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Artist Christopher Radko of HeARTfully Yours: Five Things You Need To Build A Trusted And Beloved Brand

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Be consistent and authentic in caring about your customers. Slow but steady and dependable wins the race. Never lose touch with your customer base. Meet with them, talk with them. Find out what is important to them. Serve their hearts’ needs. Knowing that you are using your business to be of service ensures a peaceful night’s sleep. The money will flow from that.

As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Mr. Christopher Radko, creator of HeARTfully Yours.

Mr. Radko is the celebrated artist whose ravishing glass-blown ornaments have for decades adorned homes all over the world. He has just launched a new line called HeARTfully Yours™ that’s being met with raves by eager fans both old and new. Hailed by the New York Times as “The Ornament King”, Christopher has been a much-beloved figure in the industry and recognized by avid collectors as well as casual shoppers for his finely crafted ornaments that celebrate all holidays and special life events. He is entering what he calls the “third act” of his career and as passionate as ever in making each ornament he creates truly unforgettable.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in a broken home. But at Christmas, everyone seemed just a little bit nicer to each other. So for me, the season always held a kind of magic and promise that I wanted to last all year long. Little did I know then that I would end up making a career out of capturing that feeling for myself as well as for others.

I’ve always been creative and wanted to work in a field where I might flourish and that led me to joining the training program at the famed talent agency ICM. But one Christmas day fate intervened. My family and I had mounted our 12-foot tree on a new stand I had bought that year. But one of the legs cracked under the weight and sent the tree toppling to the floor and smashing all our family heirloom glass ornaments. In shock, my grandmother told me that I had “ruined Christmas forever!” Yikes! Talk about a guilt trip! A quick search of New York city stores revealed no one was selling delicate glass ornaments anymore. Everything was plastic or Styrofoam!

The following spring, I visited a cousin in Poland who put me in touch with a glassblower who was skilled in making the kind of glass ornaments I wanted. I showed him my sketches of our old ornaments and a few original designs and he magically transformed them into glistening glass orbs, stars, and unicorns. I brought them back with me and everyone was captivated. Friends clamored for them and offered to buy some for themselves. That started my hobby of selling ornaments during my lunch hour. I went around Manhattan showing my ornaments to retailers and sold 25K in my first year, 100K in my second. Quite a hobby! I bid adieu to the ICM mailroom, and a glass ornament business was born.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Unlike most flimsy creations out there, I wanted the ornaments I designed to last, to be even more durable than those made in the past. So I had them made of Pyrex glass and thought this would be a good selling point for retailers. However, when word got out, one customer in Texas took this too literally. Right after Christmas, I got a frantic call from the store because they said the customer put all her ornaments in the dishwasher! After an hour on the customer’s scrub and rinse cycle, they came out with much of the paint washed off! She ended up with the only clear set of ornaments I ever made. I asked her why she had done this. “Honey, I had them up so long. They were dusty!” she replied. I asked her if any broke. “No, honey, just like you said, they are Pyrex!” I was at least grateful for that. But I realized then that I had to provide instructions on the care and upkeep of the ornaments: Use a feather duster, Wrap in acid-free tissue paper; and Store in dry plastic bins out of direct sunlight so that these works of art could last for generations to come.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The New York Times once called me the “Czar of Christmas Present.” But in thinking about what makes my company stands out, my mind keeps flashing back to all the hard work and long hours and even to the many sleepless nights that went into all this. And recently, I realized the simple truth: I LOVE my work. Sure, I work 12 hours a day. Sure, I work on weekends and don’t take vacations. But I work for myself, and I follow my heart. And I truly put my heart into every aspect of it. When you love what you do, then, it doesn’t seem like work at all, but more like wonderful creative expression, of being in my groove. It’s as though I never left, because my heart, my essence, the light within me still shines brightly, and people connect with that.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Launching this new collection is the most exciting project now and it involves so much groundwork from establishing retailers to finetuning our website HeARTfullyYours.com. All my ornaments are handmade only in Europe, in small cottage workshops with ornament-making traditions that go back to the 1800s. I don’t need to rush off to China just to get a better price and cut on quality. I value my retail partners, the local mom-and-pop shops that buy my collection, so I don’t undermine their work by selling the same designs on my site. They appreciate this support. They are my emissaries — they share the magic and heart of the ornaments I create.

In the 1980s and 1990s when I first started in this industry, it was all about selling more, more, more, and growing the company sky-high. “Mass with class,” was how someone once called it. I had over 130 employees and was on the road for over ten months each year. I had traded out a big chunk of my life, of my “me” time, to my company. But I see now that was not healthy. It took a toll on my health. Today, being in my 60s, I’m happy with my new cozy boutique-sized company that creates limited amounts of each design and where I can give back to people.

With the sale of these ornaments, I can also raise funds for causes important to me, like women’s heart disease (in honor of my mom, who died of heart disease), and breast cancer research (in honor of my sister Anna who died of breast cancer). I also support AIDS research (in memory of Jimmy, my first and best-ever sales rep) and food insecurity (even in this wealthy country, it’s hard to believe many go to bed hungry each night). I also recently introduced some special ornaments that can help with the relief efforts for the people of Ukraine.

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

We are a brand-conscious society. People look to brand names as guides of what to buy. Of course, quality still has to be there, and fair prices. But what I found is that the PERSON behind the brand is an entirely next level way of appreciating a creation or product. A brand isn’t just a catchy name or a hip slogan. It’s the creator’s reputation, what people say about them when they’re not in the room. Customers want to know who that person behind the creation is. HeARTfully Yours is designed by me. It’s the first collection I created in 15 years. As the artist, as the living person, I give life and meaning to what I create. And that goes beyond the branding. It’s about the person, the personal DNA behind the brand.

My collectors and customers are glad to know I am back because they know that I embody the values of heart and connection that the holidays represent. When I do an appearance, there are all-day lines because people want to connect on a personal level with the creator behind these ornaments that will represent their own memories and become their keepsakes. So, branding is about sharing my personal DNA in my creations.

Advertising, on the other hand, is about helping the ornaments reach homes far and wide, and for me the best product advertising comes in two forms: the products themselves and word of mouth across generations.

I take pains to convey to anyone who purchases an ornament that I am offering new, limited-edition designs handcrafted in Europe by skilled artisans who take a whole week to create just one ornament. It takes the human breath to breathe life into each creation. People want to know what goes into making one of my ornaments. And this is so important because these days, so much is machine-made or disposable. Mine are handcrafted just as they were made in the 1800s.

Then, there’s no better endorsement like someone who is genuinely proud of these ornaments, showing them on their trees and telling friends about them. I am blessed by the enthusiastic interest of many celebrity collectors from Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Hugh Jackman to Kylie Jenner, Oprah Winfrey, and Barbra Streisand, who share their love of my efforts with the rest of the world.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

It is important to invest yourself into building a brand because it’s about creating the heart of the company. It’s about what you stand for and what you are trying to achieve in the world; your legacy. It pulls you through both the tough times and the wild successes. Marketing and advertising are the day-to-day mechanisms, which are essential too, but if that’s all you focus on you’re just a tin machine without the heart and an overarching sense of purpose.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

1. Show up in person and refine your public persona. Develop a distinctive and sincere identity and a voice. This is consistent whether I am on TV, in the papers, doing blogs, on social media, or in personal appearances. Each year, I go out into the world and meet my collectors. I estimate that I have personally met over half a million people during my store appearances and signing tours over the years. People want to know who you are and what you stand for. They want to know what to expect when you engage with them. They show me their family pictures and tell me about their children.

As the individual embodying the brand HeARTfully Yours, I rely on building a connection between my creations and the people who want to own one for themselves. I am offering the public tangible art pieces which contain heartfelt connections and warm memories. A part of my heart is in each design, and people sense this and that’s how a brand builds a devout community of followers. My ornaments are memory makers, which I share with the world. My branding strategy is organic and flows from who I am. I bring my business to life by marketing a larger feeling beyond just the beauty of a snowman or angel ornament. I create an emotional connection, a sense of family and belonging, between my customers and my brand. And it’s my persona, identity, and desire to contribute and make a difference that endures. I was the first artist to create commemorative ornaments for causes like AIDS research, Breast cancer, children’s diabetes, and others, raising over 4 million dollars for causes that enable kindness to go that extra mile. People buy based on a company’s brand value and impact. As the HeARTfully Yours creator, I live out what my company is about.

2. Establish a purpose. If it’s just about making money, then you’ve flunked. A brand stands a better chance of surviving when it seeks to achieve a benefit to the world. In my work, I bring beauty to the world. I lift people’s spirits one ornament at a time. I remind people that there is more to life than just the daily grind when we celebrate holidays and the warmth of human connections. The ornaments connect us to our friends and loved ones. They are tangible creations doing intangible but oh so real work of heightening our personal celebrations. My purpose is to create memories and beauty that will last for generations as personal and cherished family heirlooms. Every Christmas, I want the great-grandkids, a century from now, to remember their loved ones and ancestors who also came together each year during those many holidays past. In an ever-shifting world, I offer enduring heart connection. People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it. That is what make HeARTfully Yours a purpose-driven brand.

3. Know what makes you unique, and highlight that. When I started, ornaments were plastic and Styrofoam and thrown out with the tree the day after Christmas. I didn’t want cheap plastic decorations from nameless big-box retailers. I wanted to bring back the beauty of artisan glass ornaments for my own family to ease the guilt of our tree falling over and losing all those precious mementos. Sure, I was making amends with my family, but it was the unique quality of my creations that made me stand out.

And I was also open to grassroots opportunities as they arose. When friends told me they loved the replacement glass ornaments I designed, I took notice. People were tired of heartless machine-made decorations. I was offering art. Glass was my medium, and I put my heart and dreams into these glass creations and made sure they were exquisitely detailed and finely painted. “Ohhhh…. Where did you get these? These are just like the ones my grandmother used to have,” was the most common line I’d hear. “Can you get some for me? I’ll even pay you for them,” was another line I’d hear. So I was able to turn the holiday calamity into a golden opportunity and fill a need that no one else was filling.

At that time in the mid 1980s, supposedly savvy major store buyers were, in fact, just looking for the cheapest lowest common denominator. Their hearts were not in their buying decisions. They had yet to realize that the plastic stuff they were offering could only offer plastic sentiments. Then, along I come, selling to small gifts stores and local mom-and-pop shops where you meet real people who recognize their customers as real people too and don’t take them for granted. And I showed up as a real person, as the artist making these new glass ornaments. The big Christmas companies had no artists just impersonal manufacturers. I was the first to say, ‘Here I am. I am the designer. Let me help you make your Christmas and all your holidays better.” People don’t know that I grew up in a foster home, the product of a broken family. I have always longed for a family. Christmas was a vehicle for connection for me. I invited the public, the whole world, through my ornaments, to be my family. It was grassroots, and it took off like wildfire.

4. Know who your customer is. And clarify your message to them. Ask yourself, who makes the buying decisions for the products you want to sell? For ornaments, it’s 2/3’s moms or grandmas, and about 1/3 men who are creative or in touch with the kid in themselves or have the proverbial gay gene. So I engage with these people by meeting them in stores and at holiday fundraising events around the country. I speak directly to millions of them when appearing on morning shows or QVC. I offer the heart of Christmas, the feelings and emotions that reflect joy, hope, connection, and play. Each of my ornaments is like a message in a bottle as it brings a smile to our faces and ignites these feelings in our hearts. In addition to fine craftsmanship, I offer vital emotional benefits that people remember long after they put their ornaments away.

5. Be consistent and authentic in caring about your customers. Slow but steady and dependable wins the race. Never lose touch with your customer base. Meet with them, talk with them. Find out what is important to them. Serve their hearts’ needs. Knowing that you are using your business to be of service ensures a peaceful night’s sleep. The money will flow from that.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

NIKE comes to mind. Not so much for their “Just Do It” tag line but for their saving grace is their mission statement: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world with the slogan: “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” That’s genius because, in truth, most people do not consider themselves to be athletes. But Nike says we are because we all have bodies, and thereby they immediately include us all in their family. It feels good to belong. And when you buy their sneakers, you suddenly belong. You’re part of the in-crowd. You become part of a family.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

In branding, it is good to start small. I focus on my target niche audiences and then allow word of mouth to lift the business. Celeb endorsements add to the cachet and appearing on national TV shows like TODAY and GMA help reinforce awareness. But obviously those are not easy to get, you just need to keep trying. Christmas is a universal chance to create magic and connection and improve on what may have been less than perfect childhoods. So the measure of success of branding my new company takes time to appreciate. For me, advertising is an act of faith, like sending out signals across the miles, not knowing the people who will receive them, but expecting to see a slow, steady uptick in sales each year. But the success of a brand-building effort is that future generations will cherish the brand. I know people will be enjoying my ornaments 100 Christmases from now. I feel a responsibility for those future Christmas experiences too of creating a legacy that outlasts myself.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

I recognize that it’s become a vital part of today’s business models but it can be a lot of tedious daily work for very little return. It has fragmented marketing and branding efforts into a thousand tiny virtual peeps that vanish at midnight. I am grateful that I started in the 1980s when the brief streamlined effort put into just one appearance on the TODAY Show or Oprah would launch you into hundreds of millions’ of homes and minds and memories. No social media can do that as well. This said, electronic media is a popular platform for the next generation, so being on it is an investment in extending a brand like my new company, HeARTfully Yours to future generations.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊

In the 1960s and 1970s, we had some pretty incredible social movements that I feel moved society forward. Today, however, I am somewhat suspicious of so-called movements which now seem more aimed at othering and division. More often than not, they are attracting sheep in a herd and causing these sheep to surrender their identity, their unique creative spirit at the door. So rather than movements, I focus on issues that we can respond to in our own creative ways. The issues I care greatly about include ensuring food on every table worldwide and free higher education to serious students who get good grades. Some billionaires wring their hands about what to do with their money, while close to a billion people go to bed hungry each night. What’s up with that? And for another issue, the cost of college is insane and an example of capitalism at its worst. I care about giving people a fishing rod rather than fish to become self-sustainable.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“In everything we do, we get to be the hands of God on Earth. That’s how important our lives are.” Like most everyone else, I am growing, learning, and still figuring out my place in this crazy dance of life. I may not know very much, but I own this knowing in my heart.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

For a kid from the south side of the Bronx, I could never have imagined I’d ever reach the success and favorable response I have had over the years. I have found that people from all walks of life love Christmas and have enjoyed my art for nearly 40 years. I’ve also been blessed to have spent time with many famous people: Thanksgiving dinner with Warren Buffet, supper with Gregory Peck, lunch with Kate Hepburn, and schnitzel with Barbra Streisand and Robin Williams at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s house, to name a few. And all because all those years ago, our family Christmas tree fell over! No fancy Harvard business school book could have ever gotten me here. But there are some people I would still be honored to meet and even work with. Over the years, an enduring cultural touchstone for me has been Steven Spielberg, and I would welcome spending time with him. His films affect billions and reach their hearts, much like my work does on a more intimate scale. This is my act three in my life, probably my last big spin around the track, and I plan to make it the best ever. Before my time is done, merging creative talents with a super creative like Steven Spielberg, there’s so much more yet we can accomplish to lift people’s spirits and lighten their hearts. Two other personalities I admire are Lynn-Manuel Miranda, whom I think could write a deeply heart moving, timeless holiday-themed musical aimed at inspiring others, and Lady Gaga, who consistently shows her heart and artistic compassion in the way she relates to legends like Tony Bennett and Liza Minelli and her sincere humanitarian work for charities. I would enjoy working on a holiday project with any of these wonderfully creative persons. There is so much more good yet to come!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

The best way is to visit our website HeARTfullyYours.com for latest updates, which do eventually share on our Facebook page Heartfully Yours or Instagram @heartfullyyours_christmas

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market