One of the most common questions prospective clients ask when discussing a new project is: “When is the right time to bring the brand team into the process?” As I tell all of our clients, there’s not really a right answer, but there are definitely pros and cons to different approaches. Some of our clients make it a point to bring us into the process very early – 12 to 18 months before the project even breaks ground – then lean on our team to set the overall tone for the project. Other clients wait until the end, often with only months to go before pre-leasing is set to start.
Any creative firm should be able to start once renderings and interiors have been put into motion, but more strategic firms can be a big asset earlier in the process. There are pros and cons to every timeline. Let’s take a look.
What is “Early Engagement”? Let’s define Early Engagement as long before any groundbreaking happens and before schematic drawings and architectural renderings have begun. Generally at this point, architects have been chosen and begun preliminary planning, while landscape, interiors, and leasing teams may have been selected but are only beginning to pull assets together.
Many clients choose to bring in our team this early in the process because they’ve seen that Brand is the only discipline involved that is looking at the whole project from a bird’s-eye view perspective. The brand team is crafting the story – understanding how location, architecture, interior design, target demographics, neighborhood character, competitive set, and overall vision for the project need to come together to build and market a successful product.
In this scenario, the brand team becomes the early captain of the process, leading a vision session or creative workshop that includes as many players as possible – architecture, interiors, landscape, and leasing to be specific. A good creative team with a focus on strategy provokes dialog that engages everyone in the room and begins to paint a picture of the goals and vision of the project. All disciplines are involved because discussion doesn’t center around marketing, logos, or colors, but around personality, target markets, and what competitors are doing in the market. This session should uncover elements of the project both tactical and nuanced, providing direction and inspiration as a collaborative effort between the client and all teams present.
This process works well if there is confidence in all players in the room (and perhaps most especially the brand team set to lead the process). This approach is the most challenging for that brand team, as they are literally starting with nothing – zero. It’s up to the brand team to pull the vision for the project from the client, which can be difficult. If your team (developer/investor/leasing) has a clear vision for the project that you can communicate clearly, then this may be a good option. If there is no immediately clear vision already in play, it will be a challenge to develop any substantive dialog to guide the broader team.
It’s also important to note that there may be egos or feelings in the room. Architects and interiors folks aren’t always excited to be “taking direction” from a brand team – so it’s important to seek their input and make it clear their voice is part of the discussion. In reality, a good creative team isn’t giving direction, but rather seeking input.
What is “Mid-Stream Engagement”? This is likely the most common time developers and leasing teams engage the brand team. In this scenario, architects have developed plans and renderings, and landscape and interiors teams are either beginning their process, or have already presented initial concepts.
Assuming the development team is excited about the direction of the architect’s proposed solutions and landscape and interiors teams are providing inspired creative concepts that align with the vision, this is a perfect time to engage the brand team. Unlike early engagement, where the brand team will lead the process of uncovering the overall creative direction, in this scenario the brand team will need to quickly get up to speed and sync up with a process that is already well in motion. If you’re engaging a new agency, this is a safe bet that shouldn’t impact your existing process and will give your brand team the raw materials they need to start their own creative process.
At Matchbox, we make it a point to meet with architects and interior designers to hear from them directly about what inspired their solutions. We’ll discuss specific materials, colors, and approaches to ensure that the full brand experience, from first website visit through signing of the lease, is consistent and cohesive.
When it runs smoothly, there are very few cons to this approach. The challenges here come when any of the creative teams involved don’t recognize the importance of collaboration and alignment. The strongest property brands manage to connect every aspect of the experience – branding, marketing, architecture, interiors, even landscaping. If any of these teams go rogue and don’t seek to gain alignment, cracks can start to appear.
A good brand team will recognize the progress already made on a project and seek to bring the existing vision to life through a strategic approach and creative interpretation of existing assets.
What is “Late Engagement”? Late Engagement is exactly what it sounds like. In this scenario properties are close to topping out, and pre-leasing is nearly ready to begin, or in worst-case scenarios already started. Late engagement can happen for a variety of reasons – a troubled development that’s been focused on more critical issues, an agency engagement that’s gone south and required a reboot, or an overconfident development team that doesn’t value branding or assumes the “brand” can be thrown together at the last minute. In any case, it’s never ideal, but certainly not impossible.
While late engagement of a brand team is never ideal, there are, in fact, elements that can make the job quick and efficient. A savvy brand team can take advantage of all the hard work already completed by architects, planners, and particularly interior design teams – whose process and language most closely mimic a brand team’s process. With these assets in hand, the brand team can often work more quickly to put together branding and messaging that elevates the property in line with the vision that’s already nearly complete.
Starting any project “late” is never ideal. The biggest challenge in this scenario generally revolves around timelines. Developers and leasing teams are chomping at the bit to have creative materials, while brand teams push back, recognizing that good work takes time. The results are often half-baked solutions that look thrown together (because they are) and result in less-than-stellar results. Additionally, inconsistencies often result, as signage and other hard assets have to be installed before the brand is complete. This fractures the overall brand experience and weakens the broader marketing pitch. In our experience, waiting until the last minute often results in frustration for all parties, and lackluster results. Oftentimes in these scenarios, teams find themselves back at the drawing board a year later trying to figure out where they went wrong and engaging a new brand team to “re-brand” a project whose paint is still drying.
So what’s the right time to bring the brand team to the table? Well, it depends. But the answer probably lies in the needs of the developer and leasing teams, and where they stand on their own collective vision for the project. Where needed, a brand team can be a huge asset to the process and success of a project when brought in early – but they can be equally effective in bringing a clear vision to life if one’s already on the table. As with all projects, the best bet is to come to the table with clear expectations, good communication, and a common goal of doing great work together.