Originally posted Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Written by Sandy Lu and Nick Dorman

The word has become culturally synonymous with its corporate counterpart and immediately calls to mind its seemingly ubiquitous shiny neon logo. This sort of powerful brand recognition, though, is important not only to private corporations but to any institution seeking to occupy some significant and permanent place in the mind of the public. Many institutions do not have an advertizing budget or a marketing division, but that does not mean they don’t have a brand. “You have a brand, whether you have a strategy or not,” says Hal Kantner of HOK.

But the sort of powerful brand recognition Apple has achieved is not founded simply on well-crafted advertizing and an attractive trademark. How, then, does an institution take ownership of its brand? One way is through the built environment—the physical structures themselves. “With facilities, it’s very often the media channel that you own, and you have the most say in what messages you put in it,” Kantner explains. “You can put messages in the environment that actually speak to what the culture of the institution is and what its visions and goals are.”

A corollary of the idea that you have a brand, whether you have a strategy or not, is that your building communicates your brand, whether you mean for it to or not. “One of the touchstones for my whole career is the book Learning from Las Vegas, and the idea that the building communicates even if it’s not trying,” says Kantner. “It communicates something, and it could be that it’s boring, or it’s plain, or it’s drab, or it’s anonymous. But there are actions you can take that bring personality to buildings, and if you know which personality is going to be the tenant in that building, you can dial in very targeted personality attributes for that brand and design them into the building.”

According to Thomas Hull of Rigsby Hull, buildings represent one of the most significant mediums available for conveying a brand identity. “There’s that old adage that we shape our buildings, and they, in turn, shape us—because they’re everywhere that we live, we work, we play. We’re constantly in contact with the built environment. It’s fairly inescapable for us. So the opportunity to brand that space is very significant.”

“In the case of institutional buildings,” says Hal Kantner, “there is the opportunity to evidence brand on the building in the form of a logo, but also in the use materials, of color tied to either their university affiliation, for instance, or their healthcare system—the glass colors or perhaps some accent color in the envelope of the building.”

The use of physical space as an experience is where Apple stands out. They have established an immediately recognizable aesthetic that manifests itself not only in their products and advertisements, but in the stores themselves. “It doesn’t matter where you go, it always feels like an Apple store,” Hull says. Their success hinges on the culture they have created for themselves and their users, and a large part of that is the physical space. “All you have to do is go into a Radio Shack or an Apple store and decide where you would rather buy electronic equipment,” Hull points out.

With the realization that their users are consumers with choices about where they spend their money, Hull explains, healthcare and higher education are moving toward this sort of approach. “They’re looking more and more to create the best experience possible, because people have a choice as to where they’re going to go. It’s amazing how many times people make choices on an emotional level, because they feel a connection to the place. That walk around the campus and what you see and how you feel—is it friendly or not?—those are really fuzzy terms, but they’re certainly things that people use to make decisions on higher education or healthcare.”

Hull sees a good example of this sort of experience-focused building in the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “They have patients who spend a lot of time in the hospital as they go through cancer treatment and cancer therapy, so they’ve really sought to make the experience as convenient as possible, to the point of—you know, most hospitals have the doctors’ parking right next to the doors. Well, you have some person who’s on their fourth round of chemotherapy who has to park on the seventh floor and hike down there—they’ve switched all that around at MD Anderson so that the patient can park right next to the doors. They really focus on the experience, and when you think of branding, it’s ultimately about the experience.”

But the interior of a building represents an equal, if not greater, opportunity, according to Kantner. More and more, he is seeing in university medical centers the sort of branding messages the university itself utilizes—in the student union, for instance—to recruit and retain students—namely, promotion of the university culture, sports, etc. and the loyalty that engenders. “Because you have to recruit and retain doctors and nurses, and you have to recruit and retain patients,” he explains.

Appeals to school loyalty aside, Kantner sees healthcare systems in general utilizing displays—either physical or on-screen—to promote their brand. “I don’t mean that the displays are all commercial,” he says. “They might be recognition of the staff or recognition of donors or volunteers. Or they might be something about the quality of research that goes on there, how many grants it gets. They’ll also talk about ratings. U.S. News and World Report has rating for hospitals, so those may be posted and promoted. It used to be that you might see these things in an annual report or some publication, but now these messages are showing up in the space, because we all expect space to be more experiential.”

This fact was largely neglected for decades in institutional building, especially as institutions had to grow quickly to accommodate the population growth of the baby boom generation. But in recent years, the role buildings play in the experience of the institution has received greater attention. “Many universities through the 1960s went through an enormous boom,” says Hull. “Everybody’s seen the bad example of universities that look like overgrown high schools. Campuses were expanding rapidly, and they just built very utilitarian buildings, which is understandable. I don’t think the economies of universities have changed much, but it’s nice to see many universities, as they’ve torn down those utilitarian buildings—because they just don’t have capacity anymore—and replaced them, they’ve gone back to what makes a university feel cohesive. They’ve made them not just purely functional but aesthetically wonderful, so that people have a sense of belonging to the campus.”

Hull cited Rice University, in Houston, as one school that has paid attention to its heritage and, therefore, its brand. “It’s been around for more than 100 years, and as they’ve expanded the campus, they’ve always paid attention to the aesthetic sense of what made that campus work,” he says. “They’ve paid attention to the walkability of the campus—moving from class to class. It’s a beautiful campus with huge live oaks; it feels very southern, but the very newest building fits in well with the 100-year-old library.”

Clearly, though, there are specific attributes beyond simply a cohesive architectural feeling that an institution will want to convey through its structures—transparency, for instance, or security, or stability—and those attributes will give shape to the design of the building and the materials selected. Every attribute of the architecture will say something about the tenant, according to Hal Kantner. A company that wants to look like it utilizes its customers’ money well will opt for a building that looks like the right price point for that perception. In the same way, a financial institution that wants to invite trust and seem permanent will look for a building that looks invested in itself. “It may have more stonework, more metal trim rather than painted trim,” says Kantner. A software company seeking to communicate innovation will tend toward a more progressive design. “And a company that doesn’t want to seem like it’s sitting in the lap of luxury may move toward a design that has the appearances of smart frugality,” Kantner says. “That might be communicated through materials that do double duty, or there’s something about the ingenuity of how the windows accommodate both light and climate—smart design that gets its money’s worth out of the materials.”

Kantner worked recently with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), in Saudi Arabia, which was constructed from the outset with a clear brand identity. “The whole university was an idea of the King, and it had to have everything from parking decals to parking garages, to the institutional buildings, to the landscaping. All of that had to be orchestrated, so there was a brand that was created, and the architecture referenced the brand attributes and reflected them in its design. Attributes of the brand they designed included unity, clarity, and transformation. So clarity was communicated through a lot of transparency in the interiors, a lot of translucency in the exterior. Unity, for example, in the way the buildings were clustered rather than diversified. And transformation informs the design. You certainly don’t want to provision traditional, ivy-league architecture for a brand that’s trying to be transformational.”

Another medium through which institutions communicate brand, and one that offers somewhat more freedom than buildings themselves, is public art. Publicly funded buildings are often required to dedicate one percent of construction costs to public art, and this represents a tremendous opportunity from a branding perspective. The art will necessarily be prominent, and in the most successful cases it becomes a sort of mascot for the building, distilling the essential qualities of the structure and the underlying brand in a work that can be appraised quickly and is unfettered by structural demands. “You do see buildings be successful through some iconic gesture, and it doesn’t always have to be literally the logo made 3-D,” says Kantner. “It can be some aspect of the design that is the one percent art that becomes integrated to the building. That public art can become iconic in the community. In many cases, it’s the thing that everyone refers to when they need to give way-finding directions to the facility—’Look for the…'”

The importance of an institution’s physical structures to its brand identity cannot be overestimated. It is often the most prominent and visible medium the institution has at its disposal for communicating its brand—and make no mistake, it will convey some message about the institution, whether the institution intends it to or not. Failing to capitalize on this opportunity may be not only a missed opportunity but also actively counterproductive from a branding perspective. “Brand is the umbrella personality of the institution over a long period of time,” says Kantner. “You have one no matter how you’re investing in it and how well it’s serving you.” Owners must do all they can to ensure that their buildings, and therefore their brands, are serving them well.