The absence of brand focus always astonishes us considering that in most companies, “the brand” in the broadest of contexts should be the single most valuable organizational asset.

Most firms and organizations value their demonstrated competencies and metrics in finance, technology and human resources. Shouldn’t taking charge of and caring for your greatest pathway to the future be given the same priority and consideration?

Today we are learning of increasing dialogue surrounding intellectual capital. (By intellectual capital we mean knowledge-based assets that uniquely belongs to, and is associated with the firm or brand.) Some organizations are even beginning to value, initiate and monitor research and development for the sake of differentiation and leadership. Unfortunately, the same value and thought is not extended to brand management.

The absence of brand focus always astonishes us considering that in most companies, “the brand” in the broadest of contexts should be the single most valuable organizational asset. Perhaps the confusion or lack of understanding comes from the great breadth of sensory elements in regards to brand management: Brand Strategy, Brand Positioning, Brand Identity, Brand Naming, Brand Value, Brand Image, Brand Blueprint, and Brand Marketing Mix, just to name a few.


In some cases, a professional firm or organization places attention on the brand when there exists a fear of poor recognition and recall in the marketplace. Perhaps there is concern that a brand does not command or evoke the intended emotional response. Perhaps there is just a concern that the competition is perceived to have a slight edge. Or quite possibly, at issue are sustainable growth and/or market share in the field of competition. Regardless, usually at the heart of the situation is the lack of a distinctive brand experience. Unfortunately, this well-meaning endeavor is often relegated to a mere logo or graphic consideration and perception analysis. When this over simplification occurs, a great opportunity is lost. Strategic plans are compromised, and firms find themselves increasingly being viewed as offering a commodity product—with the perception that other design firms are providing these necessary, yet vanilla, middle of the road services just as well.

In DesignIntelligence we repeatedly discuss VALUE in today’s world. This includes creating value—for your client, for your employees, and for your partners. A key to long-term value creation is a cohesive brand positioned as an authoritative resource. An authoritative brand has a distinct value proposition and thwarts commodity issues. Therefore, the real opportunity and goal is one of “brand building” which is synchronized not only to the moniker but also to the promise and the individual “moments of truth.” A holistic approach to the brand’s strategy, value proposition and marketing mix will deliver the best formula for long-term success—an experience that delights the design firm’s (or brand’s) constituents!

Why brand matters

In surveys and polls conducted over the past five years by Greenway Group’s Counsel House Research, industry experts, clients and leading firm representatives have responded with a resounding “Yes”—Brand strength matters! The affirmation of the value of brands was expressed verbally as well as recorded in their mannerisms. For example, not only could each participant recite the brand names of the leading firms by market sector and by building type; but also, their messages telegraphed a following and an affinity for the aforementioned brand(s). Brand value was again confirmed by the consistency of the responses. Further, consider the successes of the widely familiar firm names in architecture, interior design, landscape architecture and industrial design. We find that in certain cases firms with strong brand repute have transposed beyond their original design disciplines to gain wide based brand recognition even beyond intended audiences. Thus, if they wish, they can strategically expand into new markets and further grow the success of their firms.

Brand vs. Branding

Only a handful of leaders in the marketplace profess to understand how a brand in the broadest metaphor is a living and dynamic organism. This organism is constantly being shaped by market and environmental forces juxtaposed to the innate psychological (and often physiological tendencies as discussed in past issues of DI) of the organization. The brand’s stature is a product of the values, talents, behaviors, influenced by interpretations of the brand’s constituents (internal and external) and is in a state of constant change or transformation.

A strategic question for firm leaders and brand managers is that of trajectory. Is your brand’s equity increasing or decreasing in value? How has your market position changed in the last several years? Could it be that past strengths of your firm’s brand repute have become weaknesses?

The long-term sustainability of a firm’s brand is subject to the quality of its people, philosophy and service demonstrated in “moments of truth.” In short, the brand is the manifestation of the essence, core values, substance, and validity of the firm or organization measured with each interaction. What the brand is and what it becomes is dependent upon the organization’s unique values, vision and “futures” investments filtered by the level of consistency obtained within the organization’s “moments of truth.”

While brand is about the essence of the organization, branding is the physical adornment of the brand. Branding is about image, application, and realization of the brand’s promise and positioning. Branding is about being genuine and developing a language that uniquely reveals the organization’s story–much like a living commercial. In its simplest form, branding is an icon or moniker used to associate the brand to the product. Simply put, branding is the process of applying symbols and nomenclature to build presence and build favorable associations that are genuine to the brand’s values.

Creating brand equity in design firms.

Given that the objective of brand building, as leaders and marketing directors we strive to increase the value of the brand in the eyes of the brand’s constituents—namely clients, fellow team members and partners (or stockholders). The best means for measuring the value is through levels of familiarity, loyalty, favorability, quality and mental connotations. To determine your brand’s equity, determine the following: How well do they know you? How loyal are they? How much do they value your product? And what mental images flow when your brand is recalled? From this analysis, you can assess your brand equity and begin to build or further a compelling future.

What defines your brand?

Brands are uniquely impacted by five essential elements:

  • A firm’s innate value system and culture

  • Processes employed

  • Services and products

  • Employees

  • Consistency of applications

Individually, these elements have tremendous organizational and market implications; but together, they culminate in the brand experience. Where these elements combine and interact, “moments of truth” occur. At these moments and in conjunction with the brand experience, the brand either increases or decreases in value in the mind of the customer. What your constituents espouse and how they react to their experiences either builds or diminishes the brand relationship. Intimately knowing your constituents’ value systems and delivering consistently at each moment of truth ensures future success of the brand.

What makes an authoritative brand?

Authoritative brands are defined as genuine, offering a unique value proposition to their constituents. Also, authoritative brands evoke a future-based guarantee of a rewarding experience. The best-in-class brands, those perfoming in the top 20 percent of their field are without exception consistently equated with a future based experience described as delightful.

Authoritative brands are well grounded in a unique and consistent position with regard to individual repute, personality, expertise, processes, and fee/price-value relationship. Authoritative firms know who they are, have a vision for the future and an intimate relationship with their constituents based upon a high level of trust and feeling of security. Past Counsel House Research initiatives on ethics show the attributes of trust and security correlated directly to rankings of consistency and predictability. Both trust and security ranked extremely high in the collective value equation for industry experts and leaders as well as clients. This further validates the importance of consistency and predictability.

Your firm can create an authoritative brand.

Authoritative brands do not occur by luck or happenstance. Authoritative brands develop through vision, vigilance and commitment; they flourish through a keen understanding of the common values between the firm and its clients. Future success and an increase in brand equity reside in firm leadership being able to navigate between tomorrow’s value and today’s reality.

Over the past five years, I have discovered widespread misunderstanding in the design professions about branding design firms and how brands can be built to create consistent competitive advantage. Firms of all sizes should think about their brand repute as an asset that can be to strategic advantage. We have found that there are outstanding examples of firms and organizations of all sizes that diligently work on brand building and understand the power that it can bring to the health of their organization. Branding and brand building are often confused; some designers still think of branding as just creating a new logo. It is in truth so powerful and a key strategy of today’s best of class firms and organizations.

—Terry L. Johnson, AIA