It’s now three years since Airbnb first offered more rooms than the world’s top five hotel brands put together. This remarkable feat was achieved without the rental pioneer buying a single brick for users. More recently, at the start of March, branchless UK challenger bank Monzo celebrated attracting its four-millionth customer, an impressive milestone reached in a handful of years.
Considering the rapid and seismic paradigm shift in the global business landscape, wrought by technological advancement, how vital, then, is physical office branding in the digital age?
“On its own, physical office branding is arguably less important today than ever before,” says Jed Backhouse, a digital brand consultant at Infinite Global. “Instead, what is crucial is the alignment of a physical brand with digital and experiential dimensions.
“This means ensuring an organisation’s purpose and values are consistently demonstrated, communicated and manifested across all brand touchpoints. That includes the workplace environment, but also media, marketing and other interactions. Therefore, the office can, in some ways, now be considered part of the media mix for brands.”
Indeed, business leaders would be foolish to neglect investment in office branding and the working environment, says Steve Sharp, director at Fat Cow Media, given its enormous potential to enhance company reputation for employees, customers and investors alike.
“While a tangible brand identity remains the cornerstone of any good marketing strategy, it’s not enough to rely on digital experiences,” he says. “Physical experiences leave a longer-lasting impression and offer a more personal opportunity to reach consumers.”
Make impressions count to boost company reputation
Beth Hampson, commercial director at The Argyll Club, which has 38 luxury workspaces across London, agrees. “Carefully selected colour palettes, logos and website designs are key in 2020, but organisations may be missing a huge trick by not considering what the four walls around them say about their brand,” she says.
“While a lot of business is conducted via tech these days, the most important decisions often still happen in person. Why, then, are businesses pumping money into their digital brand, but overlooking the impression given to clients, investors or recruits after a simple meeting at the office?
Physical experiences leave a longer-lasting impression and offer a more personal opportunity to reach consumers
“Businesses shouldn’t forget the power of that first impression when you walk through the door, especially in this digital age. As life is increasingly digitalised and automated, the physical and tangible may become more valuable when attempting to stand out from the crowd.”
Office branding has been an essential element of the workplace “for centuries and the birth of the department store accelerated its evolution”, says Dr Teea Palo, lecturer in marketing at University of Edinburgh Business School. However, office branding has been dialled up in the last two decades, in America, especially.
For Backhouse, Apple leads the way. “Their buildings designed by Lord Norman Foster are incredible, physical and environmental articulations of a brand’s purpose and values,” he says. “Apple’s mission statement includes ideas around simplicity, innovation and cross-pollination, which are all apparent in the design of their offices and shops, as they are in the physicality of its products.”
At Facebook, the potency of physical office branding, or lack of it, is used in an unorthodox and perhaps slightly threatening way. At the social media titan’s California campus, Facebook’s branding is the focal point as visitors enter, but the tatty signage of the previous occupier, Sun Microsystems, has been retained at the exit. A mistake, surely?
“No, it’s used as a constant reminder of the balance between winners and losers in the industry, a rather direct reminder to employees of the need to stay focused,” says Tom Carroll, head of Europe, Middle East and Africa corporate research at real estate services firm JLL.
Location and heritage are brand-boosting factors
American attitudes towards office branding might be too in-your-face for some, though. In the UK, a more understated approach is required, according to Peter Matthews, founder and chief executive of digital brand designer Nucleus.
“Inside-out branding has always been important and being proud of the brand you work for is a natural aspiration for many,” he says. “But it can be overdone for British sensibilities, when some brand consultants and CEOs demand employees to ‘live the brand’.”
This chimes with Lee Penson, chief executive of world-renowned architecture and interior design studio PENSON. “Brand celebration should be displayed as subtle suggestions at the right moment,” he says. “Client-facing environments must touch on branding, but not overdo it.
“The reception, for instance, is definitely not the best place to use branding; it’s frankly an overwhelming introduction for people. Employees and customers want to feel part of something bigger and somewhere they are supported to do their best work, not just a ‘branded’ workplace.”
As an example, Penson nods to Sony PlayStation’s European headquarters in London, which his company recently designed. “The space was planned around their brand logo and has clusters of clever and cool spaces,” he says. “It’s little touches like this that make our clients feel confident in their space. They live and breathe their brand implicitly. Images and banners will not do this.”
Office location and the heritage of a building, especially in a city, can help boost company reputation, too. “Trendy London startups may be more inclined to set up shop in the hipster hotspot of Shoreditch rather than Paddington, because the area aligns with their ambitions for branding and company values,” says Bradley Baker, director at office developer CO-RE.
Finally, for business leaders seeking advice about office branding, Hampson from The Argyll Club offers a conclusion. “Start small and gradually think bigger,” she says. “Look at your workspace itself, then zoom out to your building, your address, your neighbourhood. What would a visitor think when hearing about or seeing each for the first time?
“If you aren’t confident a potential investor, employee or client would align each of these physical images with your brand values, it may be time to consider an office move.”