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Mix Roundtable: Getting brand narrative right

Does brand loyalty still exist within the commercial interiors industry? We’ve teamed up with Invictus and a selection of the industry’s finest minds at N1’s über cool workspace/art gallery, the depot_, to discuss all things brand and branding.

Feature in partnership with Invictus® Luxury Vinyl Flooring

19/10/2021 8 min read

As many of you will know, there have been several acquisitions in the commercial interior design market this year. When talking with specifiers about this subject, we discovered that they often know the individual products better than they know the manufacturers. Indeed, when walking through projects and asking whose furniture, flooring etc has been specified, we often get told the name of the furniture dealer or flooring sub-contractor rather than the manufacturer.

So, does this matter? Well, it must matter if said manufacturers are working so hard and spending so much money on brand awareness.

We’ve teamed up with our hosts Invictus and a selection of the industry’s finest minds at N1’s über cool workspace/art gallery, the depot_, to discuss all things brand and branding.

We begin by asking about brand loyalty within the sector. Does our panel believe that brand loyalty exists when it comes to product specification?

Emily: I would say yes. It’s definitely something that is based on relationships and quality. You learn to trust the name. Whether it is the company or the product, you learn to trust the relationship that you’ve already established. When a smaller brand I already like joins a larger group, I tend to look at it in a positive way and maybe take that trust to other brands within that larger group.

Anna: I agree with that. I’ve noticed that a lot of smaller brands, who aren’t getting the marketing, are either being bought up or are partnering with larger brands, and most of those collaborations, to date, have been positive in that they’ve complemented one another and made them more rounded. For example, we’ve seen soft furnishing companies partnering with more office-based manufacturers, which balances the brands out and provides a greater portfolio of products.

Is it important that the brands our guests have formed relationships with and have been loyal to still retain a level of autonomy and individualism?

Yorgo: Do people think that the Mini is a German car? It’s BMW, right? But we still think of it as a British car. I’m not sure that anyone is really loyal anymore. I think we’re beyond that. We’re not loyal to the companies we work for, we’re not loyal to pretty much anything – I think we’re a post-loyalty culture actually. There’s so much choice now. We are getting our own way and we are able to switch from one thing to another, as we want, when there is a better offer or a better opportunity.

I don’t think it’s about loyalty – I think it’s about fandom. It’s about brands taking a lead on something that we all want to be part of: a brand that isn’t too concerned about building a customer base, but is doing their own thing simply because that is what they want to do – whether that’s sustainability, whether it’s culture… I always look at the company culture and what they’re doing besides selling stuff, how they’re doing it and why their doing it. Not so much what they’re doing. What they’re doing is the starter – then the relationship deepens and it becomes about the culture. I think you have to keep reminding people of that and feeding that message.

We ask our hosts Invictus if the majority of this rings true for them.

Mark: It’s very hard to be completely different. Our brand is quite striking, but we did also look at our backstory and this is evident when you look at our carpet brand SEDNA. SEDNA is made from an ECONYL yarn which is created by turning waste carpet, commercial waste, and discarded ghost fishing nets back to its original state of Polyamide. Even the backing we use is made from 100% recycled PET plastic bottles. The whole approach of this range is that, through a very extensive process, it’s almost completely manufactured from recycled materials. You can make the whole thing from virgin material, of course, but as a flooring manufacturer it’s important to find new and sustainable ways to create products and push the boundaries. Although a lot of things are driven by cost, it’s not always the most important thing – it’s difficult as a flooring provider and manufacturer to be all things to all people, and I think we’ve found the right balance.

A lot of design firms work on a traffic light system – if you’re amber or red you’re not going to get used regardless of your brand or what you do in terms of design or innovation.

Lucy: That’s true. We’ve moved away from some really key brands, who we’ve worked with for a very long time, because we’ve dived into the sustainability of their products. As part of our work for one particular client, we went through all our standard products and looked at how they are made, what is their content and what are their certifications. We were shocked and surprised at the lack of real investment by some of those brands into the footprint and sustainability of a lot of their products. I don’t think the ‘greenwashing’ is enough. It has to stack up. As designers, we’re really discerning about what we’re putting into the world.

We’re responsible for something that is going to sit there for years. We are now getting this from our clients as well as being driven by us, the designers. This is no longer a ‘nice to have’ – it really does have to stack up. If we can tell a compelling story, then we’re able to advocate for that product remaining in the project as opposed to a cheaper alternative. Loyalty denotes this idea of sticking with something or someone through thick and thin – and I don’t think it’s present any more. It’s about trusting a brand. If I trust a brand then I’ll keep using it – but if I lose that trust or there’s a better option…

Mark: Is a brand only as good as the people who represent it?

Amie: I think those relationships are integral. It’s just that much easier to work with people you know and you feel you can trust. Sometimes it’s not even necessarily all to do with business – it’s about being able to chat and have a laugh with someone. That being said, you’re always trying to look for new products, so although you might keep coming back to the brands and people you have built those relationships with, you are still constantly looking for the next great new thing. You do want to stay loyal, but you’re always straddling both sides.

We are all really privileged to be able to go on trips with manufacturers, but visiting factories, being able to see what’s going on behind the products themselves, seeing the process, seeing how they’re made, seeing the sustainability story really does make a huge difference. You really get to understand and appreciate far more.

Emily: On the other side though, somebody can also really damage a brand. On a recent project I was working on I wanted certain products to be specified. The client listened to me and backed me – and then the manufacturer told us that they couldn’t deliver on time and that delivery would be a month overdue! All of a sudden, the image and the opinion of that brand – for all of us – was damaged.

Loyalty to a person can reap its rewards: a good person will follow up on deliveries, chase up any issues and bend over backwards to help with any problems that might arise with production. If a product can’t be delivered, then knowing who to go to for help is invaluable. Companies really do need to be careful about who they take on.

Lucy: What a specifier wants from a particular item or brand is that story or feeling or detail – to know that the manufacturer has gone to the effort of investing and developing to create something special. Going back to the earlier point of fandom, there really is so much on the market but there are brands I will go to because I know how much R&D goes into their products.

Adriana: When I see a name I recognise and I know it has produced great products in the past, it definitely has an effect on my decision-making. Also, if I see a designer has collaborated with a brand in the past and has now developed something completely different for another company, I’m still curious and eager to see what it is they’re offering. When you look at someone whose portfolio has always shown something different and exciting, you also get excited when they have something new to offer.

Rohan: I do think that relationships are a huge part of this. For us, as a main contractor, because delivery is so important and because programmes are tight and budgets are tight, being able to pick the phone up to a trusted supplier and ask, ‘What can you do? What is your knowledge on this?’ and knowing they’ll give you an answer straight away, or will go and find out what you need to know right away, is so important. Knowing that person is there for you is such a big thing. Also, as a couple of people have already touched upon, more and more clients want to understand the story of a product and how everything comes together and where it comes from. They want to know what sort of healthy working environment they are creating for their employees – and they are relying on us for this. So it’s about being able to sell that story back to them.

It’s not about being a slick salesperson anymore. It’s really about the whole picture and them being able to portray that – for us to be able to buy into that. People challenge products now more than they ever have done. It’s not about accepting what it says on the tin. People want to dig into how a product really works.

Lucy: I think it also depends on what the product is. There are some really iconic products – Eames, for example – and those classic designs will always sell. There’s almost a separate class of really iconic ‘super products’ – rather than ‘super brands’. Designers will always stay loyal to that – and I think designers are very aware of what are the original products and what are the ‘copies’. Designers want the real deal and want to give profit and recognition back to the original designer.

Yorgo: This is music to my ears. I didn’t know that people actually thought that way. I just always hoped they did. Originality doesn’t always work – sometimes you can be ahead of the curve and the market simply isn’t ready for what you produce. I used to believe that a design can sell itself, but I’ve since learned that this isn’t true. You have to be able to tell the story and represent that design – because a design can’t always speak for itself. It’s always a challenge and it’s hard to always be original – but it is great to hear that it is so appreciated.

Conclusion

Is brand important? Undoubtedly – especially when that brand stands for something important and has the beliefs and ethos shared by forward-thinking specifiers and clients. It’s in the nature of designers to be attracted to innovation, originality, quality and authenticity, but that alone will not stand up if the story behind it doesn’t ring true.

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