Should I Be Investing In Building A Brand?

As architecture practices increasingly embrace the type of marketing more commonly seen in corporate banking, it occurred to me that now might be a salient time to consider whether brand-building, in the form made popular by Coca Cola and McDonalds might work for architects? An important note before we get started – unless you’re an eccentric Englishmen with the first name Russell, don’t refer to yourself as a brand, you just sound like a dick.

A brand, in its purest form, is a short-cut. Back in the day, it was common for cattle to get lost or stolen. This presented a problem for famers with large herds as they couldn’t be sure at any given time exactly which cows belonged to them. To remedy the problem, they took a hot iron and quite literally branded their cattle with unique symbols to imply ownership.

Overtime, cattle buyers began to realise that instead of doing the necessary due-diligence on all animals within the heard they were about to purchase, they could simply use the cattle’s brand to infer its quality (or lack thereof) assuming they knew something of the farm and farmer who had raised the cattle. Thus the concept of brand value was born and companies like Coca Cola, McDonalds and Toyota have been using it successfully ever since.

Despite a deeply suppressed desire to do so, I’ve never actually taken a hot iron to the architects I work alongside, so what follows is largely lacking in empirical evidence but allow me to suggest why you might want to think twice before investing in developing an architectural brand.

At the heart of businesses like McDonalds is a process-orientated approach to consistently delivering an agreed upon standard. You and I are free to think very little of that standard, but we can’t help but marvel at their ability to deliver to it consistently. Through organisational excellence, McDonalds has managed to get 35,000 outlets worldwide to do pretty much the same thing.

At the heart of most architecture practices is a culture of independent business people and a whole-hearted commitment to the idea that the design of the wheel could, in fact, be improved. Most architecture firms can’t get two Principals to invoice the same client in the same way.

This makes it incredibly difficult to build a brand, it’s akin to you buying what you believe to be a herd of prize-winning wagyu beef, only for you to realise that upon closer inspection what you’ve actually bought is Israeli Ibex, you may very well end up really liking Israeli Ibex, then again you might not. The easiest way to think of brand value is simply people paying to avoid the risk of disappointment.

With this in mind, I see three distinct roles marketing and brand building can take within an architecture firm.

1. It is what it is

Accept that you don’t have, and never will have a consistent brand. Do your best to set high-standards of quality but acknowledge that you won’t always meet them. As David Maister puts it embrace that slogan that should sit above almost all professional service firms “We’re no worse than anyone else’. The good news about this approach is that you can stop wasting time on brand guidelines, values statements, strategic plans and other corporate management hoopla. In this firm, we all do precisely what we want – how liberating. Under this model, the role of marketing is largely to be as transparent as possible, showcasing the firm as its authentic itself.

2. Create consistency

While you may never be able to create clones that think, talk and act in precisely the same way, you might be able, either through well documented and rigorously enforced process or by a strong, self-reinforcing culture to uphold a set of a shared values and to act accordingly. Smaller firms tend to be more capable of achieving this through culture and larger firms through process. Under this model the role of marketing is to present a unified public face, consistency of message is critical as is consistency of experience. A strong centralised marketing and operations team is critical to pulling this approach off.

3. Brand the outcome, not the service

It’s often struck me as curious why cars, t-shirts and wristwatches all showcase the logo of the designer with pride but houses have no logo? Considering the future trajectory of the way we manufacture buildings – which is very much modular and prefabricated – I can see many parallels to the automotive industry. Thus I would strongly suggest this opens, to the smart marketer, an opportunity to start branding the outcome not the service. Who’s going to establish themselves as the Audi, Toyota or Aston Martin of prefab houses?