A case study in holding on to a venerable past while embracing future opportunities.

Perhaps there is nothing more difficult for an established architecture and design firm than striking a balance between remaining true to its heritage and being passionate about embracing new and future directions. It’s an intimidating challenge, especially so when it applies to brand building and market perception. Many firms with great longevity are intimidated by the prospect of evaluating and enhancing an established brand. Risk averse is not an unfair characterization.

For more than 40 years, an Atlanta-based firm has prospered and moved toward the future in innovative ways. Founded by partners Bill Thompson, Tom Ventulett, and Ray Stainback, the firm was known for most of its history as Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates (often shortened in the marketplace to the brand acronym TVS). Over the years, TVS has earned its stature with projects such as the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the Georgia Aquarium, McCormick Place, the Port of Spain International Waterfront Centre, and many others. In 2002, the American Institute of Architects bestowed on TVS the prestigious Firm Award.

Instigated, at least in part, by its 40th anniversary, TVS undertook a process to celebrate its heritage and prepare for its future.

But not without a misstep.

Beyond Freshing Up

Firm leaders imagined that an appropriate celebration of TVS’ 40th anniversary might be a freshening up of the firm’s logo. The graphic design process that ensued quickly became irretrievably complex when it emerged that what TVS really wanted was some serious brand work, not merely a graphic redesign of its logo.

Two fundamental decisions shaped the rest of this initiative. The first was the designation of a core team to lead the branding process. The leadership group at TVS, directed by President Roger Neuenschwander, selected two senior firm principals and six younger associates to make up the core team for what became called the brand enhancement initiative. This blend of experience and future vision — and its telling proportion two to six — was a strategic effort to capture the history and heritage of the organization but to weight the core team toward the future of the firm.

The second decision that shaped the brand enhancement initiative was the involvement of an outside specialist. I was privileged to be selected for this role, a role defined by the firm as a facilitator for the core team and its process and eventually an implementation resource. This outside perspective and process orientation helped the core team, and at times the leaders of the firm, to avoid the pitfalls of inbred ideas.

The core team began its work with a period of discovery. It included an audit of all the information about the firm that had accumulated over the years: historical data and patterns, new market presences, firm capability developments, significant projects, professional recognitions, staffing changes, etc. This discovery period included interviews with a representative cross-section of the firm’s principals, studio leaders, and anyone whose viewpoint would enhance the brand enhancement initiative. In addition, an external sampling of perceptions included interviews with select clients, competitors, key industry association executives, and architecture and design students.

Information gathered in the discovery period was summarized and reviewed by the core team, and the facilitator drafted a brand strategy document to capture the central insights about the brand, its essence, and its expression. After spirited discussions about brand attributes, market differentiation, and the core elements of TVS’ essence, the core team finalized its brand strategy document.

A Surprise Turn

One of the issues that immediately emerged in sorting through the essence of the TVS brand was the complexity of its brand and naming conventions and the unwelcome confusion this complexity caused in the marketplace.

Telephoned a TVS office, you would have heard, “Thank you for calling Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates. How can I help you?” But if you would have stepped off the elevator in those offices, you would have seen a logo for TVS. Furthermore, if you had engaged the firm’s interior design services, you would have received an invoice from TVS Interiors. There were many other instances of complexity with regard to brand and naming, and these were identified in the brand strategy document.

While examining potential improvements and new directions, a core team member articulated a yet-unspoken truth: “Everything we’ve said about ourselves is that in all the things we do and are, we’re always all about design. Why don’t we just call ourselves TVS Design.” A long discussion ensued that probed the value and the downsides of a brand called TVS Design. It didn’t take long for the group to coalesce behind the idea.

The next step was to bring the brand naming concept to the firm’s leadership. Because the new brand identity was rooted in the fundamental concepts of the brand strategy document, its rationale was immediately apparent, gaining ready alignment and endorsement. The four brand attributes of the firm — passion for design excellence, innovation, collaboration, and insight — all seemed to be captured in the name TVS Design. In some ways it would be a major change for the firm, in other ways it was simply being true to who they were.

The focus rapidly shifted toward making a comprehensive brand identity change in a polished and precise manner with, as Neuenschwander counseled, “an unwavering attention to the details.” It was time to apply all the strategic thinking to execution.

But before that implementation process was fully shaped, another detail demanded attention. Neuenschwander sought the reaction and counsel of the firm’s founders. While none were directly involved in the daily operational work of the firm, their stature as founders and their deep connections to the firm made their perceptions crucial to this change. Their endorsement was helpful and telling: They articulated a conviction that the firm needed to step into the future.

With alignment on the brand strategy and its implications, the core team turned to the task of planning and implementing a new brand identity. After the initial sequencing and scheduling were drafted, the next task was seeking graphic design support. Over the years, TVS had used both outside graphic designers as well as internal design resources. The core team believed it would be essential to seek the broader expertise and perspective of a commercial graphic designer. The interview processes yielded a consensus on Lionel Ferreira and Ferreira Design Co. The selection of Lionel seemed to rest on two fundamental traits he brought to the process — respect for the firm’s heritage and commitment to future directions and design trends.

Ferreira and the core team evolved the brand strategy document’s foundational principles into a brand persona, a visceral capture of the “soul” of the brand. This persona remained the constant barometer as graphic designs were developed, evaluated, and selected.

Another Surprise

Another unexpected turn awaited the core team. In the initial reviews of Ferreira’s design treatments, options were presented that showed the new brand identity — TVS Design — as one word. There were variations in its graphic typographical treatment, but the idea of the brand identity as simply one word was now on the table for discussion. In the end, the core team recommended to the leadership of the firm that the uniform brand identity should shift to tvsdesign — not merely in the logo art but in all verbal and visual references.

This more dramatic change to the firm’s brand identity required a strategy and a good deal of persuasion. It was neither a common approach nor one without challenges, but the core team believed it was true to the brand, true to being passionate about design excellence. Examples of other similar brands that broke with the capitalization convention were referenced — adidas is one — and a set of application guidelines was created. The core team also challenged the firm to accept the possibility of confusion about their new one-word, lower-case brand identity as a small price to pay for the differentiation and distinction it provided. And in the end, it was true to their brand strategy, and that carried the day.

Making it Happen

With a brand identity in place, the next steps were to apply that identity to the development of all business papers, materials, Web appearances, signage, legal and construction documentation, and any other places where the tvsdesign brand identity would be represented. That meant thoughtful scrutiny was given to items such as the size and shape of business cards, the rounding of edges, the paper stock for business documents, and the consistency of e-mail signatures across the firm.

A master schedule was developed to plot the internal announcements and external launch of the new tvsdesign.

Two additional implementation activities emerged as pivotal for the success of launching the brand identity. The first was the decision by the core team to plan and conduct what we came to call brand ambassador training. These sessions were intended to introduce the new brand identity to all the tvsdesign global staff and to share the foundational rationale behind all the decisions and applications of the new brand. In addition, brand ambassador training ratified the belief that a brand is more than merely a graphic design. The best brands are embodied by people and reflected in behaviors. Brand ambassador training was meant to enable each tvsdesign associate to understand and live the new brand.

Another implementation activity that emerged as pivotal was the development, design, and production of what the core team came to call the brand book. If the essence of the tvsdesign brand is a passion for design excellence, then the launch of an enhanced brand identity seemed to call for a particularly elegant act of design. With the inspiration of Lionel Ferreira and ultimately his design expertise, the core team conceived of a book that captured the essence and emotion of the brand, a book beyond the conventional architectural project portfolio. The brand book was intended to be the keystone for telling the story of the tvsdesign brand, a cherished piece discriminatingly distributed.

In the End

With all the necessary tools and materials in place, brand ambassador training sessions were held at all the tvsdesign offices for all the staff, and the new brand identity was launched to the marketplace. The initiative was complete, save for its foundational contributions to the ongoing success of the firm, even amid current demanding market conditions.

There were at least three pivotal lessons from the process, each dependent on the concept of reaching:

  • The enhanced brand identity for tvsdesign depended on reaching backward, drawing upon the heritage of the firm to understand its foundational concepts. This was achieved through the discovery period at the outset of the process.
  • There was also a deliberate reaching inward as the firm sought to express its brand based on the its core concepts, its “soul,” if you will. This reaching deep inside relied on the commitment and candor of many associates whose passion for design excellence is outweighed only by their passion for their firm.
  • There was an unwavering reaching forward, as the core team kept its focus on making sure the enhanced brand would sustain tvsdesign through a prolonged and prosperous future.

Bill WittlandBill Wittland is the president of Vox Strategic, a marketing and communications consultancy. He has more than 20 years’ experience in communications, marketing, and design. Wittland’s involvement with clients includes strategic consulting, brand development, communications planning, market intelligence gathering, naming, writing, concepting, process design and facilitation, and market planning and development. He is the co-author of Aiming at Affluence: Marketing Interior Design to Luxury Clients.