Things are changing in the world of business property, with developers investing much more in design and using increasingly sophisticated and lavish branding techniques to entice buyers and tenants. Scott Billings checks out the scene
THE TRADITIONAL lexicon of property development doesn’t exactly fizzle with excitement: chartered surveyors, floor plans, leasebacks and vacancy rates are hardly the stuff of dreams. Yet the industry’s success, whether residential or commercial, is all about the captivation of new tenants, and a number of property clients are calling on design consultancies to inject a more sophisticated, brand-led approach to presenting and selling their buildings.
The task of marketing property to potential tenants usually lies with the agents, who will often focus on a building’s specifications and technical aspects. But they need to go further, says James Beveridge, director of design consultancy Brownjohn. ‘Property is more than just buildings, but agents and developers tend to get hung up on the buildings themselves. You have to think of the end-user and build up a brand that’s more about the reality of actually living or working in the area,’ he maintains.
Steve Lloyd, art director at design consultancy Ico, describes much design and communications in the commercial property sector as having an ‘insular, self-referencing viewpoint’. Some claim that design consultancies specialising in property marketing rely on predictable, industry-standard approaches, and a staid language of floor plans, boards, models and photographs. ‘With specialist consultancies you can see a repetitive format for all the projects,’ says Jim Sutherland, a director at Hat Trick Design.
Lloyd agrees. ‘Developers, particularly of residential properties, are looking beyond those specialist consultancies where themes and formats are often repeated. They have higher expectations now and they can afford to aspire to greater design values. This attracts designers to the sector,’ he says.
However, according to Mike Sutton, director of property design specialist Sectorlight Sutton Young, there are advantages to clients in using specialised consultancies. ‘There’s a lot of nitty-gritty work in property design which can be challenging and costly if consultancies aren’t used to it,’ he says.
Arguably the most design savvy of the major developers is Land Securities,last year awarded Client of the Year at Design Week’s Benchmarks awards ceremony. To build its consultancy roster, Land Securities sought groups outside the core of property design specialists, initially appointing more than ten consultancies. This was reworked last year to form a Creative Strategic Council of six groups, plus its in-house teams.
It’s in the creation of strong and emotive brands that designers are lifting property communications to new levels. Ico’s work for the Paddington Basin development in London includes branding for the £1bn Paddington Walk residential and retail zone. ‘In residential sales many developers move on to the next scheme once apartments are sold, so have little to gain in investing in a brand over the longer term, unless they are developing a scheme over five to ten years where their reputation is critical to the next phase. This is the case with Paddington Walk,’ says Lloyd. Ico’s series of communications are built around the word ‘walk’, promoting the site’s proximity to central London.
For luxury residences, sensual communication becomes more important. For Bath & Bath’s five-floor, Grade II-listed house in London’s Belgravia, Ico’s ‘tactile’ literature included handmade cases, in a design that echoes the grandeur of the residence. These kind of emotive cues, along with a more conversational design language, are now being adopted by the commercial sector, where, coupled with the necessary hard sales data, they can create a more compelling sell. Ico’s next project is to design the brand and marketing strategy for Heron Tower, the planned 46-storey mega-skyscraper in the City of London.
Brownjohn’s work for Prupim’s Green Park business site near Reading uses images of nature and a clean, green palette to promote the location’s lakeside landscape. The consultancy is also designing a bus service for the park, with vehicles liveried in artificial grass. Like the street-walking logos conceived by GBH for Land Securities’ Cardinal Place retail development in central London, Brownjohn’s buses show how property brands can be inventively brought to life in different media, lifted from standard-issue brochures and marketing suites.
But perhaps the next big move by property clients will be towards more immersive environments in the marketing suites themselves, bringing in the skills of digital and exhibition designers. Land Securities appointed digital consultancy All of Us, a member of its Strategic Creative Council, to create a ‘theatrical’ suite for its Dashwood House office development near London’s Liverpool Street. Opening soon, the space is kitted out with bespoke software, delivering flythrough sequences to a three-screen panorama, and features an interactive Corian table moulded to model the building and its surroundings, with roads etched and sprayed out on the surface.
‘There’s lots of information that needs to be customised so that every [prospective buyer] doesn’t get the same presentation,’ explains All of Us interaction director Orlando Mathias. ‘Land Securities has put a lot of money into this first one, but it can reuse the hardware. Most other marketing suites are really just lightboxes with printed materials and a CD-ROM.’
As with most marketing, the key to successful brand communication often lies in making a human connection. ‘There is a preconception that commercial purchasing decisions are somehow a less emotive area than a residential purchase, and a simple facts and figures approach is all that is required,’ says Lloyd. But things are changing, according to Beveridge. ‘The sector is much more open to new ideas now,’ he says. ‘There are some very enlightened people at the agents and developers and they’ve realised that creating a strong brand is a very powerful asset indeed.’