Property hasn’t traditionally been a sector known for its creative approach to branding. But as cities from Manchester to London undergo rapid generation, it seems developers are investing in identities that extend beyond a logo and a glossy sales brochure – systems that are playful, distinctive and aim to engage local residents as much as potential buyers and investors.
London agency SomeOne was recently commissioned to create a vibrant system for King’s Cross inspired in part by the area’s ghost signs while Jack Renwick Studio worked with a local letterpress artist to create a woodblock identity for a residential development in Hackney. In Manchester, creative agency Music commissioned a poem for U+I – the company behind the regeneration of the city’s Mayfield area – which featured in a film highlighting the area’s past.
The changing business of property branding
Nick Ramshaw, Managing Director at Thompson Brand Partners in Leeds, which recently worked on the branding for mixed use development Kirkstall Forge, believes developers and property agents have become “more knowledgeable about brands and branding” in the past few years.
“I think this is due to increased competition and the need for developers to have to work harder to sell/lease their properties. Property marketing used to be unimaginative and formulaic: print a brochure, place a few ads, stick up a board and wait for the phone to ring! Now things are much more sophisticated.”
Joy Nazzari, co-founder of dn&co—the studio behind branding for Stratford development Here East, the Television Centre in White City and St James’ Market, a luxury shopping and office development in Regent Street—agrees that there has been a shift in the sector’s approach to branding over the past decade.
Developers are investing much more heavily in strategy … answering the question ‘why will this place exist and who will care?’
“There were of course incredible pioneers such as Chiswick Park, which was branded ‘Enjoy–Work’ by Wolff Olins over 20 years ago, but often identity work just consisted of a ‘clever’ combination of the street number designed into the street address. Although this still happens, these days developers are investing much more heavily in strategy, hard quantitative and qualitative research about their audiences, and importantly, answering the question ‘why will this place exist and who will care?’ in a way that goes beyond the usual architecture specification. They’re investing in graphic design that will live beyond marketing and contribute to the identity of the place,” she says.
This isn’t particularly surprising – as Simon Manchipp, co-founder of SomeOne points out, companies in every sector have become more brand savvy. But Manchipp believes that “more illuminated” property developers have begun taking “a wider, more strategic view” when it comes to branding, leading to more intelligent and considered projects. “Encouragingly, all our recent property projects have come from a strategic start, not an aesthetic one,” he adds.
More and more, we’re seeing these spaces branded early on, and the land or building used to host events like exhibitions, street food markets, community coffee shops
Adam Rix, Creative Director at Music, says: “I think what we are starting to see developers invest more in is meanwhile use. This phase [from when] the land is acquired until the final plans are submitted and the building begins. More and more, we’re seeing these spaces branded early on, and the land or building used to host events like exhibitions, street food markets, community coffee shops, co-working spaces or even temporary museums. These spaces are designed not only to begin the process of perception change for the area but also open up a conversation with the public about what they want that space to become.”
While some developers have long been aware of the need for creative branding – “I used to love the Manhattan Loft’s work (I kept a brochure of theirs for about ten years), which I think maybe North did. Land Securities have always commissioned great work too,” says Rix – this rise in ‘meanwhile use’ has led to branding agencies being brought in earlier and asked to produce a much wider range of creative assets.
“We’re very much seen as partners to our clients – and we’re constantly having to evolve our brand and re apply it to new and exciting spaces and uses,” explains Rix. “It also means we’re commissioned, for example, to create the campaign to recruit the co-workers that will reside in [a] space … so perhaps as developers embrace this phase of a project more and more – in turn, more is asked of agencies.”
A growing resistance to development
These shifts in development branding can be attributed in part to increasing competition in cities undergoing rapid regeneration. With new shared work spaces popping up all over London, for example, developers are under increasing pressure to make their building stand out from the crowd.
But it is also a symptom of a growing resistance to development in cities where rapid regeneration has seen affordable estates knocked to the ground and replaced with unaffordable developments. Several developments in London have failed to meet affordable housing targets – as in the case of the site that replaced Elephant & Castle’s Heygate Estate – and Londoners have been forced to leave their homes or move out of their local area altogether. As a result, new developments are often met with concern and in some cases resentment – and the branding of a site can have a significant impact on how people perceive and react to it.
“Most of our work is in London and Londoners have a strong opinion about their city, its neighbourhoods and villages,” says Nazzari. “A lot of our job is to help our clients communicate [an] often complex amount of change that people can [either] love or not be cynical about – or start rioting against…. In this way an identity is extremely important. It is often the acid test by which people will judge you [and decide whether to] take you seriously or not.”
Any brand work that can open doors, calm worries and better communicate benefits will be more readily welcomed
When crafting brand identities for developments, it’s important to demonstrate a sensitivity to the concerns of neighbouring residents or business owners – and branding forms a vital part of this. “The tone of voice through which we talk is incredibly important,” adds Rix. “How a project talks – and more importantly, listens – to the city or place within which it exists is incredibly important. Creative ideas around how we can facilitate listening more can have a massive impact on the success of a project and how people feel about it.”
Manchipp agrees: “Developments are a desperately tough undertaking … so any brand work that can open doors, calm worries and better communicate benefits will be more readily welcomed,” he says.
“When researching a new project we look at both sides of the story. Both from developers and residents,” he adds. “Local residents may have concerns about disruption, locals may be evangelical, people new to the area may have misplaced preconceptions … and the developers themselves may have been working on the project for years, so have different aspirations for the outcome [of a project] amongst themselves and their developers. And every point of view is valid. Everyone must be heard.”
Some developers are more sensitive to the needs of existing occupants and local residents than others but as Rix points out, they all have “a great deal of responsibility”. Their work has the potential to transform an area for better or worse – to create opportunities or divide and alienate communities. So it’s important to think about how developers can engage with local communities whether through events, initiatives or communications.
So when it comes to branding, how do you go about creating a identity that will help alleviate concerns over a new site while also inspiring potential buyers and investors?
Asking the obvious questions
Ramshaw says the process begins like any other: “We start with the obvious questions. Who is the target audience? Is it commercial or residential? What is the competition? How should the development be positioned in the market? What is different about the development? What will motivate the target audience to buy / let?” Research involves speaking with a range of stakeholders – from agents to potential buyers – and researching the market and the competition.
Nazzari describes a similar approach: “We always ask, what is this place about? Who is our audience and what do they care about? How do we make them care about this product? How can we build on what’s good and improve on what isn’t? Then it’s about making that change happen through real acts and deeds, applying the thinking to actual behaviour on the ground. Only once we’re comfortable we can do that do we think about what beautiful graphic interpretation is right and appropriate,” she explains.
At Music, Rix says the process often begins with looking to the history of a site – an exercise that can provide an interesting starting point for a design system. “It’s important to know what has gone before in order to inform the future. Sometimes we unearth all kinds of brilliant stories. And sometimes we don’t,” he explains. “In the past, we’ve sought out professors that specialise in the specific activity on a site, or we’ve visited the National Archive to find products that were created on a site … what we do or don’t find defines the process from hereon in really.”
“Next up – and before we create anything visual – it’s important we understand the soul of a development. What impact can it realistically can have on the people that will live, work and play there? What is the vision for the place, and how do we want it to make you feel? What makes this development like no other? We might be competing for tenants looking to locate at other sites in the city but we could also be competing with sites across the UK or even Europe. Defining all of that – often with words – then creates a platform for design.”
Looking to the past
Looking to the past is a popular approach in development branding. Jack Renwick’s Carpenter’s Wharf branding provides a crafty nod to the site’s past (it was previously home to a furniture maker who had timber shipped down the canals), while dn&co’s identity for Television Centre featured a pattern inspired by the moire effect produced when TVs experience signal interference. SomeOne looked to ghost signs for inspiration when designing the branding for King’s Cross (but combined this with bold colours to create something contemporary). Manchipp, Nazzari and Ramshaw agree that researching a site’s heritage can be an effective method – one that will resonate with local residents and potential buyers or renters – but it should be done with caution.
The past is always a rich seam to investigate … but the key is, how is it relevant to the future of that place?
“The past is always a rich seam to investigate and as cities become increasingly recycled and regenerated, there is almost always a back story available for inspiration. But the key is, how is it relevant to the future of that place?” says Nazzari. “Successful projects look to stitch together the history and the future use in a way that creates a level of continuity and relevance.”
Manchipp agrees: “Authenticity and history always work wonders in the boardroom. But one needs to be wary of planting both feet so firmly in the past that you hinder new developments from moving forwards. KX has typography inspired by ghost signs. But also carries new progressive design work created to push things on.”
Ramshaw believes designers drawing on a site’s heritage should try and find a compelling story that will really set a development apart. “When the back story is strong and fits with the development concept, it can be used to position a development in a particular way…. The downside of using a back story about history is that it can lead to more generic identities. The stories need to be distinctive to create difference, and many history episodes are too familiar to achieve this,” he adds.
Researching the history of a site can unearth unusual type, patterns or images that can lead to a unique identity system with a tale. Music was recently asked to rebrand a former print works and spent several days sourcing thousands of patterns inspired by the company, which have formed a key part of the identity system.
But designers must place equal emphasis on a site’s future – as Rix points out, branding for any development should say as much about the long-term vision for a development as it does about the history of the land on which it sits.
…and beyond the obvious
Beyond the history of a site, the inspiration for a new development’s identity can come from many places. “Every location has a story and even the newest places have a character,” says Manchipp. “You get a feeling from them when you visit. Light plays in differing ways, sound behaves uniquely as it bounces off varied materials and so the many nuances of the environment can be embodied in its branding. If, for example, there’s a lot of concrete, the brand work could champion that, or provide a softer counterpart … if glass and shadow is used in a particular way, bring it out in the visual work – like we did for Hammersmith Grove [see below]. If the area has a dodgy past, look to reassure.”
Place branding has the opportunity to raise questions, to point conversations in certain directions
Whatever the inspiration, he believes it’s important to strive for an identity system that “rises above the obvious visual connections” – and delivers more than a great looking logo. “These developments are usually too big and too important to have to rely on one visual gag or word mark so we look to the creation of teams of assets to work together rather than a single rubber stamp,” he adds.
“However famous the location, I don’t subscribe to the ‘just type the name out’ school of thought. Sure, a monolithic wordmark applied in the same way everywhere screams consistency. And it’s a doddle to manage. But place branding has the opportunity to raise questions, to point conversations in certain directions, and to connect different assets in and around the area. It is a lost commercial opportunity to not to even attempt that with these projects. Most of the briefs we receive are looking for a way to reconnect a place with a new audience while being very sensitive to people with existing links. A single logo working alone isn’t going to do that well.”
Beware of trends
Like any sector, there are visual trends that come and go in property branding. Ramshaw notes a number of recent identity systems incorporating dark colours and copper finishes as a mark of quality. Developers also continue to invest vast sums in printed brochures at a time when most sectors are moving towards a digital first approach. Manchipp notes a number of identities reflecting the local landscape and others incorporating an element of visual wit – an approach he suggest might be driven by a desire to “introduce more charm into fairly charmless developments.”
But Nazzari, Manchipp, Ramshaw and Rix agree that it’s best to steer clear of visual trends – or you could end up creating an identity system that feels out of date before a project is even completed.
This is the wrong industry to be thinking about trends in graphic design
“This is the wrong industry to be thinking about trends in graphic design,” says Nazzari. “More and more clients are seeing the benefit of creating long term brands…. it’s not about cheap design tricks but genuine and meaningful expressions that can evolve over long timescales and still remain current”.
“Colours, type, imagery styles all come and go in terms of fashion. What is important for the designer is to understand the longevity of the identity, how long it will need to work and how fast some of the design trends can change,” adds Ramshaw. “Depending on the market conditions, developments can sometimes take longer than originally anticipated, and identities need to run the test of time.”
Branding developments can be a challenging business – not least because of the level of public scrutiny many projects face and the amount of people involved in a project. Agencies have to work with funders and developers as well as architects and agents, all of whom are heavily invested in a new development.
“These developments are case studies for everyone and our work is on the front of every visible manifestation of marketing before the project even exists … so everyone is interested,” she says. “The risk is that so many opinions can drive creative work to the middle of the road. Our biggest challenge is around the discomfort of the new and the unusual. We address this early by ensuring we engage across the board at the beginning [of a project], but aim to have a small client working team at the highest level possible to ensure progress.”
“Another challenge we have faced is the attitude of the developer,” adds Ramshaw. “Some are happy to follow the well-trodden paths rather than work with you to create a new approach…. A third challenge is how to market something that does not yet exist. CGIs can help, especially high quality ones, but this is only half the story. We need to create the impression of what is coming, before it is there. To address this, we will use hoardings as creatively as possible, to paint the picture of the future [of a site].”
Advice for designers
Offering some advice for agencies entering the world of property branding, Manchipp suggests thinking hard about process “and how you’ll get everyone on board with an idea” while Nazzari warns: “Don’t underestimate how many opinions there will be.”
Ramshaw advises doing as much research as possible before starting the creative process – “make sure you know everything there is to know about the development, location, history and local market. Leave no stone unturned and don’t assume anything,” he says. “Once you have identity ideas or concepts, show them in context with real content and test them with friends, colleagues and potential buyers. Getting as many views as possible helps with objectivity and the research doesn’t need to be formal.”
Don’t look for inspiration in other development identities
Branding for new developments must bring a project to life – a site that might be nothing more than an artist’s impression at the point at which work begins. And if agencies want to impress clients, inspire potential buyers and strike a chord with neighbourhood residents, then Rix believes they should look beyond the world of property for inspiration.
“Don’t look for inspiration in other development identities – look to history, look to popular culture, look to any brand that people have a connection with. Don’t approach it any differently to any other project because it’s property. Think about what it will feel like to be in that place when its compete and work backwards. Make people feel something – don’t just be a badge on some floor plans.”