Company president Louis Laurent said ZLR Ignition focuses on “big brains in a small machine,” valuing its high concentration on creativity, smart ideas and hard work. Photo by Duane Tinkey
Company president Louis Laurent said ZLR Ignition focuses on “big brains in a small machine,” valuing its high concentration on creativity, smart ideas and hard work. Photo by Duane Tinkey

Marketing company ZLR Ignition has been on a roll recently, helping the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) and the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, among others, market and rebrand themselves. But in 1998, the Des Moines company had to give itself a makeover.

Kent Zimmerman, Louis Laurent and Jim Richardson started their full-service marketing firm in Zimmermen’s basement back in 1987.

The three soon were able to catch some large clients and grow. Within a decade, the company was up to 50 employees and ready to move into its current location on Watson Powell Jr. Way, said Laurent, ZLR Ignition president and the last of the three founders remaining at the company.

“The Z and R are now gone,” he said. “They were older and have retired.”

But within the first 90 days of moving into its new space, Laurent said, the agency faced big challenges: It was without phones because of the 1998 telephone workers strike and it lost its two biggest clients.

So ZLR Ignition had to do what it does best – refine and refocus its mission. “We had to look at what we were good at and what we enjoyed doing and that was branding,” Laurent said.

That decision has proved successful. In the past few years, the company has secured a string of well-known clients from around the region.

It convinced the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines to change its name, was the brains behind Iowa State University’s “Choose Your Adventure” campaign, which helped lead to record enrollment last year, and got the convention and visitors bureau to drop its marketing slogan of “See Des Moines” in favor of the more active “Catch Des Moines.”

“With the convention and visitors bureau, you’re really dealing with two different brands,” Laurent said. “You’ve got the organization itself, but you also had the brand of Des Moines as a destination.”

Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the tourism group, said his organization had wanted to rebrand its marketing pitch for several years. When it came time to decide on a firm to assist in the makeover, ZLR was chosen over nine other companies, including two national firms that had assisted with several rebrands for convention and visitors bureaus.

“They had the know-how and they knew the market,” Edwards said. “We had very specific goals, and they were creative in how we got there.”

ZLR had to work with a large number of interested parties when conducting its research, including representatives from hotels and attractions, Des Moines’ surrounding cities and out-of-town visitors. “Everybody had something to say about it, and we had to balance those needs,” Laurent said.

The company’s thorough approach to research helps it do just that. When ZLR Ignition was brought on to help increase Iowa State University’s declining enrollment in 2005 by then-President Gregory Geoffroy, Laurent said the company spoke with prospective students in six states about what they were looking for in a college and current students about why they chose ISU.

“We found that many colleges would talk about the great professors they had or what ranking they had,” he said. “But when you’re a 15-year-old kid, you don’t see why that’s special because every college has professors and rankings.”

Instead, ZLR told the university to focus on the ways Iowa State helps student grow up and find themselves through diverse experiences, which was how the Choose Your Own Adventure campaign was born. The campaign was recently renamed "Enjoy the Adventure." 

Last summer, ZLR signed on to work with IEDA to market the state’s tourism and economic development. In the past, the state agency had hired two separate firms work on the accounts, said Tina Hoffman, IEDA’s marketing and communications director.

“We wanted brand consistency and to take care of operations more efficiently,” she said, adding that ZLR was chosen because of its creative and strategic approach.

Since then, IEDA launched its new website in January, will have a tourism ad campaign this spring and has been using ZLR’s help to market directly to businesses, she said.

Laurent said the agency has had success because it focuses on “big brains in a small machine,” valuing a high concentration of smart ideas and creativity above all else.

“We’re not a ‘cake in the conference room’ kind of workplace,” he said, adding he expects his employees to work hard. “Although, we do have a really good Christmas party.”

Ads from the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s new campaign