Brand building

‘Live and breathe the brand,’ is the familiar cry of marketing directors, design consultancies and brand custodians far and wide. Advising their clients on how to stay on-message, branding rulebooks will often cover every facet of the face that a company presents to its customers, but some businesses are also ‘branding’ the very spaces that their staff work in day in, day out.

Taking a business’ brand values into a three-dimensional environment is arguably fraught with design dangers: imagine the ad agency desperately exaggerating positive attributes, such as ‘creativity’ or ‘irreverence’, with ‘crazy’ cushions on the floor, a ten-pin bowling lane and inflatable toys in the break-out room. Hip play den and effective work space are maybe not the same thing, so should a company’s branding be brought into its office space at all?
According to Household director Michelle Du-Prât, branding the workplace is the ‘future of internal communications’, integral to the way a business communicates its values to staff.

‘Companies need to live the kind of business they want to be and [designers] can give them the tools and spaces to achieve this. It’s not just about saying here’s your new office design in corporate colours, but about considering staff behaviour in the space,’ she says.
Household has been working with Virgin Media, the entertainment and communications company formed after the acquisition of Virgin Mobile by NTL Telewest last year, on a refurbishment of around 900 buildings across the country. Starting with locations ‘crying out for a morale boost’, the Virgin Media call centre in Wythenshawe is one of the first sites to receive the facelift, says Virgin Media creative director Adrian Spooner.

‘This isn’t classic corporate branding. We could have put big logos everywhere, painted all the walls bright red and reminded everyone where they’re working around every corner,’ he says. ‘But it’s not just a veneer; there’s a reason why all the design components are there. It’s about making people feel at home and about allowing them to be themselves; each site can decide which of the different design components they want to use in the space.’

Under the scheme, Virgin’s playful attributes are becoming part of the work environment, with office design motifs such as a flock wallpaper, wall silhouettes and chalkboards sitting alongside ‘dating car park spaces’, extending what Spooner calls ‘classic Virgin humour’ into areas outside the building’s four walls.

For Virgin it makes sense to lean more overtly on a humorous and light-hearted approach to the office in order to draw out similar behaviour from staff (living and breathing the brand again). But designers all seem to agree that it’s about changing behaviour, not colour schemes. As Duncan Mackay, director of brand design at Gensler, says: ‘There’s a misconception about what’s involved. It’s not just sticking a huge logo behind the reception desk. Every successful brand understands its brand values and needs to get its customers to understand these values, which means workers should too. The workplace is an opportunity for a physical representation of this, but it’s a working environment and people still have to work there.’

Gensler’s own research finds that just 4% of managers believe that their company brand is the main reason behind the design of their office. But does this really matter? Naturally, workplace design consultancies holler a resounding ‘yes’, but even an independent report from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment recommends that workplaces have an ‘expression’ which ‘influences the way inhabitants think about the organisation’; in other words, making the most of the brand.

Environment branding needn’t be based on humour – it must match the company’s attributes. Elmwood has worked with the Met Office to show staff how the organisation’s weather forecasts and research have a chain of influence in everyday life and how the different departments are interdependent. Mini-stories showing these sequences of influence are displayed along the main ‘street’ in the Met Office’s purpose-built headquarters in Exeter.

Gensler worked with the London Stock Exchange as part of a wider rebranding exercise aiming to imbue the business with a 21st century style. ‘Their office was an opportunity to express how they’re going forward and there are more and more subtle ways of saying something about your business. So instead of printing ‘global company’ everywhere, graphic squares on the doors reference the office’s Paternoster Square location, forming a map of the world when the doors are closed. Map references then designate the room locations as a system of wayfinding,’ explains Mackay.

Similarly, BDG Workfutures’ design for Network Rail’s head office is intended to create a culture of communication, not only between internal departments, but also between Network Rail and the many external companies it works with, says BDG joint managing director Phil Hutchinson. ‘You can apply as much colour, graphics and so on as you like, but if you’re not creating the right spaces you’re not going to foster communication between staff, which was the aim,’ he says. ‘It’s not often that brand is mentioned as a major part of a brief, but it’s always relevant.’

This article was written for Design Week, 21 January 2008.

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