About tradition — and branding

August 11, 2010

Flying to Orlando to attend the National Marketing Conference of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), I pulled the American Way magazine from the seat pocket. I was attracted to a story about J Mays, Ford Motor Co.'s vice president of design, who directed the team that designed Ford's 2002 Thunderbird. This new offering was inspired by the 1955 two-seat sports car that caught the fancy of motorists but was discontinued in 1997 after it had been deprived of the qualities that had made it such a hit.

In an earlier stint with Volkswagen, Mays orchestrated the redesign of the retro VW Beetle.

Mays was asked how he keeps his edge as an automotive design innovator. "It is a mixture of left- and right-brain thinking ... but in the end what we're really dealing with is all right brain, emotional issues," he responded.

To keep a creative team on track, Mays added, "It isn't always necessary to invent from a clean sheet of paper. We can be inspired and create by embracing our culture and diversity."

Asked if he expects an end to the "retro" trend in design, Mays said: "Because I don't see it as black-and-white retro or heritage, I don't see it ever going away. In fact, I don't think it has ever gone away. Look at suits today. They look exactly like they did in the 1940s, except with a modern twist to the tailoring. It's the same thing in architecture. Our job as a design community is not simply to create new, but ultimately to decide what we are going to keep that will help define us as a brand."

I began thinking about how Mays' remarks might apply to architecture. And later that day, I experienced another example of the link between heritage and branding when I arrived at Boardwalk, a Disney resort that is a re-creation of a 1940s waterfront village. The Walt Disney organization is a case study in the effective use of tradition and branding as marketing tools.

The issue of branding was implicit in presentations at the SMPS conference, with session topics that included "Techniques to close the deal." Putting these fresh inputs into perspective, I concluded that Ford, Disney and SMPS were providing examples of techniques that are applicable to all segments of the building design and construction industry, and particularly to architects: Develop a niche, and don't cast aside traditional values in the name of progress.


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