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When Annmarie and I launched our residential architecture studio in 1999, we made a very important decision about the name of our firm. We wanted to be sure that our name was unique and would clearly separate our studio from the many other residential architects in our region.
We wanted a name that would be easy to remember, endure and outlive the firm’s founders when the next generation might take the lead.
We wanted a name that would not burden us as principals, forcing us to be the only people that prospects would want to meet when developing new business and interacting with clients. If our names were on the door, would we be the only people qualified to represent the firm?
We wanted a name on which we could build a brand.
We named our firm, Fivecat Studio and succeeded in building a successful brand of high-end residential architecture in the lower Hudson Valley of New York State.
This week on the Entrepreneur Architect Podcast, I am speaking with a person who understands the how important proper branding is to the success of every architect. She’s responsible for rebranding multiple New England-based architecture firms. Emily Hall is a Senior Associate with Union Studio Architecture & Community Design based in Providence, Rhode Island and we had a fantastic conversation about how to successfully rebrand an architecture firm.
Referenced in this Episode
Union Studio Architecture & Community Design
Donald Powers Architects
Rhode Island School of Design
Durkee Brown Viveiros Werenfels Architects
Society for Marketing Professional Services
University of Rhode Island
Congress of New Urbanism
Donald Powers, AIA, LEED AP, CNU
Douglas Kallfelz, AIA, LEED AP, CNU
Charrette Venture Group
StatCounter Analytics Software
Robert Troutman, Highland Standard (graphic design)
Cote Renard Architecture
Using a design brief
Definition of “Brand”
Importance of brand continuity
Operations manuals and brand guidelines (the “brand book”)
Chris McRobbie Design + Illustration (web design)
How to Successfully Rebrand An Architecture Studio with Emily Hall
Mark R LePage: This is the Entrepreneur Architect podcast episode 65.
Mark: Welcome back to Entrepreneur Architect podcast. My name is Mark R. LePage and this is the podcast dedicated to a successful life as a small firm architect. Whether you have plans to someday start your own firm, you’re in the process to start up or you might be an experienced small firm architect just trying to make a difference, this podcast is for you. My goal is to inspire you to build a better business, so that you may pursue your purpose with passion and live the life of your dreams.
Mark: When Annmarie and I launched our residential architecture studio in 1999 we made a very important decision about the name of our firm. We wanted to be sure that our name was unique and would clearly separate our studio from the many other residential architects in the region. We wanted a name that would be easy to remember, would endure and will outlive the firm’s founder when the next generation might take the lead. We wanted a name that would not burden us as principals, forcing us to be the only people prospects would want to meet when developing new business or interacting with our clients. If our names where on the door would we be the only people qualified to represent the firm? We wanted a name on which we could build a brand. We named our firm Fivecat Studio and we succeeded in building a successful brand of high end residential architecture in the lower Hudson Valley of New York State. This week on the Entrepreneur Architect podcast, I’m speaking with a person who understands how important proper branding is to the success of every architect. She is responsible for branding and rebranding multiple New England based architecture firms.
Emily Hall is a senior associate with Union Studio Architecture based Providence, Rhode Island and we had a fantastic conversation about how to successfully rebrand an architecture firm.
Support for everything we do here on entrepreneur architect is provided by our platform sponsor FreshBooks. The easiest ways to send invoices manages expenses and track your time for free 30 day trial visit freshbooks.com/architect.
Mark: Emily Hall welcome to the Entrepreneur Architect podcast.
Emily Hall: Thank you thanks for having me.
Mark: Thank you for taking the time to join me, I appreciate it.
Emily: (Uh huh)
Mark: You are a Senior Associate at a firm formerly known as Donald Powers Architects based in Providence, Rhode Island – my old stomping ground. I went Roger Williams University in Bristol, which is not too far from there. I’m heading back up there tomorrow to give us small talk to the A.I.A.S. up there… So I’m excited to go back to, to where it all began. But in 2011, with your guidance, Donald Powers Architect successfully rebranded as Union Studio Architecture and Community Design and that’s certainly, I’m sure we’ll talk about it but it’s no small feat to take an established firm with a principal’s name on it and rebrand it successfully so it works and I’d love to discuss that. But before we get into that, I want to know a little bit more about you. I’d like to understand where you came from and where did you start, so if you could give us your origin story. What was your path to where you are today?
Emily: Sure! Well, like a lot of people who are in architecture marketing, I’ve never went out with this in mind as end career goal. I think a lot of people find themselves in the field of architectural marketing through a lot of different passing channels. Personally, I have an undergrad degree, an undergrad experience in art history in studio art that took me into New York City. After that, for five years working in the art gallery world and I went on talking a lot about art for five years. And I then I wanted to do some more design work, so I went back to school at Rhode Island School of Design where I got a master’s degree in industrial design. And, then I got pulled into the architectural world because I wanted to do a simple job so I can have my own time – my time to do my own studio work in industrial designs so got a job for small architecture firm as a receptionist. And then… (background noise) I’m sorry.
Mark: That’s ok. (Laughing)
Emily: That’s my rabbit actually causing some damage over there.
Mark: You might hear my dogs barking in the background.
Emily: (laughing) I apologize.
Mark: We roll really casually around here, so no worries.
Emily: Yeah. So then I was a receptionist in a small architecture firm and gradually just took on more and more responsibility and over the course of nine years at that firm which was Durkee Brown Viveiros Werenfels Architects also in Providence. I got a window into absolutely every job in the firm that was being not an actual architect. So, office management, doing the billing, accounts payable/receivables, then I got into the marketing from business side and then was able to educate myself in marketing through SMPS, The Society Marketing Professional Services – a great organization. Really taught me a lot about the new ones of marketing for architecture firms. Worked with them through rebrand, or at least a change of logo on website and then was asked to join Union Studio of Donald Powers Architects at the time. I’ve been there for 4 years and recently, last May I got my MBA from the University of Rhode Island which I was doing at night for the past 3 years.
Emily: Thank you.
Mark: That’s big deal.
Emily: Yeah. Well, you know, there’s a lot of math involved and I didn’t had much about my recent professional task but I’m glad I did it. I really… I needed to round out my knowledge about marketing and business. It was kind of that final piece in the puzzle because I’ve been doing a lot of it over the years. I’ve always been somewhere between business and design and an operator within that margin, very left brain/right brain. So that’s how I wind up where am I on today.
Mark: Yeah, it sounds like you are the every architect’s dream. (Laughing)
Emily: (Laughing) Oh I don’t know about that. I might be someone’s nightmare.
Mark: (Laughing) No. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Some would consider that but I think, from my point of view every architects needs to run their firm like a business and many of them either don’t know how to or don’t want to and to have somebody an onboard like you would be so great to be able to handle the business and the things and the let architects be architects.
Emily: Well, I’ve been fortunate to work with two firms that had a very strong business sense and I know it would be much more of a challenge to work with principals who didn’t have that knowledge. So I’ve been very lucky that my opinion is being respected and considered and I’m lucky that there hasn’t been much ego involved in the principal side on any firm that I worked with. So far, they’ve been very willing to change when they needed to change.
Mark: Yeah, I mean, Donald Powers Architects was a pretty established brand itself before they rebranded so, to have a firm that understood how to get to that point was unique in itself.
Emily: Absolutely! Donald did a great job from the very beginning at building a national client-base through thought leadership and membership in the Congress for New Urbanism which is an excellent organization which very much aligned with our mission and he was able to join that and earn a national client that way. Sometimes it’s easier I think especially a small firm and a small state like Rhode Island to have that national credibility. To be an expert in a way, from a way essentially. He did a great job at building that. I commended him from knowing, and his partner Douglas Kallfelz, knowing that at that time, about the point that they reach ten years that is was time to make a change and that looking into the future of the business – 10, 20 years later didn’t need to be Donald Powers Architects anymore and that wasn’t in clear alignment with where the firm was going.
Mark: So let’s talk about that. Talk a little about, first of all what does your firm do so everybody can the understands the type of firm, the size of the firm, that kind of thing and then talk about, you know, what was the trigger to change?
Emily: Sure! So, we are about 20 people which believe it or not is in a mid-sized firm in the state of Rhode Island. Our largest firm is about 30 people on a state. We do architecture and community design, so we’re different as we look at architecture in the context of planning and master planning and, really the, 3D experiences in spaces so it’s a combination of, that is a connective tissue that brings site together with the building and everything is in context or response to each other so it’s a great mix of a pedestrian experiences is very friendly and walkable. So, we do a lot of housing, we do prototype housing and private residences, multi-family and affordable housing. We also do academic work, adaptive reuse, mostly full spectrum architecture.
Mark: And it’s national. Everywhere. Pretty much you serve everywhere.
Emily: Yep! We’re a boutique firm that works nationally. We’ve been lucky enough to have few projects in the Seattle area, we have one in California now, we had one in Texas, Virginia, New York State, Oklahoma… We had a project in Oklahoma last year and oh, Canada! We had our first project in Canada last year. So, yeah we do work I guess you could say, internationally.
Mark: Yeah and are you growing?
Emily: Yes, we are. We just hired somebody and they started last week and we’re looking to grow and that’s part I think most rebrands that is the impetus, you know is an idea for around growth.
Mark: So, what was the trigger? What was the reason for the rebrand?
Emily: Well, 10 years old, looking into the future, I think Donald and his partner, Douglas knew that just having that one name on the sign didn’t really reflect what we were about is a firm that was very much about collaboration, layering of efforts, community, the intersection of community and design. So, Union Studio…and we’re also located in Union Street, so that was an easy suggestion of a name but it also means so much more than that because it’s really the intersection of so many things. And that’s exactly how we view, with our broad holistic prospective on architecture and the built environment. That’s how we view it. So, I think it was more of hitting that 10-year point and saying “where are we gonna be?” and “how are we going to grow in 10 and 20 years?” -and that really does reflect more about who we are as a culture and where the next generation of leadership’s gonna come in. We didn’t want to just add more names on.
Mark: Yeah. I think it’s important when architects establish their firm from the beginning or if they’re in that position now where they’ve started their firm and named it after themselves. To really consider that name, I think the name is so important. I don’t think its ok to just open the firm and just name it after yourself because in the future it becomes an issue. Todd Redding, who is the COO of The Charette Venture Group, who introduced you and me, he and I have had a conversation about many of the architects that he’s speaking with.. He’s talking to many architects for what he is doing with the Charette Venture Group and so many architects are overwhelmed with the amount of work they’re doing. Their own responsibility, the principals in their firm and so many of them are out, getting the work. And the reason they’re out getting the work and not behind the drafting board designing is because their name is on the door and nobody wants to talk to anybody except for the guy with the name on the door and and so… the solution to that is to not put your name to the door. (Laughing)
Emily: Yeah, that’s a good point. I hadn’t really thought about it that way, in terms of business development, but it absolutely opens up your options and makes it easier for everybody in the firm to market on behalf of the firm.
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Mark: So what was the process that Donald Power Architects had to go through to get to where you are now?
Emily: Well, they had decided on the name by, you know about 90%, they had decided Union Studio as the name at the point that they had brought me in to help with the rebrand. So, I came in with that advantage that the name was chosen but we were really starting from scratch and we set our calendar and our time frame and knew that we wanted to launch within a year, which is actually a pretty aggressive schedule. Believe it or not, it sounds like a lot of time but there’s a lot to be done. We started with a metric curve view and you know just based on the analytics about the existing site, they didn’t have any analytics installed at that point. So we made sure to install the right tracking with the existing site to see where people are spending time and weren’t so at least we got a, you know, base line of how much time of people spending on the site, what they were visiting or pages they were visiting.
Mark: What you are using to do that?
Emily: I use Stat Counter. It’s free and I like a lot. There’s always Google Analytics but I personally like Stat Counter better because its gives you a more detailed information about each page and each visitor. So, that was helpful to start with the base line and then we engaged a graphic designer, Bob Trautman, who’s now with the communications agency called Nail. Excellent work. He brought us a series of questions as a firm and interviewed all of our employees, which was pretty easy to do, when you’re… at a time we were fewer than we are now, I think we were about ten. He asked a lot of questions about what we perceive, our individuals employees perceived our valued proposition, what our brand represented, where we wanted… how we perceive growth, where we saw the firm being in ten years, what we felt about the firm culture and I read all those responses and walk through them with the principles. It was interesting because we are a mission-based firm, a lot of those answers were quite similar. So, in a way, it was a fortuitous place to start that our employees felt had pretty much of a common opinion about our existing brand of where we want it to be and that was helpful. So, we came down to a list about ten adjectives that described us really honestly as a firm all of that helped direct our graphic designer. He was able to understand the directive to freshen the classical and that was really important to us. We’re a traditionally based firm, traditional architecture and new urbanism and we didn’t want to appear stodgy. We’re a young firm, we got fresh ideas, very friendly and an accessible firm culture. So freshening the classical was a good directive. We want to remain rooted in classical architecture but also really get our personality out there and express that clearly. So, after several go-rounds as it was a tall order, our graphic designer really came up with some great ideas. What helped him is we actually gave him a book by Vitruvius and said, just glance through, because I’m not sure how many contemporary graphics designers are really familiar with the depth of traditional architecture and classical architecture. So he was able to look at that and pull some interesting patterns from that book and incorporate that into a logo that was unexpected. He wasn’t pulling the traditional symbols of classical architecture, he was really taking something that was pretty nuanced and we recognize that and really appreciate that. We felt that. And he created a system, a logo system out of that with lines, so the logo didn’t have to stand alone to always represent us. There was a system with a lot of lines on the letterhead on the website that could be used separate from the logo. It was a very good, a good effort and then meanwhile we were also doing the website at the same time. And we worked with a web designer out in London and he’s excellent at that so. Yeah.
Mark: Yeah, the website is beautiful. We spoke, I was talking a little bit before we start the recording, I think the website alone is probably one of the most successful branded website for an architect that I’ve seen. I would highly recommend everybody to go look at it. It is unionstudioarch.com. The logo is beautiful, the presentation is beautiful and what I love about the website is that it’s complete. That it has everything that you expect it or need it to have, from a client’s points of view. Not necessarily with all the flashy, fancy pictures but there too, they are beautiful photographs, but it’s designed in a way to be useful for the client. It’s there to tell your story. It has a fantastic video attached to it tells your story from a video.
Emily: An intern did that by the way!
Mark: Excellent! It is an excellent video and I think that alone sells your studio, because it tells not only the story of the studio but it talks people and a lot of their personal stories, how and why Donald started the firm and why and where is it today. It’s very, very well done. So, the overall brand is there. You go to unionstudioarch.com and the brand screams at you in a very successful way. I don’t know if screaming is the right term to use but is very, very well done. I see the logo, what you were talking about, the logo sort of a gold, yellow-gold square with a series of curved lines through to it. Those curved lines repeat themselves through patterns on the website. I would assume that’s probably also on letterhead and presentations and all of that. So, what you did from what you described is that you started by analyzing the current brand because clearly, there was a strong brand with Donald Powers Architects and so you had to analyze what that brand was in order to go to the next level of sort of rebranding it.
Emily: Uh huh.
Mark: And taking what you are and taking it to where you want to be.
Emily: Yes, and I think it’s really important not to make assumptions at that stage of the process and to really ask third party opinions about the brand. I had the advantage of coming in from a competing architecture firm so, I really had my own idea of what that brand looked like from the outside. That was very valuable in coming in and saying, “well, this is what people think of this brand” and I knew that because didn’t, you know, just being in an industry and talking to people and knowing what Donald Powers Architects represented. I had a very strong idea of what opinion or word from the street was about the firm and the brand. So, I think it’s important to get that third party prospective. To really deep dive with all of your employees and make sure that it stays somewhat out of the hands of the principals, in terms of just the base objective analytics because you really needed that information to work with… Because you can make a lot of assumptions of what people think of you and your brand that aren’t accurate because of what you wanted to project and thought you’re projecting for years and maybe they weren’t. It wasn’t entirely accurate. There is often that disjoint of what the people think their brand is versus what it really is or how it’s really received.
Mark: Or what it should be. I think that so many architects have fallen to the trap of marketing to the other architects, that they want to create a beautiful presentation on their website, and the brand, and the logo that is going to be appealing to them and their friends and to their peers and they forget that the whole point of the website and the marketing is to appeal your target market.
Mark: Which may be completely different than what your friends, the architects think. Two episodes ago, we had Nicholas Renard on from the Cody Renard Architecture and D.I.G Architecture. He has a marketing firm working for him. That’s one thing he said that when they first started they do all his social media work. When they first started, he hated what they were doing because it wouldn’t be what he would do and then realized very quickly that it was not supposed to be appealing to him but to the people who were hiring him and he was very, very happy with what he has done.
Emily: That’s why I think it is very important to write a very clear brief about what you expect the brand to do, what you wanted to do so that you can lay out the right questions to ask yourself all the way through the process and say, “Is it achieving X, Y and Z?” You know at the beginning of this process we needed to achieve X, Y and Z and then all the way through you can ask you can weigh the answers, you know with the questions and say ,“ok isn’t doing it?” It takes a little bit of the personal attachment to the brand out of it when you’re able to really quantify, you know, an analysis – “it is it doing it? Well, it is actually.”
Mark: Describe what a brief is?
Emily: When you outline what your goals are for the project, a little bit of background, maybe what your metrics for success would be, where you wanna be and how you would know that you’ve achieved that… That’s what we did with our process. What would success look like with this brand? I think we managed to achieve more than what we thought and certainly with the website, in terms of traffic, really quadrupled a lot of numbers when we made some key changes. They were subtle changes but in terms of content. I think one of the things that I took away was how much people want to know about the personalities in the firm. People really want to be able to connect with not only the principals but the other staff members and I think that’s the very clear way to show your firm culture and personality.
Mark: Yeah, and the values of the firm.
Emily: Absolutely! A lot of firms just listed principals and say, “and staff” and you had no idea how big the firm is. No idea who the people are that are really working hard to make the projects happen and if you’re a firm that values your employees and their talents as one you’re their greatest assets I would think you would show that and showcase that proudly.
Mark: And that’s part of your brand. I mean, we talked about the website and the logo and the story. But could you, sort of, let’s go back to the beginning. What would be your definition of brand and what are all the pieces that make up a brand?
Emily: Well, brand is a promise. And I think that is the wildly accepted definition of a brand. It is a promise you’re making to an audience. It’s not just the logo, it’s not just the look or the color. It’s the overall experience when you’re saying that, if you engage with our company, you’re going to have this experience. And for us, we wanted it to be an optimistic brand but also rooted in the traditional like I’ve said. So, it’s all the things that you see upfront. So that would be the logo, and the letter head and the website and social media presence but it is also the tone of voice with which you would talk about the firm. As where social media becomes so important too, is having somebody clearly understand that tone of voice in a way that the firm engages with visitors or the public in general. That’s critical! That should be carried through in all the writing, about proposal writing and that’s part of the brand as well. When you’re using boilerplate, that’s 5 years old that maybe wasn’t reconfigured to match your brand, that’s a problem. Make sure is everything is aligned.
Mark: Yeah. When everything is visually saying one thing and the words coming out of your mouth or your written presentation is completely a different story, then you have misalignment of brand.
Mark: Even the words you say, the greetings when you answer the telephone and the processes you go through to create the architecture is even part of the brand.
Emily: Absolutely! And the experience when somebody walks in the front office. You know, is there a bunch of junk on the table that you don’t even know because you walk by it. Every day you walk by the same pile of junk so, you don’t think anything of it. So, part of my job is often walking around and saying, “wait we have meeting. We got to clean up the conference room.” You know it becomes a brand (garbled audio 28:10-28:17) …for sure and then how people answer phone. Even down to, the thing we’ve always found, is that on, title blocks and things like that. If you don’t have a clear system in place, a brand book, people can really take licenses when they’re doing a report or working on a title block or something. There’s a monitoring that has to happen, like “Whoa! Why are we using this font right now? We don’t use this font for the content of memos we use. This is the hierarchy of fonts we use.” It’s not to be overly aggressive about defending the brand it’s more that we had to project that we are on the same page because certainly with Union Studio, we’re a tight studio and we are all working towards the same goal and mission. So to have things coming out of the firm that are misaligned certainly doesn’t support our brand.
Mark: So, do you have an operations manual and guidelines and all of that to keep things consistent?
Emily: We do and every once in a while we have to revisit that and we certainly have a welcome package for new hires that talks a lot about the firm history, and what we do, and how to communicate what we do if you’re asked. You know, just a little cheat sheet. And part of that is also the brand identity package this is how you use, what fonts to use, what colors, where to find things in the network. And we are always perfecting that, because I know that not everybody is concerned about it as a brand manager would be.
Emily: They’ve got other work to do. So…
Mark: Well, I think that you’ve very successfully rebranded Donald Powers Architects to Union Studio. Like I said before, I certainly encourage everybody to go to the website and take a look at it because I think it’s very good model to look at when you’re branding or rebranding your own firm. Certainly, don’t copy it, but look at the lessons that being taught there.
Emily: Thanks! Mark, I also just want to interject because I need to give a shout out to our web designer Chris McRobbie out of London. He’s a freelancer. He does the amazing work and I realized I haven’t mentioned him beforehand. We talking too much about the site, so I need to say that. I’m sorry to interrupt.
Mark: Yeah. I’ll have a references to all the people and the resources that you described as well on the show notes. So, I’ll have to find him on the web and put a link to him
Mark: Because he did a really nice job. Is there anything else that you think that small firm architects can learn from what you did with Union Studio?
Emily: I think, and you brought it up earlier as well, really put yourself in the shoes of your potential clients and your existing clients when looking at redesigning anything. That’s the way you would do in any design process where you think about what the user’s experience is going to be. And, you can really craft you content towards whatever your target demographic is both in the way that you speak and the words that you use, the images, even the navigation on your site can be very well-organized to appeal to and attract a certain clientele. In our situation, we divided up our portfolio search tools into three categories. One of which was just basic marketing sectors, the other was searching by transect. In New Urbanism the build environment is divided into transects, so we build from kind of rural, non-occupied to dense city experience. And then we also sort by geography, so you could look in the map and say they had done any projects near us. So, were able to kind of bolster the thought leadership experience with the transect search mechanism but also the geography which is, somebody might be thinking, ‘I’m in Seattle why would I call a Providence firm?”. But then they could see that we’ve done other work out there.
Mark: Yeah, that’s probably very important when you want to be doing work elsewhere outside your regions – to show that you’ve been out there.
Emily: Yeah and we added a PDF, a downloadable PDF about how we work at a distance, which is linked to that page. So, your obvious questions would be, “How would they do it? How would they do see my project from across the country?” and then they can download that so that they can bring that if their decision maker need to talk to their board or if they are somebody that was just kind looking at us and needed to bring that to the principal their firm. It’s good to just have that cheat sheet available.
Mark: Yeah and I had to take a look at that myself. If listeners wanted to reach out to you, what’s the best way to them to either say, “Thank you for being here today to share what you know” or had any questions. What’s the best way to contact you?
Emily: Well my email, emily(at)unionstudioarch.com. Twitter, @unionstudioarch, I’m always looking for new followers and we have a LinkedIn page as well. Go to our website you can find links to all of those things. My email is up on the website. In our people section, you’ll see me and happy to answer any questions that the people have, and you know, I look forward to talking to other people or dealing with the same challenges what we did. You know, it is fun and lot of people doing great work. We just need to figure out how to communicate it better.
Mark: Yeah, I agree. Emily, thank you very much for being with me today on the Entrepreneur Architect podcast.
Emily: Thanks, Mark.
Mark: If you like this episode, please go to iTunes right now and leave me a review. As this is how you may help me spread the word about Entrepreneur Architect and our mission to become an influential force in this profession, and its working! Go to entrearchitect.com/itunes or in iTunes search for Entrepreneur Architect and leave a review. And just a quick heads up before we wrap up here, open enrollment for Entrepreneur Architect Academy will close in a few days, in March 1, 2015. If you wanna join, now is the time! For more information, go to entrearchitect.com/academy and that’s a wrap on today’s show! Show notes and a direct link to download this episode maybe found in entrearchitect.com/episode65. Before we go, quote of the week: “Authentic brands don’t emerge from marketing cubicles or advertising agencies. They emanate from everything the company does.” – Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks. My name is Mark R. LePage. I am an entrepreneur architect. I’ll see you next week. Thank you very much for listening.