Prepare for all-out war as the UK office property market discovers the destructive (or creative) power of branding. David Thame reports from the front line.
Have you got your tin hat ready? Your stockpile of tinned goods? You may need them, because anyone with skin in the UK office market is about to experience total war. That’s because the branding skirmishes of the last 12 months are about to turn into all-out conflict.
British Land’s Space, Bruntwood’s Made & Managed, and Land Securities’ Myo are the latest brands gunning for flexible floorspace occupiers. They join WeWork, the daddy of flexible workspace brands, and a host of others, from newcomers like Work.Life through to established war horses Regus and The Office Group. All are using the power of their reputation and marketing departments to lever territory in a crowded and competitive office scene. Office design is at the core of branding efforts.
Branding is new to the office market. Until very recently nobody knew or cared who the landlord was. Their brand meant, literally, nothing – except to the handful of investors who watched their share price. And even the investors didn’t see British Land or Land Securities as a brand. They simply saw them as safe places to put cash.
“Branding is new to the office market. Until very recently nobody knew or cared who the landlord was”
Today couldn’t be more different. ‘Branding is everything in today’s office market, and in it will end in a brand war,’ predicts The Office Group Chief Executive, Charlie Green.
Charlie is one of the pioneers of flexible workspace, with 32 London hubs and two outside London, representation in both Leeds and Bristol, and explosive ambitions to add 150,000 sq ft in a number of hubs in Birmingham.
‘In our sector, the flexible office providers who understand branding will be the winners. But because we’ve moving from a market that has never seen any kind of branding – the product was basic – we will see a brand war developing.’
According to Charlie, whose own TOG brand is firmly associated with the coolest imaginable fit-outs and the best addresses, branding failures will probably come down to one thing: money.
‘For success you need to be committed, authentic, creative, and you have to have sufficient investment because it all takes marketing and technology and strategic thinking. In the end, the best resources will win.’
Charlie predicts that dowdy landlords unable to make the transition to the shiny new world of branding, and less dowdy landlords with very small portfolios, which do not easily lend themselves to brand propositions, will have to team up with people like him.
‘How do you compete in the office market if you have just one building, or a handful of buildings, when branding is the issue? You will need to have a branding partnership with someone else.’
He says that branding will be the agent for a transformation of the office property market in which a small handful of occupiers (and landlords) opt for traditional leases, and an equally small handful opt for the total freedom of coworking. Everybody else will operate on a Dulux colour chart of flexibility, in which brands will be the tool for distinguishing one shade of flexibility from another.
‘That means more focus on engagement with operators, from both occupiers and landlords, which will be such an intensive operation that lots of operators won’t want to go there. The result will be partnerships between landlords and operators, and I think that could be the future.’
So how to get that crucial branding right? Those who have explored property branding have some harsh words of warning for landlords.
Adam Rix, Creative Director of Music Agency, a branding consultancy that has tackled everything from electricity to office fit-outs, says a clever name and a nifty logo achieve very little on their own.
“The property sector typically has a fairly staid approach, so breaking free from that to get noticed is a must”
‘The property sector typically has a fairly staid approach, so breaking free from that to get noticed is a must. Some still think the term refers to visual identity, or simply a logo. Branding can’t work miracles – the best brands are always borne out of truth, so if the product or service isn’t up to scratch, then consumers are smart enough to see through it,’ Adam says.
The important lesson is the same as Charlie Green’s: this is going to cost money. In particular, Adam warns that an office brand can’t survive if landlords adopt the (age old) practise of letting their office space to anybody prepared to pay for it. Instead, they need to carefully curate a mix that pleases occupiers and maintains the brand’s integrity.
‘If all of the research and strategy points to the office building being ripe to focus on, say, the digital community, it’s important not to undo all your hard work by letting to the highest bidder and creating an environment that your target market don’t want to be a part of,’ he says. And of course landlords who spend a lot on their brand, and then strictly police the brand by selecting the right tenants, will want the right kind of office fit-out and design.
Grant Mitchell, Design Director with brand design experts, Glorious Creative, says that the branding offered to some individual office buildings – Manchester’s XYZ, No8 First Street or 100 Embankment get a hat-tip – show the way ahead for office landlords and operators. Grant has been advising early-stages coworking brand Workinc, a new venture from Leeds-based property business, Parklane Group.
Their answer was to sell the dynamism of coworking, rather than the deadness of desk space.
‘Rather than simply selling ‘desk space’, we focused on creating coworking communities, placing Workinc at the forefront of the coworking ethos, that clearly communicates the advantages and benefits of working out of collaborative, stimulating and rewarding environments,’ he says.
The first step might be to make your dull old office building a place where exciting things happen, and then build the brand on that.
‘The days of branding being a conservative, formulaic add-on required by developers is over. Audiences demand branded experiences and want to be part of something more than just a logo and bog-standard brochure,’ Grant says with feeling.
“Audiences demand branded experiences and want to be part of something more than just a logo and bog-standard brochure”
Indeed, according to John Williams, Managing Director at interior design consultancy, SpaceInvader, the really smart brands think way beyond the confines of buildings.
‘Consider the space beyond the office itself. We see more and more landlords striking deals with third party operators to make wellbeing and leisure facilities part of their core brand offering, for example, by introducing gyms or restaurants. But to make this truly effective, landlords also need to ensure that there is outstanding service behind these amenities, and ensure that an occupier’s experience of a building is truly seamless,’ John advises.
The UK office market’s adventure in branding still has a long way to go. But the sound of battle is already audible: Space will try to knock spots off Myo, WeWork will launch its best weapons at The Office Group, and if you don’t like the idea of things getting nasty, you’d better get out now.