Building a brand

Can a building represent a brand?
Such was the question that launched renowned New York architect Robert A.M. Stern into a lively dissertation on the relationship between buildings and brands. As part of the Spangler Center’s dedication ceremony last Monday afternoon, Stern addressed a capacity crowd with a message as insightful as it was spirited. In a lecture peppered with wit and intellectual flourish, Stern guided the audience through an impressive survey of the meaning of branding and how companies and institutions like the Harvard Business School express their vision through architecture. For Stern, the design of corporate office spaces personifies the brands which these companies bring to market and the so-called “packaging” of the organization represents the embodiment of the institution’s intrinsic values. In the parlance of architects, a branded building allows form and content to become one.

For marketers, the concept of branding is about symbolic associations. By providing the consumer with security, reliability, and authenticity, a brand serves to differentiate the product or service from its competitors. For Stern, architectural design is simply another manifestation of this phenomenon. Stern contends that the strength of a company’s brand will be reinforced by the ability of its architecture to convey a set of associations that consumers ought to ascribe to the company product. In the case of the Harvard Business School, does the school’s architecture speak with a vocabulary of emotional triggers that are commonly understood to represent the brand? And, does the architecture reinforce the positive differentiating elements of the school vis-…-vis its competition? Stern believes that this process of communicating brand attributes via an organization’s architecture provides consumers with confidence and, in the context of HBS, the incentive to invest time and money in a reliable educational brand. In this respect, consistency of message in architecture is of critical importance and Stern castigates designers who stray too far from the central vision of an organization. In effect, such architectural distortions weaken brand value.

Stern traces the connection between buildings and brands to the first skyscrapers that defined the New York City skyline in the early 20th century. Industrial prowess was manifested in the sheer magnitude of the structures and these early trophy properties served as giant advertisements for the companies in question. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York’s Chrysler Building which intermingles classic art-deco styling with subtle accents inspired by the automotive industry. Similarly, Stern identifies a variety of IBM constructions that speak to “Big-Blue’s” legacy of no-nonsense efficiency. Yet, Stern is careful to point out that while this image of certainty and conservatism may have been an asset for IBM in the age of men in gray flannel suits, its perceived rigidity has been interpreted as unappealing in recent years. As the company has re-defined its brand to meet these changing consumer attitudes, contemporary IBM architecture has similarly evolved to reflect a pavilion style incorporating liberal amounts of free space. Stern also offered commentary on some of his own work with the Disney corporation, referencing Michael Eisner’s near obsession with the idea that the brand equity be embodied in nearly everything associated with the company. In such an environment, Stern relates how architects must strive to express their creative impulses without contradicting the essential brand attributes. For Stern, architecture becomes a yet another vehicle for telling the brand story.

Schooled at Yale and Columbia, Stern currently acts as senior partner with a prominent architecture firm in Manhattan, has written or edited more than 24 books on the subject of design, and is a member of the Walt Disney Company’s Board of Directors. As an architect, Stern playfully describes himself as a “modern traditionalist”. With his most recent design, our Spangler Center, Stern has clearly chosen to situate himself squarely within the larger HBS architectural tradition and describes the style of the new campus addition as “Georgian with a twist”. Furthermore, as was apparent from his remarks on Monday, Stern considers Spangler to be an excellent representation of the HBS brand, especially when compared with some of the school’s more recent buildings. Stern was unapologetic in his dismissal of South Hall and the Chapel as simply “unsuited” to the brand, while Morgan and Shad received top-marks for their understanding of the HBS vision. Indeed, Stern closed his remarks with the hope that Spangler might have a positive future impact on the architectural environment at HBS. While Spangler has evidently been designed with respect for Harvard’s 300 year-old traditions, the front of the building faces the city of Boston which Stern describes as a nod to both the future expansion of the school and the development of the city as a whole.

January 29, 2001