Putumayo Earth Tones

It may be a handful to say for non-Spanish speakers, but Putumayo (pronounced poo-too-ma-yo) is one part United Nations, one part Clive Davis.

Call it "feel good" music. Putumayo World Music finds musical gems from nearly every continent and packages the songs into compelling compilations, mainly via CD. Begun as an import clothing company in 1975, founder Dan Storper realized there was a vast supply of upbeat international music mostly ignored by American radio and television and decided to import it to a 50-million-plus target audience dubbed by the company as "cultural creatives," living in the US and elsewhere.

Rather than relying solely on the usual music distribution channels to reach its audience, Putumayo created its own network by distributing to more than 3,000 specialty and boutique gift, book, coffee and children's stores that not only sell the music but also play it within the retail environment. The company now claims distribution in over 50 countries plus online sales. (Exact sales figures are not available.)

A kids division was created at the end of 2002 to introduce youngsters to other cultures, and has since won a number of "Best of Parents" awards. The kids' compilations, such as the "World Playground" series, appeal as much to the well-traveled adult as the toddler. A couple of years earlier, the company also launched the "Putumayo World Music Hour," a syndicated world music program for commercial and non-commercial radio stations around the world.

Unlike Hear Music (a mainly American music purveyor of eclectic, non-Top 40 music, heard at a Starbucks near you), Putumayo maintains itself as an independent brand, unaffiliated with large corporations or, for that matter, any one music artist. It is a brand built on mostly unknown artists -- unknown, at least, to the average American.

The company takes a theme, such as North African Groove (described as "the funky musical caravan from Morocco to Egypt for a non-stop celebration of North African dance music") or Euro Lounge ("a cool contemporary collection of continental chill-out classics") and fills a CD with grade-A songs from recording artists of the region or who reflect the theme. The label relies on the initial instincts of the resident ethnomusicologist (yes, that job exists) and the validation of the whole company rather than an A&R guy to select its music.

Despite the more generic approach to its CD titles, the rest of Putumayo is unique and highly eclectic, and its visual identity and imagery reflect it. The colorful and vibrant artwork of Nicola Heindl graces each and every CD cover, blending traditional folkloric art, a bit of Matisse and contemporary design. The result is evocative CD covers that capture the Putumayo spirit and represent the brand identity as a whole, extending all the way out to the company's website.

Because the identity is true art, including the wordmark treatment of the Putumayo name, it has an international, authentic, and personal feel to it -- a welcome respite from the traditional graphic design approach. By using the same artist for its covers and other brand extensions, plus using the same product naming strategy, the Putumayo brand is a textbook example of consistent branding, making it easy to spot the product even in a crowded boutique gift shop.

The company name is taken from a South American river that meanders through several countries before reaching its ultimate destination of the Amazon in Brazil. Putumayo, the label, makes a similar path to bring the music of various regions to the masses.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.