Branding and Architecture

Recently, we have been thinking a lot about branding as it relates to architecture.  Branding, in this case relates to the expression of an identity – where experience itself has become as much of the “product” as the physical object.  The iPod is one of the best examples of a product that illustrates its value as a branded commodity.  The iPod produces not only use value through its primary function (listening to music) and its value as a means of representation (wearing an iPod), but also its experiential value (being part of an iPod lifestyle).  Thus the object enhances the perceived value of its user by endowing him/her with a particular identity and by triggering a particular brand experience – enhancing the status of the product’s user.  

For architecture, designing for experience requires connecting architecture to a user’s personal dreams and desires.  Unlike function and program, an experience can never be fully controlled – it can only be triggered.  It must elicit relevant emotional experiences at different points of contact with its users by creating an architectural presence that is felt, as well as seen.  This idea is exemplified by the thermal bath in Vals, Switzerland by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.  The design was motivated by the desire to capture the primal act of bathing in a setting that references the surrounding mountainous environment.  Organized as a series of thick cubic volumes that allude to large quarry stones, the building provides a succession of distinct experiences that include hot and cold baths, saunas and steamrooms, as well as spaces for contemplating the surrounding mountain site.  The space between these massive volumes of stone is filled with water that allows the visitor to swim to different areas of the bath.  Unlike typical spas, Zumthor focuses on creating spiritual ambience based on a play of rough and smooth surfaces, contrasts in darkness and light, on reflections on the water and in the steam-saturated air, and on the unique acoustics of bubbling water in a world of stone.  Although the physical form of the baths in Vals is one of ascetic aesthetic of quietude and restraint, both in its orthogonal organization and its pronounced focus on materiality, it is in the experience of the place that the architecture responds to user’s need for tranquility and authenticity.



In residential architecture in particular, good architecture is recognized as a medium to create an identity for people, communities and places.  The home is frequently the most important investment in people’s lives – not only as a financial investment, but an emotional investment that provides a platform for people to live their lives.  Like the baths in Vals, a good house has a presence – that quality that most people cannot articulate, but “know when they see/experience it”.  This experiential presence is one of the defining distinctions between a well-designed house and a typical suburban “spec” house.  The typical spec house design is one that defines the building as a commodity - a sum, or receipt.  A checklist of elements/products . . .subzero, check . . .limestone tile, check . . .beadboard wainscot, check . . .etc.  As long as the spec house includes those products on the checklist and has a sufficient amount of square feet, the spec house builder can calculate the potential profit on a project.  The result though is one of generic design quality, (typically) oversized proportions, and poor execution.

The well designed home, on the other hand, has a value not only through its use and function, but also through the experience that it elicits in the inhabitants.  Great residential architecture, like a great brand, looks good as a physical object with great proportions, refined detailing, and beautiful materials, but also in its presence that triggers discoveries and desires, prompts memories and elicits transformative experiences in those that engage it.  

For a more comprehensive view of Branding and the Experience Economy, we would suggest the following,  

Brandscapes, Architecture I the Experience Economy by Anna Klingmann.  

The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore.  

Experiential Marketing by Bernd Schmitt