Videos, Branding, Print, & Fizz

The many expressions of Justin Bunnell

by Phyl Newbeck

retromotion0119Justin Bunnell is the co-founder of RetroMotion Creative and founder of Venetian Ginger Ale.

It’s pretty obvious Justin Bunnell doesn’t mind spending time in his Williston office. The co-founder and creative producer of RetroMotion Creative and founder of Venetian Ginger Ale is surrounded by things he loves: a piano, several computer screens and microphones, and two bulldog puppies, Jaxi and Cali, playing with one of his Crocs on the couch. Spoiler alert: The Croc didn’t survive.

Bunnell’s creative marketing firm takes a modern approach to selling products. “The world of marketing is heading towards, if not already there, building content for your brand,” he says. “Video is the easiest way to communicate that, so we help people develop podcasts or their own Instagram or YouTube channels. The companies I like working with know the power of social media.”

In addition to video, RetroMotion does a lot of design work for which Bunnell relies on Queen City Printers and Catamount Color. One example of that work is the magazine Perspectives, which he helps produce for Phoenix Feeds & Nutrition Inc. David Santos, founding partner, president, and general manager at Phoenix, has been working with Bunnell for roughly eight years.

“They did our first website and some marketing videos,” Santos says, “and we started the magazine four years ago and have put out 16 quarterly issues. It was Justin’s idea, and it has turned into a pretty big thing with a thousand copies printed every quarter and 40,000 views online.”

Born in Burlington, Bunnell spent his early years in Milton. His maternal grandparents ran M. & F.C. Dorn Co., dba Coca-Cola Bottlers of Burlington, on Pine Street. In the late 1980s, they sold the business and the entire family, minus a solitary uncle, moved to Savannah, Georgia. While there, Bunnell played saxophone for the marching band at Calvary Baptist. “We practiced all summer,” he recalls. “We were out as much as the football team.”

In 1999, the family decided the Georgia heat was too much, and returned to Georgia, Vermont, to settle into an old brick house. Bunnell’s mother became a nurse at Fletcher Allen Health Care (now The University of Vermont Medical Center), and his father worked for the U.S. Postal Service.

Bunnell had spent summers in Vermont with his father’s parents during the Georgia sojourn and welcomed the return. “I always remembered the Vermont skies as being bluer than the skies in Georgia,” he says. Initially there was some culture shock, but Bunnell, then a first-year high school student, was happy with the more liberal vibe in the Green Mountain State.

Bunnell enrolled at UVM tuition-free thanks to his mother’s work. “I flip-flopped all over the place,” he says, changing his major from English literature to classics, business, and then back to English literature. His real interest lay in film production, but with no comparable major at UVM, he began to hang out with his friend Mark Covino, who attended Burlington College. The two met while they were working at Cinema 9 in South Burlington, which is also where Bunnell met his future wife, Anna Bykema, in 2001.

Although he wasn’t taking classes at Burlington College, Bunnell began to work on films there with Covino. “I was a bit of a misfit,” he says. “I had always been a bit of a computer nerd.”

After college, he worked at Lake Champlain Chocolates and on his in-laws’ farm. He was helping to build a barn when he received a call from a friend of Covino’s, Nathan Beaman, about a film being made by Edgewood Studios in Rutland. At first, his coworkers thought he was just trying to get out of work when he announced he was helping the studio produce Illegal Aliens, a high-camp sci-fi/comedy starring Anna Nicole Smith, among others.

Bunnell eventually became the lead editor when Beaman left the project. The movie was pirated so much that sales were extremely low. Bunnell subsequently edited and acted in Addicted to Fame, a movie about the making of Illegal Aliens.

It was at Edgewood that he met its president, filmmaker David Giancola, who became an important mentor in his life. They worked together for several years, but when Giancola ran out of assignments, Bunnell and Beaman embarked on some marketing projects together, including one for Vermont farmer/actor George Woodard.

Bunnell did freelance work and then joined an advertising agency so he could make enough money to purchase a house. Mission accomplished, he co-founded Retromotion Media in 2012.

“Working on press releases got me into marketing for businesses,” Bunnell says, “and then as I sat in rooms with big businesses, I started to think I could do this myself. Little did I realize how arrogant that was, because it’s who you know as much as what you know, but that’s when I took RetroMotion into the marketing realm.”

In 2016, his partner moved on to a different business, and Bunnell took over the office space and, adding a capital M, renamed the firm RetroMotion Creative.

“I’ve been trying to solve the riddle of scaling the business to something larger,” he says, “but it’s difficult.” The company currently consists of Bunnell; digital strategy director Ti Kawamoto; Liz Spitler, a sales representative; and five to 10 independent contractors. “I’m finding that hiring people as freelancers is more beneficial because they can specialize,” he says. “You can get better quality that way.”

Two years ago, he launched a new — but also retro — venture. From 1917 to 1945, his maternal grandfather had bottled Venetian Ginger Ale, named for the Venetian Blind Co. across the street from his office. “I’ve always wanted to work with a brand like that,” Bunnell says, “and I thought that with my marketing knowledge, I was in a good position to know what to do and what not to do.” To learn more, he took a business accelerator course in Brattleboro.

Cairn Cross, one of the teachers of the course, enjoyed the opportunity to work with Bunnell. “Justin is an interesting guy,” Cross says. “He’s very entrepreneurial with a lot of different things going on at once.” Cross was intrigued by the story of Venetian Ginger Ale. “Justin’s ability to tell that story with his short filmmaking is fascinating,” he says. “He’s got something really neat there. He didn’t come out of a food and beverage background but he’s finding his way.”

It took two years, but working with Kawamoto, Bunnell now sells 150 cases of Venetian Ginger Ale each month to 50 stores. “You can have a good product, but if nobody falls in love with it, it’s not going anywhere,” he says. Venetian Ginger Ale currently consists of Bunnell and Spitler, but he’s hoping to build a five-person team to pick up some of the manufacturing pieces.

Of late, Bunnell has begun recording his own podcasts. “The podcasts started as a way to market my business,” he says, “but I like to absorb information so it serves many purposes. It’s a great way to learn from people and for them to get exposed to others in my circle.” Bunnell has recorded 33 podcasts, which led to the Vermont Chamber of Commerce’s hiring him to do video work. “It all boils down to story-telling,” he says.

The piano in Bunnell’s office isn’t for show. “I’ve always wanted to be an entertainer, so I haven’t given up on song and dance,” he says, adding that he just recorded a country Christmas tune, “Christmas Time (Is a Losin’ Time).”

He studied piano with his grandmother Joanne Kilburn, but subsequently learned to play guitar because his grandfather Lee Kilburn, told him, “You can’t bring a piano to parties to impress the ladies.”

The entertainment factor is always present in Bunnell’s work. “There are so many ways to entertain your customers,” he says. “People in my profession get a bum rap because there is a history of people trying to sell you junk. Marketing is all about being able to find products that make people’s lives better. We don’t want to annoy people. You have to be able to tell the story of why a service is important, rather than just scream that you have too many cars on the lot.”

Bunnell moved around a bit after returning to Vermont, but he and Anna, whom he married in 2005, have settled in Georgia with their three kids. She’s a nurse-educator at The University of Vermont Medical Center.

Bunnell feels lucky that his hobbies — music, film production, and acting — are part of his job. He also enjoys cooking and entertaining friends. Jaxi and Cali are two of a long line of bulldogs the family has owned; a bit of a throwback to Bunnell’s Georgia days and the University of Georgia Bulldogs.

“I was always an artistic person,” Bunnell says. “I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was 6 years old.” Although owning a business means he has to spend a good deal of time managing people, he still wants to be actively involved in the work. “I want to get my hands dirty as much as I can,” he says. “Being able to do what you love is obviously a blessing.” •