Less is more

Posted on April 20, 2012


Less is more. It’s an old adage that’s never been so relevant. I have been the architect of many brand concepts and my favourites are “Everybody needs a place to think” BBC FOUR, “Do something different” The Barbican, and “Simplify complexity” Data Interconnect. They each have a very different story – but let me tell you about The Barbican.

The Barbican was perceived as an impenetrable arts centre and the preserve of a small clique of patrons. A Brutalist eyesore that should never have been built? Internal conflict and strife between the different genre departments had created silos of uncollaborative employees. Several millions of pounds kept being spent modifying access and internal layouts in an attempt to create a more favourable brand experience, the marketing department had even resorted to painting a thick yellow line from the Tube Station to the main entrance foyer to help visitors find their way in. Internally every genre silo wanted its own message, own advertising and promotion resulting in a mountain of different and disparate brochures, leaflets and advertisements. A printer’s bonanza but a branding nightmare. Customers bombarded with mailings and a foyer that looked more like a bus station tourist information centre after a busy day in July.

Branding relies upon ruthless interrogation. It also requires submersion. It helps to don the hat of the anthropologist as well as the archaeologist. The more I talked to the people who used the place, the more I sat an observed hour after hour, the more I dug, the more I began to realise that there was something of potentially huge value, behind the isolationist perception, that hadn’t been understood and had dogged the reputation of the venue for so long. The real nugget came not from focus group research, workshops with the senior management teams, employee surveys but from the discovery of the original architects proposal that I found in the archives of the City of London library. I came across their vision, described as “the creation of a mind gym” and “a mental recreation centre”. In short they had set out to build a very different place to become a centre for celebration of difference that underpins outstanding culture and performance. The very design of the building was intentionally ‘difficult’ in order to challenge yet also allow for hidden delights to be revealed – in the way that most forms of culture seek to challenge, stimulate, communicate and reward.

The market/behavioral analysis and profiling of culture seekers started to make sense. As many people want to be challenged by culture, as they do want to have an enjoyable evening out with something they are familiar with. London has the widest array of cultural entertainment offerings than probably any other city in the world. Becoming a beacon of difference for people who wanted to be part of something different looked at once a strategically very rich route. If the brand were to own this attitude, would the building become a positive not a negative? Would employees within their genre silos have a new point of mutual interest and collaboration? What other values might be created?

As a branding project with the three words ‘do something different’ at its core, the value created was enormous. The venue perception was transformed; no more millions had to be spent in unnecessary building works; more new visitors than ever before; more people visited to see more than one type of genre than ever before; brochure, print and mailing costs were slashed; most challenging performances had higher ticket sales than ever before; employees were more empowered than ever before. Simply put – they had a new yet original purpose.

Mark Butcher