the 39-year-old Hirschkop is the kind of free spirit who actually cried “cool” when he got carjacked. (“Hey, something interesting happened,” he explained to his wife.) Now he shared these latest brandnapping photos with his nine employees at his San Francisco-based specialty food company, all the while eyeing a phone number on one of the photos: 513-721-6800. A Cincinnati phone number. That much he knew”¦.

Meanwhile, three time zones to the east, a couple of floors up from a dingy basement where only days earlier a handcuff had hung from a water pipe, employees at a company called Deskey were gathering more photos, even a videotape, for more mailings to Dave’s Gourmet, pushing the envelope on a most unusual direct mail campaign. Unusual not just because of its approach but in its very conception, for it envisioned no direct return on what could result in long hours of work for Deskey’s employees, who normally toil on branding and design work and new packaging concepts for the likes of Procter & Gamble and Starbucks, big corporations with deep pockets.

So why was Deskey expending creative time and energy on a small fry like Dave’s Gourmet, whose annual revenue fell short of the ad budgets for many of the projects Deskey typically worked on? Two reasons. Because Ben Stallard, the company’s marketing services director, thought Deskey would benefit from what he terms a “passion project.” And because while he was looking for such a creative catalyst he happened into the office of one of the company’s design directors, Tony Neary, where his gaze fell on a battalion of small bottles with colorful labels. Yeahhhhhhhhh. Stallard experienced a hot-sauce rush without ingesting a single scoville unit.

Designing a hot sauce label would be fun, he felt–just what Deskey needed, a companywide creative sprint that would stretch everybody in ways not always possible when serving Fortune 500 companies. One of a handful of remaining independent branding agencies, Deskey prides itself on being small (55 employees, including those in a satellite office in Philadelphia) and nimble and, in Stallard’s words, “kind of a maverick.” But Stallard, who had joined Deskey a year earlier, sensed a growing toll of too many tamer projects, lucrative ones that paid everyone’s salaries but didn’t necessarily light a fire under anyone.

“I noticed the ebb and flow of morale and felt we needed a good, fun project,” says Stallard. “When you work for a big consumer products company they often have five years of studies they’re going to drop on your desk and say, ‘Here’s the consumer insight.’ You can design between this point and this point, which might be between blue 185 and blue 186. It’s very rigid. Lots of rules and barriers. And man cannot live by toothpaste and toilet paper alone. Sometimes you need something that’s fun. Sometimes you need a hot sauce.”

Bit by bit, a project code-named Scoville Protocol started taking shape.

With no idea whom he was calling, Dave picked up the phone and dialed that Cincinnati phone number. Between rings he created a name for himself. “This is Agent Johnson from the FBI,” he began. “I’m investigating this brand kidnapping”¦” Game on, thought Stallard, sensing a kindred spirit, as the “FBI agent” was being transferred to his line. It looked like Neary, who knew and enjoyed the contents and pedigree of most of his hot sauce bottles, had recommended the right man, a CEO who’d be open to Deskey’s unconventional pitch.

Stallard arranged for a get-acquainted meeting in December at Dave’s corporate digs in an industrial section of San Francisco. There, Stallard and Neary introduced themselves and Deskey to Dave, and Dave told them more about his company, its strengths, its struggles, and his dream of taking it well beyond its current $2.5 million in annual sales. A few weeks later, Stallard dangled Deskey’s services, offering a day of branding brainstorming, to be followed by specific recommendations and design concepts–a marketing makeover, at no cost, from brand experts Dave’s Gourmet could otherwise never afford. Convinced of Deskey’s talents, though still puzzled how this quite made sense for his benefactors, Dave gladly accepted. Like Cinderella, he was bound for the ball.

II. Day One at Deskey:

Intervention and the Seeds of Invention

In early June, Dave’s day of branding dawns. The creator of the self-proclaimed “hottest sauce in the universe” and author of Crazy From the Heat: Dave’s Insanity Cookbook strides into Deskey’s first-floor conference room toting his laptop, looking less like a lionized, autograph-signing chilehead chieftain, for whom “mild is a four-letter word,” than a pedestrian ketchup maker. Dressed in jeans and a beige polo short, a PDA holstered at his hip, his retreating hair cropped close, Dave would disappear in a convention of CPAs. But he proves early on that he can hold his own in a room packed with more than a dozen quick-witted creative types. When the around-the-table wave of introductions reaches his chair, he says, “I’m Dave. If you don’t know who I am or why I’m here by now, we have a serious issue.”

The morning session begins with some background lessons on classic branding success stories, and then Dave is invited to talk about his company. He moves in front of a countertop display of his many products, which nowadays range far afield from hot sauces. He makes a line of spicy snacks like habanero pretzel nuggets. He’s also into heirloom and organic pasta sauces, and, under a line called Palette Fine Foods, makes specialty items like mission fig preserves and lavender honey. Dave’s Insanity Sauce, he explains, started as a joke–he made it to drive late-night, unruly customers from his first business, a Mexican restaurant in College Park, Maryland, called Burrito Madness. He kept making his provocative sauce hotter and hotter, finally relying on an industrial flavor enhancer called oleoresin capsicum (not coincidentally, the debilitating ingredient in pepper spray).

“It developed a cult following in the restaurant. Then we started putting it in bottles. We went to the National Fiery Food Show in 1993, and,” continues Dave, as innocent as a character in a Charles Addams drawing, “we were banned from the show because some guy had a minor respiratory problem.”

He returns to his laptop to consult the company timeline. It tells two stories. First, the tale of ongoing, steady growth in the line of Insanity products, everything from cheese straws and bloody mary mix to limited-edition hot sauces that sell in the secondary market as collectibles for as much as $1,000 a bottle. The second tale is less linear–all manner of acquisitions and attempts to garner shelf space and improve sales. A natural food company, Uncle Grant’s–bought in 1995, shut down in 1999. A maker of flavored mayonnaise–acquired in 1998, RIP 2001. In 2000, Dave created a line of spreads called Garlic Masterpiece. It, too, is no more. In 2001, Dave’s Gourmet leaped into pasta sauces. In 2005 Dave acquired Palette Fine Foods, and in 2006 he bought Chili Today Hot Tamale.

“So why all these acquisitions? Why all these brands? I guess this is the central thing I’m going to ask your help on,” Dave says. Then he identifies the core conundrum of his accidentally launched enterprise: “You have a product called Insanity Sauce, and it’s so hot that a bottle takes three years to use up. But people love it. It has really connected with consumers. That’s very gratifying and it’s fun. And we’ve always focused on fun.”

He goes on. “Last year we came up with an adjustable hot sauce. You can actually change the heat level of the sauce by turning the top because it mixes two different sauces in the appropriate portions. We’re about to come out with something called Lucky Nuts–where every 10th nut is super hot. But you can’t tell them apart.”

There are giggles in the room and nods that mime, Dave is indeed one of us, an idea jaywalker. His personal resumé certainly veers from the norm. Majored in Soviet and Eastern European studies. Sought a job as a CIA operative. Worked at a mortgage brokerage. No business degree, not even a business course to his name. He’s learned at the helm.

“We have the fun part down, but how do you really blow this up?” Dave continues. “If Insanity Sauce was a cookie, we’d be sitting on a $100 million company. How do you make this into a $10 million, $20 million, $100 million company? We want to be a much bigger company on the revenue side.”

Around the room, Deskey employees take notes. When Dave winds down, the questions ring out, probing, poking, analyzing, inquiring. Dave answers.

About revenue percentages: “The Insanity brand accounts for $1.7 million; Palette about 350K, a portion of that is Williams-Sonoma private label. Pasta sauces about 300K. Chili Today, about 150K. Jump Up and Kiss Me is about what’s in my pocket right now.”

Whether it’s still fun: “I would say for several years, it was not fun. But a year ago, I set new goals, higher goals, and said, ‘One way or another I’m going to make this happen.’ Growth is fun. It’s not like I want to pile up gold coins, but there’s the momentum and you hire people, like you guys, who are creative and intelligent–fun people to be around. But I do want to figure out what we’re going to do. Revisiting the same issues over and over is getting old.”

About the profusion of new lines and products: “In the gourmet product world the question you always hear from buyers and the media is, ‘What’s new?’ There’s sort of this feeling–gosh, we’ve got to come up with something new and better–and I think we’ve done that in far too scattered an approach.” (He later confesses to having had an edible massage oil far enough in the R&D phase that it cost him a girlfriend.)

Soon thereafter, Amanda Matusak, a Deskey brand strategist, invites Dave to the front of the room, “to a comfortable chair.”

“Does it vibrate?” Dave deadpans.

Matusak takes his hand and begins the planned “intervention,” a bit of stagecraft designed to soften the blow of the upcoming tough-love message.

“You’ve created a great brand–Dave’s Insanity and Dave’s Gourmet,” she begins. “But we’re concerned you’ve become this product junky. You’re buying products. You’re putting your name on things. You’re trying this. You’re trying that. It’s a little out of control. It’s insanity in itself. Insanity is a hot sauce. It’s not a branding strategy. So we’re going to try to fix that today.”

Dave is asked to “admit he has a problem” and “be willing to join in with our program.”

He replies “yes.”

That triggers a rare bit of corporate bonding, a boisterous group hug.

Following a buffet lunch, Dave is asked to make a pivotal choice. Does he want his company to function as a branded house or a house of brands? A branded house would make him like Dove–which manages and markets its soaps, shampoos, and facial washes all under one brand. As a house of brands, he’d operate in the mode of Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) and its freewheeling mosaic of brands, each with a distinctive design and marketing campaign.

“It would certainly be easier to have a branded house,” Dave says, thinking aloud. “Everything would flow more naturally, and it’s more cost effective. But there’s a hitch. If we’re a branded house, the brand would probably be Insanity, because that’s where our equity is.” That worries him because of the demographic divide between his core Insanity fans (which include ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, who has his shirt pockets resewn to perfectly pouch one of Dave’s travel-size hot sauce bottles) and buyers of his pasta sauces and preserves and ice cream toppings. The former tend to be male and younger; the latter female and tipping more toward middle age.

Hot sauce collector Neary, who wears a patch of chin whiskers, sees no problem. “I think, really, the brand is you. That name: Dave. Not Dave’s Insanity. The word insanity may be the most famous one, but it doesn’t have to be on everything. I think you can break it apart to make it Dave’s. We’ll get to the core–what is the core of you? Whatever the core is, let’s say, incredible, or fun, other nomenclature can emanate from that, like insane does. But insane has to come from someplace.”

To get at that place, everybody soon heads upstairs to harvest onions. Deskey, Dave learns, anchors its creative efforts with a visual tool it calls an onion. The Deskey onion, printed on poster-size sheets of white paper, has three layers: an outer ring labeled Brand Character, a middle ring called Strategic Equity and Positioning, and a center dubbed Overall Equity. To fill these layers with defining adjectives quickly, they split into three groups and head for corner rooms off the big open floor. Each room starts to buzz as words and phrases fill the air and get written inside onions taped to the walls.

In Dave’s group, led by Neary, strings of words are geysered toward the outer ring of the onion: honesty, intensity, passion, easygoing, omniperson, regular guy, down to earth, casual, authentic.

Across the way, in a sun-dappled corner room, Miki Reilly-Howe, a VP of brand strategy, collects core-value words and phrases: honesty, fun, authentic, uncompromised, making it yours, the moment, seeking specialness. A bit later, trolling for words for the middle ring of the onion, she asks: “What’s the positioning? Where can he play? What does he want to stand for? What would he want on his tombstone?”

“Make the most of it.”

“Not hot sauce. The hottest sauce.”

“Yeah, never settle.”

“I think,” says Reilly-Howe, turning to Dave but speaking to everyone, “that Insanity is going to be your difficult-to-control child.”

After about 45 minutes they reconvene, and each group presents and explains its onion, reached by consensus. The first onion looks like this: Brand Character: polarizing, irreverent, true, optimistic. Strategic Equity: make the most of it. Overall Equity: don’t postpone joy.

Another group, calling its effort the Flavor Nation Funion, offers: Brand Character: true, passion, uninhibited. Strategic Equity: flavor nation, real ingredients for a rave in your mouth at every meal. Overall Equity: fearless food fanatics.

Dave listens from a beanbag-style chair, sinking considerably closer to horizontal than vertical as each presentation concludes with applause. Because of airport delays, he didn’t arrive at his hotel until 1 a.m. He was up at 7 a.m.–4 a.m. San Francisco time.

“At its core, it’s all about curiosity,” says Neary, explaining his group’s onion, “”¦and a word that never seems to make any Brand Character, but if there’s any word that seems to sum up the whole thing, it’s cool. How do you get that into everything you make?”

At 2:30, a second exercise divides the group anew. IS/IS NOT is an exploration of brand-character words from the various onions. Those words are written at the top of sheets of paper taped to the walls in each room; beneath each character word are IS and IS NOT. Everybody is soon leafing through magazines–a veritable newsstand of them, everything from U.S. News to Marie Claire to Bassmaster–searching for photos to paste beneath the IS and IS NOT headings.

Deskey has found this a helpful way of bringing the emerging brand into sharper focus. In one of the rooms, Passionate attracts a picture of George Lucas, a wedding cake, and a glass of wine beneath the word IS. Uninhibited IS a woman wearing sunglasses and a radiant smile; Uninhibited IS NOT Borat wearing a lime green thong that continues over his shoulders. True IS Stonyfield yogurt; True IS NOT a product called Sex in a Can.

In the late-afternoon wrap-up Reilly-Howe tells Dave that when he returns in a couple of weeks, they’ll present him with the fruits of this exploratory day of branding: a final onion capturing the essence of his company and “a clear strategy based on what we did today.”

On the walk back to his hotel Dave marvels not so much about how today’s exercises will translate into concepts and strategic designs but rather how much all this is costing Deskey.

III. Two Weeks Later at Deskey: King Dave, Renaissance Dave, and Other Concepts

Same conference room. Same cast of characters. No group hug.

“Let’s get rolling,” says Ben Stallard, as Dave is handed a thick sheaf of pages titled “Build A Brand in a Day: Dave’s Gourmet/June 28, 2006.” The pages will momentarily appear on a wall screen as PowerPoint slides.

Deskey had finished this work just the night before, late. The makeover of Dave’s branded house got squeezed into three weeks jammed with projects: a redesign of a diaper package, a branding video for a bank, print ads for an oral care brand. Nonetheless, everyone managed to gather during this period for a lunchtime research sampling of Dave’s products–and yes, somebody sneaked a couple of drops of Dave’s Insanity Sauce onto the plate of one taster who chose a poor time to visit the restroom. Senior production artist Brent Naughton was one of several people on the project who roamed the aisles of Cincinnati-area gourmet food stores checking out Dave’s competition and looking for what Deskey refers to as “white space,” untapped market opportunities.

Though an art school graduate whose illustration credits include a children’s book and a western novel, Naughton rarely sits in with clients or participates in brainstorming and design sessions, save to counsel what can and cannot be realized from a production standpoint. He normally doesn’t join a project until much later, perhaps adapting a design concept to a bigger box or maybe a can. In his three years at Deskey, he’d never seen a client presented with a choice of design concepts. But today, because of the passion project, he would. And three of the surviving concepts–Renaissance Dave, one dubbed The Eisenhower Years, and a third called Biological Classifications of Good Taste–have his fingerprints all over them.

“To us, your Insanity Sauce is your brand’s soul,” begins Matusak as a close-up of Dave’s pride and joy appears on the wall screen. “It’s your alpha. Your heritage. It’s where you started”¦While the hot sauce touches a core consumer base that is probably male and has younger male insights, they’re not always the prime shopper, so we want to take a step back and see how we can take that essence and grow it to reach more consumers. We’re looking to identify opportunities for products with a higher turn rate than every three years. So we created The Branded House of Dave.”

She explains that the strategy Deskey will lay out will serve as a road map to this branded house. Then she presents Dave with a compass–Dave’s Gourmet Onion. The final version looks like this: In the center, limning Overall Equity, appear the words Insatiable Curiosity. Representing Strategic Equity and Positioning: What If? The Brand Character ring holds these adjectives: True, Intriguing, Courageous, Alive.

“That looks like a straightforward onion,” says Neary, who has taken the floor to present the creative concepts. “But you will see that we haven’t lost the personality of what you’re all about.”

Neary reads the concept for a brand approach titled Not Your Ordinary Dave. “Don’t let the face fool you. This is no ordinary man. Beneath this calm veneer of receding normalcy lies a raging cauldron of delectable glee. For too long the world of gourmet food has been the stuff that stuffy is made of. Well, no more! There is a courageous new face in the world of gourmet.”

The next slide displays a logo, with Dave’s face at its center–but with a twist. “The main icon is you,” Neary explains, “but as you can see in some of the SKUs, it’s all about a mouthful of flavor.” Various package mockups depict Dave’s mouth as a chili pepper, a ripe red tomato, and a gingerbread man. To push this new brand, Deskey suggests a take-it-to-the-streets campaign in “an ice cream truck with attitude.” On the top, rotating to music, would be Dave’s iconic head. On the doors, flavor icons for the various products consumers would get to sample. On the side: “Kicking the $#@* Out of Bland.”

Next comes a Superhero concept: Dave attacks bland and boring food. The flesh and blood Dave snickers at the images of his alter ego in a chef’s hat punching out an heirloom tomato and ripping apart a honey mustard pretzel as if it were a phone book.

The Eisenhower Years presents a retro look. Again, Dave is the face of gourmet–this time there’s a photographic version of Dave’s face, his forehead billboarding a slogan: Certified insanely flavorful.

Then King Dave. This one’s all about “in-your-face flavor, want a piece of me?” attitude, says Neary. The premise: “What if gourmet had bravado?” Dave’s Cold Cock Ketchup could hit the market. So could Dave’s Flavor Shots, with the tag line: “I’m a pimp, and flavor better have my money.”

Renaissance Dave, which Naughton sired by drawing a gingerbread man on the knee of a seated, Shakespeare-like character, offers a simultaneously sophisticated and silly look. “It’s just so twisted and weird,” says Neary. “The idea is these vegetables and ingredients sitting on your lap–maybe doing funny things. A chili pepper on fire. Maybe a marionette plays with a tomato. The tag line on it is: “Eat every meal like it could be your last.” With this concept, Dave could become an official sponsor of various Renaissance festivals.

Last comes Biological Classifications of Good Taste. This concept, which originated with Naughton’s illustrations and is referred to in shorthand as “the white label,” is similar at first glance to Dave’s current pasta sauce labels. The look communicates gourmet. Central to each label is an illustration of its key ingredient–a huge tomato or chili pepper or Granny Smith apple–its gigantic size evoked by drawings of little people interacting with them. The message: giant flavor.

Closer inspection will show the people engaged in wacky doings–a man eating fire in the shadow of the giant pepper, a fellow fleeing a swarm of giant bees on the label for honey mustard pretzels. “Flavorium tomatocus giganticus” says the label on the heirloom pasta sauce, and also: “This stuff is a production nightmare and a pain in the @#$%!! to create. So, if you think that you can make an organic spaghetti sauce for less, go ahead and try. Oh–did I mention that these tomatoes only grow six weeks out of the year? Yeah, so good luck.” Neary points to marketing opportunities aligning Dave’s “big, giant flavor” with appearances at and sponsorship of biggest pumpkin and champion tomato contests.

This “white label” concept, Dave soon learns, is Deskey’s recommendation–a way to both bridge his demographically divided consumer base and stake a bold claim in a perceived white space in the burgeoning but fuzzy domain of gourmet by owning intense flavor.

Dave leans forward in his seat, his hand on his chin, as creative director Doug Sovonick adds his voice to the chorus of persuasion for the white label concept:

“Your core value is insatiable curiosity. It’s got that about it. Once I pick it up and I notice there’s little people on there and I start to read the copy, it gives me a really big payoff. It’s got some delight and some nice surprises. If I try it and like the product, I’m going to look for other ones, and pick up the package and read it, because it’s so clever, and it really does a good job, I think, of bringing together the gourmet with the kind of fun attitude. And it’s got a really great metaphor for how big the flavor is that’s inside there. Giant flavor.”

Finally Dave responds. “I’m definitely a processor. I have to process things.” He’s silent for a moment. “It’s hard. We have 12 label looks right now and your recommendation is to go to a single one, so I’m mentally mapping, how do you get from here to there? The question is, does that label connect with an Insanity buyer? The Insanity look has a ton of equity. It’s a risk. Not that I’m so risk averse, but if it’s a miscalculation, you lose a ton of equity.”

Naughton writes in his notes: “Dave’s nervous.”

Dave stares closely at the concept boards for the white label. He says, as if to himself, “It’s interesting because the visuals are more straight gourmet. The copy is where all the fun is.”

Then he’s full of questions:

“Does big flavor mean strong flavor?”

“So, an Asian sauce, how would it play in this brand?”

“What do you think? Are Insanity buyers going to transfer? Are they going to feel sold out?”

“Would you not, then, launch a Lucky Nut type item?”

“I think,” replies Reilly-Howe to the last question, “that if you want to be a big company, a $10 million, $20 million company, it’s not going to happen with Lucky Nuts. If you want to do it, do it now, while you’ve got equity in Insanity, but I don’t think it’s a growth platform.”

“But it’s like getting paid to place an ad,” says Dave, explaining that the adjustable hot sauce bottle got him plenty of free media exposure, including Good Morning America, Time, and the BBC.

Dave asks what others think–those who haven’t spoken up.

“We won’t let them talk,” jokes Matusak.

Senior designer Vernon Turner, the chief architect of the King Dave concept, plays good cop: “I was thinking you have a lot of information right now. It’s a big deal, I hear you. “

Dave reminds the Deskey people that, in their own words, he’s “hit a nerve” with his Insanity brand. To part with that equity seems potentially foolish.

“But do you really believe that the nerve is in the packaging and not the product?” asks Reilly-Howe. “I think the packaging is incidental. I think you do need to handhold people, helping them with some transitional label, but I don’t think they’re buying it for the graphic.”

There’s talk of Dave surveying his substantial e-mail list of customers to learn just how important the current packaging is to them and how the new look would play. A conference call is scheduled for two days later, giving Dave more time to digest today’s presentations. Dave thanks everyone and heads off to catch the next plane home.

After Dave departs, Neary says to Reilly-Howe: “I knew this was coming. He could do it for everything but the hot sauce. It’s a big risk to take–but so is continuing to introduce wacky stuff and launching products that fail because there’s no strategy behind them.

“Yes, the packaging for Insanity is a recognizable beacon. But come on, if you’re selling one bottle to your customers every couple of years, you can make the change–you can do what you need to make it work, and it will take more effort than just a packaging change. He’s got to get out there and let the trade know and his customers know that the guy who brought you the hottest sauce in the universe now brings you the most intense, most unique flavor. Not just: I’m wacky Dave. He can’t keep doing that.”

But there’s no time now for more post-presentation analysis. Neary heads to his upstairs office and forces himself to forget all about Dave for the time being. Staring at his computer screen, he starts to make the mental shift to another package design, becoming “Diaper Man.”

IV. Dave’s Decision: A Branded House and a Guesthouse?

The July 30 conference call lasts 50 minutes. It finds Dave still hesitant–certainly in the absence of consumer survey data bolstering Deskey’s claim that the cult following for Insanity Sauce has little to do with its label and everything to do with what’s inside the bottle.

“Does this seem reasonable?” Dave asks apologetically near the end of the call. “I mean, I feel bad. You did all this great stuff and I sort of hear a silence–you’re not pleased.”

“I think we totally understand,” says Sovonick. “It’s 70 percent of your business. You’re wise to be cautious. Yeah, we’re all here rooting for you to take a big risk because we think it will pay off, but we understand why you’d be cautious. It’s your business. It’s your livelihood.”

Deskey offers to connect Dave with a local polling company and paves the way for a very good rate for a Web-based survey capturing the reactions of some 200 consumers to the existing label versus the proposed white label. But when Dave requests additional questions, the added costs put the survey beyond his means.

And that, essentially, is where it ends between Deskey and Dave.

Dave does conduct a survey of his own, tapping into his online database of more than 6,000 customers. With question-writing help from a retired uncle who used to do a lot of work for P&G and technical support from an online research firm,, he asks a number of demographic questions and tests his current Insanity label against a transitional label he had drawn up in-house.

“We didn’t test the existing brand versus the final label that Deskey suggested because we would never make that switch. We would go through a transition first,” he says. Given his doubts about changing the Insanity label, he continues, “people would have really had to say it’s no big deal for us to do that.” The more than 1,400 customers who responded provided no such landslide. “About 57 percent thought the white label was high quality. And 68 percent thought the original Insanity was high quality. And there were numerous comments that a white label doesn’t convey the heat and feel of very hot sauces.”

But what about adopting Deskey’s white label concept for his many non-Insanity brands? This way, Dave could function as a branded house with an outbuilding for his Insanity products–a room over the garage for the crazy relative, if you will. No matter that initially, the outbuilding would be bigger than the main house. Says Dave: “I hope, eventually, if we don’t bring them together under one brand, that one is our country estate and one is our downtown loft.”

Clearly, Deskey’s branding tutorial has colored his thinking. “Having that onion and going through this process has made us think more about branding issues that we had not previously spent much time on. Rather than saying, ‘This strikes my fancy. Let’s do this today, and next month let’s do that,’ we need to have a long-term compelling vision and theme. Which is what the onion was doing. How can we do the things we want to do and at the same time achieve the goals we want to achieve? These are not simple questions to answer.”

It’s one thing, Dave elaborates, for a third party to chart a logical course from point A to the stated destination of point B. “But there’s an emotional side, especially for a small business like mine,” he says. Even now, 13 years in, Dave still has the hots for his initial offering. Insanity, as Reilly-Howe noted, is rather like his difficult-to-control child. And make no mistake, it is his favorite. “Insanity,” he says, “gets you in the game.”

It does. In September, a photographer for GQ magazine’s U.K. edition comes by to snap his picture. In November, along with executives and food scientists from companies such as Unilever (NYSE:UN), General Mills (NYSE:GIS), and Hershey Foods (NYSE:HSY), Dave speaks at a forum on Food Technology and Innovation in Ireland. His topic: “Driving growth through premium and luxury products.” Such recognition is good for business–also personally validating, a kind of hot sauce high.

Back in Cincinnati, there is, of course, a sense of deflation at Deskey. Yes, it would have been exciting and gratifying to see their crazy brandnapping hit the jackpot and to watch, with a kind of foster parent pride, as Dave scurried to market with their ideas. Still, the passion project has served Deskey in many ways. It let everyone involved stretch in new directions–Brent Naughton, especially. He believes, he says, that “a few eyes were opened” to his untapped early-stage creative talents. “In the long run,” Naughton says, “I think this will help me and the company.”

Deskey’s Scoville Protocol, Stallard maintains, proved both a tonic and a reaffirmation: “We developed a project that’s clearly illustrative of who we are. We’re experts in the field of branding. We love to have fun. We’re mavericks. We’re risk takers. And I think we rediscovered that the medicine we’ve been prescribing–that successful companies and brands are the ones who stay truest to who they are–is also good for ourselves.”

And let’s not forget one other dividend–the foot massager. In the dog days of summer a box arrives at Deskey’s reception desk. Inside, there’s no note, only a heavy-duty electric foot massager–previously owned. That’s it. No paperwork, no note inside. The return address is from a woman in Las Vegas. Figuring it must have been sent to the wrong address, Stallard tracks down the woman’s phone number and calls her. It turns out she does a booming business with eBay. She looks up the shipment and finds the name on the order.

“Somebody named Dave Hir”¦Hir”¦” She stumbles on the last name.

“Don’t worry,” says Stallard. “I know who he is.”

John Grossmann is a longtime contributor to Inc. He last wrote for the magazine about an intellectual-property dispute in the model railroading industry.

Dave’s Gourmet sells 136 different products under a number of lines. Dave wants you to meet some members of the family.

The Original Insanity Sauce
“We’ve played with the label quite a bit. People tell us that it says we’re full of energy and have a sense of humor. It tells them that we’re real. The packaging matches the product. I personally have always been attached to the chili pepper with sunglasses.”

Palette dessert sauce and spice rub
“The tab says handwork. People who buy specialty foods want artisan, small batch. Creating that feeling visually is more powerful than just saying it on the label. We might fold the Palette line in with the white label.”

Chili Today Hot Tamale pretzels
“Chile Today products are slated to come under the Insanity brand. They fit thematically. I think the label is pretty clear-cut.”

Lucky Nuts
“Gambling’s big now. Every 10th nut is super hot, but they all look alike. I come up with stuff accountants advise against, but it gets a lot of media attention.”

J&M Insanity Cheese Straws
“I know J&M through the industry, so when they came up with a hot flavor they came to me. We switched the background to black to give it our stark look.”

Gourmet Specialty pasta sauce
“The white label conveys that the product is about simple ingredients. It’s not hot. We don’t want people to get confused.”

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog