Brands and architecture

The Dancing Building. PragueI’ve been working with architects and planners for the past few weeks and fascinating it has been too.  I have been trying to identify the key component of the perfect urban development, which sounds simple enough, until you try to find hard facts to support ideas and theories.  Then you quickly discover that once the buildings are up and the developers have made their money nobody is too bothered to find out if the development actually worked.

There was one worthwhile project that I uncovered though.  Its called the SHE Project – SHE being the abbreviation of Sustainable Housing in Europe.  So far it is the only project I have found that actually sets out to measure the benefits of various aspects of housing design.  Its just a pity there are no results yet (although the Italian government has changed it’s policy in response to the short-term results achieved by the SHE developments that are taking place in their country, so I guess the general indications are good).  I just wish that someone had done something similar for other aspects of planning and development – like a study of the optimal socio-economic mix for a new town, or the influence that integrating less well off and disadvantaged social groups with more affluent residents has on crime and social dissatisfaction!

I met some interesting characters on this project too.  Like an apparently well thought-of world authority on the subject who just seems to swear and rant a lot, but doesn’t appear actually contribute much and a developer in Eastern Europe who seems to be able to raise limitless funds (I’m talking hundreds of millions of Euros here!) for a development before he has a plan!  No, don’t ask!

Anyway, all this brought me around to the idea of Cities as brands again.  I say again because its something that I talk about often in my Brand Discovery Programme workshops and Full Effect Marketing seminars.  The particular prompt on this occasion came as I was reading through some stuff on the shenanigans surrounding a planned new development in Adelaide.  Don’t you just love Aussie politics?  It must be one of the few Western-style democracies where politics reach such a height of verbal and sometimes physical abuse that the real issues become secondary.

Anyway, I picked up on a debate about whether the design of the new centre was, or even should be, in keeping with the Victorian and mock Gothic architecture that the State Capital is known for.  Somebody had commented that the centre should be Victorian in style because that was what Adelaide is all about.  Now we’re talking branding and that’s my subject.

On one hand maybe the brand Adelaide is about faux Victorian architecture, in which case the Victorian style shopping centre would be right on.  However, if the existing mock Victorian architecture was in its day more about being off-the-wall architecturally, that’s a different promise altogether.

Living part the time as I do in Prague I have seen how a city renown for startling architecture across the centuries maintains this reputation today (despite a short interruption by the Commies).  Prague made the decision very quickly after the fall of Communism that its new buildings would match the promise of the First Republic and before – not reproductions of a classical style mind you, but bold contemporary statements as the old buildings certainly were in their time.  The city fathers started small this time, with a building on the river, known to everyone now as the “dancing building” and over the last twenty years they have expanded their vision and encouraged architects and planners from around the word to bring their wild ideas to the city, resulting in larger stunning projects that contrast with the old, but reflect the same bold architectural statement of their forefathers – its starting to work!

I have lost count of the number of brands I have come across that have failed to recognise that it was the fact they were different rather than what made them so, that created their success in the first place and this is the same thing.  Prague could have gone the way of many British town planners and created reproduction architecture that looked like reproduction antique furniture – and we all know how tasteful that can be – NOT!  Its a lesson a lot of brand’s could use.  Instead of setting up their business to deliver the promise – a constant flow of new and different concepts – too many organisations have invested all their effort in trying to perpetuate an old idea.  What happens every time is their least imaginative competitors catch up, do the same thing and between them they turn the sector into … well, Slough (and we all know what John Betjeman made of that) until the next lighthouse brand comes along and whips their boring butts!

Successful brands (I mean brands that hang around for a few years) continually re-invent themselves coming up with new ideas and trading concepts that match the evolution of consumers – you are only as good as your next good idea!  Of course, nobody would deny, there’s always a chance that you’ll get it wrong, but even if you did, the worst consequence isn’t going to be as bad as the ultimate oblivion that lies in store for those who are stuck in a rut.  Besides, you can always change again and try to get it right – so you might as well just get on with it.

My foray into the world of architecture also gave me another parallel and that too resonates with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.  It goes back to the establishment of Christianinity in the West and the way that Christian churches were built on pagan religeous sites.  The idea was to symbolise the authority of the new religion.  When the Communists were in charge further East they did the same thing. Ceausescu in Romania was a master.  He virtually wiped out all evidence of history in Bucharest, replacing classical buildings with massive concrete blocks and cheap pre-fabricated high rises, but he also created a palace that was the third biggest building on earth.  Like a King rising above his subjects this dominates a grid of other Communist buildings from its raised position.  When you see it you just know what it stood for – no doubt there!  Although Prague wasn’t vandalised by the Communists like some other cities, its present day story is one of the brand reaserting its promise – pulling down the panelaks and replacing them with contemporary manifestations of the promise it always made.  There are a few commercial brands that could do with the same treatment.

Sure its tough to keep comming up with ideas, but that’s what marketing is, for Christ’s sake!  Its also why we marketers get paid (so they tell me!) so well!

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