NCIDQ: I Brand, Therefore I Am

By Barbara Pallat

Communicating NCIDQ’s mission through better branding.


You know Freud's exercise—free association—where you say the first thing that pops into your head when someone gives you a prompt? Try that with me now.

If I said "Cosmo," you might say "Sex and the City"; "hybrid car"—"Prius"; "NCIDQ" … well, if you are an interior designer you might say "exam." If you are a consumer, you might say "NC what?" Unlike HBO or Toyota, NCIDQ does not have a multimillion-dollar marketing budget to promote its name. However, the Council does have the power to promote its unique brand of public protection to you, to state regulators, and to interior design consumers.

NCIDQ's goal this year is to increase its brand awareness. Since 1974, NCIDQ has been protecting the public by setting the professional standard for interior designers. Within the profession, the Council has fairly strong brand awareness. However, very few consumers know what NCIDQ stands for, let alone that interior design is regulated in 26 U.S. jurisdictions and eight Canadian provinces. Furthermore, awareness of NCIDQ's programs seems to begin and end with the NCIDQ Exam. Yet, the Council has excellent programs for designers at all stages of their careers, including the Interior Design Experience Program (IDEP) for new graduates and continuing education courses for professionals.

A "brand" identifies the goods or services of a seller and differentiates them from those of the competition; branding is integral to the work we do as interior designers. We care about branding not only for our own firms, but also when designing spaces for other businesses. There is so much talk in the business media about branding that it has become an overexposed concept. Ignore your company's brand, however, and you risk losing customers, your credibility and your message. During my term as president of NCIDQ this past year, I reflected on a book I read years ago: The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, by Al and Laura Ries. I considered how these laws apply to NCIDQ and its future. Warning: Conducting an evaluation using the 22 Laws in your firm may cause discussion and disagreement with owners and employees. However, the ensuing dialogue could be the best thing that happens to your organization this year!

EXPANSION: The power of a brand is inversely proportional to its scope.
The more products and services a company adds, the more diluted the brand can become. NCIDQ has strong recognition within the industry because for a long time it has focused on its core product: the NCIDQ Exam. As we add programs for entry-level designers just beginning to prepare for the exam (IDEP) and established professionals (continuing education), the Council must be careful not to dilute the power of its brand.

CONTRACTION: A brand becomes stronger when you narrow its focus.
This relates to the law of expansion. While some might argue that NCIDQ should focus only on the exam, I see IDEP and continuing education monographs as logical extensions of our true message: the single organization that protects the public by identifying competent interior designers. As long as we stay focused on our core message, promoting all of NCIDQ's programs under that umbrella will be simple.

PUBLICITY: The birth of a brand is achieved with publicity, not advertising.
This one is easy. NCIDQ does not have the budget for national consumer advertising, so it focuses instead on raising awareness through public relations and outreach to students, educators, practitioners, state regulators and consumers. Our articles in Interiors & Sources and other publications, trade show promotions, and our Web site help the name NCIDQ to be recognized. One of our most effective publicity vehicles is NCIDQ's Ambassador Program, in which trained volunteers present NCIDQ information to interior design students, emerging professionals, professional associations, and at NeoCon® and other industry conferences. This year, the Ambassadors will be equipped with a new graphic presentation, titled "Your Journey to Professionalism." The interactive presentation that will be delivered will bring clarity to many common misconceptions about the exam eligibility requirements and exam content. (Look for this presentation at a location near you. Contact NCIDQ if you would like to schedule delivery of this informative program in 2007).

THE WORD: A brand should strive to own a word in the mind of the consumer.
I am not sure that we "own a word," but the NCIDQ credential serves this purpose. "Kleenex" stands for "tissue" and "FedEx" stands for "overnight." If the public eventually recognizes that NCIDQ stands for "professional competency in interior design," then we have achieved a powerful brand.

THE CATEGORY: A leading brand should promote the category, not the brand.
Rather than focus on the NCIDQ credential alone, the Council needs to promote the category of public protection through professional competency. Just as accountants, doctors and lawyers need to take their respective board exams, so should interior designers. NCIDQ has long delivered this message to interior design professionals and educators. The public, whom we are striving to protect, however, does not know that interior designers have such standards.

CONSISTENCY: A brand is not built overnight. Success is measured in decades, not years.
It has taken more than three decades to gain the recognition that we have. NCIDQ's success derives from consistently providing public protection by creating examinations, establishing regulatory model language and providing a monitored work experience program for interior designers. As more and more interior designers gain the NCIDQ credential, its brand awareness will only increase.

CHANGE: Brands can be changed, but only infrequently—and only very carefully.
NCIDQ is not considering a brand transformation, but a useful example comes from a fellow organization: the Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (FIDER), which became the Council for Interior Design Accreditation in 2006. In recent years it became apparent that the FIDER brand no longer communicated the organization's true focus. FIDER was known not for research and education but rather for the specific activity of accrediting interior design programs. After what I am sure was careful consideration, the organization boldly changed its name to reflect its specific mission, and as a result, changed its brand.

SINGULARITY: The most important aspect of a brand is its singlemindedness. This brings us back to our beginning point of a focused mission and intentional purpose.

NCIDQ is single-mindedly focused on protection of the public. NCIDQ believes that professionals who choose or are required to meet an established standard to protect the public deserve a solid brand they can count on. Our volunteers, testing consultants, delegates, staff members and board strive to bring you, the interior design professional, programs that are standardized and meaningful. Meeting the NCIDQ standard by passing the exam is a great achievement. Our "brand promise" is to continue to raise the bar and spread the message that NCIDQ-credentialed interior designers actively protect the public. Now quick, when I say "NCIDQ," what comes to mind?

Barbara Pallat is a past president of NCIDQ. She is an NCIDQ Certificate holder; a registered designer in Illinois; and a member of the Illinois Board of Professional Regulation. She is the owner of Barbara Pallat Interiors near Chicago, and specializes in design for both residential and contract projects. For information about NCIDQ, visit