How to Evolve Your Brand: IHNY's Smart Business Model

by Jack Crager

April 28, 2014 — Ever since graphic designer Milton Glaser created the “I Heart New York” logo in 1977, it has resonated with residents and visitors alike, an eye-catching pledge of fondness for the nation’s biggest and most diverse city. Created as part of a tourism campaign, the slogan took on a life of its own—and in the hands of native New Yorker Jason Groupp, it became a hot photographic brand.

With I Heart New York, Groupp established a portrait practice around two venerable forces: true love and the Big Apple (see “Jason Groupp: I Love NY,” Rangefinder January 2012). Catering to both tourists and natives, the studio specializes in portraits backdropped by iconic New York City landmarks. Initially, Groupp’s emphasis was on engagement and proposal photographs of couples, as a corollary to his successful wedding photo business, and it evolved to include lifestyle portraits of families.

“We love New York City and taking photographs of the people that love it as well,” says Karen Seifert, Groupp’s former studio manager and current partner in the IHNY brand. After recruiting a third associate, photographer Tim Co., IHNY now draws on the collective experience in wedding and portrait photography of all three principals.

In late 2012, when Groupp took his current post as the director of WPPI, he shifted much of the day-to-day operation of IHNY to Seifert and Co. “Instead of letting IHNY become a brand that slowed down, Jason trusted us—beyond what we ever could have imagined—to turn it into a whole new name that reaches out into many markets, not just the wedding or couples markets,” Seifert says, adding that IHNY now operates as a self-standing enterprise through the website.

As established wedding and portrait pros, each of the IHNY partners brings an existing client base to the mix. “None of us are saying no to leads, our personal leads that are coming in through our own names; they’re just flowing into the IHNY system,” Seifert says. “We’re emphasizing this dynamic and robust brand. And we not only can take pictures of people’s weddings but also of their families, and the children they have, and all their memorable times in the city. It just makes for a more long-lasting relationship that we can build with our clients.” She notes that IHNY shoots many family sessions in the homes and neighborhoods of New York residents, as well as tourist portraits.

A sizable portion of the IHNY clientele, however, remains couples in love. “We’ve shot a lot of proposals where we’re going to book their weddings as well,” Seifert says. “I think proposal photography is on the up-and-up; it’s becoming more popular (see “Down on One Knee”). And of course, if someone decides to elope in the Big Apple, we can be there to capture the moment.”

The three IHNY partners bring different skill sets to the table, making for a “synergistic combo,” says Co. “We have three people with different strengths: Jason’s being strategy and vision; Karen’s being shooting, editing, production, and social media; and mine being operations and communication. We’re all taking what we’re good at and combining it into one business, as opposed to trying to do everything yourself. I think that’s the reason this partnership is working.”

Social media is a big aspect : In addition to Facebook and Twitter, IHNY’s blog runs a clean, modern Tumblr platform that is constantly being updated with the partners’ travels and adventures as well as portrait shoots.

As for Groupp’s take on all of it, he says, “I am so proud of what Karen and Tim have done with my most treasured concept since I’ve been in business. IHNY is years in the making, and creating the perfect experience for our clients has been a labor of love. These guys have taken my idea into new directions that I never dreamed possible.” Adds Seifert: “Jason has been incredible in supporting and trusting us to run the brand. He’s the right kind of mentoring coach for us in this sort of situation—giving us power and freedom to make everything work, but also offering advice and guidance.”

It helps that the partners share a similar esthetic. “I think the style of IHNY is a clean, fashion-forward, fresh look with a sense of fun,” says Seifert. “I learned a lot from Jason during the first couple of years working with him, when I served as his studio manager. One of the key things was the effective use of off-camera lighting, which he’s really good at. IHNY continues to try to keep the look of our images modern and classic at the same time.”

To that end, the city itself is an able prop. “A huge part of what attracted me to Jason’s work is that it epitomizes the ‘New York City photographer,’ ” says Seifert, who hails from Virginia Beach, Virginia. “One of the appealing perks is that we can turn any part of the city into our photo-shoot set. We travel all over the five boroughs, and it’s been a great education.” For Seifert, these explorations lead to new discoveries of her favorite things: local historical facts, coffee shops, meals featuring avocados and polka-dot fashions. For Co., they enhance his quest to find “every cool place to eat in the Big Apple.”

While IHNY’s resident-to-tourist ratio is “about 50-50,” Seifert says, the firm’s clients tend to vary with the seasons. “In the winter, most of our customers are out-of-towners,” says Co., who moved to New York from Orlando, Florida. “But it’s a fun challenge to be visually creative in the wintertime.”

Looking ahead, IHNY hopes to recruit additional shooters who fit in stylistically. “As we grow, we definitely want to bring in other photographers who share the same esthetic we do,” says Seifert. “That is, nice clean, uncluttered, but fun and creative portraits. And we’re looking for people who know how to reflect the energy and dynamism of New York City.”

The partners also hope to expand their horizons globally, regarding New York as a state of mind. In fact, at press time, Seifert and Co. were packing bags for a wedding shoot in Thailand and other parts of the Far East. “As we build our brand, I think it will be iconic New York City weddings—and really awesome destination weddings,” Co. says. “New York is the center of the world, so it gives us easy access to pretty much anywhere.”  

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