top of page
  • Writer's pictureCatherine Carr

A Master Class in Brand from Cranium's Grand Poo Bah

By Molly Kertzer and Catherine Carr

We often tell people we were lucky enough to learn brand from the master, but we've never taken the time to fully unpack what that means. We both joined Cranium in early 2001, when the entire team could fit around a conference table and weigh in on the optimal texture for the purple Cranium Clay to be sculpted into a taco or a flip-flop. Julia Roberts had just appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and spontaneously proclaimed that she could not stop playing Cranium. Dewar's had tapped our two maverick founders, Richard Tait (aka Grand Poo Bah) and Whit Alexander (Chief Noodler) to pose in print ads. We had a bunch of new products in development. The startup was on fire.

Whit Alexander and Richard Tait perched on a purple chair with a purple brain floating in a glass jar, above the Dewar's logo
The brain in the jar was questionable, but the free advertising incredible.

Our job titles (Worldly Wordsmith and Keeper of the Flame) were unconventional, and our roles were fluid as Cranium grew around us. We both started in content and ended up in brand strategy and marketing. Cranium was so deeply, fully brand-driven that the brand infused every aspect of our culture, every customer touchpoint, every decision we made. We got a master class in brand without realizing we were taking one--or how much it would define our careers.

Richard died unexpectedly in July 2022, at age 58. Much has been written about his outsized impact in a life cut too short--his boundless energy, his passion for mentorship, his creativity and vision, his entrepreneurial spirit, his inspirational leadership. Those things are all certainly true, but we believe his unique brand genius also deserves to be fully celebrated.

At Cranium, breaking the rules was core to our success in many ways, from engaging Gary Baseman to create the art for the original packaging and game board to hiring people with zero game experience. But one of Richard's gifts was how creatively and effortlessly he adhered to a few core brand tenets. These ideas aren't radical in and of themselves, but in our experience, sticking with them and pushing them far beyond the basics is. At Cranium, we lived and breathed them, and we come back to them again and again.

Cranium brain logo with red halo with background of bright red, green, blue, and yellow squares and the Cranium characters Word Worm, Creative Cat, Data Head, and Star Performer
The original game box looked like no other game on the market.

1. Weave stories into the fabric of your brand.

Richard's mesmerizing stories were the emotional heart of our brand, and anyone at Cranium could tell them from memory.

The origin story: Richard and his wife on a rainy beach vacation with another couple, victorious at Pictionary and trounced at Scrabble, and Richard wondering why there wasn't a game that would give "everyone the chance to shine."

The Starbucks story: Richard and Whit proudly producing their first game, only to learn they'd missed the window to sell into retailers. Realizing their ideal audience was literally lining up around them as they commiserated over lattes. Hatching an out-of-the-box distribution deal right there and then, with plum placement and enviable cachet, that very likely made our business.

The proposal story: The fan who asked us to help him propose to his girlfriend with custom Cranium cards (we said yes, and so did she!).

These stories bound our team together as Craniacs, sold Cranium into retailers that had never carried games before (including Barnes and Noble and Amazon!), and made the game intriguing to customers, in an industry that hadn't seen anything fresh in a long time. Many companies don't take the time to capture their brand-defining stories, even their origin story, or to do so in a way that captures imagination. Richard's stories made all of us (customers, employees, retailers, and partners) feel part of something special and exciting.

The games themselves inspired stories that our customers told their own friends and families. A family laughing so hard they cried as Dad valiantly acted out "evolution." A game night with new acquaintances that turned into a full-on breakdancing and bonding session. The shy little brother who was coaxed into "showing his inner fun" while playing Cranium Cadoo. Stories like these helped drive Cranium's blazing word-of-mouth success before Instagram posts or TikTok videos could launch viral hits.

Whit and Richard proudly displaying their first batch of games, just before realizing they had nowhere to sell them.

Whit Alexander and Richard Tait in the original Cranium office with a big stack of board games.
(📷: @Adam Tratt, Craniac Maniac and another legendary storyteller)

2. Know what your brand stands for.

At most companies, if you ask employees what their brand stands for, you'll get as many responses as there are team members. At Cranium everyone, from Princess Care-e-oke in customer service to Sir Fixalot in IT, knew we were about giving everyone the chance to shine and could rattle off our brand values of Clever, High-Quality, Innovative, Friendly, and Fun (in a nutshell, CHIFF).

CHIFF, coined by our Major MojoBill Furlong, was crisp, catchy, and actionable. It was an indispensable filter for evaluating everything from the nuance of a game rule to the appropriateness of an idiom in a French edition. Clever wordplay, cooperative game play, business cards with rounded corners? CHIFF. Snarky advertising, scatological jokes, an unexpectedly graphic prototype of an elephant's trunk for a children's game? Decidedly un-CHIFF.

Distilling the brand into something so simple and clear that everyone got and felt invested in preserving was powerful.

3. Keep your customers at the heart of everything you do.

Our customers, from the littlest preschool players to the "dating yupsters" most likely to play our edgier adult games, were a constant presence. Richard read and responded to every customer email, shared them with us constantly, and collected the best ones in a treasured "Book of Shine," brimming with our customers' photos, drawings, and hand-written notes.

Adults and kids traipsed through the office daily to our playtest room, where we observed them unboxing the new games we had labored over, reading the rules, and playing--an experience that was equal parts painful and illuminating, as we could instantly see the trouble spots that needed attention.

As we expanded to new international markets, Richard and Whit felt strongly that we needed to craft the content for each new edition around its audience--simply throwing it over the wall to translate the game content would miss the special magic of shared cultural touchstones that made Cranium sparkle. We built teams of comedians and writers in each country and got them brainstorming on the touchstones that would delight local players, like sculpting poutine in the French Canadian edition or impersonating Steve Irwin in the Australian.

By prioritizing the customer experience and continually inventing new ways to surprise and delight our customers, Richard showed us how to be truly customer-centric, no matter our role at Cranium.

4. Make every touchpoint a brand experience.

We've all seen brand breakdowns, from a dirty restroom at a fancy restaurant to a painful ad campaign. This can happen when clear brand guidelines aren't established or adhered to, or because a touchpoint isn't deemed worthy of attention. In Richard's view, every touchpoint was deemed worthy of attention.

This is why we obsessed over the exact order of the game cards (to orchestrate the play experience from start to finish) and insisted on glossy full-color instructions instead of the typical rules printed in inscrutably tiny text on thin, accordion-folded paper.

Every single Cranium touchpoint--internal or external, small or large--was true to our brand. Our office was drenched in the vivid hues that infused the games--red, blue, yellow, green, purple. You could sit at the bar in the lobby and scribble on a whiteboard surface, just like you did on the drawing pads in our games. Richard's voice and amped-up Scottish accent greeted callers on the office voicemail.

Our games looked like our advertising, which looked like our office, which looked like our business cards.

Launch party taking place in Cranium lobby with colorful balloons and decorations
A lobby worthy of epic launch celebrations

5. Invest in a culture that’s true to your brand.

Richard, who led marketing and sales, and Whit, who led product and operations (and whose genius at operationalizing brand merits its own post), built a culture that was inextricable from our brand.

As Whit always said, "If we're not having fun, we're not doing it right! How could stressed-out, unhappy people make outrageously fun games? They couldn't. So our culture was CHIFF. The Grand Poo Bah himself greeted every new team member with a copy of Orbiting the Giant Hairball, inscribed with a personal note and a doodled self-portrait, and bestowed each of us with a Craniac title to celebrate our unique talents and contributions.

Our Craniac titles served another purpose we didn't fully appreciate until working in more hierarchical companies--Cranium was a flat organization. There were people of all levels in most meetings, and ideas flowed freely in all directions. You didn't present to a VP who presented to a senior VP who presented to an executive VP. King COGS and the Smooth Operator met with the CHIFF Champion and the Head of the Hive to share ideas and plans. (If you were at Starbucks with Richard years later and felt baffled that his title was Chief Boom Boom, now you get it.)

Shared rituals defined our unique Craniac culture. For a new hire, special visitors, or exciting news, someone banged a gong and we stopped what we were doing to gather round. We all knew exactly how the business was doing, because every time we booked $1M in revenue, our CFO (Professor Profit) took a scooter lap around the office wearing a Cranium helmet and shades emblazoned with dollar signs. Nelly ("Heyyyyyyy..must be the money!") blasted from speakers as we moved an oversized game piece one step closer to our annual revenue goal on the colorful game board circling the floor.

We celebrated other wins together. In a time when roughly half of new board games failed in their first year, and half of those remaining failed in their second, Cranium defied the odds, selling more than 22 million games, books, and toys worldwide. Our games won loyal fans in nearly 30 countries and more than 10 languages--and the toy industry's coveted Game of the Year five times. Hasbro, the world's largest maker of board games, acquired Cranium in 2008.

Man in business attire wearing a Cranium brain helmet and riding a scooter through the office while people applaud.
Professor Profit taking a victory lap around the office to celebrate $1M in revenue.

Brand magic. 

Many of us were still relatively early in our careers at Cranium. The creation of the brand and culture felt so natural that we had no idea how rare such a thing was, and how much other companies--big and small--struggle to do what seemed so effortless. It was not effortless, but Richard understood the pact between brand, customer, and employee better than anyone we've known and invested in delivering on it. What a tremendous gift to have learned from Richard how to make a brand shine, and to have had outrageous fun doing it.

Catherine Carr led editorial and publishing as Cranium's Keeper of the Flame for 7 years and spent two years as Senior Director, Brand Creative at Hasbro. In 2010 she founded Vitamin C Creative, a Seattle-based boutique brand strategy practice, to apply everything she had learned about irresistible brands and content beyond games. Richard was her very first client (for Boom Boom Brands), and she is forever grateful.

Molly Kertzer oversaw the creation of over 150 international editions as Cranium's Worldly Wordsmith and Chief Cultural Attaché for six years before taking over brand management of Cranium's preschool and digital business at Hasbro. She also enjoyed the opportunity to see Richard in action during time together at Microsoft, the Foster School of Business, and Starbucks.

5 views0 comments


bottom of page