Why Brand Authenticity and Storytelling Need to be Adopted by the Architecture Industry

Mark Busse – No Comments

Branding strategies help firms make over their image and develop fresh appeal for Generation Y employees and clients.

“Brand wasn’t even a word in our vocabulary when I was in architecture school,” says Roger Hughes, a founding partner of Hughes Condon Marler Architects (HCMA). “Before marketing, our brand was our work, our reputation, and we just waited for the phone to ring and jobs to walk in the door—a door with our last names on it.”

Like many architects of the Baby Boomer generation, Hughes is planning to retire soon and is now engaged in succession planning, keen to find ways to leave his firm thriving and in good hands. But he has found that operating a successful firm these days requires more marketing than ever, and at the centre of it all is the role of the firm’s brand identity and its underlying essence and brand positioning statement.

“Times have changed and too many architecture firms still view marketing as a dirty word.” says DIALOG principal Bruce Haden. “Firms must give this critical aspect of business the time, energy, and resources it deserves in order to thrive in this increasingly competitive industry—especially if they want to attract and retain the best talent.”

You see, both customers and employees of architecture firms are increasingly members of Generation Y (also known as Millennials), who have different views, perspectives, priorities, needs, and career aspirations than their predecessors. Studies reveal that Millennials mistrust big business and traditional marketing, seeking instead more ideological and philosophical alignment from companies they do business with or work for. These young professionals seek out authentic brands that engage them in a meaningful way and unfortunately being open and authentic has not been the habit of the architecture industry.

Many experts have said that a brand identity is a promise, but in its simplest form, it is a belief system. A set of values, assumptions, and ideals which an audience associates with your corporate identity. Though there are tangible things associated with a brand identity (such as a logo, symbols, colour schemes, fonts, images, etc.), the essence of a brand are the intangible things your audience perceives about your firm and the relationships that result from these perceptions. Increasingly these days, the organizations which thrive are those willing to go past messages about what it is they offer, or even how they do it, but why they do what they do—the motivation and story behind the brand.

At its core, architecture is a service industry, providing for society and people, yet architects struggle to comprehend that relationships must be at the root of branding and marketing. Instead, they focus on past accomplishments and the buildings instead of those who live, work, and play in them. As a brand strategy consultancy that specializes in AEC, we have spoken to dozens of firms who don’t even understand who they are at their core, what it is they stand for, where they specialize, what they believe in, what motivates them, and who they aspire to be. These firms have suffered not only declining business opportunities and revenues, but a sort of cultural cancer within their staff and increasing challenges attracting the best new graduates from architecture school.

Having executed numerous brand audits and architecture industry surveys in recent years, Industrial Brand has found that talent acquisition and retention has become as urgent as other business needs, even new business development. Experts predict that over 42% of Canadian architects will be retiring in the next decade and many of the Gen X architects left behind will be forced to take over for the Baby Boomers who have dominated leadership positions in the industry for the past four decades. Further complicating this situation is a steady decline in enrolment in architecture programs for the past five years resulting in fewer professionals entering the industry. By 2025, Millennials will make up 75% of the workforce and the architecture industry will be forced to respond to this new audience that seems increasingly disinterested in the traditional approach to business and marketing.

“Creating a brand that moved away from names on the door was critical with a merger of four firms,” says Roger Graham, former marketing director at DIALOG. “The benefit was the ability to create a brand that showcases a culture engagement – one which resonates with clients and is authentic to how internal teams work together.” And DIALOG isn’t alone. There are numerous examples of architecture firms reconsidering their name and brand messaging, discarding the “look what we designed!” message in favour of a branding process complete with authentic stories and meaningful content around the firm’s people, ideas, success, and impact.

“One of the advantages of marketing done well is the ability to create authentic relationships with both clients and staff based on a set of values,” offers Bruce Haden “The challenge though is those values have to be more than just marketing values and rather something that can be lived up to.” This is especially poignant when one considers the needs of Millennials to feel a sense of belonging to a community they can be identified by. If they feel a misalignment of values, they are much more inclined than previous generations to quit and move on.

Beyond the storytelling potential of DIALOG’s new name and identity, they invested in a new, highly interactive and engaging website. By publishing thought leadership through articles and posts and integrating social media channels into their portfolio case studies, DIALOG was able to improve their internal culture by empowering staff to participate in the conversation and revealing their culture, process, and brand essence. “We chose to use storytelling as a way to provide people with excellent visual clues about how we work with clients, what our values are, and how we treat our people,” says Graham. The result has been strong business growth and a notable increase in quantity and quality of new recruits.

The web is actually a far more important branding and recruitment tool than many firms seem to realize. Recent statistics show a rapid increase of AEC professionals viewing the web and, most importantly, researching architecture firms from mobile web devices. Yet most architecture websites are not responsive, many don’t even work on mobile devices and typically offer little or nothing meaningful about the firm’s brand essence at all. As an industry, architects must learn that beautiful photos of empty buildings without a person in sight or expression of the context, problem, approach, or results is an increasingly ineffective way of marketing.

Not all firms are in a position to spend the time and resources necessary to completely reinvent their brand and marketing—and certainly not all should. Older members of the profession tend to squirm at the idea of scraping off the partner names from the door, but many evolving and thriving firms are doing a brand audit and are indeed doing just that in order to remain competitive. If your architecture firm doesn’t have a meaningful identity and an authentic brand story, you’re likely not only losing out on business opportunities, but failing to attract the best talent—no matter how good your founding partners’ reputations are or past designs were.

The good news is that any architecture firm can make improvements to their brand performance if their leaders are willing to shake off old modes of thinking and engage in an authentic branding process. They must invest the time to establish their own authentic brand essence and embed that into meaningful storytelling in their marketing efforts, which requires reevaluating the old marketing paradigm.

So ask yourself, what role is your firm’s brand playing in your marketing efforts? What is the WHY behind your brand? If I were to visit your website today, would I be able to quickly ascertain what your firm stands for and believes in? Would I feel engaged and able to enter a dialogue with you? What makes your firm stand out against increasing competition that are engaging younger clients and talented recruits with authentic storytelling? If you’re still relying on a list of names of dead or retired past partners and a portfolio filled with beautiful photos of old designs without anything particularly meaningful or authentic, there’s never been a better time to reinvent your corporate identity.

A version of the above article was published in the November, 2013 issue of Canadian Architect MagazineClick here to download a PDF copy of the printed article.