Brains Behind Brands

Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
Photography by: 
Michael Clements
n NFL draft night in 2016, Tim Burkhart ('87) and members of his print production and e-commerce teams were in their office, eagerly awaiting the first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys.
Tim Burkhart ('87) (Photo by Michael Clements)
Tim Burkhart ('87) (Photo by Michael Clements)

Running back Ezekiel Elliott was chosen, and then the work began. Burkhart, the Cowboys' merchandising chief operating officer, led his team of employees to create and print the jersey with Elliott's name to sell online and at Dallas Cowboys Pro Shops the next morning.

Burkhart oversees accounting, IT, e-commerce, the screen print production facility, and warehouse, retail and customer service operations for the merchandise of the Dallas Cowboys. It is the only National Football League team that designs and manufactures its own apparel, giving it an advantage to quickly create items -- such as Elliott's jersey on draft day.

When the team chose to develop its own merchandising business, it was another decision -- along with playing every Thanksgiving and building AT&T Stadium in Arlington -- that made it one of the sporting world's most popular brands.

"The Dallas Cowboys brand is one that has evolved over many years," Burkhart says. "Winning certainly helps. But along the way the organization has remained true to some basic principles regarding innovation, tradition, entertainment, passion, competition, business, excellence, integrity, community and teamwork. All of these actions have contributed to creating a unique relationship with the true owners of our brand, the Dallas Cowboys fans."

Many UNT graduates are working behind the scenes for major corporations, tasked with getting consumers to transform their habits and spending power to become loyal brand followers. Scott White ('77) has landed appearances on Fox Business News and Undercover Boss for his clients. Telea Stafford ('03 M.B.A.) has helped develop campaigns for, DART and Dr Pepper. Shelby Tamura ('15) contributed ideas for an H-E-B commercial during the recent Super Bowl. And Remy Smit ('13 M.B.A.) developed ads for Miller Lite beer based on an idea from his native country -- the Netherlands.

The work of these alumni is to build emotional connections with brands so consumers become loyal and engaged, says Francisco Guzmán, UNT associate professor of marketing and logistics.

He points out that the role of brands has changed drastically in the last 25 years, as technology is demanding product excellence in order to survive in the marketplace among consumers who can instantly offer feedback. Also similar products compete among one another -- such as the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy, Walmart and Target, and Lowe's and The Home Depot. The challenge for businesses is to sell an image consumers can look up to.

"In this advanced technological world, we are looking for experiences," Guzmán says. "We're not satisfied with just a good product. We want a product that helps tell who we are."

He points out that the role of brands has changed drastically in the last 25 years, as technology is demanding product excellence in order to survive in the marketplace among consumers who can instantly offer feedback. Also similar products compete among one another — such as the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy, Walmart and Target, and Lowe's and The Home Depot. The challenge for businesses is to sell an image consumers can look up to.

"In this advanced technological world, we are looking for experiences," Guzmán says. "We're not satisfied with just a good product. We want a product that helps tell who we are."

Branding the team

Burkhart has been interested in the creative arts since he was a young boy. While at UNT, he realized he could make a career in the field, leading him to major in advertising art. When he took a printmaking course from Don Scaggs, the professor encouraged the class to be open to feedback and said that the ideas of the team could make the final product better.

"It can be difficult for a 19- or 20-year-old to put their heart and soul into a piece of work, then place it on the wall for all to see and for all to critique," Burkhart says. "Professor Scaggs helped me gain the courage to do so. This has helped me to be a more collaborative leader throughout my career."

Burkhart went on to earn his M.B.A. at Tulane University and worked in a variety of positions at an electrical utility firm in New Orleans. He then moved to Capital One and Fossil before accepting his position with the Cowboys four years ago.

"I always wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy and didn't know this was how it was going to happen," Burkhart quips.

The merchandising process begins with sourcing what items are needed, such as the cut and fit. The team reviews historic data to determine the percent of sales by category, graphic style, materials and other factors.

They keep informed about breaking trends in fashion, and they use focus groups and immerse themselves in environments such as tailgating events and in-game experiences to see what fans want. Then the graphic design team produces samples, which the Cowboys take to retail partners to determine what fans in the market will buy.

The design teams are already working on products for 2018. This season's 13-3 record and energetic rookies Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott made it a busy year.

But the Cowboys' merchandise is always in demand, even in tougher seasons.

"We're really fortunate to have a brand as strong as ours," Burkhart says.

Selling the story
Scott White ('77) (Photo by Michael Clements)
Scott White ('77) (Photo by Michael Clements)

Scott White understands the value of a strong brand. He persuades entrepreneurs to invest in businesses ranging from plumbing to edible fruit arrangements.

As co-founder and CEO of Dallas-based BizCom Associates, his job is to convince prospective business owners to buy franchises. The job shares similar qualities with his first career -- journalism. As a student, he was editor of The North Texas Daily. Then, he worked as a sportswriter, magazine editor and TV show producer before moving into the public relations business with his friend David Hadeler ('77 M.A.) in the 1990s. White founded BizCom in 1999.

"It's about helping companies tell their stories," he says. "I did this as a journalist. Now I'm able to tell narratives in a variety of ways."

For Edible Arrangements, he gets CEO Tariq Farid -- ;an immigrant from Pakistan who started as a flower shop owner -- on talk shows and stations such as Fox and Friends, Fox Business, MSNBC, Bloomberg and CNBC to tell his story.

Another client is the Dwyer Group, a $1.6 billion Waco-based business that owns brands such as Mr. Rooter Plumbing, Mr. Electric and Molly Maid. White's agency landed its co-chairwoman, Dina Dwyer-Owens, an appearance on Undercover Boss, the reality show in which CEOs take on various jobs at their businesses, unknown to their employees. The TV spot not only blew up the company's website, but research showed that it attracted more women into trades.

White says his education at UNT, particularly from journalism professor Keith Shelton ('72 M.J.), gave him the discipline to write and the background to understand news. And he has mentored his share of alumni. His first intern, Tina Young ('91), became founder and president of MarketWave, a Dallas marketing agency.

The biggest selling point is still the story, White says, because consumers will relate to it.

"There's an old saying that 'facts get recorded but stories get remembered,' and that has been my philosophy since I enrolled at the university," he says. "This is especially true today with consumers increasingly skeptical when it comes to advertising. A brand or a business with a truly authentic and inspiring story to tell has a much better chance of connecting with an audience and gaining trust than a brand or business without one."

Making a mark
Telea Stafford ('03 M.B.A.) (Photo by Michael Clements)
Telea Stafford ('03 M.B.A.) (Photo by Michael Clements)

Telea Stafford has helped people meet their spouses thanks to her marketing skills. Sixteen years ago, she was on the team that crafted ad campaigns for, when the internet was in its infancy.

"The launch of that campaign was a big deal," she says. "We were trying to change the behaviors of people who had never dated online."

Now Stafford is running her own firm, Phenixx Marketing and Media, bringing in the knowledge she learned from years of experience working for brands such as Dr Pepper and Miller Brewing Co. and her courses at UNT.

As a college student, Stafford worked as an intern for Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Twenty years later, armed with an M.B.A. from UNT and serving as president of her own marketing firm, she headed DART's campaign to promote its new line to DFW Airport.

"To go from intern to agency of record is huge," she says. "We made a mark on the city to be a part of connecting DART to the airport after 20 years in the making."

Stafford had always been a creative person -- she designed her lunch bags for school -- and after earning her undergraduate degree in advertising, she created campaigns for Dairy Queen and Taco Bell while working for Dallas-Fort Worth area advertising agencies.

"Then I said to myself, 'What's next? Do you want to go to New York and walk into an agency with brass logos on the wall like you see on TV?'" she says, adding that the internet was taking on its own life and creating new possibilities that appealed to her.

She landed at, where she helped make online dating commonplace. She then moved on to Dr Pepper and launched its licensing division so fans could wear "I'm a Pepper" T-shirts and eat Dr Pepper-flavored jelly beans.

During that time, Stafford studied for her M.B.A. at UNT, where her classes in finance, operations and law taught her the complexities of business.

"I learned about all of the strategy and thinking that goes into a creative decision," she says. "What my UNT degree did was lay a plan for me, instead of me relying on pure instinct. This is important because when you're meeting with clients, you don't just show them the end product. You have to show them the thought process and strategy behind it to gain their trust."

In her case, that means selling a vision -- evaluating clients' goals, gathering a snapshot of what consumers in the marketplace are doing, embracing risk, compelling clients to be confident and accountable for the outcome, and converting ideas to reality. She implemented those concepts at Nokia and, in 2012, started her Dallas agency.

"My biggest reward is that my legacy is in my work, a mental story board of how I influenced brands to become significant, relevant and compelling in some way that didn't exist before me," she says.

Creating effective messages
Shelby Tamura ('15) (Photo by Michael Clements)
Shelby Tamura ('15) (Photo by Michael Clements)

Two cows type on a giant smartphone, spelling out "Eat Mor Chikin" with emojis on a billboard in Atlanta. The H-E-B grocery store chain invites customers to submit videos about their favorite H-E-B products in an ad that appeared during the recent Super Bowl. Lil' Sweet, a pint-sized rock star, celebrates life's little victories in 15-second commercials for Diet Dr Pepper. This is the work of Shelby Tamura, art director at The Richards Group in Dallas. She is part of a team whose creations also are seen in ads for Pier 1 Imports and others.

"Seeing my work in commercials on TV is such a surreal feeling," she says. "It's very rewarding to see the end results on air."

Tamura majored in communication design with a focus on art direction in the College of Visual Ats and Design. She was attracted to UNT for two reasons -- her parents, Bob ('84) and Kathy ('85), both attended, and the college is famous for its rigorous program requiring students to produce creative and industry-competitive portfolios.

"UNT faculty teach you about the work and time it takes to create something good and be proud of it," she says. "They move you to think through every angle, every possible route to convey a meaningful and effective message."

Tamura, who also played on the Mean Green volleyball team, had the opportunity to tour New York City and its advertising agencies through the college. She won a student National Addy for her Carfax campaign and had her work accepted into The One Show Student exhibit in New York. She then landed an internship at The Richards Group, which led to a permanent job there after graduation.

The Richards Group is a full-spectrum agency, including print, digital and broadcast work. The staff often meets with clients numerous times, presenting them with ideas and scripts for potential ads before landing on the right one.

Tamura says she loves to travel for commercial shoots and other projects. But she enjoys being creative most of all.

"I am hands-on throughout the entire process from concepting to script writing to casting and production," she says. "Always having new problems to solve and messages to deliver to consumers in a new and interesting way keeps me motivated."

Connecting the audience
Remy Smit ('13 M.B.A.) (Photo by Michael Clements)
Remy Smit ('13 M.B.A.) (Photo by Michael Clements)

Miller Lite wanted a campaign to appeal to grassroots soccer players -- such as those who played on weekends -- and Remy Smit instantly knew what could work.

In the Netherlands, soccer players have a "third half" in which they often reflect on the finished game while drinking with friends. Smit pitched the idea at the advertising agency he worked at, and Miller Lite launched the El Tercer Tiempo program that appeared on posters, commercials and other advertising. The poster features items recognizable to weekend sports warriors -- such as illustrations of their amigos and partidazo, or passion for soccer -- and commercials showed players discussing the highlights of the game.

"We wanted to convey that after leaving your heart on the field you deserve to have that special moment with your friends while enjoying an ice cold Miller Lite," Smit says. "This is not about packed stadiums and top-notch preparations, but about those muddy fields on a Sunday morning while battling a hangover."

Now Smit is a senior strategic planner for The Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based marketing agency, and has helped bring ideas to advertising campaigns for such companies as AT&T and State Farm. He first worked on the AT&T brand as a student in Michael Gade's marketing management class at UNT. Gade, a principal lecturer with vast corporate and boardroom experience, set up group projects in which students solved problems for real-life companies.

"It's cool to work for such a large company while you're still in college," Smit says.

After graduation, he worked for Cultur8, a multicultural advertising agency that served Heineken, Tecate, Tecate Light, the American Heart Association and Frito-Lay. He then moved to its parent agency, Dieste, where he worked on the Miller Lite account.

He says companies can't ignore an important characteristic of the audience.

"People don't buy products if they don't recognize themselves in the faces shown in marketing efforts, because they feel the brand is not made for them," he says. "To me, the rewarding part is learning a lot about different cultures and how various groups can perceive the same product or occasion in a very different way."

Smit says the love he has for his job goes back to marketing professor Nancy Spears' consumer behavior class, when he studied why humans make the choices they do.

"Finding out what exactly it is that triggers people is fascinating to me. For example, why do people cheer for a specific sports team? Is it geographically decided? Does it have to do with a team's success? Is it because their mom or dad is a fan? Or something different?

"Someone might not realize why they do it, but there is always a reason for it. I just enjoy digging for that deeper reason and ultimately building a strategy to connect the stories with the brand and product we are trying to sell."

>More on brands

Learn more about UNT's UNT and Dallas Cowboys Partnership.

Read about Coralee Trigger ('13), a converged broadcast media graduate who has helped build brands as a social media strategist for the Conan O'Brien and Ellen DeGeneres shows.

Watch the El Tercer Tiempo campaign created by Remy Smit.