After speaking at the SMPS Pacific Regional Conference in Portland, Irina approaches me saying, “I read your article on AEC rebranding in the PSMJ Newsletter.” Upon handing me her business card, she confesses, “I know, we need your help.” Irina’s card reads Marketing Manager at Murray, Smith & Associates, Inc. (aka MSA) an 8-office, 120-person civil engineering firm located in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
While Irina’s Marketing Department understands the value and need for branding, many of the firm owners are reluctant to invest in a rebrand when “business is good, why should we change?” Plus, an attempt at DIY rebranding, and hiring a consultant unfamiliar with A/E/C marketing, had both failed.
To help the owners make an informed decision on whether or not to rebrand, I propose they commit only to a Discovery Phase. This phase includes a review of their strategic plan, a brand audit rating 75 brand touchpoints, personal interviews with recent hires, and a competitive audit. The main deliverable is a Findings & Recommendations Report. Here is my discovery:
The use of two brand names, MSA and Murray, Smith & Associates, Inc. confuses those unfamiliar with the firm. The acronym MSA is generic, lost among AEC firm alphabet soup names. With no Murray, Smith, or Associates at the firm, this name doesn’t reflect where the firm is headed. In short, two names and both are weak.
Internal and external feedback reveal a brand identity that has gone stale. Compounding the problem are the inconsistent versions of the logo (see above). The horizontal lines behind MSA in the logo are problematic at small sizes and when reversed out (white on dark backgrounds).
The only thing that everyone at MSA agrees upon is that the website is terribly outdated (see above). The competitive audit (see below) reveals how much the site lacks in terms of modern website attributes.
A recent hire shares, “If I were choosing a firm solely based on their website, I would never work here.”
I fly to Portland to share the Findings & Recommendations and Why Branding Matters in a presentation to the owners. The room is filled with mostly smiles and heads nodding in agreement, but there are a few owners with folded arms still reluctant to move forward. The proposal to rebrand is ultimately approved, but for a novel reason. MSA’s rationale for rebranding is not to attract new clients, but specifically to attract and retain talent. I share that the two are not mutually exclusive and that the work we do to attract and retain talent will also benefit marketing and business development.
A strong brand is rooted in solid brand strategy. This means having well-articulated Purpose, Vision, Core Values and Positioning statements.
The following already exists from MSA’s work in the book Traction, by Gino Wickman:
Purpose – Creating Infrastructure Solutions to Help Communities Prosper
Vision – grow 10% per year to 250 by 2025
To develop Core Values and Positioning, I lead a half-day workshop with the newly formed branding committee. Participants arrive at the workshop with previously assigned homework complete. I explain that a positioning statement should define what you do, who for, how you are unique and how this benefits your target audience. We develop a long list of unique attributes and engage in group prioritization exercises to narrow to the top three shown here:
Just the Right Size
We are large enough to employ diverse talent to solve your biggest challenges, yet small enough to genuinely care.
We Keep Great Company
Our people are like super glue. They tend to stick around awhile. And that’s some strong stuff, which means you get a strong team. We take care of our people so they can take care of you.
We are personally invested in your success ““ for the long term. Not just for your next project. As your projects and challenges evolve, we’ll still be by your side. As an extension of your staff, we’ll work together to help our community prosper.
From these three uniques, we develop the following positioning statement as seen on the home page of our new website.
Our workshop yields seven Core Values that we later expand upon and manifest as a faux craft beer coaster for each of the seven Core Values. Why craft beer coasters? We draw from Just the Right Size, Our Work Goes on the Fridge (Obsession with Quality) and focus on the Northwest. Each of the seven Core Values is letterpress printed (a craft printing technique) with the value on the front, and more detail about what the value’s meaning on the back. To give each value the gravitas it deserves, and to create a sense of anticipation, we recommend the distribution of one new Core Value coaster to each employee for seven consecutive weeks.
We Make it Happen (Service)
We Invest in Us (Improvement)
Our Work Goes On The “˜Fridge (Quality)
Multiple Minds > 1 (Collaboration)
Work That Works For You (Flexibility)
We Engineer Fun (Fun)
We Give a $#!T (Passion)
Before developing a new firm name and logo, we establish brand personality attributes. These constraints, along with the brand strategy, help us edit from many options to a few finalists. All future marketing communication should embrace at least one, if not several of the following brand personality attributes. If MSA were a person, she would be described as:
We present over 75 possible new firm name options and refine to seven semi-finalists. After a loose trademark and URL availability search, we whittle down to four finalists. Ultimately, with new brand positioning, core values, logo, and website, the owners are not comfortable with an entirely new name at this time. So we propose retiring MSA and Murray, Smith & Associates, Inc. in favor of Murraysmith (one word, one company, capital “˜M,’ lowercase ‘s’). With the attention to quality and right size, Murraysmith can be considered craft engineers. The -smith suffix suggests being thoughtful makers. Much like the honored tradition of a Blacksmith, Goldsmith, or Alesmith, they are now Murraysmith. While Murraysmith will typically be used as a noun (the name of the firm), it can also be used as a verb. As in, “Murraysmith that curb detail because our works goes on the “˜fridge.”
We begin sketching rough logo ideas, which get drawn digitally in Adobe Illustrator, then refined, and presented as 7 explorations in grayscale. Based on feedback, we refine three finalists in color and show what the logo might look like on a business card.
Rough Logo Ideas
Logo Finalist #1 (below) in Color and Application
Logo Finalist #2 (below) in Color and Application
Logo Finalist #3 (below) in Color and Application
The final logo design evolves from prioritized aspects of the Core Values, Positioning Statement, and Brand Personality attributes. For example, We Make It Happen, is represented by the forward moving arrow shape and right-leaning wordmark. With a focus on the Northwest, the green “pin” within the arrow points to the northwest corner of the United States. Being relatable and sincere, we choose lowercase, sans-serif typography for the custom wordmark that reads “murraysmith.” To retain equity from the past, the logo uses legacy colors in use for the past five years. While elements of the logo have meaning, we purposely design an overall abstract symbol that, as Murraysmith continues to deliver on their promises, will gain meaning over time.
Stationery & Forms
Now the approved logo is ready to be applied to brand touchpoints. We start with the business card because of the challenge to design in such a small space. When the design works as a business card, it will be successful on other brand touchpoints including the entire stationery system.
All employees receive their business cards with three different backs to honor the Three Uniques. The cards are efficiently smaller than conventional business cards because Murrasymith isn’t a conventional firm. Upon receiving the new card, a prospect, might remark, “that’s an interesting size for a business card.” Murraysmith staff can then proudly reply, “actually, it’s just the right size” with a wink, while handing out the version of the card with “Just The Right Size” on the back. Employees can then explain how Murraysmith is Just the “Right Size,” or “We Keep Great Company,” or “We’re Invested” depending on the context of the previous conversation with the person receiving your new card. If unsure about which version to hand out, we recommend letting the recipient choose in playful “pick a card, any card” banter.
For simplicity, memorability, and consistency with the new brand name, the new URL is www.murraysmith.us. The previous URL www.msa-ep.com automatically redirects users to the new URL and website. Go ahead, try it!
Using graphic design, color, and typography the new site reflects the new Core Values, 3 Uniques, and Brand Personality. Fresh, custom photography by KLiK demonstrates that Murraysmith is a fun place to work. Featuring responsive design, the site responds to screen size to provide an optimum user experience on desktop monitors, tablets, and smart phones. The main navigation (top of every page) is simple, with only four buttons and a powerful search feature to find anything within the site. As the user scrolls down the page, the main navigation “sticks” to the top of the page to avoid having to scroll up and down. The footer (bottom) of every page contains a Site Map listing all pages within the site to help users find exactly what they are looking for, and discover something new. Here are a few key features of the site, by section:
Great Company – Contains a custom designed overview infographic, Culture, News and a page for each of our eight offices
What We Do – Features our four services, each represented by a new icon. Six “hero” projects for all four services are displayed prominently.
Our Team – Since We Keep Great Company, all 129 Murraysmith employees have their own page on the new site.
Join Us – True to our original reason for rebranding, to attract great talent, the “˜Join Us’ section contains useful information. Potential hires can learn about our application process, the work we do, our 3 uniques, diversity, why work here, benefits, our 8 locations, and of course, job openings.
Website photograpy by KLik
The tradeshow booth is designed as a simple and bold brand background to complement the human activity in the foreground. The booth is imaginative (less is more) and relatable. It utilizes bright, optimistic colors to attract. Instead of the bullet point lists and small project photos of our previous booth, we prefer to let our people in the booth tell our story.
Brand Style Guide
The Murraysmith Marketing Department appreciates the Brand Style Guide because it helps maintain consistency across the eight offices. It also transfers the brand elements and their guidelines, empowering the marketing department to take ownership of the brand for ongoing communication needs.
An often overlooked, but critical, component of launching a rebrand is first building support within the firm. Having an entire firm of brand ambassadors to evangelize the firm’s message is considerably more effective than the marketing department working alone.
2.5 Months Until Launch
Two and half months prior to the May 1 launch date, I fly to Portland to present at an all firm meeting. Employees travel from all eight offices to take part in a half-day Strategic Plan Update. The Marketing Department and I are onstage in an auditorium sharing the why and how of our rebranding project to date. We present the brand strategy and unveil the new logo and website preview to the entire firm. Change is scary and we know that not everyone will instantly love the new branding. But we ask everyone to trust the experts and prioritize the good of the firm over their personal opinion.
5 Days Until Launch
For the five days prior to May 1, a daily email is sent to employees preparing them for the rebrand launch. This 5…4…3…2…1…launch approach allows us to answer frequently asked questions and re-engage the entire firm as brand ambassadors. The emails are timed to coincide with the distribution of new business cards and other marketing collateral. Organized as FAQ, here are some sample questions we answer:
Why did we rebrand?
Why do brands matter, can’t we just do great work?
As of May 1, what will be new about our firm?
What can I do to support the rebrand launch?
Where do I get the new logo files?
What do I do with my old business cards and collateral with the old logo?
What do I have to do to use my new email address and signature?
How is the rebrand being communicated to our clients?
On May 1, do I do anything differently?
On May 1, past and present clients receive an email explaining the rebrand. The email contains an important call-to-action button to view the new website
Rebrand Launch Postcard
To reinforce the email message, we mail the postcard below to past and present clients.
The Murraysmith rebrand launched May 1.
9 months prior to rebrand: +12 employees (net)
9 months after rebrand: +30 employees (net)
9 months prior to rebrand: 88%
9 months after rebrand: 94%
“The new website is the most important recruiting tool we have. Every candidate we talk with at career fairs and interviews mentions how impressive our website is and how they are excited to join the culture that is reflected on the site. In January, 3 of 10 people hired sought us out because of our website. It makes my job easier.”
““Murraysmith Human Resources
Gross revenue: + 30% since rebrand (9 months)
Earnings: + 42.5% since rebrand (9 months)
+12 new clients since rebrand (9 months)
Launch Announcement: 50.1% Open Rate vs. 15.3% Industry Average
24.5% Click Rate vs. 1.9% Industry Average
14,000 website visits in first week vs. goal of 2500
LinkedIn company page followers: + 32% since rebrand (9 months)
“Marketing team, I have been a part of four rebranding efforts at other firms. All involved a rollout to offices and clients around the country. I can say that your work has resulted in the smoothest and best-communicated rollout I’ve seen. It really does reflect our core values, and positions Murraysmith as the company of choice.”
LecoursDesign/Murraysmith were honored for three national awards at the 2018 SMPS Marketing Communications Awards (MCAs): best rebrand, best website, best recruiting/retention promotion.
“The website and rebranding is fresh and unique.” Great research and planning, tied nicely to strategic plan! They clearly set out to rebrand their website as a recruitment/retention tool””did a good job at each stage. Outstanding results!”
Services For This Project
Strategy – Core Values, Positioning, 3 Uniques, Launch Consulting
Branding – Personality Attributes, Naming, Visual Identity (Logo), Style Guide
Web & Digital – Website, Email Marketing
Print – Tradeshow Booth, Postcard, Advertising, SOQ Package Template, Project Report Template, Stationery & Forms
In terms of memorability and messaging, most A/E/C firms have terrible brand names. Firms named after founders can be problematic if difficult to say or spell, and challenging for ownership transition. Acronyms are even worse. Lost in alphabet soup, they are neither memorable or distinctive.
I chose to interview Leslie Young, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, CDP because her firm recently renamed using a metaphorical name, STIR Architecture. Having a great brand name is an indicator of progressive marketing.
Tell me about your role at STIR
I am Associate Partner and Director of Strategic Development leading Marketing and Business Development. Known for both large-scale, complex mixed-use projects in the United States, Europe and Asia, as well as a boutique portfolio of adaptive reuse, institutional and transit work, STIR has offices in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, and Manila. I am one of two Associate Partners and 3 Partners who were ultimately the decision makers for the renaming of our firm.
Your firm has changed names a couple of times in its history. Why?
The firm was founded in 1984 by Ronald Altoon and James (Jim) Porter, so we started out as Altoon & Porter Architects. In 2012 when Jim left the firm, we updated our name to Altoon Partners. When Ronald left the firm in 2015, we saw an opportunity to rename the firm as something not directly tied to partner names. In 2016, we reintroduced ourselves as STIR Architecture.
Metaphorical naming typically isn’t done by AEC firms. Did you consider using partner names or adopting an acronym?
Since the firm’s founding, the intent was always to create a legacy firm with a formal ownership transition plan. The remaining partners have been at the firm for 30 years, on average. There was a little bit of “I’ve earned the right to have my name on the door” thinking, so we did initially consider the typical acronym of using the first letter of each partner’s name. But we discovered fairly quickly that DSA, ASD, DAS, ADS, SDA was not going to work for us. But mostly, we didn’t want to go through the naming process again if one of the partners leaves. We thought it was an opportunity to come up with a fresh name that better describes who we are.
Any other considerations for the new name?
Many of our newer staff had never worked with our founders, Altoon or Porter. While our values and practice hasn’t changed dramatically, we wanted to evolve the firm with a new name that everyone could embrace as their own.
Did you work with an outside consultant for the naming process? Why?
For about five seconds, we thought we could do it ourselves. But we quickly realized we needed an expert and a referee. We also had a strict deadline ““ attendance at our largest annual domestic tradeshow. We hired WOW Branding to keep us on schedule. Also, working in foreign markets, we needed their help with a name that translated well into other languages.
What Was the Naming Process?
We had conference calls with our consultant and the five decision makers. Some lasted as long as six hours. We reviewed our Mission, Core Values, and prioritized goals of the firm. The strategy has to come first. Next, our consultant presented a long list of about 50 names, which we edited down to 8-10, then ultimately 5. From these 5 finalists, they did availability research and some basic design treatment. We had two real favorites, one of which we ultimately decided could cause us intellectual property problems. Ultimately, we decided on STIR Architecture, which we are very excited about.
Why STIR? What Does it Mean?
We love that stir is a verb, as in “stirring things up.” We like to tackle new design challenges. Our work also “stirs” the emotions of users of our buildings. STIR refers to how we practice””complex projects with many stakeholders and multiple team members. The energy of our new name appeals to us, our staff and our clients. It is forward-focused. It reflects who we are, what we do and what people expect of us. Our name is our promise.
How Did You Communicate This New Name to the World?
We distributed press releases stating that as of April 11, 2016, our new name is STIR Architecture. These included sharing our strategy of developing the name and what the name means to us. We followed up with a direct mail promotional piece (see below) to 600 people on our mailing list. Since we didn’t have physical addresses for everyone, we supplemented the direct mailer with a 2500 person email announcement. We chose not to reference our previous name in a tagline or as a transitional device. We went all-in with STIR. We still own all our previous URLs, so if a user inputs an old website address, it will automatically redirect the user to our new site at stirarchitecture.com. We continue at every opportunity to reconfirm our brand through direct mail, social media, press releases, advertisements, etc. Consistent reinforcement of our brand at every turn has been a priority.
What Advice Would You Give To Other Firms That Are Considering a Name Change?
Give yourself time. On one hand, it was good that we had a strict deadline to get the name done by, but it caused a lot of stress. Keep in mind that getting the name done is really just the beginning. Then you have to develop a new logo, visual branding tools, marketing collateral, and website. Also, having a formal program in place to keep reinforcing the brand moving forward is key.
In general, I recommend other firms dream big, be bold. As long as you are consistent in continuing what has been successful for the firm in the past, clients will continue to follow you.
In start-up mode, most firms, unfortunately, put little thought into the firm name. The sole focus is bringing in any project that pays the bills. Moving out of childhood and into adolescence, firms should start to think and act for themselves, developing a distinct point-of-view. If not done previously, this is the time to develop a distinct brand name that reflects where the firm is headed, not where you’ve been. Renaming isn’t easy””few things of value in life are easy. As Leslie and STIR Architecture have shown, with the right approach, a small focused team of decision makers, and an expert guide, success is attainable. Past clients will continue to work with you and future clients will gain a favorable first impression.
Lately, I hear a lot of A/E/C firms talking about culture. When competing for talent, firms often cite their culture as a differentiator to lure new hires.
I define culture as the shared behaviors and beliefs of your firm. So, how do you share your culture with a prospective hire or client? Don’t they have to experience it?
First, codify the shared behaviors and beliefs of your firm as written Core Values. Sadly, most firm leaders develop a set of banal Core Values at a weekend retreat, then send them out in an equally uninspired mass email to all employees. But, as you’ll see in this post, Core Values can be so much more. A creative manifestation of your Core Values is a powerful marketing tool and an essential artifact of your culture. An artifact that prospective hires or clients can experience to determine if there is a match.
Manifested Core Values Attract the Right Talent and Clients
Prospective hires and clients want to get a sense of what it’s like to work with your firm. They imagine themselves on a typical day at your office and judge whether they’ll fit in. Simultaneously, you want clients and talent that harmonize with your culture. For both parties, this requires a leap of faith. But you can minimize the risk by sharing a creative manifestation of your Core Values. The goal isn’t to create something safe that resonates with everyone. You only want people who fit with your culture. Communicate your point of view. Then let clients and talent self-select.
Here is an example of Manifested Core Values we recently created with our client, Murraysmith. First, we helped them with their positioning: geographical focus on the Northwest, obsession with detail/quality, fun, and the right size (120 people). Sounds like like a craft brewery, right? So, we decided to invent a faux craft beer for each of their seven Core Values. Each Value became manifested as a letterpressed (a craft printing technique) beer coaster. The Core Value is on the front, with a description about what it means on the back. To give each Value the gravitas it deserved, and to create a sense of anticipation, we recommended one new coaster be distributed to each employee for seven consecutive weeks.
Manifested Core Values Demonstrate How To Behave
Most firms have a particular way they like things done. Everything from how to bind a proposal, close out a project, or even write an email.
Some firms even develop a clever name or use The (Firm Name) Way to brand their culture.
I suppose you could create a 10-volume employee manual that imagines all scenarios employees will encounter. Or, you could manifest your Core Values as a guide to allow employees, who are adults, to use their best judgement. I recommend the latter.
Starbucks manifests their Core Values in their Green Apron Book. As you can probably infer, it’s pocket-sized to fit in a barista’s green apron. I like to think the pocket position (over the heart) helps baristas takes the expected behaviors to heart.
Manifested Core Values Demonstrate Quality
Stated or not as an official Core Value, all firms embrace quality. So, whatever form your manifested Core Values take, make sure it’s done well. Use quality materials, professional designers, writers and photographers to communicate the professionalism of your firm. While not specifically designed as a Core Values manifestation, the 20th Anniversary book we created for Schmidt Design Group helped them communicate their beliefs. There are 20 quotes or statements coupled with project photography to express their point of view. The firm received such positive feedback, we created similar books for their 25th and 30th anniversaries. To demonstrate quality, the books feature great photography, graphic design, paper, printing, and perfect binding. One client even told the owner of the firm, “I keep the book on my desk. If I’m having a bad day, I read through the book to find inspiration.”
No. 5 – A good designer is a good listener
Below are more ways to manifest your Core Values. You could design and print oversized graphic panels to cover boring blank walls within your office.
Clark Construction shares their values through a series of videos on their website. Each video summarizes one value with different employees sharing what that value means to them.
You could hire a designer to create an infographic or poster as shown below. They took an acrostic approach where R-I-S-E are the first letters in their four Core Values.
When you bring your Core Values to life, do so in a medium that reflects your culture. Many employees at Murraysmith go out after work and enjoy the burgeoning craft brewing culture of the Pacific Northwest. So, beer coasters were a great fit to communicate the firm’s Core Values. As Marshall McLuhan stated, “the medium is the message.” Choose a medium that fits your firm.
To effectively pass culture on to the next generation in your firm, it must be manifested. You can’t rely solely on oral tradition. Stories get lost, skewed by the teller, and forgotten by the listener. Share your Core Values and culture through a tangible artifact.
When the right prospective client or employee experiences your Manifested Core Values, a fierce loyalty will develop.
How does your firm creatively manifest Core Values? Please leave a reply.
You probably don’t think of your email signature as a valuable brand asset. But you should, and here’s why.
According to the Email Stats Report by the Radicati Group, the average employee sends:
36 emails per day = 10,000 emails sent per year
If your firm has 100 employees, that’s 1 million annual brand impressions. Not just random impressions, your emails arrive targeted to clients, vendors, teaming partners, and potential employees.
Consider improving email signatures across your firm beyond an obligatory formality. Email signatures are the most prolific brand touchpoint you own.
To help you, I’ll identify common email signature mistakes. Then, I’ll share how to create a powerful email signature that enhances your firm’s reputation.
Common Email Signature Mistakes
Email signatures aren’t the place for personal expression. You don’t allow each employee to craft their own version of your logo, so don’t allow it with email signatures. All your brand touchpoints should speak in a consistent, professional voice.
Avoid a variety of fonts (unless you are writing a ransom letter)
Avoid too many colors (we love rainbows too, but not in emails)
Avoid too much variety in size, bold, and italic (if you emphasize everything, then nothing stands out)
Avoid including company logos, social media icons, project photos, and charity logos. Images in email signatures can flag your email as “spam,” sending it directly to the Junk folder. Plus, it is annoyingly difficult for email recipients to decipher your intended attachment files from your email signature image attachments.
3) Including Your Email Address
If someone receives an email from you, by default, they now have your email address. Including it in your email signature is redundant. If they want to reply to your email, guess what, they will hit “reply” within their email software.
4) Inspiration Quotes or Sacred Spiritual Passages
Don’t impose your personal beliefs in a professional setting.
5) Legal Disclaimers
You know the ones, similar to seen on faxes circa 1989, stating “this email is only intended for the recipient…blah, blah, blah” Since these have become so banal, nobody reads them. As a result, they become ineffective within a legal setting.
How To Create Your Firm’s Email Signature
Be respectful of your reader’s time and visual landscape by making your email signature as concise as possible.
Here is what to include:
Title (only if informative and consistent with your firm’s culture)
Website URL (only if different from your name@URL.com)
One Variable Link That Changes Monthly (recent blog post, project case study, speech, or primary social media channel)
Here is my email signature:
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
David W. Lecours
Creative Director | LecoursDesign
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Recently Designed Website:
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I recommend using grey, or a quiet color, to distinguish between the email signature and the body of the email. I also use the dotted lines to separate the signature from the body.
Use only keyboard elements, not images, to create typographic rules within your email signature. Typography rules, aka borders, can be created by repeating glyphs like these:
+ + + + + + + + +
* * * * * * * * *
= = = = = = =
o o o o o o
. . . . . . . . .
For consistency across your firm, create a master template of your new email signature. Then copy and paste it into an email sent to your IT department, or each employee, for implementation. Obviously, each employee should replace your individual contact information with their own.
Your Reputation is at Stake
Your firm’s reputation is the sum of all experiences a person has with your brand. Since email signatures make millions of impressions, show that you care about your reader with a simple, consistent and well crafted email signature.
True, email signatures aren’t your most glamorous brand touchpoint. But, as Orrin Woodward says, “Success is the exponential effect of little things done consistently over time.” (Just don’t use this inspirational quote in your email signature.)