What’s in a name?

I’d like to throw this post out for fun to provoke a potential shift in industry thinking about AEC firm brands.

In a utopian society, every project your firm completes would:

  • Evoke an emotional response
  • Leave a lasting impression
  • Be relevant to, yet remarkable amongst, its surroundings

Most of us will never be able to say that every project we’ve worked on has done that. Some of them…but not all.

When considering your firm’s brand and specifically the name, the same criteria should apply though. Take any random sampling of architecture firm names and a large majority, more than 80% in my experience, are the name or names of the partners. What does this actually say about your brand? In essence, the name says more about the principals, than the principles.

Professional services firms (of all types) have intricate brands because they are often based on people, not products. The questions need to be asked, “How should my clients and potential clients feel about or react to my firm’s name when they here it?” And then, “Does our firm’s name impact those reactions?”

Only after those questions, among others, have been answered, should a firm settle in on a name.

Why Do We Really Need A Strategy?

If you’re like many other firms, you’ve had one of the following things happen:

  • A website redesign with several false starts (or maybe even never gotten off the ground)
  • A brochure or mailing campaign that everybody grumbled about under their breath after it went out
  • New stationery or logo roll out that half the people refused to use

For many, the website one in particular may hit home. Everybody has an idea about what the new site should look like (I mean, we do all use the web so we know what people look for, right?). Every project has to be represented. Every industry has to be mentioned. Often, before you know it, the site has taken on a life of its own and becomes everybody’s project. Unfortunately, the next steps are either huge project delays or a website that nobody is quite happy with. I actually just spoke to a highly acclaimed design firm last week that was even fired while still working on the early stages of the homepage!

So what went wrong? Regardless of the communications vehicle, firms need a cohesive brand and marketing strategy. Now more than ever, especially with individuals acting as company brand stewards through social media, EVERYBODY in the firm needs to understand the communications strategy if they are…communicating.

Applied to the website analogy, a clear brand platform and marketing strategy will do the following things:

  • Provide a point of reference to justify decision making – “Is this in line with the brand?”
  • Clarify what industries and projects are the most important to present to the public – “Is this project related to the type of work we are pursuing?”
  • Put decisions in the perspective of the target audience, not the employees – “Who do we want to receive our communications and what do they need to hear?”
  • Make content coming from numerous sources more consistent – “What language, tone and writing style do we follow?”

While many of these things may seem intangible or immeasurable, the true measure of success is in time and money saved. A strong marketing strategy minimizes internal revisions, decreases marketing project timelines and cuts back unbillable hours from managers and principals that likely have billable work to do.

Thoughts on the RECORD’s 2008 Top 250 Firms

As I read over the article and list of the Top 250 Firms (by revenue) in Architectural Record, I actually found the reader comments to be more in tune with the industry sentiment than the ENR list itself. (Be sure to read a few, there are some doozies…)

The truth is that while the top 250 firms may show a revenue growth, they don’t represent the industry as a whole well because it is such a small portion of the architectural talent available, which the author eludes to. Just as an example, a quick search on the AIA’s “Find an Architect” for DC shows that there are more than 200 firms in DC alone.

So what are the big ones doing so well that they realize growth (at least in revenue, if not workforce) while so many other firms are going under?

Branding and marketing.

The firms that top this list invest in themselves and they have brands that are known even to people outside of the AEC community. They aren’t doing things that the smaller firms can’t do though. The key is developing a marketing plan (and budget) that makes sense for the scale of your firm.

As a firm principal, ask yourself: If you really want to grow by 50% in a year, how much more are you willing to invest in marketing to do so?