The AEC Firm Branding, or Rebranding, Process

A/E/C Firm Branding Process

This posts answers the fre­quent­ly-asked-ques­tion, “What is the process for brand­ing an Archi­tec­ture / Engi­neer­ing / Con­struc­tion firm?” There are five main phas­es: Dis­cov­ery, Strat­e­gy, Iden­ti­ty Design, Touch­point Design, and Brand Man­age­ment.

1. Dis­cov­ery: Audit­ing & Research

Branding DiscoveryMuch like a M.D., a brand­ing con­sul­tant shouldn’t pre­scribe a course of treat­ment with­out diag­nos­ing the prob­lem first. The Dis­cov­ery Phase allows us to diag­nose by look­ing back­ward before build­ing a for­ward-look­ing brand.

First, we exam­ine the fun­da­men­tal build­ing blocks of your strate­gic plan: Mis­sion, Vision and Val­ues. Your Mis­sion is your pur­pose, why your firm exists. Your Vision is where the firm is head­ed, what you want to be in five years. Val­ues define how you will reach your vision, the guid­ing prin­ci­ples that keep you focused. If Mis­sion, Vision and Val­ues are not sol­id, we don’t move for­ward.

The Brand Touch­point Audit allows us to review the top 75 points of con­tact that a poten­tial client or employ­ee would encounter with your brand. We rate each touch­point, and have you do the same.

The ben­e­fit of work­ing with an out­side con­sul­tant is per­spec­tive. It’s very dif­fi­cult to “read the label if you are inside the jar.” One of the ways we bring per­spec­tive is con­duct­ing per­cep­tion research. This typ­i­cal­ly involves inter­view­ing prin­ci­pals, project man­agers, new hires, team­ing part­ners, and clients. We want to find out how the brand is cur­rent­ly being per­ceived. In short, what is your rep­u­ta­tion?

Com­pet­i­tive Research exam­ines how you com­pare to your com­peti­tors. With a bias towards strengths, we are not blind to weak­ness­es in search­ing for com­pet­i­tive advan­tage. We ana­lyze which mar­kets and ser­vices are oppor­tu­ni­ties for you to lead.

We also enjoy dis­cov­er­ing how, when, and why the firm was found­ed. Hope­ful­ly this his­tor­i­cal research will uncov­er a great ori­gin sto­ry. Or, there may have been some key turn­ing points in the firm’s his­to­ry to inspire the brand mov­ing for­ward.

The deliv­er­able in phase one is a Find­ings & Rec­om­men­da­tions Report. It is the sum­ma­ry of the per­vi­ous­ly men­tioned items with pri­or­i­tized rec­om­men­da­tions on what to do next.

2. Strat­e­gy: Dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion & Plan­ning

Brand StrategyThe foun­da­tion of a great brand is posi­tion­ing. Posi­tion­ing is the mind­space you occu­py in your tar­get audience’s head. What do poten­tial clients and employ­ees think when they hear your firm’s name?

Posi­tion­ing is sim­ply where your firm fits in the mar­ket­place. There must be a com­pelling rea­son for tar­get­ed clients to choose your firm over your com­pe­ti­tion. A posi­tion­ing state­ment should be easy for employ­ees to say (sim­ple, real lan­guage, not clichéd flow­ery b.s.) Posi­tion­ing state­ments answer what you do, who for, com­pet­i­tive advan­tage, and ben­e­fit to cus­tomer. Here’s ours, as an exam­ple: Lecours­De­sign is a brand­ing firm help­ing A/E/C firms attract great clients and employ­ees.

Posi­tion­ing is the hub of your brand­ing strat­e­gy. All mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion should radi­ate out from this hub.

Effec­tive brand strat­e­gy pro­vides a cen­tral, uni­fy­ing idea around which all behav­iors, actions, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions are aligned…the best brand strate­gies are so dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed and pow­er­ful that they deflect the com­pe­ti­tion.” –Ali­na Wheel­er from Design­ing Brand Iden­ti­ty

The deliv­er­ables in phase two are: Mes­sag­ing and Plan­ning. Mes­sag­ing could include a posi­tion­ing state­ment, “About The Firm” word­ing, a tagline, nam­ing of ser­vices and mar­kets, val­ues com­mu­ni­ca­tion, or a brand­ed process. Plan­ning out­lines spe­cif­ic brand­ing ini­tia­tives with time­lines and bud­gets.

3. Iden­ti­ty Design: Nam­ing & Logo Design

Identity DesignClients love this phase because they get to wit­ness the birth of tan­gi­ble brand assets. Who doesn’t love a cud­dly new firm name, swad­dled up in a new logo, with fresh col­ors, fonts, and trade dress?

Brand­ing doesn’t always require our assis­tance in firm name devel­op­ment. Which is a shame because very lit­tle thought, or strat­e­gy goes into the typ­i­cal A/E/C firm name. Out of ego, or because it’s the norm, firms are often named after found­ing prin­ci­pals. Or, the sad con­so­la­tion prize is an acronym firm name. Acronyms are ter­ri­ble firm names because they lack per­son­al­i­ty, soul, and mem­o­ra­bil­i­ty. But wait, what about URS, NBBJ, SOM, HDR, HOK, you ask? Well, none of these firm names began as acronyms. Only after the fatigue of hav­ing to say, or write “Hell­muth, Oba­ta + Kass­abaum” ad nase­um, did the firm nick­name, “HOK,” become their actu­al brand name.

Nam­ing is a fun process that begins with clar­i­fy­ing firm val­ues, posi­tion­ing, and per­son­al­i­ty. We pre­fer to define 5–7 val­ues or per­son­al­i­ty attrib­ut­es to be com­mu­ni­cat­ed through the brand name. Then we gen­er­ate at least 50 pos­si­ble names for each attribute. Some are sil­ly and would nev­er work, but they can often inspire bet­ter ideas. The best way to come up with a great name, is to gen­er­ate a lot of names. Often a name may show up on mul­ti­ple lists. Or, we play the mash-up game com­bin­ing words, pre­fix­es, suf­fix­es to gen­er­ate new names. We nar­row down to a dozen or so final­ists and do an infor­mal trade­mark search to check the legal, social media, and domain name avail­abil­i­ty. From there, we typ­i­cal­ly present 5–7 final­ists to the client. We then work with the client to nar­row it down to 2–3 can­di­dates for their intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty attor­ney to con­duct a for­mal trade­mark search.

Logo devel­op­ment also begins with val­ues, posi­tion­ing and per­son­al­i­ty. Ide­al­ly, the symbol/logo/brandmark/trademark/brand sig­na­ture (what­ev­er you want to call it) should visu­al­ly com­mu­ni­cate the essence of the brand. What it shouldn’t com­mu­ni­cate is what you do. In oth­er words, it shouldn’t com­mu­ni­cate that you prac­tice archi­tec­ture because there is noth­ing unique about this. The more you iden­ti­fy with your busi­ness cat­e­go­ry (archi­tec­ture in this exam­ple), the more you become a com­mod­i­ty. So no T-squares, pen­cils, CAD or BIM ref­er­ences in your logo, ok?

Dur­ing the logo explo­ration phase, we’ll devel­op pages and pages of loose sketch­es. Then we refine the top con­tenders in Adobe Illus­tra­tor. We like to present sev­en logo explo­rations in black and white to our clients. More than sev­en is over­whelm­ing and caus­es choice fatigue. Few­er than sev­en sug­gests a lack of rig­or. We present in black and white because it is a great equal­iz­er. The moment col­or is intro­duced, bias­es towards, or against, cer­tain col­ors cloud the eval­u­a­tion process.

We refine the top two logo final­ists on a busi­ness card and on-screen to sim­u­late web use. Often, we sim­u­late the logo being applied to vehi­cle or build­ing sig­nage as well. At this point, we add col­or. If the firm decides to reg­is­ter their trade­mark, their intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty attor­ney can do a search using the two final­ists. Once the final logo and col­or is cho­sen, we will devel­op a col­or palette of pri­ma­ry use col­ors and sec­ondary use col­ors for future mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions. We devel­op a rec­om­mend­ed typog­ra­phy palette to encour­age con­sis­tent font usage across the firm. If words are the con­tent, then fonts are the voice. We want all mar­ket­ing to be com­mu­ni­cat­ed in a con­sis­tent voice.

4. Touch­point Design: Brand Appli­ca­tion

Touchpoint DesignAfter estab­lish­ing the core brand iden­ti­ty, it’s now time to apply the new look across all brand touch­points. Touch­points are all the ways a prospec­tive employ­ee, client, or team­ing part­ner may encounter your brand. You nev­er know which touch­point: busi­ness card, blog post, job site sign, etc. will be the gate­way of intro­duc­tion to your brand. Since first impres­sions mat­ter, make all touch­points the best your bud­get allows. The brand plan you cre­at­ed in phase one deter­mines your pri­or­i­tized list of touch­points need­ing atten­tion.

We typ­i­cal­ly begin with the busi­ness card. Espe­cial­ly in this dig­i­tal era of LinkedIn and smart phones, a qual­i­ty busi­ness card is a tac­tile sym­bol to rep­re­sent the qual­i­ty of your archi­tec­ture, engi­neer­ing or con­struc­tion. For us, the exer­cise of design­ing a 3.5-inch x 2-inch busi­ness card forces us to be very delib­er­ate about design deci­sions. The busi­ness card design informs the entire sta­tionery sys­tem: let­ter­head (print & .doc), enve­lope, labels, note cards, and inter­nal forms.

The first project we rec­om­mend is the firm web­site. A great web­site attracts, demon­strates, con­nects, and con­verts vis­i­tors into clients or employ­ees. Your web­site should serve as the hub of all dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and much of your print com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The site needs to be opti­mized for all screen sizes, so we rec­om­mend respon­sive design to cre­ate a great user expe­ri­ence on phones, tablets and desk­top com­put­ers.

Fre­quent­ly we get asked to design the firm’s forms, reports, and con­struc­tion doc­u­ment title blocks. Since these are typ­i­cal­ly the only deliv­er­ables of an A/E firm, they need to look and feel wor­thy of your fees.

Print mar­ket­ing col­lat­er­al: SOQ pack­ages, a pro­pos­al tem­plate, brochures, project/market/service sheets get designed next. From there, we may design the firm’s build­ing sig­nage, job site signs, and vehi­cle graph­ics.

5. Brand Man­age­ment: Pro­tect­ing Your Invest­ment

Brand ManagementThe intro­duc­tion of a new brand requires a sig­nif­i­cant invest­ment of time and dol­lars ($50k–$250k). You want to pro­tect this invest­ment with effec­tive brand man­age­ment. This begins with the intro­duc­tion and roll­out of your new brand.

We always rec­om­mend that clients pro­tect their intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty by reg­is­ter­ing their trade­mark with the Unit­ed States Patent and Trade­mark office or An intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty attor­ney will be glad to help you with this or you can try to han­dle it your­self.

Of all the phas­es and steps men­tioned above, the process is near­ly iden­ti­cal for an entire­ly new brand as for a re-brand. But intro­duc­tion and roll­out of a re-brand is unique. Peo­ple like best what they know most. So, change can be dif­fi­cult for those attached to the old brand. Before the re-brand is launched pub­licly, you need to do some inter­nal edu­ca­tion for employ­ees, clients, and team­ing part­ners. Even bet­ter if they were aware of the re-brand from the begin­ning so it isn’t a shock­ing change when it launch­es. Explain­ing why the change was need­ed, the process of devel­op­ment, and why the new is bet­ter than the old, will go a long way in build­ing inter­nal sup­port for the roll­out.

In a per­fect world, all your new brand touch­points would roll out simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. But we rec­og­nize that print­ing sched­ules, bud­gets, and not want­i­ng to throw away exist­ing mate­ri­als some­times pre­vent this. You have more con­trol over tim­ing with dig­i­tal items. So, we rec­om­mend that the web­site, email blasts, email sig­na­tures, and social media chan­nels all be updat­ed pri­or to launch. Key busi­ness devel­op­ment and mar­ket­ing lead­ers and Prin­ci­pals should all have new busi­ness cards. But you could wait to replace all staff busi­ness cards until the old ones are near­ly used up.

The intro­duc­tion should be a big deal. It’s a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to make an impres­sion on past, present, and future clients. Hav­ing an Open House or Launch Par­ty is a great way to build good­will among your clients, team­ing part­ners, and employ­ees. There are also oppor­tu­ni­ties to get an arti­cle pub­lished about the new brand.

To help ensure ongo­ing integri­ty of your brand com­mu­ni­ca­tions, we always rec­om­mend a Brand Style Guide. This can be a 2-page to 24-page doc­u­ment to encour­age con­sis­ten­cy across mul­ti­ple offices, and even mul­ti­ple lan­guages. Think of this guide as a “cook­book” show­ing you how to cook up effec­tive mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion using the required “ingre­di­ents,” your brand assets. It should be flex­i­ble enough to not ham­per cre­ativ­i­ty. At min­i­mum, the brand style guide must include infor­ma­tion on logo usage, col­or, typog­ra­phy, nomen­cla­ture, trade dress (dis­tinc­tive pat­terns or pack­ag­ing), paper, imagery, and edi­to­r­i­al tone. The Brand Style Guide can be dis­trib­uted to employ­ees as a PDF, or live as a series of pages,downloadable files on a com­pa­ny intranet.

While the results of all our brand­ing projects are dif­fer­ent, fol­low­ing the same process allows for con­tin­u­al improve­ment. From Dis­cov­ery, Strat­e­gy, Iden­ti­ty Design, Touch­point Design, to Brand Man­age­ment, the best results come from clients that are curi­ous, open-mind­ed, and can­did. Being informed is always help­ful too, which is why we wrote this guide.


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