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Communicating Architecture: The Long-Term Strategy To Build A Brand

Dave Sharp advises architecture firms on social media, communication and marketing strategy. More.

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One of the most damaging, and unsustainable marketing habits many Architects have, is the seemingly incessant need to abandon their old projects the minute they have a new building to promote.

If you suffer from this bad habit, your firm's lead generation situation will look something like this:

You complete your spurt of promotion around the new project, you get a spike of attention, followed by a plateau, followed quickly by a return to normal that could last 3-6 months until you have another project to promote.

In the meantime, your website traffic drops down to nothing, the leads stop coming in and your social media presence stagnates.

Then, when you finally have a new project to show the world, you have to spin your marketing flywheel back up from zero all over again. It's a nightmare, and a lot of hard work!

In another post, I referred to this inconsistency problem as Yo-Yo Marketing - because I think it perfectly reflects the way most of us go about diet and exercise.

We work our guts out for a couple of months to get in shape, then slowly lose the progress (and more) with months of sitting on the couch before repeating the process.

It's a marketing habit that I see again and again among firms who approach me for help, who all share the same frustration...

"We've been working hard for years, put out some really nice projects, but we still feel like we're stuck at zero. It just doesn't feel like it's getting any easier over time."

In this article, I'll discuss the simple communication strategy great architecture firms use to fix this situation, and begin growing their brand consistently, and sustainably over time.

First, let's look at how one of Japan's best known architects keeps consistent over time.

How Takaharu Tezuka became famous by talking about the same building for 12 years.

This is Takaharu (always in blue) and Yui (always in red) Tezuka. They’re husband and wife architects with an office of about 20 employees in Tokyo, Japan.

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This is their most famous project, an oval-roofed kindergarten in Japan.

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Here is Takaharu giving a TED talk about this project. It has 1Mil views on Youtube, 4 Mil+ views on TED, and 30+ Million views on Facebook and other social media networks.

“The best kindergarten you’ve ever seen”

The presentation doesn’t have high production values. It wasn’t shot by a famous photographer. In fact, all of the images were shot by Takaharu on his iPad. It isn’t famous because it won awards, or got in lots of magazines. It works because it’s real, honest storytelling about something people care about.

The comments speak for themselves.

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Takaharu is just being himself and presenting the bare core of what the project is about. Reality works.

The Fuji kindergarten TED talk was recorded in 2014, seven years after the project was completed.

For the better part of a decade, Tezuka presented this project, and nothing else.

Realising how long it takes for good ideas to catch on, he stayed the path until this project reached a tipping point of public awareness.

Today, this project gets Tezuka booked to speak all over the world, where he meets leading decision-makers in the education and early-childhood sectors (winning his firms loads of new school and kindergarten projects each year).

In fact, Tezuka posted this recently on Facebook. Fuji kindergarten on display at the Venice biennial, in 2018! Over a decade later and Tezuka-san is still focusing his communication efforts on this one key project in his portfolio.

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While his practice worked on a number of beautiful houses, cafes, museums, hospitals, and everything else both before, and after, the kindergarten— they weren’t his greatest success stories.

In fact, you'll hardly find any of them anywhere except his website and a few obscure Japanese architecture magazines.

Tezuka doesn't heavily promote new projects, because he understands that Fuji Kindergarten is the best example of the story he wants to tell about architecture.

The rest of the firm’s projects weren’t what he wanted his team to be known for, so Tezuka spent years single-mindedly spreading the word about his office’s cornerstone project to any crowd that would have him.

Why? Because being known the world-over for designing the world’s best kindergarten is a priceless asset, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

It takes years to be known for something.

Tezuka understood two things:

  • You have to be known for doing the most, or best of something — whatever that is.
  • You can’t get there if you start back at zero every time you finish a new project.

Like a stand-up comedian who spends two years on the road developing and perfecting the same material, it was only when Tezuka finally got the architect’s equivalent of a Netflix special — a worldwide release via TED — that he was forced to throw out his act and start talking about his next success story.

Identifying what his firm could be known for (the world's best kindergarten), and patiently pressing that advantage all over the world for a decade, has paid off for Tezuka Architects. The office has had the opportunity to work on a dozen kindergartens and school’s in the last five years.

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6 ways you can communicate your old projects.

You can begin to improve your firm's consistency by forgetting about the next project, and acting today to create quality content and communication around the projects you already have.

Dedicate a small amount of time each month to revisiting the existing projects in your portfolio, improving them so that they better communicate for your firm, and releasing them in new ways to help your brand to grow.

Here are 6 things you can try this month.

Get new photography

Great architecture is designed to stand the test of time. Unfortunately, what's fashionable in the world of architectural photography can change from month to month. If you have projects that look great in real life, but you know that the photos aren't performing the way you need them to on your website, social media and in publications right now - it might be worthwhile to hire a photographer to visit the project again and create an updated set of images for your portfolio.

Clients of mine have done exactly that, and achieved tremendous results. One firm, in particular, had changed leadership and refreshed their brand. Their previous director didn't really appreciate the value of great photography, so the firm's projects looked cheap, messy and truly uninspiring. This firm was absolutely hamstrung by their outdated, mediocre photography. They couldn't grow on social media, their website looked appalling (even with updated branding), and the media weren't at all interested in their work.

When the new director took over, she realized that fixing the photography in the portfolio was a top priority, so she hired one of her country's most talented emerging architectural photographers, whose work was going viral on Instagram and contributing to many of the buildings he shot winning awards and press mentions, to revisit the old projects one by one to shoot them from scratch.

It was a big project, and it wasn't cheap, but it paid off. The firm had a fresh start, and their marketing uplift was incredible. Over the course of a few months, the Director's decision transformed the firm's reputation, perception and brand awareness.

Commission a short project film.

In 2020, video is more powerful that images. It's useful for social media, your website, publications, and can really sell the magic of your buildings.

Commissioning a videographer to create a beautiful short film of an old project that's been truly lived in by your former-client can help to evoke some of the more humane, romantic qualities of your buildings in a way that might be impossible to capture with still photographs alone.

A client of mine recently hired a filmmaker to produce a three and a half minute video about a project that they completed six years earlier.

Here it is. Dezeen were so impressed that they posted the video to their YouTube account, where it has almost 20'000 views. It's absolutely gorgeous.

Improve the project page.

When we're rushing to get a project out to the public, we tend to throw together a short description, upload the images and call it a day.

Project pages are high-traffic areas of your website. They're the place where prospective clients are trying to learn more about your process, and design ideas.

Since they're an important marketing tool for your firm, it's worthwhile to revisit these old project pages and give them a fresh coat of paint.

Expand the writing, add more drawings, create an animated GIF like this one from my client, DREAMER, to show the concept coming to life.

You could also embed videos and link to related external articles, books or videos that helped inform the design, while also adding additional project information and publication links that might be missing.

By updating your project pages, it also sends a signal to Google that the content is fresh, and relevant, so the page will rise in search result rankings.

Write a case study or post-occupancy evaluation.

A solid case study is the ultimate self promotion tool. You’re able to educate people, explain how you solve problems, and encourage leads to convert all in a single document.

Everyone wants a peek behind the curtain. Everyone wants to see how the magic trick is done. The case study is the perfect way to give them access: to give them a ‘free preview’ of what it is to work with you.

How you write a case study: make it a story about your client.

Every great story needs a hero, and nine times out of ten, your hero is going to be your client. They're the ones who have the challenges that we can solve. Remember, stories are all about challenges.

Your challenge is to write the story around their needs, not your creative pursuits.

The framework below was invented by The Futur, and I think it's a great fit for the architectural narrative.

The Goal: Introduce the client and the site. Start painting the picture of your hero's current normal, and their goals.

The Compelling Event: Paint the picture of what spurred the hero into action. What was the last straw? Why build a new project? Why use an architect? Why you?

The Gap: Explain the process of trying to achieve the goal or solve the problem. Talk about your process like your reader is really smart, but just doesn't know much about the architectural design process (who can blame them).

The Rollout: What were the challenges of delivering the project? How did the hero of the story feel about these challenges? What was your role?

The Gain: Illustrate the impact of the work on the hero's life. How have you improved things in their world? Have you solved the problem?

You can upload the case study as a separate page, like Mihaly Slocombe have, and link to it in your menu. Or you could create a blog post, and link to it from the project page.

Pitch the project to journalists.

Architects give up too soon on their journalist outreach. We usually just email a few editors at our favourite magazines, then call it a day.

The easiest marketing win for the firms I work with is going back to an old project, creating a media kit (or using Bowerbird to save time), then emailing or submitting it to a wide range of journalists.

It's particularly important to also pitch these older projects, once updated, to the press who may have missed the project the first time around. Clients of mine have had enormous success publishing three, four, or five year old projects in some of the world's most read online architecture publications by just reaching out.

Republish the project on social media.

Most firms have enough photography gathering dust on their hard drives to keep their Instagram active 365 days of the year. Yet, we've somehow convinced ourselves that each project, and each photo, only deserves one post before they're done for good.

Of course, we worry that people get bored of seeing the same project too many times. But here's the entire battle of social media: almost nobody sees anything you post in the first place.

On Instagram, as few as 10% of your followers reliably see your latest posts, let alone people who don't follow you yet (or know you exist).

As your audience grows and changes over time, and you post on different days, and different times, using different captions and hashtags - you can safely post the same image many times per year to help sustain the attention that project is receiving.

This is particularly true if you're also improving project pages, writing case studies, recording films, taking new project photos and getting published in new places for the first time. These are perfect opportunities to schedule a new Instagram posts to let your audience know what's happening.

I'd encourage you to always think of new ways to re-use, recycle and re-post your old projects photos.

Conclusion

It's quite common for architects to always focus their attention on sharing new projects with the world. But, sometimes improving the presentation and awareness of our existing projects can be just as fruitful, if not more.

By revisiting old projects in the months between new projects, you'll be more consistent with your marketing, remain top-of-mind for longer, and be rewarded with more sustainable business results as your brand grows sustainably over time.

Author

Dave Sharp

Dave is a marketing consultant who gives architecture firms the strategy, tools, and habits they need to attract better clients.

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