Understanding Brand in the AEC Industry

It has been a few years since I interviewed some of the architecture, engineering, construction (AEC) and environmental industry’s branding thought leaders on The Importance of Brand in the AEC Industry.

They get it. Unfortunately, far too many firms do not.

Your brand is probably your biggest asset. (It’s not the 6-year old PCs you are using to run Revit! Nor is it your staff – which is transient and may be gone tomorrow.)

Your brand is your key differentiator from your competitors. It is your calling card in the marketplace, the reason a client should select your firm instead of another one.

Your brand is what will attract new employees to your firm – and keep them engaged. It is indicative of your “why” and your company culture.

Your brand, however, is not a logo, color scheme, font, or slogan. These are your corporate identity or brand identity – a physical manifestation of your brand, but not the brand itself.

There are literally hundreds of definitions of “brand” out there, and a Google search can create more confusion than clarity. One of the best definitions of “brand” that I’ve come across is from business guru Seth Godin, who defines brand as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”

So a brand is part perception, part reality. It is an expectation (known as brand promise) coupled with any past experience interacting with your firm. Many people simply refer to brand as “what someone says about you behind your back,” so these “experiences” could both be personal or reputation-based.

Every firm has a brand, so if you think your firm doesn’t have one, think again. Maybe you are the specialist in a certain type of building or project approach. Maybe you are the premium boutique or the low-cost provider. Or perhaps you are the local “do everything” generalist in your hometown. Furthermore, company brands are often tied to a firm’s most visible staff, be they executives or subject matter experts, who have all developed their own personal brands.

Although “brand” is a noun, “branding” is a verb, and it’s the process of attempting to control the perception that clients and potential clients have of your firm. As author Jay Baer states, branding is “the art of aligning what you want people to think about your company with what people actually do think of your company.”

I’ve heard it said that brand creation is 50% by marketing and 50% by customer service. So your marketing department may create a perception of your firm – building expectations (creating brand promise) – and then your client-facing staff (project executive, project manager, site superintendent, etc.) either reinforce this perception or destroy it!

What happens at your firm?

Marketers get it and regularly identify branding as one of the most critical marketing approaches for AEC firms to succeed. Conversely, business developers – themselves the front-line staff in the early stages of a relationship – routinely try to integrate brand into their conversations with prospects. They need a strong brand to help open doors and articulate value messages.

But do the rest of your staff fully understand your brand? What about the seller-doers and project managers? Or the receptionist and accounting department, who may be interacting with your clients? What about the human resources function? Brand should be a major tool in their recruiting efforts.

Does your firm really live the brand? If you create an expectation – whether with prospective clients or potential employees – you better be able to back it up. Don’t be a poseur! People see right through that. It never ends well, whether it is a new client that has buyer’s remorse or a new employee that immediately questions their decision to join your firm.

The competitive environment is not getting any easier. You need to leverage your brand to build new business. Of course, if the perception of your firm (aka, your brand) is “overpriced,” or “shoddy craftsmanship,” or “difficult to work with,” then you need to move forward with an aggressive branding program pronto! But if your corporate culture really is “overpriced” or “difficult to work with,” all the branding in the world will not be able to fix the problem. This is why brand and culture are so intertwined.

Furthermore, firms across the country in all design and construction disciplines are reporting trouble finding qualified staff. It is an employee’s market, meaning that they can be choosy when it comes to deciding where to work. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics continues to report declining employee loyalty. The average employee (across all industries and all generations) has been with their firm for fewer than five years, and the average for millennial tenure is far worse: fewer than three years.

How are you going to recruit – much less keep your staff moving forward?

Brand holds the key, but only if the brand is real.

If your AEC firm is not focused on brand, consider this a call to action. The future success of your firm – inside and out – depends upon having a strong brand of relevance to clients, prospects, and employees.

Questions about branding AEC firms? Contact Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM at sbutcher@aecumen.com or 717.891.1393.

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