Odds are, you've never heard of this little marketing firm in San Francisco, but among the folks at Martha Stewart, Giorgio Armani, and Mother Jones magazine, Tattoo has the buzz

I wanted to understand how buzz works. That's the whole reason I set out to find a very small, very cool, ultra-low-profile marketing-services agency I'd heard was doing a thriving business somewhere in San Francisco. Virtually no details about the agency have been published, except its name: Tattoo. That tidbit came from Anita (the Body Shop) Roddick, who, I'd heard, really grooves on Tattoo's work. With such primo insider buzz going for me, not to mention ready access to the good old yellow pages, how hard could it be to locate one little company? Although I finally found Tattoo, it took me a while. My sedulous search was sidetracked while I checked out every Tattoo in the San Francisco phone book, including Ed Hardy's Tattoo City and (my favorite) Fuzzy's Tattoo Studio (where a man's voice on an answering machine cordially asked me to leave a message about the particular tattoo I had in mind, an invitation I considered only briefly). Those establishments did have a jones for branding, but any further similarity to Tattoo--the one Roddick liked--was merely homophonic.

Tattoo is a stealth firm, quiet and almost feline. Unless you've been clued in, you might blunder into Fuzzy's by mistake and emerge with an eagle etched into your forearm. "Oh, yeah, we get that a lot," I was quickly reassured by Tony Gilbreath, one of Tattoo's 15 associates. (They all call themselves "Tattools," an old name that stuck.) For journalistic purposes, I thought it wise to make absolutely sure that this Tattoo was indeed the marketing-services firm whose special domain is understanding, analyzing, and beefing up brands. No permanent skin stains involved--although the company name was in fact chosen to suggest the idea of an indelible brand. "That's us," Gilbreath says. Hot diggety dog, I'm in.

In this, its eighth year, Tattoo has overgrown three funky floors of office space on Battery Street. The company's "hive," as the associates call it, is more This Old House than Martha Stewart Living. It is a buzzy place, though, teeming with Tattools who seem to go full throttle all the time. Wide staircases that link all three floors like giant drainpipes amplify the hubbub, but the unflagging up-and-down transfer of people promotes fertile conversation and probably above-average cardiovascular health.

Desks jut out everywhere, some partially fenced off from the rest by partitions that are patchworked from old, peeling, industrial-looking windows, galvanized sheet metal, and door parts. The effect is clubhouse chic; it's casual, a shade shabby, but not unplanned. I'm crazy about Tattoo's table lamps--authentic, mint-condition 1950s ceramic jobs in that era's ultraswoopy style. It all works: nothing tries too hard. Somebody here has a seriously great eye for design, and I make it my business to find out his name (Hans Gallas, a longtime Tattool: artist, set designer, and past director of the Illinois Art Council).

You can sense a presence behind the scenes, someone guiding things. It's Tattoo's founder, Vishwa Marwah. The Bombay-born Marwah is a flat-out charmer who's smart as a whip. ("He's eerie-smart," proclaims Jeffrey Klein, editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, for which Tattoo does some pro bono work and on whose board Roddick sits.) Marwah, who's about 38, I'd guess, is a world-class listener, solid as they come, confident, and calm at his core. He's one of the few people I've ever met who doesn't mind eye contact. And he's no show-off. He doesn't feel the need to bludgeon you with every little thing he knows.

About a year ago, to raise Tattoo's profile in brand consulting, Marwah bought out his more research-oriented cofounder. Now Tattoo earns a living mainly on its considerable consulting talent, and its reputation in that area is growing like mad.

Founded in 1990, Tattoo broke $1 million in revenues after its first two years and hit $2 million by 1994. When it kicked into heavy consulting mode, it took off, and today sales are closing in on $5 million, "generous for a company our size," Marwah notes. A typical project is priced between $150,000 and $350,000, an amount that's billed over four or five months. Last year about 60% of Tattoo's billings came from projects outside the United States, a trend Marwah expects to continue. The company has made money every year.

Strong word of mouth (and absolutely no advertising) has served as Tattoo's own private undertow, netting it a series of profoundly blue-chip clients like Sears, the Gap, Jim Beam Brands, Campbell Soup, Nabisco, and Monsanto. The clients are all daisy-chained together by referral and recommendation. Multiple projects with Molson Breweries helped the firm land Purina, for instance, and Martha Stewart was referred by Time Inc., Stewart's onetime partner and a Tattoo client. How interesting that a company so skilled at attracting some of the world's most famous brand names has up until now kept itself pretty much a secret. That paradox--call it the Peek of Enchantment--is the first key to understanding Tattoo's magnetic personality and decoding its appeal to star-studded clients. The Peek of Enchantment holds that if you want to create buzz, you should make yourself rare. Cultivate exclusivity. Keep waiting lists. That kind of thing.

The corollary, of course, is that you have to be worth the wait or else playing hard to get is pointless. And if you keep people waiting too long, their impression may have gone soft around the edges--one of the best ways I know to drain the life out of buzz. So keep in mind the Keep Your Shirt On provision, which states that people must be chomping at the bit, sweating it out--they've got to be hungry for what you've got. The more hung up they are on your product or service or reputation, the longer they'll wait for it, which explains why some of Tattoo's clients have been willing to cool their heels for a year or even two.

In other words, Tattoo is something special. People wait (and pay premium prices) for special; ordinary slips right by. And I've noticed, too, that once clients finally get to Tattoo, they hate, they just hate, to let anybody else in on it.

The book on Tattoo is that no company knows its way around a brand the way it does, so maybe it's no wonder that clients would just as soon keep Tattoo out of the yellow pages. John Hansen was, until recently, the CEO of ThermoLase Corp., a technology company in San Diego that markets SoftLight, a laser-based hair-removal process, through its chain of plush skin-care salons and network of physicians. ThermoLase has what every brand wants these days: a standout position in customers' minds. When I ask Hansen about Tattoo, he actually groans. "Oh, no," he says with a sigh, and I catch a whiff of dread in his voice. "If they get any better known, we won't get any of their time. And Tattoo is one of the very best resources available to us to think carefully and strategically about our brand."

Back in 1993, tattoo made a conscious decision to stick its neck out a little by really working its grapevine, which, then as now, was alive with pro-Tattoo buzz. To capitalize on those good vibes, Tattoo renewed contacts with about 20 hot prospects, companies that knew Tattoo by reputation and jumped at the chance to get better acquainted. The mailings produced a binge of new projects, and Tattoo simply had more work than it could handle. Quality suffered. It was a hole that took a couple of years to climb out of. "We're in a position now to choose what we work on," Marwah says. "I'd like us to grow some, but I don't envision a really big organization. This is where the fun is."

Today Tattoo lets its first-rate reputation oonch it from project to project. You get the sense that it will never have to beat the bushes to find work. For one thing, Tattoo has always gotten a raft of repeat business. (About 80% of its work comes from clients who return again and again.) For another, it has a very handsome backlog of would-be clients waiting to grab an opening in its roster.

But for now, they all have to keep their shirts on. Tattoo, currently at 15 employees, frowns on hiring anybody with a typical market-research background--the clipboards, the freelance focus-group moderators, the polynomials, the stale techniques--because those people so often have such trouble getting used to the company's fluid, intuitive, utterly engaged way of doing things. The same goes for people who are looking for logical structure and crystal-clear roles and responsibilities. If you're into titles or other similar trappings of formal authority, Tattoo's not going to be the employer of your dreams.

Which explains why Sterling Lanier, a very smart young (25-ish) guy who joined the company about a year and a half ago, was the perfect new hire. Shortly after he graduated from Duke University, in Durham, N.C., Lanier and two of his buddies opened Cosmic Cantina, a California-style burrito joint, in a converted warehouse. The trio did all the construction themselves, except for the plumbing and electrical work. "I still don't know how we did it," Lanier says. "It was an industry I knew nothing about." After a successful year in the burrito biz (one partner stayed in it and has since opened another cantina), Lanier headed to California for real.

Lanier, as usual, was in a hurry. He talked his way into a news-wire job in San Francisco, where he happily worked the graveyard shift because nobody was around to bug him. One slow Monday morning, around 1 a.m., he ran across a Tattoo job listing, and that was that. "I always had a thing for brands," Lanier says.

It figures that what Lanier likes best about working at Tattoo is the "channeled craziness" that lets him use his creativity--and his survival skills. He tells a story about the time he interviewed a farmer for a client way up in the hills of northern Sumatra, where it was pouring rain. All the villagers were crammed into a little hut, and Lanier was the first Westerner they had ever laid eyes on. As he was doing his interview, "this huge rat fell from the ceiling, wham, and landed right in front of me. And, I mean, this was a big sucker. All the villagers were cracking up." The rat scurried under Lanier's table, so "for the rest of the hour I sat with my legs up in the air because I was so freaked out about that rat," Lanier says, laughing. "It was memorable. For me, it was like going to class every day." For bravery under ratfall and top-notch work in general, Sterling was voted Tattool of the Year in 1997.

Without hard-and-fast rules or a predictable career path, matching people up with projects is a matter of assessing their talent and temperament, and it's usually Marwah's call. "You want to give people something they know, where they have some piece of themselves already invested," he says. "But you also want to give them something that will stretch them." It would be so easy, he thinks, to assign projects along gender lines, the way some firms do. ("She loves fashion but won't like chemicals.") So at Tattoo, things don't work that way. Everybody does everything, including answering the phones.

Still, Marwah has pushed hard to make Tattoo the kind of place that attracts and holds talent. It's a thrill to be part of a company that's doing these amazingly cool things in some pretty wild places. But Marwah knows there had better be more. The company offers a 401(k) plan and profit sharing. Salaries move up quickly. Plus, Tattoo closes its doors for two weeks every year in addition to vacation time. "The whole point is to encourage people to stay," Marwah says. "When you're small, people think in terms of negative trade-offs, turn and burn." He has thought about this particular issue as carefully as any business owner I've met. And so when I called to ask a couple of last-minute questions and learned that two key people had split in the meantime, it was a fair reminder that, even when a company is attempting to keep you, there's always a price to be paid when you live your life on the road. Even though you're doing some pretty unusual work for blue-chip clients and learning a ton, it takes everything you've got.

Once, companies relied almost exclusively on quant jocks and lab-coated market researchers to make decisions about marketing strategy based on what focus groups had to say from the yonder side of a one-way mirror. In an average day, that approach might yield a truckload of complex computer-modelish information, but it lacks heart. That's where Tattoo comes in; it delivers the unexpected, the mysterious, and, above all, the surprising--the kind of insight that makes the hairs on the back of your neck tingle and, coincidentally, creates buzz.

If you want to understand how Tattoo works, the best place to start is the unorthodox way the firm reconnects companies to their customers. Tattoo delivers an evocative, emotional, highly impressionist take on the consumer's perspective; the firm does for marketing what Claude Monet did for art. "They're very, very good at the qualitative part of it," a mass-media client says of Tattoo. "But they're a high-maintenance group, and you have to commit your time to working with them."

When I visited Tattoo, I watched a couple of its signature client presentations--"collages," they call them. Think 5- or 10-minute slide shows with a sound track. Those presentations are explicitly designed to delve into the sensory and emotional side of a brand. So you'd think the collages would be fluffy, but they're not. They are very engaging, if nonconformist, vehicles to get Tattoo's complex gut-level findings across to the client, and they furnish the conceptual underpinnings that will eventually support brand strategy.

The first collage is for a powdered, mix-it-yourself diet soft drink that did a nice business in the 1980s but by the 1990s was feeling the burn of its competitors, famous names in cans. The product's health-and-fitness image had gone the way of leg warmers, as Tattoo would discover when it was brought in to give it a second wind.

After Tattoo sniffed around a bit, a few ideas took shape. This drink was a feminine concoction, girly and playful, unlike brewskis, which are Dad's, or Kool-Aid, the kids' favorite. A woman wouldn't break stride for the ubiquitous Diet Coke, but she'd create a special break in her day for this drink. Maybe most important, it might make drinking the prescribed daily eight glasses of water more fun.

Projected on the wall in front of me are Kodachrome boats and beaches and yummy summer colors. Some slides contain text that's been written to capture the key finding of the initial data-gathering phase. "Drink it with thine eyes," one slide says. The music for this one is provided by New Age diva Enya, who's singing, "Sail away, sail away, sail away." It fits the presentation perfectly, but I can't get the damned song out of my mind for a week. Of course, that could be the whole idea.

The next one is about tea. The music is by Vangelis, from Chariots of Fire, I think. Tattoo's been hired by a U.S. company to find out what's going on with premium tea, and the client has asked for several different impressions, a puzzle the Tattools seem jazzed about because it means they get to work on some new stuff.

Tea, I learn, is borrowed culture. Can you take classic blue-blood British style and make it as American as blue jeans? Ralph Lauren did, and the consumers Tattoo talked to were all over that idea. In another interpretation from Tattoo, the underlying theme is tea as perfume; and in the third, everything depends on setting up a chain of retail specialty shops that sell fine teas the way wine merchants peddle merlot. I also learn that any of those scenarios would be a stretch for a stateside company, because the United States buys the detritus of tea. Tea is sifted. The higher the level in the sifting tower, the greater the tea's market value. What's left at the bottom is called tea dust. That's what most Americans drink.

The collages are put together by a team of Tattools after the brand audit is done and there's all this rich, lively information to stomp around in and decode. The audit is the first of three formal phases of a typical (to the extent that typical and Tattoo can be used in the same sentence) project, studded with nontraditional proprietary techniques designed to get a bead on a brand. To tap into street buzz, for instance, Tattools hang out on sidewalks and videotape what passersby have to say about a certain brand. Each interview lasts about 10 minutes and captures the inchoate images that leap to mind when people think of Rollerblade or Armani or Time.

All that early work is aimed at teasing out what customers think and especially how they feel, what pictures they carry around in their heads, and whether the brand in question is keeping its promises.

One of Tattoo's special talents is to make close customer contact look easy and natural. A project for a famous clothing retailer involved burrowing through the closets of total strangers and getting them to do little on-camera show-and-tells about their wardrobes.

In one of those closet excavations, a woman explains why this jacket works and why she loves that blouse and how she feels when she wears them. It's hard to imagine anything more quotidian than what's happening in this video, but you can't take your eyes off it. The chance to talk about the stuff in her closet energizes this woman (Tattoo would never diminish her by calling her a "subject"), and there's no way that dry-as-dust market-share statistics can capture that.

John Hansen, the former ThermoLase CEO, agrees that Tattoo's methods can be offbeat but says also that they're supereffective. "I've seen my share of focus groups and quantitative studies, but Tattoo helps you understand exactly what's driving your customers," he says. "Tattoo will find a way to communicate your message so that your customer will hear you."

Even so, Hansen says it took a little convincing to get him to believe that to hair-removal customers, the aesthetics of the process are every bit as important as a satiny-smooth result. Based on Tattoo's recommendations, ThermoLase downplayed its laser technology (too sci-fi) and instead showcased hair zapping as part of a peaceful, painless personal-care ritual performed by licensed practitioners in a refined, elegant setting. Now, that was something women wanted to talk about, and they did, in detailed articles in Vogue and Cosmetic Surgery Times.

Tattoo does what it does by "living the brand," Marwah says, really getting under its skin, learning every inch of it from the inside out. It's a process that takes considerable time and talent, and one for which there are no Cliffs Notes. There's more to it than a string of projects and a trademarked approach, and Mother Jones's Jeffrey Klein thinks he knows what it is. "There's some kind of magic inside of Vishwa," he says. "He can evoke an emotional experience. He's a person from the future--his sensory reception is not like the ordinary person's." For Mother Jones, a magazine with limited funds, that kind of ultrasensitivity is worth a lot. Nobody else can pull it off, according to Klein, a conclusion he'd reached long before Mother Jones and Tattoo got together for a recent all-day confab that took place on a chilly day with everybody sitting around in a yurt in Marin County. "He had us think about why we were really there, and to imagine our future and be true to what we stand for," says Klein.

Marwah has a rather classical marketing background, which surprises me. He taught marketing in the doctoral program at the University of Michigan while he was getting his M.B.A. After stints as media planner at Leo Burnett, associate media director at Chiat/Day, and director of account planning at Fallon McElligott, a Minneapolis advertising agency, Marwah declared his independence and started Tattoo. "We thought we'd be nimble and work on real modest problems," he says, "but we got pulled into some really exciting, high-profile things." Like, for instance, helping Martha Stewart the Person become Martha Stewart the Brand, or deciphering what Sears stands for in the consumer's mind, or helping to launch InStyle magazine from a microscopic germ of an idea. The founder is kind of in awe of his company's success. But if there's one thing Marwah knows, it's how to psych out a brand.

To say that tattoo's been working on an enormous project for Monsanto Co. is not strictly accurate: Tattoo is more or less macerated in Monsanto. Even though Monsanto's most visible businesses are probably Equal and NutraSweet, Tattoo is working on the product that generates a good percentage of Monsanto's income: Roundup, the biggest-selling herbicide in the world.

Let's just put a round number on that. This weed killer is a billion-dollar brand in the States, which puts it on a par with, say, Marlboro. It's a perfect Tattoo project because Roundup's U.S. patent runs out in 2000. (It's already off-patent virtually everywhere else.) So now Roundup, with a little help from a certain San Francisco marketing firm, is going to make the move from commodity chemical to big-time brand.

"It's always nice to have a patent," Roundup's U.S. brand manager John Howell notes. But those protected days will be over when the patent runs out. It's a sunny day in California, and I listen carefully because I keep worrying about the weeds with the pretty little yellow flowers that have filled in the wide spaces between my century-old apple trees like a massive screen saver. It's mustard, somebody has told me. As if reading my mind, Howell points out that "we asked Tattoo to help us understand what our brand means to our end users, who are mainly growers. What emotions does it evoke?" Well, relief. Confidence. Trust.

But now it gets interesting. Monsanto faces a difficult business problem: how do you survive in a postpatent environment? To play this game requires certain table stakes. You have to stand for something, that's for sure. There must be good reasons why a grower chooses Roundup, and those reasons have to go deeper than the glyphosate--Roundup's active ingredient--in the jug.

Howell is explaining how Tattoo extracted information from Roundup customers (that is, farmers) during the initial audit. Asking the right questions at this stage is everything, so you "get to the emotion people feel about your brand," Howell says. What makes a brand powerful is the emotional commitment of its customers, and uncovering those feelings is where Tattoo does some of its most surprising work. Tattoo associates asked some mindblowers, such as, What would a world without Roundup be like? What would be on Roundup's epitaph if it died tomorrow? Or they'd put a bag of Roundup in the farmer's hands and ask if it felt hot or cold. To hear a French farmer talk about genetically altered herbicides as a "postcard to myself from the future"--well, you get the idea. "That's partly why I hired Tattoo," Howell explains. "The way they obtain information is as unique as what they do with it."

He wants to know if I've seen one of Tattoo's "slide-show things, with music and pictures." (Oh, Lord, Enya's back.) Howell loves the collages and says they capture the spirit of the project and its results like nothing else. "Then I take that spirit and dial it into a print ad," he says, "because Tattoo helps you identify what's motivating your customers and what a commercial should speak to."

Mother Jones wants to reach the next generation of readers, idealists in their midtwenties to early thirties, a generation Marwah believes is "the most progressive we've seen in a while. We've been talking, and they've been doing." Mother Jones is going to create new generational buzz by engaging the younger generation, a strategy that evolved from Tattoo's research and from responses to wacko questions like, If feminism were a restaurant, what would it look like? OK, now if Mother Jones were a restaurant...

If Tattoo were a restaurant? Its number would be unlisted; you'd have to know somebody to get a table. It would be high concept but unsnooty. Once you got in the door, you wouldn't mind the inevitable wait, because the food is divine and the wine list is so vast that you could spend years on either. None of the silver would match, and neither would the chairs, but it would all work. Tattoo-the-restaurant would be famous for its spicy, exotic soups (secret recipe, natch): mulligatawny, bouillabaisse, and bird's nest would be the house specialties. Of course, you could order off the menu, and the chef would cook the most scrumptious meal you can imagine.

Your only real problem would be finding the place.

Nancy K. Austin is the coauthor, with Tom Peters, of A Passion for Excellence.

Read the companion piece " Buzz" by Nancy K. Austin in the May 1998 Inc.

How They do it

To tap into pure, undiluted buzz, Tattoo uses some unorthodox methods to uncover what brands represent to consumers. Tattoo's researchers hit the streets with minicams and record what people have to say about a certain brand name. For a famous retailer, the most natural place for those impromptu dialogues isn't a focus group or even the sidewalk; it's the closet. People dug through their wardrobes and explained, on videotape, why they wear what they wear. The tactic was hugely effective.

Buzz Boys

Vishwa Marwah, Tattoo's founder, possesses abundant charm, a little mystery, and a cool intelligence. Marwah has also resolved that Tattoo will always do the very best work imaginable. More than anyone else, Hans Gallas creates Tattoo's signature look and style. And for Sterling Lanier, all talent and energy, every day is different.

Inside Tattoo

Tattoo is very clear about its own brand identity. It has a hip logo, stenciled smack in the middle of its slightly trapezoidal business cards and again on the cover of its "Credentials & Philosophy" book--an album, really--about the same size as the ones favored by autograph hounds. Stainless-steel nuts and bolts perforate a wavy ribbon of corrugated metal on the left side of the book, clamping the whole thing solidly in place. It looks nonconformist and steadfast, like something put together by an artist who happened to drift into a metal shop one day. Tattoo's album stakes out its competitive territory in lower-case, haikulike prose:

My overall impression is that it's all just so much cutting-edge Zen, but Tattoo means every word. Nothing floaty about it. Like the firm, Tattoo's little book is both workhorse and knockout, and it says something important about growing a company and creating buzz: your story had better be good, and the way you package it is everything.

Published on: May 1, 1998