Many companies desire to be perceived as being “committed to sustainability.” Just about any Fortune 100 organization can point to its sustainable development commitment statement or a green business structure.

Many companies desire to be perceived as being “committed to sustainability.” Just about any Fortune 100 organization can point to its sustainable development commitment statement or a green business structure. Some companies have even created a “Sustainability Annual Report.” Corporate public relations teams are rapidly publishing case studies and other evidence to support “sustainability as a core value.” In 2004, it’s hip to claim a sustainable brand.

But what makes a brand sustainable? AEC firms must first understand how brand is built, and then determine what’s required to build and maintain an identity that features sustainability as a core value.

Branding In AEC Firms

A brand is a relationship. It lives in many forms–a client’s relationship with your firm, the client’s connection with a firm member, a vendor’s ability to chat with your receptionist, or employees’ friendships. In an AEC firm, the relationships between the client, vendor, or business partner and employees is the foundation for brand loyalty. Think of it this way:

Your brand is a perception or emotion, maintained by somebody other than you, that describes the total experience of having a relationship with you.1
This is true for you as a person and also for your company. You already have a brand, as does your firm. Your brand is a reflection of who you are and what you believe and value; your firm brand is similar. One way to describe a company’s brand is through three distinct elements, which we call the “3-S Model”:

  • Your Services – The professional services that your company offers and the markets/clients that you serve

  • Your Standards – The unique tools, processes, business strategies, delivery methods, knowledge base, core values and techniques that your company brings to a project

  • Your Style – your Company’s personality–the way that you communicate and relate to the marketplace, and the distinct flair that your firm possesses

Leadership in Building AEC Brands

The underlying structure of any AEC firm’s brand comes from the “personal brands” of the firm members. The relationships created by key partners and senior executives, and the experiences that clients have within the firm, strongly influence the overall brand. If the firm has a collective brand, then by definition it is bigger than any executive or group of executives. But that does not diminish the impact of an individual–the personal brand of each key executive has a big impact on the firm’s brand. This starts with leadership and shapes the very core of the company’s brand model. It affects the decision of which services to offer and markets to pursue; shaping firm business strategy; identifying and implementing delivery models/ tools that make the company unique; projecting a certain style (internally and externally); and most important, attracting employees that want to “live” that brand.
The message? Branding begins with leadership. An AEC firm with a strong and well-respected brand knows the following:

  • How to define its brand

  • How to attract and retain leaders that share its vision (and can advance the firm’s brand in accordance with business strategy)

  • How to effectively develop the brand within the firm and articulate it to employees

  • How to match potential employees, clients, and projects for a “brand fit.”

What Sustainability Means to You

So how does this relate to sustainability? Today, many companies are using sustainability for “stewards of the planet” marketing. In reality, to truly demonstrate commitment to sustainability, the message must emanate from values that permeate each element of the firm’s brand: services, standards, and style. There is nothing wrong with marketing and PR communications that celebrate a firm’s commitment to sustainability. However, if it is only a marketing veneer, it will wear off over time. For your firm to project a sustainable brand, you must understand your commitment to that principle’s values, and make it truthful and evident in your firm’s persona and relationships.

To build a sustainable brand, we focus on: Services, Standards, and Style. Your commitment to sustainability should influence all three. Communicating this commitment is not difficult if sustainability truly guides your firm strategy. The following illustrates how your commitment can be demonstrated through the firm’s brand:Attributes that Demonstrate a Commitment to Sustainability Services: The Firm relentlessly pursues markets, clients, and projects that demonstrate a sustainable commitment. And it rejects markets, clients, and projects that do not share that commitment.

Standards: The firm documents its sustainability commitment as a policy. It promotes business strategies that enforce its commitment, including its choices of office location, vendors, business partners, travel policy, etc. And the firm promotes employee and workplace strategies that enforce its sustainability commitment.

Style: The firm communicates its sustainability commitment to the marketplace. The firm assumes leadership to promote sustainability to its stakeholders and local communities. Finally, the firm encourages employee participation in community, professional, and stakeholder events related to advancing sustainability concepts.

Your firm should decide what level of commitment to adopt in regard to sustainability, and evaluate your brand accordingly. One word of caution: “Live it or Leave It.” If sustainability is a core belief in your organization, then work to build this commitment into your strategy, and make sure that your employees are on board to “live” the brand. If you do not feel comfortable with a formal commitment to sustainability, I’d suggest you “leave it” alone. As with any professed core value, claiming a false commitment to sustainability that is not backed up by actual practice and employee culture will hurt your firm in the long run. Conversely, if sustainability permeates your business strategy and firm beliefs, a sustainable brand will likely strengthen your relationships with your clients, your business partners, and your employees.

—Jacqueline Rast

1 Adapted from Be Your Own Brand, by Karl Speak and David McNally, 2002.

Want to learn more? Jacque Rast will present a four-hour workshop titled “How to Create a Strong Brand for Your Firm” at the end of the DFC’s upcoming Sustainability Summit. The workshop is limited to 20 attendees and will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1:45–5:45 pm, at the Charles Hotel, Cambridge, Mass.

Greenway helps AEC firms understand their brands and make them more distinctive, relevant, and consistent. In every case, firms with strong brands find they have an easier time winning work, attracting and retaining the best people, and implementing strong growth strategies. Interested? Contact Rast for a free consultation at