Branding in an Age of Corporate Entropy: How A/E brands can defy the Laws of Thermodynamics

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“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

It is self-evident that brand contributes mightily to a company’s success, but it is less clear why some companies let their brands fade or melt away like an ice cube on a hot stovetop. I’ve spent a long time creating and nurturing brands for A/E/C and retail organizations—in-house and as a consultant—and by far the biggest hurdle is not the brand’s conception and birth but its care and feeding over time.

All companies (and, by default, all brands) have an element of entropy to them—a measure of energy that leaves the system until it reaches a point of stasis—and the best brands are those that understand how to fight against that inescapable truth of the universe. Some practices believe that once they’ve wrapped on the creative and the logo is up in the main lobby or flashing on the dot com, the work is done. But we’ve all walked into the space of a once-pulsating practice to find that the energy has left the building, the brand no longer rings (or, perhaps, never rang) true. Or maybe you just stopped in on a bad day and everyone is out meeting with clients.

I know it’s nerdy, but I’ve always thought the Laws of Thermodynamics come into play as a helpful and handy way of testing whether you and your brand got game.

The first Law of Thermodynamics, also known as the Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. This is especially true in an architecture practice, because the very core of a successful practice relies on the transfer of energy: from leadership down, from the employees to the culture, from the culture to the employees. The key of course is creating a brand that both embodies and articulates that energy.

We’ve all walked into the space of a once-pulsating practice to find that the energy has left the building, the brand no longer rings (or, perhaps, never rang) true.

Back in the days when I was the steward of RTKL’s brand, the biggest threat often came from within our organization, when in-house creatives would redesign or rework the identity because they, well, thought it was the right thing to do. “I wanted to try something new,” I’ve been told one or two million times, typically by someone who only recently joined the practice and appeared to be reshaping our look in the image of the practice
they just departed.

In those days our identity was based on a series of stencils created by Le Corbusier, the great modernist, and the color red was adopted in the early 1990’s, about five years before virtually every other U.S. architect discovered redness for the first time. “Architect Red” became a bit of a cliché, for sure, but we liked to think our red was different (it wasn’t) because we used it sparingly and judiciously (debatable). Still, the number of times our designers mucked with the stencil, re-arranged the letters, or went for fuchsia over our sanctioned PMS amazes me to this day.

We even had a small service line within the company produce its own brand, generating their own brochures and presentations, ironically extolling their skills at both branding and collaborating.

Oh how we laughed.

The second and third Laws of Thermodynamics focus on the efficiency of a given system. Since the entropy of any isolated system always increases (the second law), we are all slouching to a point of equilibrium. Or, in the case of a brand, irrelevance. In other words: that ice cube is going to melt unless someone does something.

A simple way to think of this is that a brand, if not refreshed and stretched every now and then, will invariably become more messy and disorderly with time. My snark notwithstanding, the examples cited above strike me now as an attempt to transfer new energy to the brand. I should have seen that and devised an appropriate response as a way of reducing disorder and boosting the brand’s energy.

This of course raises the issues of consistency and buy in (the third law), especially within a large practice. I’ve always felt that any brand was a complex organism comprised of many things—from top-line strategy to the language it relies on the mood or experience it manifests on social media. Everything works together as part of that system—an armada of ships all sailing in the same direction. Or many voices singing in harmony. An orderly system that keeps energy from leaking. From allowing the ice cube to melt. And from keeping your brand current, relevant and fresh.

Everything works together as part of that system—an armada of ships all sailing in the same direction. Or many voices singing in harmony. An orderly system that keeps energy from leaking.

Here are four tips to keep your brand energized in the face of corporate entropy.

  • Think about implementation and deployment on day one. Anyone who has survived a branding (or re-branding) process within a large organization will tell you that the lion’s share of the effort is almost always invested in the creation and launch—this is where the fun and creative tasks are. But the test of a brand is not just how it is adopted but how easily and efficiently it can be deployed. Yes, a lot of this will have to do with systems and guidelines, which clients are often reluctant to pay for, but this will make or break a brand.

  • Bake in flexibility. We live in a multi-channel, multi-generational world comprised of flawed humans who digest, interpret and express things in altogether different and disparate ways. One look at the U.S. electoral process confirms this. Not only are we bombarded with infinitely more data and information than ever before, it’s coming at us faster and across more platforms.

It is unrealistic to master every channel, so do not try. Instead, master your audience or your constituency, speak to them in a clear and compelling way, but be flexible enough to adapt. Know when to get out over your skis but also when to speak in simple, monosyllabic gestures that leave little room for interpretation.

  • Lather. Rinse. Repeat. A brand is a heuristic exercise that often requires experimentation, discovery and trial-and-error patience. Correct your mistakes quickly and honestly but learn how to repeat and scale your successes. Small triumphs count. Yes, some things will fall flat, so don’t be afraid to fail; in fact, fail fast and move on. Today, agility and authenticity are valuable weapons that need to be in everyone’s arsenal.

  • Go rogue every now and then. Almost every branding exercise I’ve survived has included so-called Brand Ambassadors, passionate, earnest and articulate spokespeople who will travel throughout the land to extol the virtues of your brand. They may also “police” the brand to ensure no one drifts out of their swim lane. All good, but think of how much you learn from those rogue exercises. If the brand strategy is righteous, it will not only survive but thrive in the face of adversity.

Today’s communications eco-system is at a point of what Ray Kurzweil calls a “singularity,” meaning it is infinitely too complex and multi-layered to rely on flat, one-dimensional strategies or approaches. Traditional thinking will probably get you half the way to where you want to go, but you will need extra creative brain power to break through the noise and create a voice that speaks to the next generation.

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