Branding from the Ground Up

As competition for clients increases, having a strong personal brand can make all the difference.

by Peter Conant

I’ve always believed that building a brand in our industry begins with a personal brand. Starting my own design firm 11 years ago, I had nothing but myself, a cell phone and people’s perception of me—this was my brand. From that point onward my brand consisted of how people thought of me, our firm and our work.

We all have a brand. People form opinions in their minds as to who we are and what we do, and it’s important not just to understand, but to manage it. My first step in establishing a brand was to be seen as fully capable in design innovation, quality control and geographical reach. I wanted every part of our firm’s work to stand out, whether it was our first website, a brochure leaving our office or the design of a store or company headquarters—our work was to represent a high caliber of quality.

Naturally our objective is to have the best clients and the strongest business that we can. Our firm focuses on elevating our brand by creating something memorable, incorporating design freshness and working with clients who have household name recognition. We want our work to represent who we are rather than the firm. Our goal is to be recognized by our work, which results in word-of-mouth recommendations. So far, this has been the most successful way for us to build long-term clients.

Joining the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) has been helpful in our development by providing opportunities to discover how other people think and what they are doing. This is why our firm pays 100 percent of our staff’s IIDA membership costs. I believe when we can learn from other people’s successes and challenges we are that much further ahead.

When I was at NeoCon this year, I attended a Herman Miller seminar at IIDA headquarters with presenter John Snavely, who works at the Envisioning Group at Microsoft. He frequently referred to recent interactions with Primo Orpilla of O+A, who, quite by fortuitous chance, was sitting next to me in the audience. This small firm reinvented Microsoft’s workplace and incorporated some amazing technology and communication tools. This was not only a rich learning experience; it inspired me to also do great things with our clients. One of the reasons IIDA can be such an excellent tool is because it gathers together regular people who have done great things.

In a constantly changing economy it’s critical to know your brand and your client relationships. We welcome these difficult times because we can assist our clients in finding solutions and implementing change. We want to work with people that appreciate design, have challenging projects and value what we do. Finding clients with needs that align with our brand and character helps create strong and lasting relationships. I feel that to build a solid client relationship, it is important to anticipate what a client wants or needs, even if they don’t know themselves. It’s also important to remember that we are there to serve them—it is not all about our firm.

When looking for new clients our firm takes a proactive approach and contacts clients that we would like to work with, even if there is no immediate work planned. After we have learned their needs, we share our relevant projects and experiences that align with those needs. When seeking out challenging projects, I’ve always envisioned myself and the firm laying across a railroad track in front of an oncoming train for our clients. The train represents the trouble that is just around the bend, and it is our job to protect and support our client’s needs. In order to do that, we need an amazing staff. If you don’t want to lose a client to a competitor, each staff member has to be the most capable, talented and proactive individual the client would ever want.

Winning a new client is tough, so hanging on to your existing clientele is critical. We try to make ourselves indispensible, which includes providing our clients with resourceful innovation while keeping costs down. Adding a fun factor is also very important over the long haul. For us, that starts with motivated and enthusiastic people. If our own work environment is healthy and energized, it is much easier to bring this to clients. This requires an attitude of constant self-improvement in both individuals and the firm, but it allows us to be more effective in the use of our time, more innovative and more fun to work with.

This is where a brand originates—before the logo, before the message. It begins with the way we treat and serve each other that spreads to how we treat our clients. A brand starts from the inside and works its way out. Each one of us can make an amazing difference in our own brand and client relationships if we set our minds to make that difference.


IIDA President Peter Conant, IIDA, AIA, LEED AP is founder and principal designer at Conant Architects in New York. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at iidahq@org. Learn more on the web at