James Potter from WG+P Architects takes a look at how the process of identifying your practice’s USP as part of marketing can reveal some interesting truths
I’ll start with a plug for some excellent IT consultants, called DP-IT. They have nurtured our practice’s computer systems with care and diligence. DP-IT were founded by two people, one with the surname Seymour and the other Holland, their forenames being David and Patrick, hence ‘DP’. During our practice rebranding as Waind Gohil and Potter (WG+P), I was curious to enquire as to why they’d chosen to use their forename initials in their company brand. “…because SH-IT didn’t work for us…” was the immediate response. I hesitated to suggest HS-IT, as it was obvious that, for David and Patrick, the debate over how to arrive at their company name was a brief affair. Perhaps this says more about the differences between the services offered by architects versus those of IT consultants than it does the people involved, however it was interesting to observe that, despite their seeming irreverence to branding, their desire remains to have a brand and project something on the world outside.
So why this slightly lavatorial tale of corporate identity. It hints at two distinct approaches to branding (or re-branding) for companies and architects alike; do it yourself because you either a) don’t really care, or b) are a megalomaniacal skinflint (that could cover great swathes of the industry), or alternatively you pay a branding specialist to research what you are, what you strive to become and allow them free reign to throw back at you a brand that says of you everything the outside world needs to hear. A logo accompanies the process, and imbues all your aspirations. Of the two approaches we chose the latter. Some may be familiar with the process: the branding consultant looks beyond the portfolio of photographs and rigorously interviews clients past and present, collaborators and staff, instigates high-level workshops to encourage ‘blue sky thinking’ and wraps it up with some penetrating analysis and conclusions. Let us, for a moment, ignore whether branding is pseudo-science. One thing hugely edifying is having someone sit you and your business partners in a room and ask; how are you different from everybody else? It’s an idiosyncratic question; we are different just by being the firm we are, but then we know the actual question is ‘tell us what you think is unique about you so we can project this, in short form, onto the outside world to artificially accelerate your growth’. Or, because life’s too short, what’s your USP? (Unique Selling Point, just in case you were unsure). For a creative business with more than one partner in charge this is a tricky question, as each partner will have a slightly different view on what the answer is. Furthermore these individual views are often susceptible to change. So once the branding consultant has dared to ask the Ultimate Question, there is a reassuring silence across the room while we each weigh up whether we’re about to derail our shared aspirations by blurting out what we think the firm should become or worse still, discover one of us is secretly a fanatical post-modernist (NB, no one at WG+P is). So what makes it such a hard question to answer, particularly for a relatively new practice such as ours?
To be an architect is to continually take forwards experience gained but with an ever-stronger desire to learn and broaden horizons; it is one of the few professions that offers such scope, with no two combinations of site and client being the same. It follows that a natural aspiration of a design led firm is to work on anything and everything, so to speak. This premise doesn’t translate happily into something marketable, which tends towards the opposite end of the spectrum: highly specific niche expertise being far easier to shout about. This expansive outlook to architecture goes some way to explain why the most decorated architects and practices have a huge variety of cross-sector experience; they have mastered the application of their design to any given brief. Ironically, by the time you are good enough to find work in all and any sectors your USP becomes that very ability, evidenced by your completed portfolio of work. ‘We can do anything’ being somewhat more potent in the market than ‘We could do anything’.
Of course, there is more to standing out than simply pushing a specialism but it weighs heavily on the minds of many. In a volatile industry like architecture to market oneself on a single sector specialism leaves you vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of that sector, within the wider economy. Eggs and baskets etc… Leaving sectors and selling points behind, for many studios marketing a distinct message as to the services offered is difficult as the output for each and every firm is a complex balance of resource and fees. ‘Starchitects’ command higher fees, can allocate greater resource and produce highly crafted buildings, which proliferate further clients wishing to build (and spend) the same. Many lesser known and smaller firms would be economic by comparison but fishing for design-led opportunities by upselling value for money is tempting a mismatch within the creative field, attracting clients who weren’t fully in tune with the intentions of the firm they may be engaging. In any successful identity there is a clear logic to selling design and ideas as something aspirational, to foster an ever increasing (one would hope) loop of interesting and better work.
If something we design looks a little different, it’s often because of how we’ve gone about it within the office, and not simply because an individual has had a singular good idea. This process is behind closed doors, which is why it’s not so easy to distil for marketing purposes, nor does marketing that process offer the outside world any greater appreciation for what they are procuring as it doesn’t directly form the output of the office – i.e. a building. As with any successful ‘elevator statement,’ they capture and convey something of the spirit of the company that sets them apart from the crowd. ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ tells you virtually nothing about what a certain German car maker actually does, how it delivers on its flair for build quality and, er, creative engine efficiency expectation management (now there’s a USP). Yet it tells you almost all you need to know, relative to other car manufacturers. I do wonder if Messrs Seymour and Holland could’ve braved it out as SH-IT; they both happen to share a bone-dry humour which could carry it off and there would be a fairly abrupt self-selection process of potential clients This is part of the battle – finding the best clients is often about projecting an honest and frank portrayal of your business onto others.
For the rest of us the soul searching continues, and while we may not have found the panacea of identity and uniqueness, we do intend to push forwards with some values we feel defines our work and methods, these being Process, Wellness, and Opportunity. After all that’s been said, the trickiest part won’t actually be defining the message, it will be assessing whether the USP (such as it is) has demonstrably advanced the firm, relative to where it would otherwise have been without it.
James Potter is director at WG+P Architects