Necessary lessons in rebranding your business.
By Wendy Gilmartin
Rebranding a business can be a big undertaking for firms of any size, and the structure of a rebranding endeavor can take many forms, such as a thorough graphic design revamp of logos and a website or a completely new name, location, or ownership model. But what does it take to re-envision one’s own practice? What kinds of questions should firms be asking of themselves and their marketing departments, and how does a small-scale rebrand differ from a full-scale overhaul? LAM talked to three firms about their approaches to rebranding and what they’ve learned. Interviews have been edited and condensed.
OJB Landscape Architecture [Rebranded from Office of James Burnett in 2017]
Houston, San Diego, Boston, Dallas
James Burnett, FASLA, Founder and President, and Victoria Lorenz, Director of Marketing
What spurred the rebranding? How did you know you had to rebrand?
JAMES BURNETT: Rebrand is defined a number of different ways. I think people understood the Office of James Burnett, which is how we were founded in 1989, as the name of the firm, but in recent years we’ve been referred to as OJB quite often. And I think it had something to do with our Internet address, http://www.ojb.com, so our process was easier than a whole new look, new colors, new graphics, new services, new office locations, all those things.
It was really more of a natural thing. I think Vicky [Lorenz, OJB’s director of marketing] would tell you that it’s not that easy—that her team actually went through a lot of work with the publications, our brochures, our firm information, and some of the website and social media updates. But I think in general it was a natural progression, and the name just moved from a more singular name of the Office of James Burnett to OJB, which is really four offices, 65 professionals, and five shareholders.
It was time to make the name feel more all-encompassing, more global. Also, to be quite honest, with clients who maybe were getting to know us for the first time, the expectations were, “Where’s James Burnett? I’m the president of my company, and I was hoping to meet the boss of your company,” you know? And so now “OJB” is a lot more inclusive.
How has the rebranding or the process of rebranding enhanced that spirit of inclusivity?
BURNETT: I do think that “OJB” is more friendly for the people who are on the fast track or the medium track going from associate to the principal level. Looking back when I first started with myself and an intern, I really felt like the largest I ever wanted to be was 12 people. I could just be the Office of James Burnett, and when I was ready to retire, we’d just kind of wind down the last projects. But that’s not fair for the young [employees] who have done much of the work and are continuing to bring in big clients. It gives them something they can help build as the brand moves forward.
And the in-house marketing team was in place before this occurred?
VICTORIA LORENZ: Yes, and a lot of the designers and clients and consultants, they already knew us as OJB, so it was a very organic transition. It took us about a year to create a style guide for the entire team and to communicate with everyone that this is the new name, there is no confusion why we did this, and here is what everyone should refer to. We redesigned all the marketing collaterals, including a book, and we sent out announcements to our clients and made it official.
Can you elaborate on the style guide?
LORENZ: In the beginning we had an office in Houston and in San Diego, and then we opened up Boston and now Dallas. We hired a lot of people, and everyone had a different type of presentation and, for instance, they might not use the same fonts or something like that. We just wanted our brand to be very cohesive, so we decided to produce a style guide that included a bunch of things: fonts, colors, presentation templates. The style guide still offers opportunities for the team to be creative, but it also includes rules that people have to follow.
BURNETT: We didn’t have a big champagne celebration or anything on a certain day. We didn’t go from the Office of James Burnett to LAND Studio Inc., or something. We weren’t bought out or acquired. So, I have to admit, it wasn’t like we spent a lot of money and hired a team to develop a new logo or any of that stuff. It was just something in the natural progression that had to happen.
Future Green Studio [Rebranded in 2017]
Brooklyn, New York
David Seiter, ASLA, Founding Principal and Design Director
Give me a little bit of background on Future Green’s identity as a design/build firm.
DAVID SEITER: Coming out of grad school, at PennDesign at the University of Pennsylvania, I went to a larger firm—Hargreaves Associates—and I found that, while extremely rewarding, for me, there was something missing from that process. I had always done a lot of garden design/build growing up outside Philadelphia, and I knew that I wanted to build a practice that could really stretch the scales of project types from small-scale garden interventions to large-scale urban planning. And to be a place for people with a wide range of skill sets to come together to realize these kinds of bespoke landscape interventions. It makes for a really interesting collection of people: woodworkers, maintenance gardeners, construction managers, cost estimators, horticulturists, landscape architects, and artists, all who come together to collaboratively produce these projects.
And that was the structure prior to your rebranding?
SEITER: Yes. I will say, though, building things was also a strategy to get the design work realized. As a young landscape architect starting out, it’s difficult to get projects. Here in New York City, a client might spend $100,000 on their roof terrace, but they might not go through the traditional process of hiring a landscape architect and bidding it out and then hiring a contractor. There was a space there for someone who could think critically about landscape architecture and yet transform the world of garden and design in the city. But yeah—to the branding standpoint—we didn’t ever mention that we did contracting work. We only showcased the design work. Part of our process with rebranding was to give a wider range or vision of what we do.
At what moment did you realize you had to rebrand? Was it ‘We should do this?’ or more, ‘We have to do this?’
SEITER: It got to be ‘We have to do this,’ mostly because a lot of the marketing we had done prior was in-house and we made the logo ourselves; we made the website ourselves. There was, unfortunately, a homespun quality to it that lacked some professionalism. We were coming up on our 10-year anniversary, which we celebrated this May, and it was a great time for us to re-envision our own work. For better or for worse, as you grow as a firm, you get pigeonholed into a certain type of work, or at least we did, and I feel like a lot of that was really urban focused or was landscape integrated into buildings. That probably stemmed from the design/build nature of the firm. But it also felt like only a small slice of what I had been trained to do, having gone to Penn where much of the work is more urban design focused, and then also working at Hargreaves with 20-acre waterfront parks and projects of that scale.
Was rebranding a way to implement more flexibility to go out for different or bigger jobs?
SEITER: I think in the past, we would go after high-profile competitions or other kinds of institutional RFPs for projects. But our promotional materials and website wouldn’t back up or best represent the kind of skill set that we had. And so, through the rebranding process, we were able to really reposition our work, and when we were invited to submit our portfolio to the Architectural League of New York, we won the Emerging Voices award this year.
There are very few landscape architects that win it, and I think the rebranding and the accumulation of image assets and rewriting of all of our narratives for projects and crafting of all those things, that all led to us being in a position to win that award. And I think subsequently, whether it’s winning the award or the rebranding, we’ve now positioned ourselves to get the larger-scale projects that are under way in Atlanta, Houston, and Buffalo, New York. We’ve been able to transition from primarily being a New York City metro regional office to one that has bigger projects in D.C., and those larger-scale, public space opportunities in other cities.
Any advice for firms considering a rebrand?
SEITER: Make sure you get a great graphic designer friend! I thought I understood my business and the vision that I had for the place, but the most helpful thing was just to let go of what I thought was best. I think you have to really be the client in this case and trust that your graphic designer is going to give you the best solution.
Sasaki [Rebranded from Sasaki Associates in 2016]
Boston and Shanghai
Isabel Zempel, Principal, and Joanna Chow, Director of Communications
How did the Sasaki rebranding process begin?
ISABEL ZEMPEL: In 2013 we had an external board of advisers who knew Sasaki quite well and could see that what we do within Sasaki wasn’t getting across to the broader marketplace. From one client to another, one practice to another, one typology to another, people got small glimpses into Sasaki without grasping the fuller picture of our unifying philosophy toward design and planning. We purposefully keep a lot of diversity within our practice so that no two teams or projects ever feel the same, but within all of that difference there are unifying threads that have allowed us to evolve and thrive for more than six decades now, and that was what wasn’t getting across as well as it could.
JOANNA CHOW: We chose Bruce Mau Design after an exhaustive interview process. We respect their historic ties to the design profession and were impressed with the cutting-edge work they were bringing to global brands like Sonos. We certainly benefited from their artful use of color in developing a visual identity based around a 28-color palette, which was then integrated into the logo. We were founded in 1953, and our founder, Hideo Sasaki, from the outset saw the value in bringing architects, landscape architects, and planners to one table. Our logo conveys our embracing of diverse perspectives, with its colorful, interlocking pieces combining to form the whole.
ZEMPEL: For many years we were boxed in literally in our logo. We wanted to break out of that box both literally and metaphorically.
How has this changed the culture in the office?
ZEMPEL: Culturally, the brand has been unifying. It’s a happy, optimistic brand. It’s youthful and energetic, yet conveys gravitas and depth as well. It’s as true a reflection of who we are as we could have hoped for. The embrace of the brand in our materials, the cohesiveness with which it’s applied across all our channels and in all our outward-facing materials, the way in which people wear their T-shirts and tote bags with pride, these all show us it’s been successful.
I work with architects, planners, engineers, graphic designers, software programmers, and marketers every day, and the brand, for all of us, feels like the right fit. It’s a hard thing to get right, but I think we really achieved that.
What did you learn in the process?
ZEMPEL: It’s a necessarily messy process, and to do it right takes significant investment. Project management and change management are incredibly important when everyone feels like they have a stake in the brand’s direction.
We went through a thorough process: self-examination, external feedback gathering, understanding the competitive landscape, positioning exercises, exploring visual identity, defining a voice, and landing on unique expressions of the brand through implementation. It was incredibly rigorous, but through tough conversations we came out on the other side with so much more clarity and shared ambition.
I’d say a brand needs a refresh every five to 10 years. If the industry changes and the culture changes, we have to move with it. You can’t invent and reinvent a brand that then stays static for 20 years. We learned we constantly have to evolve.
Wendy Gilmartin is a writer and architect in Los Angeles. The founding principal of Wendy Gilmartin Architecture, she teaches in the College of Environmental Design at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona.
Correction appended: The print version of this article misspelled the surname of Isabel Zempel. We regret the error.