Brand Identity: Renovate or Build from the Ground Up?

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Two months into the renovation of our family home in Maine, with house talk on the brain, I’ve come to realize that building a home is not unlike building a brand. The outcome will depend on the process. While temptation and tendency are to leapfrog to finishing touches like granite counter tops and spiffy websites, a brand isn’t just skin-deep. It’s built from the bones.

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Certainly not an architect or a builder in the true sense of those words, I recognize their roles in the work I do. “Strategy and Execution” could easily be called “Design and Build.” Similarities exist in the process of growing a business and growing a home. The approach is familiar, and the order of things — from planning, to construction, to the finer details — are not dissimilar.

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In marketing a product, business, person or art form, it’s a no-no to skip the critical phase of building a solid institutional platform. But what does that mean? What’s involved? Why is it important?

Institutional marketing — your brand, your identity, your communications strategy, your positioning — is like the framing and foundation of a well-built home. These are the stabilizers, the constants, the structure supporting all else. A brand isn’t defined by walls, windows and flooring. Like brochures, websites and Twitter accounts, those are apt to change. Barring an earthquake, a cellar is here to stay. A brand builds from its foundation.

For years we’ve talked about it. This old house needs some serious TLC. A growing family and changing lifestyles have resulted in a two-page-long wish list.

It’s a perfectly good house. But it could be roomier, more efficient, and that pink bathtub has to go. In heart-to-hearts, we hemmed and hawed. Sell this place and find one move-in-ready-to-go? Tear it down and build anew? Make the most of what we have?

Resoundingly: Option 3. We love this house. A simple cape at land’s end, we found it after three years of looking and made an offer before stepping inside. The setting is special.

Do we have to tear down and rebuild in order to improve? There is no need to reinvent something — brand or building — with good bones and roots. Better that we be stewards, to protect and maintain.

The Lesson: As a specific marketplace helps to shape a brand, in the case of a home, it’s “location, location, location.”

Build a good team. Set specific objectives. Ensure clear communications. Rely on the pros.

Working closely from day one with both architect and builder, we have a good team in place. We met with many well-respected design and build professionals but ultimately decided to skip the bidding and go with our gut — people we connected with and who best “get” our family’s priorities and lifestyle. There is a refreshing lack of ego at play. Communications are clear and consistent. An understanding of the have-to-dos, the hope-to-dos, and the wouldn’t-it-be-nice to dos.

Surely moving a wall here or adding a window there, reconfiguring a room or two, perhaps adding a little loft, that’s all doable. Keep it within the existing footprint so not to affect neighbors’ views; minimize environmental impact. Let’s squeeze what we can out of this little house.

Sitting at a computer in Boston, I share Kristi’s (our architect) desktop in Maine and watch as she works and reworks the first and second floor plans. No, a closet won’t fit there, and you can’t just shift the stairway. Kristi is teacher, designer and diplomat. Each change affects the next. What are we missing? Is there a different direction we should consider? Are we asking this house to do too much?

The Lesson: Brand identity begins by looking within.

Know strengths and weaknesses, challenges and opportunities. Don’t skimp on structure.

All this time I’ve assumed the solidness of a house depends on the strength of its foundation. The foundation does the heavy lifting.

Not so fast, says Jake, the builder. Anyone who has built a home or even tightened the legs of Grandma’s antique rocker with wood glue knows that framing is just as important. The frame supports the walls and holds up the roof. While the foundation gets the credit, it’s really not all about the base.

The Lesson: Building or rebuilding a brand requires a firm foundation and the proper framework.

Be open to new ideas. Start big picture, then hone and refine.

Team in place and objectives defined, we sat down to brainstorm.

After years of clipping photos from House and Garden, Real Simple, Dwell, Architectural Digest, and Maine Home + Design, it seemed logical that our first meeting would be a fun-filled session of pick and choose: these windows, that door, these cabinets, those fixtures. Imagine the dismay in learning that my house probably wouldn’t quite match most of my clips. Not unlike Vogue and Cosmo, the images suck us in. It’s okay to dream, but it’s important to have realistic goals. Most of us are simply not going to get Gisele’s legs, J. Lo’s butt, or a floor-to-ceiling marble rain shower.

The Lesson: Brand integrity means staying true to who you are.

Know your resources. Have a plan but keep it flexible.

Starting from scratch, all you need is a sketchpad and an imagination. Starting from existing CAD drawings, there’s a house in the way. We’ve had to sharpen our pencils and rework the rework. With no shortage of good ideas, the reality is that most are not do-able. Lot coverage and critical edges are factors. Elevations, collar ties (not a rafter, a collar tie), structural engineering must be considered. Oh and don’t forget budget. Fortunately, Jake feels comfortable occasionally suggesting I should get my head out of the clouds.

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At this point, questions begin to outweigh answers. Assumptions are challenged. Much like re-working and re-thinking a brand, an open mind is key. What can we realistically do? What can we hang onto? What are our priorities?

To “think outside the box” is an overused cliché. But to accomplish all that we’re trying to do with this little house, the phrase has become literal. Maybe we do need to expand the footprint. But how and where? And will code and budget allow? Jake puts pencil to paper with a quick rough sketch. And there it is: the Ah-ha moment. Bingo! Instead of attempting to retrofit a small square — wrongly assuming that to be most efficient — or taxing the structural integrity of the existing roofline, a small bump literally “outside the box” — an addition — not only addresses our needs, but creates possibilities.

Just as an animal whisperer might innately relate to a four-legged beast, Jake seems to connect on a deeper level with the inner idiosyncrasies of our house. Inside those walls and ceilings live a world that few of us understand. But we don’t need to. Jake does.

The Lesson: Good branding draws from a good blueprint. Collaborate with experts and be open to new ideas — theirs and yours.

Frame your identity before you build it.

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Google the word “identity” and you’ll come up with a glut of information. Save that step and make these identity builders as critical to building a solid institutional marketing structure as foundation and frame are to homebuilding. Nail them, and you will be the envy of the neighborhood.

1. A good name: in all ways, a good name

2. Purpose: what and why you do what you do and for whom

3. Positioning: where you stand in the marketplace

4. Strategy: does it fit with objectives and resources?

5. A well-outfitted Toolkit:

a) The visual brand: professionally designed logo mark/s, colors, fonts.

b) The written brand: professionally defined taglines, messaging, descriptives, and content.

c) An internal plan: don’t go public without it, start with your nearest and dearest.

d) An external plan: don’t go public without it, reach out to existing and new audiences.

e) Strict adherence to consistent and well-defined brand standards.

The Lesson: Brand identity — rebuilt or from the ground up — requires continual maintenance.

Through process, build identity. Differentiate. Tell your story. Be unique.

“If these walls could talk.”

Oh but they do. Every house has stories to tell. This one is no different. Non-living, non-breathing? I beg to differ. This house is alive. Memories. Celebrations. Time spent living, dying, laughing, crying. Cooking, playing, reading, praying. Carving, grilling, fretting, stewing. Sleeping, planting, hearing, thanking. Time invested.

Its identity is built within its walls and under our feet. It feels good to hold on to the heart of this home.

I’m glad we’re not building from the ground up. This place may soon appear new, but its identity is already formed, cast in concrete and two-by-fours, collar ties and rafters. Like a tried-and-true brand with a rock-solid foundation, this place has history, stories to tell. Soon it will be shored up with a mix of fine workmanship, natural materials, and a slew of ideas and inspiration drawn from family members and others. Mostly though, if only we listen, the place itself speaks to us, guides our decisions, tells us what to do.

The Lesson: Brand loyalty grows through trust, familiarity, and trial and error. In rebranding, a look outward to audience is important, but history, place, and one’s unique story are key.

The coast of Maine can be hard on its inhabitants. Long winters, salt air, and a good Nor’Easter create challenges for those who live (or build) here. We’re exposed. But if exposure builds character, and character begs integrity, then integrity can define identity.

Most architects will tell you that building from the ground up is easier than renovating an existing structure. And not just a little easier. Branding is no different. With the right mix of process, people, and place, the extra effort to renovate or rebrand brings great satisfaction and appreciated value.

We’re almost home.

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Leslie Cargill

Leslie Cargill is a “smarketer” and communicator, privileged to work with leading brands like Boston Ballet, United Way, the Museum of Science and the Boston Red Sox. From baseball to ballet, she advances experience-based programs in the arts, tourism, education, entertainment, healthcare, fitness and sports. While the goal is to retain and grow an existing base of business, the trick is in developing new or “non-traditional” audiences. She was Director of Marketing and Communications with Boston Ballet before returning to her consulting practice where she serves as advisor, project manager and interim CMO for her clients. She believes in a good mix of marketing basics, a campaign approach, and both program and institutional strategies in branding, positioning, messaging and communicating. A dyed-in-the wool New Englander, she splits her time between Boston and her family home on the coast of Maine. She can be reached at [email protected]. Or call Leslie at 617.913.9000.