Sep 8, 2011

Branding the Landscape

Pop quiz: Is this my style, or my brand?
I was having an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day about "branding" in landscape design and architecture, from my perspective as a former marketing guy. "What's the difference between 'brand' and 'style?" she asked.

I opined that your style is the outward representation of your work, the "character" of your product. Most of us in the industry can describe the styles of our famous peers: Peter Walker's geometric rhythms, Andrea Cochran's juxtaposition of angled stone or steel against lush greens, SEAM Studio's outrageous artistry. Some designers' styles are so thoroughly and consistently expressed, they become synonymous with their creators: Piet Oudolf's all-season meadows, Oehme van Sweden's "New American Garden," Roberto Burle Marx's tropical cubism.

While there's nothing illegitimate about any of these, the problem with a style is that — although there's nothing like the original and none of us sets out to make a career as a copyist — they can be copied, albeit to varying degrees of success.

On the other hand, everything you do is your brand — not only your work product, but also your work process: your external and internal communications; your partnerships; your reputation (whether deserved or not). It's the culture of your company, even if you're "only" a company of one. Do you commit to delighting your clientele at every turn? Is it important to you to continually expand your knowledge of plants, technologies, construction codes? Are you as obsessive about spelling errors as you are about the angles of your lighting? These may not reflect your style, but they definitely define your brand. It's possible no one else will ever know whether or not you work with integrity and take personal pride in every single project. It's possible they will.

Because its constituencies are so varied and complex, a brand is a fingerprint — a personality. And as such, unlike a style, it cannot be copied. If you're interviewing designers, it may be worth asking them to describe their brands. And if you're a designer yourself, you'd better know what your own brand is.