Integrated Branding and Design

A new approach to housing development.

Traditionally, the development process for housing goes something like this: A developer finds a site in a good location and hires someone to do a market study, determining potential demand for the project. Based on the study results, the developer decides on a program, including unit types and amenities. Next, they bring in the architect to do a feasibility study in order to get a cost for the project and fill out the proforma. Sometimes they share the market study with the architect; often they don’t.

If the project pencils, the architect creates a design—
basically wrapping an envelope around the unit types and the program, with the building’s context influencing the exterior design. Next, the interior designer adds finishes and colors to the rooms and public spaces. Once the building is done, the marketing and branding team moves in, puts a name on the building and develops a sales strategy to rent out the apartments or sell the condos.

This process closely parallels the traditional manufacturing process, where a new product is developed then branded just before it goes to market. In fact, developers talk about housing as a product, using the same vocabulary as manufacturers.

But this traditional process is deeply flawed. The accepted wisdom is that it’s efficient—having the consultants get involved sequentially in the process, each adding their bit to the final product, is like an assembly line, which aims to minimize the time each consultant spends on the project.

But what you may gain in efficiency you lose in creativity. All too often the result is a brand that is completely at odds with the design, a building that is not tailored to the tenant and design decisions that are arbitrary and driven mostly by expediency. In today’s demanding, competitive market—that’s suicide.

A more creative design process is driven by a deep understanding of who the project is being designed for. By working collaboratively with all the design disciplines at the table from the outset—urban design, architecture, interior design and branding—the design team can develop an integrated design and branding concept that provides a competitive edge in the marketplace.

A recent example is an apartment project designed and branded by Ankrom Moisan that is under construction in Portland, Ore. The firm’s branding group began by identifying the target audience: Gen Y’ers who want to live downtown near their job, can’t afford a car or don’t want one, commute by bike and ride mass transit. The architecture and interiors team responded with a design concept that was very European in flavor, with small but efficient units to keep costs down and that included lots of parking and bike amenities, such as a bike repair station. Concurrently, working collaboratively with the client, Civitas Development—the branding team—named it Milano, an identity based on both the City of Milan—reflecting the design’s European flavor—and a popular commuter bike, the Bianchi Milano. The building’s colors included Bianchi’s signature Celeste blue and red.

When the press release was sent out announcing Milano’s groundbreaking, the bike community jumped on it. BikePortland, a popular blog, declared, “Finally, housing designed specifically for the bike community!” It created such a buzz that local TV station KOIN ran it on the evening news; it became one of the most popular stories on the station’s web site. The result of integrated design and branding: thousands of dollars of free publicity and lots of people primed to move in when the building opens.

The same process is being used by Ankrom Moisan for a student housing project in downtown Tucson developed by Capstone Partners. This time, the target demographic is students who want to live off campus and enjoy urban life with its restaurants, art galleries and popular music scene. The site sits at the gateway to downtown at the nexus of a main road, a major rail line, a streetcar connected to campus and a regional bike path.

The team developed an integrated identity and design concept called The Cadence, reflecting the energy and pulse of the project’s vibrant location. The architecture and interior design has a clear rhythm, alternating between gritty materials that echo the city and a more refined palette that provides a comfortable environment for the residents. Natural materials and expansive areas of white are punctuated by splashes of bright color, adding to the rhythmic feel and “cadence” of the design.

According to recent studies, purchasing decisions are driven by identity more than any other factor. When people find a product or experience that truly reflects their self image, they identify with it and embrace it. By designing housing with a clear identity targeted at a specific audience, developers can differentiate their projects, making them more desirable and attractive to the marketplace.