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The Power to Define

By Michelle Bowles

Ever wonder why coffee drinkers continue to shell out $4 for Starbucks’ Venti Cinnamon Dolce Frappaccino instead of drinking their own home-brewed java or even the free coffee at their office?

However ironic, the ever-popular coffee-shop chain didn’t necessarily gain fame because of the distinct flavor of its coffee, says Noel Franus, Director of Strategy at New York- and Los Angeles-based commercial music company EliasArts, and former Senior Design Strategist at Sun Microsystems. Coffee drinkers return day after day because of the experience Starbucks creates — its brand — from café-like seating to friendly, capable baristas.

“We’re all really looking for wonderful experiences,” says Bruce Brigham, FASID, Principal at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico-based Retail Clarity. “The things that stay in our minds are those experiences that have meaning to us.”

But branding isn’t just a marketing pitch. It’s about understanding the personality of an organization and how it’s reflected in the public eye. And the physical environment plays a major role in that.

“Design is the most immediate way to tell any visitor the story you want them to hear,” says David Meckley, IIDA, Senior Associate at San Francisco-based Huntsman Architectural Group. “It’s an easy, controllable way for an organization to express itself.”

The Art of Detail

1.) The Key Arena club in Seattle for courtside season ticket holders was designed to reflect a brand that combined prestige and sports, as its clientele includes high-profile figures such as Bill Gates.

Branding and design obviously go hand-in-hand in the retail world — from Apple stores whose visitors feel as if they’re walking through a life-size iPod, to Chanel boutiques that evoke the same classic, chic sophistication as the iconic Chanel suit.

“Retail is all about detail,” Brigham says.

The rationale for keeping design consistent with the image a retail organization wants to portray is simple: It wants to attract the type of customer that relates to its brand and identity.

“If I relate to the environment at Abercrombie & Fitch, I am going to want to go there and spend time there,” Brigham says. “[Retail stores are] a mirror of how we’d like to see ourselves. We buy things to have them linger in our lives.”

Brigham’s redesign of a convenience store in Kelso, Wash., whose business was driven by coffee sales, was aimed at just this. The store had a dedicated following of customers and was a local favorite, but it wanted to take that a step further.

The idea was to create a space that would feel less like “the big-city coffee company” and more like a friendly, local convenience store to which customers would relate. “We made [the store] look like the local guy,” Brigham says. “We found that some customers had nicknames in the store. So the steady ones got their nicknames put up on the wall.”

The design team reorganized the traffic flow of the space to allow for more personal staff/client interactions. New fixtures, displays, finishes, lighting and equipment were implemented, as well as a retro logo.

By the end of the project, the store even had a new name to better reflect its identity. “One day, I was speaking on the phone to the manager, and it was so noisy in the store, I could barely hear,” he says. “The manager said, ‘It’s like Grand Central Station in here.’ So we changed the name to Grand Central Coffee Station.” Before the redesign, the store sold 250 cups of coffee on its best day. Afterward, a successful day might see 700 cups sold.

Following Suit

The mentality that design should closely reflect an organization’s identity crosses over in other design sectors, as well, including healthcare. “Hospitals need to think in retail terms: ‘This place is fabulous. If I need another surgery, this is the only place to go,’” Brigham says. As competition stiffens, healthcare design is becoming less about what a doctor needs and more about what patients want, he adds. “Now, it’s all about the patient experience.”

Even in corporate locations, where customers rarely visit, it’s vital that design reflect corporate branding. “Retail is all about attracting the type of client you want and a certain demographic. That’s talked about, thought-out and tested,” Meckley says. “Office design is not that direct. It’s more about corporate goals and culture.”
In the corporate world, there’s a need to reinforce to employees the image, culture and goals of an organization. That way, organizations will attract employees with similar goals, he says.

"Design is the most immediate way to tell any visitor the story you want them to hear."

Take Disney, Google or Pixar, for example. Every detail of each of these companies is consistent with branding — even behind-the-scene details viewed only by employees — to create an experience, Franus says. “When employees don’t feel a part of the experience, they won’t put forth the best effort,” he says. “The companies [that provide an experience] wind up making advocates out of employees, as opposed to those who just punch the clock.”

2.) When designing spaces for the Desert Commercial Bank in California, Huntsman Architectural Group incorporated materials commonly found in the desert, artwork by local artists and regional plants to evoke a sense of community.

When Meckley was tapped to design the office space of RedEnvelope, an online and catalog retailer based in San Francisco, the design team reinforced the organization’s brand and history at every step. The company, named after the Asian tradition of giving monetary gifts in simple red envelopes, places importance on family and friends. “We wanted to ensure that was expressed in the space,” he says.

A color consultant and feng shui expert were brought in, and a vibrant red color was used in the areas where the public would see the space in order to reinforce the corporate brand. Outside of these areas, however, very little red was used. “We didn’t want the employees to be bombarded with red — ‘You’re at RedEnvelope!’” Meckley says.

The design team took the most prominent corner of the first floor and created a café-like employee break room, instead of tucking it away in a corner where there was unused space. “It said, ‘You’re here; you’re family,’” Meckley says. And the board room was designed to also function for entertainment purposes and bringing people together.

But while the Apples and Chanels of the world are immediately and universally recognized for their strong, consistent branding, the identities of many other organizations are less defined.

When an organization’s identity is less apparent, it is the designer’s role to help executives recognize the corporate brand, not create one for them, Meckley says. The first step is to conduct research. “You can find [out] a tremendous amount about clients from their Web sites,” he says.

It’s also important to sit down with a client and ask three pointed questions about the mission and goals: “Who are you? What do you do? Why do you matter?” Franus says.

"We choose to visit places that connect with us. That's what branding is all about."

Failing to understand who the client is will result in designers creating spaces in their own identity, not the identity of the client. “Is that a service to the client or to yourself?” Meckley says. “You can’t impose a brand on them.”

Money in the Bank

A smartly designed space that reflects an organization’s brand and identity doesn’t necessarily have to come with a heavy price tag. Meckley points to non-profits whose spaces must reflect a frugal image and dot coms during the boom of the late ’90s that wanted to portray an informal, alternative image.

Whatever the initial costs, though, the end results are worth the price. Design should be viewed as an investment, Brigham says. “The process may be expensive. It’s no different when you hire a manager: You spend money, but they will perform well for you,” he says. “It’s the same with design.”

His design of a club in the Key Arena, home of the Seattle SuperSonics NBA team, yielded a significant return on investment. The club, reserved for courtside season ticket holders who paid approximately $25,000 a year to see the games, welcomed business celebrities such as Bill and Melinda Gates, and Starbucks founder Howard Shultz. The brand of the club was about prestige and status as much as it was about sports.

The design team held a focus group and invited 15 to 20 people to have lunch with players and coaches. They were able to determine what the group did and did not like about the former club. “We wanted to connect them to the game,” Brigham says. “We created a screen that was the size of an entire wall, so they could feel like they were on the floor, even in the bar.”

And it worked. Before the club was even completed, one Sonics fan saw the space and bought four season courtside tickets. “The branding of the club seriously contributed to the bottom line,” he says.
Boiled down, the formula is simple: Organizations need to bring people to the door — whether quality employees or dedicated customers. “We choose to visit places that connect with us,” Brigham says. “That’s what branding is all about.”