The making of the Wild Renfrew brand.

It’s been a year since Leap XD’s launch of the milestone Wild Renfrew brand. To celebrate the first anniversary, we’re taking a look back at how a dream project came together, and a look ahead to what’s next.

The Making of Wild Renfrew

Sometimes a project comes along that you sense will be special right from the start — the kind that separates studio life into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ For Leap, Wild Renfrew was one. The project set a new benchmark for tourism destination marketing; the process of creating it was an unforgettable experience for the team that brought it to life.

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Chatting about the vision for the project: Simon Robinson, Sarah Pollard and Mike Boyle. 

The client ‘ask’

When Leap was approached in early 2015 by Wild Renfrew partners Jack Julseth (Three Point Properties), and son-in-law Ian Laing (Ian Laing Properties), Sean Battistoni and Mike Boyle, the vision was vast. The team knew Port Renfrew was a unique place: unparalleled natural beauty, not far from Victoria. The relatively new Pacific Marine Circle Route was opening Renfrew to tourism from the east coast of Vancouver Island and beyond. The town itself was finding its way from resource legacy to a celebration of natural assets. A local favourite was on the cusp of breakout.

From the beginning, Jack and Ian looked to bring visitors close to the natural world they and their families had fallen for, while remaining true to Renfrew’s essential character. Showcasing the region for those who would respect and enjoy it was high on their list.

Leap was asked to create a coherent brand identity for the tourism and residential properties under the Wild Renfrew umbrella — one strong enough and memorable enough to stand across multiple marketing channels, from social to merchandising. A breakthrough website was the heart of the ask.

The creative team

Lead by Creative Director Neil Tran and Art Director Simon Robinson, the Leap team set to work defining the brand and web strategy. Early on, they recognized the project would be all about storytelling and brought on board creative writer Sarah Pollard.

For most of the group, Vancouver Island’s west coast was already a place of significance: Simon had spent plenty of time in Renfrew, having first-hand knowledge of the area and its potential. Neil frequently surfed at Jordan River and camped at China Beach, and Mystic Beach was among Sarah’s favourite places. The commitment was personal from the get-go.

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Joshua Lawrence, Simon Robinson, Neil Tran and Dave Wallace.

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Reunited on July 14, 2016: Ian Laing, Neil Tran, Sean Battistoni and Mike Boyle.

Inspiration along the wild West Coast road

Through the spring and summer, the team’s research and discovery trips to Renfrew along the West Coast Highway via Sooke ramped up the inspiration. The descent into Jordan River, the hot coffee and enthusiastic welcome at Shirley Delicious, the quiet moment when the overhead canopies thicken just past Sombrio Beach — all were their own kind of magic. Over frothy pints on the Renfrew Pub deck, the team talked about what it meant to have creative freedom on a ‘dream project.’ The smell of cedar decking brings back sunny days when the project of a lifetime was in full swing.

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Behind the scenes at the Pacheedaht Campground.

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The entire team getting ready to film a night scene with the kids and sparklers.

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Dave Wallace working his magic. Look for cameos from the Leap team and their family and friends.

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Wild Renfrew swag.

Starting point challenges

As work got underway, the town of Port Renfrew lacked a primary digital hub. Local websites touched on aspects of the Renfrew experience (say, fishing charters or points of interest), but left visitors to piece these together — a jigsaw puzzle at best. Tourism information was often out of date, and those familiar with Renfrew found little to reflect the distinct flavour of the place they knew.

In essence, the challenge was to brand a town — a getaway destination that resonated with visitors and locals. Spectacular wilderness was the reason people would visit; Wild Renfrew would be why they stayed.

“The site had to appear as the one-stop-shop for everything Renny, therefore the design had to reflect it’s rustic nature,” Simon remembers.

Building a brand

It was clear that the existing Wild Renfrew logo wouldn’t stand up to the burgeoning vision. Leap pushed for the opportunity to go bolder and for an identity that would better weather the test of time — a blend of elements true to Renfrew’s wild geography.

The team agreed the website would be visually lush but informative, with lyrical storytelling at the centre of the frame. Copywriting was driven from key brand pillars: spectacular nature unique in the world, accessibility and proximity (to Victoria), and authenticity of experience. Things fell into place with the positioning line ‘Wilderness within reach.’ The tagline extended the Wild Renfrew identity, and neatly articulated the brand promise — visitors’ ready access to a still-wild natural world.

The conceit of a small town at the end of a legendary West Coast road reinforced Renfrew’s ‘undiscovered’ nature and added literary and visual heft.

“The Wilderness within reach tagline gave us our raison d’être,” Neil says. “All of the art direction was created to reinforce the ‘Wilderness within reach’ theme.”

For Neil and Simon, it was the opportunity to build the travel and destination marketing site they’d always imagined, free of design barriers.

“Jack and Ian trusted us and gave us a blank slate.”

From there, the design team mapped the visual assets, including a storyboard for a scene-setting video that would encapsulate the Renfrew experience. Shot over 72 hours by local talent Dave Wallace, the evocative piece features drone footage and clips of the principals and their families. At the same time, Victoria-based photographer Joshua Lawrence captured original still images that give the site its richly textured feel.

“We spent three days in Renfrew creating the visuals alongside family and friends. Everything about that time was perfect, including the weather,” Neil says.

A breakthrough website

Launched in July 2015, the Wild Renfrew website was a technical challenge for Devin Edwards, Web Developer at Leap. Coding the media-heavy website called for the research and integration of new web technologies that ultimately improved the page-loading speed and optimized the user experience on mobile devices. The result: a bespoke website that captures the cinematic scale of Port Renfrew’s wild from the moment you land on the home page. For some, the 90-second splash page video means seeing Renfrew for the first time; for others, it’s a return to a beloved place. All of the site elements are custom, right down to the outdoorsy icons. Compelling narrative leads audiences through meticulously crafted design. Sensory language (“cedar, sea spray, wood smoke”) puts audiences there on the ground. The inclusion of regional history and the profiles of locals (like Johnny ‘Mac’ McDonald and Pacheedaht First Nation’s Chef Stan) lend the story authenticity and rustic charm. A dynamic Instagram integration ensures the story can continue to evolve.

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Devin Edwards, Web Developer.

Tears in the boardroom

On the day the site prototype and video were unveiled, Jack, Ian, Sean, Mike and the Leap team gathered in the studio for the presentation. Most of the client team had already seen the design concept, but Jack had not.

“When the video ended, no one said a word for a good ten seconds. We looked to Jack for his reaction. And that’s when I saw tears running down his face. I knew we’d done our job.”

“The most memorable part of the project for myself was the magic of the final presentation. It was such a treat to see Jack’s reaction. A year later, we’re still trying to create that feeling with every concept we present,” Devin says.

According to Jack, the site and video delivered well beyond expectation. The commitment to authenticity — truly reflecting what guests could expect to find when they arrived — was a differentiator.

In the months since the launch, Renfrew’s popularity has surged. Wild Renfrew accommodations are at near capacity through summer 2016. Merchandise featuring the Wild Renfrew identity is selling quickly with visitors eager to take home a piece of the Renfrew experience.

“Other than the website, we didn’t spend a penny on advertising last year,” Jack says.

The challenge now is finding enough staff to manage growth in a way that maintains the integrity of the guest experience.

For Leap, the successful launch has meant regular inquiries from prospective clients seeking its tourism marketing expertise.

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Jack Julseth working on his master plan.

Next steps in the vision

It turns out Jack is just scratching the surface of his dreams for Renfrew — a place close to his heart for more than a decade. Fiercely committed to sustainable growth, his approach continues to be “walk softly and consolidate community.” You’ll find him weekends on the wharf outside the Renfrew Pub talking to visitors and locals, asking about their experience and what they’d like to see from here. He says he’s encountered a new sense of pride in a community that recognizes itself as a place people want to be.

As for his big-picture vision, Jack sees Renfrew as a trail village that prioritizes affordable access to outstanding wilderness. Connecting Renfrew’s beaches and forests through a trail system that allows Wild Renfrew guests and owners to immerse in nature, away from roads, is a priority. Other possibilities are not too far from reach: educational partnerships to foster outdoor adventure and culinary training in the shoulder season, perhaps even sustainable farming (raised-bed gardens for staff are already up and running).

“I want Port Renfrew to be the kind of place I remember as a kid: open doors, wilderness and time with family and friends.”

Renfrew lovers, stay tuned. Visit Wild Renfrew.

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Neil presenting a special stand-up surfboard to Jack on the anniversary of the launch. The board is now on display in the Wild Renfrew office.

Watch the video that was created for the brand:

Port Renfrew Video from Leap Web Solutions on Vimeo.