Architects seem flummoxed about brands and branding. Perhaps that is why many firms appear to be so similar and also work far below their potential. But if the problem with brands were that simple, it would be easy to fix.

First, the very word “brand” has so many meanings that is has virtually no meaning. So, let’s define terms. My favorite definition of a brand is, “what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Clearly, brand has something to do with reputation. And reputations can change over time. By this same definition, a brand is not a logo, a brochure, or a mission statement, although these are components of a brand. I like to think about “brand management” as an iterative activity of making promises and keeping promises. The making and keeping of promises, as we will see further along, can become a dynamic and powerful tool you can use to manage a firm’s operations, growth and success. With these two definitions in hand, let’s proceed to our story:

Part One: The Five Ps
Perceptions: Practitioners, the Profession, the Public, and the Press

The brand of “architecture” is formed by the combined perceptions of at least four interrelated groups. These are practitioners, the profession, the press, and the public. Strong brands get that way when there is agreement about what they stand for. If we apply the “what people say about you when you are not in the room” test, the architecture brand sounds like this:

Practitioners (architects) say: “Architecture is a process. Architects are brilliant problem solvers. Clients should involve us from the beginning.”

The Profession (AIA) says, “Architecture is a profession. Architects protect the public. And good architects join the AIA.”

The Public (clients) says: “Architecture is a product. Architects think highly of themselves. Working with an architect takes too long and costs too much.”

The Press (popular and trade) says: “Architecture is popular. Starchitects are newsworthy. Beautiful, heroic photography sells.”

This is a wonderful recipe for a large kettle of idea soup:

Architecture is a process.
Architecture is a profession.
Architecture is a product.
Architecture is popular.

Architects are brilliant problem solvers.
Architects protect the public.
Architects think highly of themselves.
Starchitects are newsworthy.

Clients should involve us from the beginning.
Good architects join the AIA.
Working with an architect takes too long and costs too much.
Beautiful, heroic photography sells.

Few companies, professions, organizations or causes have built strong brands with this level of confusion or complexity surrounding them. More accurately, few have survived. From the brand standpoint, the future of architecture, as the profession operates today, is similarly in doubt. How did it get this way? The answer fills volumes but the shorthand version is this: There is a large and growing gap between perception and reality between these groups. But, in the end, brand opportunity and responsibility rest in the hands of the profession and its practitioners.

What’s Wrong?

The AIA holds fast to a binary owner-architect business model that has operated essentially unchanged for 150 years. Today, that model falls far short of encompassing the complexity of issues architects take on, nor does it accommodate the increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary way teams of professionals do their work together.

Because of this model, combined with the pervasive “be like them” design culture, architects just take the projects clients hand them. Instead, they need to be defining the process differently by, for example, providing leadership and counsel about the future of energy, buildings, cities, technology, sustainable life systems, human factors, social justice, planning, interdependence, etc. Today the profession operates reactively with short-term thinking at the edges of critical issues. Instead, it needs to operate proactively with long-term thinking while leading from the epicenter of a collaborative pan-disciplined networked team. In short, it needs to operate with a business model created for the 21st century instead of the 19th century.

This all ads up to an interesting landscape as firms create their own individual brands. In brand terms, “architecture” can be seen as an umbrella brand and individual firms as sub-brands nestled beneath it. This is not an asset because “architecture” is a classic profile of a weak brand. Consider this: Through the customer’s eyes it is a confusing category, comparison is difficult, the price is high, there are few agreed upon standards about what is a good product, the benefits are intangible, the features are often technical, the advantages are hard to prove, and the risk factors are high. What’s a firm to do? For starters, keep reading. Remember, this is a two-part story, which changes scale midway through and can have a happy ending.

Part Two: Branding: By Design or by Default?
The scale now switches from the macro view of the profession to the micro view of individual firms. Your firm already has a brand. It’s “what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” This brand has come about in one of two ways: by design or by default. A brand created by default is one that has been created by others in the vacuum left by you. One created by design is the product of your clear intention and disciplined action on the part of your firm. It’s not very difficult to create a clear and concise brand. Most architecture firms overcomplicate it by trying to be all things to all people. The result is all the firms look and sound alike.

Several years ago we did an experiment among a dozen firms in a major U.S. metropolitan market that regularly competed against each other. We took verbatim each firm’s description of itself from their websites. We then placed all twelve descriptions on a large wall poster with just one change: we took the firm names out of the descriptions. Then we asked all the partners in our client firm to pick their firm from the list. None could. All twelve firms sounded alike. To someone looking for an architect, these firms were identical. No wonder smart clients let these firms compete on price alone – it’s the only discernible differentiator. All twelve firms were getting squeezed on fees, cutting corners on service delivery trying to make a profit, and complaining to each other over drinks about how their clients were beating them up. This was an example of a dozen good firms all creating their brand by default.

What if they had built their brands by design? Clients could hire a firm based on real differences and real competencies. Firms would be doing the work they want to do instead of the work they can get. Everyone in the firm would have a clear understanding of the firm’s purpose and know how to work toward achieving it.

Building a brand by design requires a commitment to three basic principles. First, it is a continuous process. It lasts as long as the firm does. Second, it is woven into all parts of the firm not just the marketing department or the RFP coordinators. Third, in an architecture firm, there are two critical audiences: one is external in the form of prospects, clients, consultants, media, and the public. The other is internal in the form of every member of the firm and all the people in their personal and professional networks.

At this point in our story, dear reader, you may be thinking, “It’s too hard. I’m too busy and, anyway, who can focus on this forever?” I’d like to propose a simple, if radical, organizing armature that dramatically simplifies the brand equation and the management of the firm. Earlier, brand management was defined as “making promises and keeping promises.” If one thinks about a firm as an organization that makes promises and then keeps them, interesting things start to happen. First, deciding what promises to make becomes keenly important. Like people, a firm shouldn’t make promises it can’t keep. To decide what promises to make a firm should look carefully at what kind of work it does well, what kind of work it wants to do, and what kind of work the marketplace needs. The sweet spot of this Venn diagram is the promise a firm should make.

{diagram}

When a firm’s promise becomes clear several other elements of building a brand also become clear: identity, specializations, marketing messages, distinctive competencies, unique abilities, the right kind of clients, the right kind of staff, service delivery levels, research areas, knowledge requirements and skill acquisition – to name just a few. By making a promise linked to keeping it, managing a firm is dramatically simplified to three core questions: What promises do we make? What must we do to keep our promise? How are we going to get it done? Virtually every management decision can be made by answering these three questions.

One function of a brand is to authentically communicate a firm’s promise to the marketplace. Another equally important function is to infuse the promise into every part of the firm and all the people in it. When this happens, a firm becomes aligned around the making and keeping of its promise in surprising ways. One clear benefit is that every member of the firm from messenger to partner can answer the question, “What do I have to do today to keep the promises we’ve made?” This system also links marketing departments and project studios at the hip. The one knows what promises to make, the other knows how to keep them. In essence, the firm starts to live the brand. It starts becoming the brand.

Firms that operate with this level of lucid clarity can overcome the obstacles created by the profession’s default brand and significantly outpace their “all things to all people” competitors. In doing so, a firm’s brand can become dramatically more valuable. “What is said about you when you’re not in the room” starts sounding different: “They sure know their stuff. They don’t try to be all things to all people but they are hands down the best in the business at what they do. And when they say they’ll get it done, they come through every time. Their fees are high, but so worth it. I trust them with my most important projects and I never lose sleep worrying about their work.”

As promised, this story (and your’s) can have a happy ending.