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Omaha Magazine

SecretPenguin’s Dave Nelson: Mastering the Art of Balance

May 27, 2022 03:22PM ● By Julius Fredrick
dave nelson and secret penguin team graffiti wall

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

After 18 years on the Greater Omaha Chamber business registry, the listing ‘SecretPenguin’ has become something of a misnomer. Buzz around the branding collective has grown too conspicuous to be considered covert, and the agency’s talent is catching tailwind—and big-time commission—coast-to-coast, their pace far from glacial.

Every alias, however, has a story, and in the case of SecretPenguin mastermind Dave Nelson, sometimes a name just sticks.

“I used to hide ‘secret penguins’ in my artwork when I was bored drawing still lifes in high school,” Nelson said. “When I started traveling more for skateboarding, I had stickers made so I could hide them wherever I went. I started throwing them out to crowds, and my email was on the back, and pretty soon I was getting messages from all over the world…” 

If life is a record, setting the needle to Nelson’s reveals skateboarding and graphic design to be two sides of a cherished LP, one he can’t help but move to. However, synching the harmony Nelson enjoys today wasn’t without its wobbles, scratches, and feedback loops. Balance had to be learned, and more importantly, practiced—on the grind rail, on the drafting table, and on the tour bus. 

“I remember, my college professor told me I needed to choose between skateboarding or art, but then I left school and did art on the road,” Nelson recalled, the memory coaxing a grin. “I didn’t see a movie for eight years, I only skateboarded and…designed.”

While Nelson isn’t scoring any points in the cinema category come trivia night, the countless hours spent honing his craft have turned SecretPenguin from a web-based, indie operation into a nationwide branding blockbuster, with numerous restaurants filling the queue. 

“About 40% of our clients are dining related,” Nelson said. “If you include developments that include dining, it may be closer to 60%.”

These figures led Nelson to introduce Undivided in 2016, a restaurant-focused division of SecretPenguin that promises to “create, refine, and manage restaurants brands,” per the company slogan.

“The logo represents how there are different divisions in a restaurant, and how we help them to become aligned; to become undivided.”

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha staples like Jams, Via Farina, and Westroad Mall’s Flagship Commons get Nelson’s undivided marketing attention alongside cross-country projects such as Williamsburg Pizza in Brooklyn, N.Y., and “cutting-edge food-hall and ghost kitchen” Le Fantome in Washington, D.C.

“It’s fun coming up with unique ideas so that people walk away wanting to tell others about their experience,” Nelson said. “Often, people visiting restaurants are paying for more than the meal alone—they’re paying for an experience—and we consider all the angles of how to make it a positive, memorable one.”

A key hire towards refining SecretPenguin’s experiential approach to branding was Ali Hult, her client-side perspective a blast of steam for an owner looking to iron out creative wrinkles between brands and their agencies.

“I was previously a marketing director, so I was used to being on the client side,” Hult said. “I hired SecretPenguin and several other agencies…and when I would worked with the SecretPenguin team, the results were remarkable.”

While her decade-long tenure at SecretPenguin provides ample adulation, one concept in particular breaks the surface of Hult’s otherwise placid demeanor.

The concept? Top secret. Classified. Or at least heavily redacted—for now.

“The Iceberg Build comes from our realization that many people can create something beautiful, or visually intriguing, but unless it’s strategic it only goes so far,” Hult said. “The brand identity, that’s just the tip of the iceberg…it’s everything underneath; the culture, the experience.”

“For example, we worked with Plank in the Old Market, their attributes being: high end, approachable, and utilitarian,” Hult continued, “but even looking at their flatware, when you sit down it’s weighted to be heavier, it’s got a high-end feel, but it’s also utilitarian, no doilies or embellishments, and then it’s approachable—no fancy metals, just stainless steel. It’s exactly what you need.”

Nelson is reserved in sharing the finer details of his build, though he touts a 99% success rate over 200 clients nationwide, and the intellectual scrutiny of Creighton University psychologist Dr. Joshua Fairchild—in the midst of a study on SecretPenguin’s winning process.

Another benefactor of The Iceberg Build is hot-off-the-skillet restaurateur and Noddle Co. heir apparent, Sam Noddle. 

His Aksarben cafe and cocktail bar, Sonny’s | Zone_6, has all the hallmarks of Nelson’s experiential approach to branding, serving small bites and craft cocktails from a converted Airstream camper, replete with greenhouse seating.

The two put their creative minds to work, with Noddle’s influences from hip, wellness-oriented Coconut Grove in Miami—plus some inspired scribbling from Sam’s dad, Jay—combining with Nelson’s exacting eye for design.

“It’s two weeks before we open and I don’t have a logo. My dad has this really ugly cursive handwriting,” Noddle jibed. “I call my dad up, and say, ‘Hey I need you to write out Sonny’s as much as you can.’”

Noddle sent over the drafts, and in less than an hour Nelson produced an image of a perpetually rising sun, a subtle yet inspired nod to the scrawl’s familial origins. 

Noddle beamed at the recollection:

“Working with Dave was like taking a graduate course in marketing,” Noddle said. “He’s just a great guy…he’s showing me how to get to where I want to be.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.