Landscape architects have been and continue to be terrible at branding our profession.
It’s a problem.
I've been more involved with thinking about marketing recently and read How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Want You to Know by researcher Byron Sharp (thanks, S). This book offers a research-based approach to marketing and branding. It’s made me think about how we market ourselves as individual designers, firms, and - especially - as a profession.
The goal of branding is to make your products and services easily identifiable AND frequently noticed during your potential customers’ everyday lives. Sharp writes, “The purpose of building strong, distinctive assets is to increase the number of stimuli that can act as identification triggers for a brand.” Potential customers need to know your work when they see it and somehow connect it with you.
Sharp outlines several strategic guidelines (such as continuously reach all buyers of the brand’s service category, ensure the brand is easy to buy, stay competitive and keep up mass appeal), but the one that’s had me pondering for the past couple of days is:
Refresh and build brand-linked memory structures that make the brand easier to notice and buy
What’s a memory structure? Sharp writes, “Memory structures that relate to a brand include what the brand does, what it looks like, where it is available, when and where it is consumed, by who and with whom.”
Think about that for the profession of landscape architecture:
What do landscape architects do?
What does landscape architects’ work look like?
Where do you go to hire a landscape architect?
When and where is landscape architects’ work consumed?
Who experiences landscape architects’ work?
Do you have a clear and easy answer to any of those questions? The ASLA defines landscape architecture as “Landscape architecture encompasses the analysis, planning, design, management, and stewardship of the natural and built environment through science and design.“ That’s actually a pretty concise definition - but it’s not exactly easy to picture.
Sharp defines the distinctive elements (or cues) that contribute to memory structures as “anything that shows people what brand a product is”. He lists the following possibilities: colors, logos, taglines, symbols/characters, celebrities, advertising styles. Landscape architects’ work isn’t so easy to identify. What kinds of things do we design? Everything outside. We operate across scales. There’s also the self-defeating tradition within landscape architecture which tries to mask human effort in the experience of landscape - just think of Olmsted and Niagara Falls.
Sharp also identifies that distinctive elements can be evaluated using two criteria: uniqueness and prevalence. It’s interesting to think about high-profile landscape architecture projects related to these criteria. Consider the High Line and Lurie Garden. They’re unique. The abundance of flower color creates a highly memorable experience (Hitchmough’s research identified flower cover of 27% or more as a highly attractant quality of naturalistic plant communities). They’re also prevalent - they’re publicly accessible, located in major metro areas, and have heavy visitorship. That visitorship and accessibility makes them easy to visit - and well publicized on social media.
Landscape architects have the knowledge and skill to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the human and natural systems we serve. Moving forward, we need to start marketing ourselves in ways that allow the public to connect our skill and expertise with their positive experiences of place.