“Brand” is a tricky concept to define — particularly for a startup. You may be playing with your product, finding your market fit, and trying to land those first defining customers. But its at that time that it’s most important to start building and refining a strong, specific brand. After all, in the early days a startup is all about the pitch — if the story, voice, and design (in other words, the brand) doesn’t attract customers or investors, there’s pretty much no chance it will get off the ground.
In Michael Tavani’s world, brand is everything — he attributes much of the success of his past company, Scoutmob, to a strongly-defined brand. In our new Made With Soul series, Tavani will walk us through an example of brand-building in a different sector.
Today we explore branding through the eyes of a building, in this case Tavani’s current venture: Switchyards Downtown Club. How do you give a building a voice? What physical senses weave into your experience of a space? How can the space shape its occupants, and vice versa?
How do you translate the definition of a brand, usually an intangible thing, into a physical space?
The way I would describe a physical space, Switchyards as an example, is that this is a startup where we actually can see our users in person. When we were doing Scoutmob, really when you’re creating any digital product, you can’t see your users. You can see clicks, sure, but not actually interact with users. In Switchyards, we had this weird turning point where physically we could see our user behavior: so, nobody uses this conference room, or everyone turns left when they walk through this door.
I also think it’s easier to brand a physical thing. You can touch and feel it — you can come here and smell it, you can listen to the music and the sounds, you can feel the air conditioning. Those are powerful sensory things that you can use, which in some cases is a lot easier to brand than a thing like an app.
What senses should you be thinking about when you develop the brand of a building?
A building should have a feeling. A hotel, a restaurant, a coffee shop, they all have feelings. A few weeks ago I walked into Antico Pizza, which by the way is in this crappy building — water stains on the ceiling, exposed pipes, but the place is buzzing. I hear people in line describing it as “the pizza place you have to be at in Atlanta.” That’s what you need to create in a building — the feeling that you have to be there.
I probably looked at 60 buildings before this one. My main thing was it had to have an interesting story — not the most famous building in Atlanta (because honestly we couldn’t afford that), but it had to have some kind of compelling story that we could weave together. Usually, those compelling stories are in old buildings. So we looked at a lot of warehouses, some old schools, old fire stations. I think we’ve steeped every possible story out of this 90-year-old building.
Spaces have personalities. It’s based on the part of town they’re in, the setup, the layout, on how quiet or noisy they are. So what I care about is the experience and the feel. Branding guys have this disease — we obsess over little details, because that’s what really ends up mattering. If a building isn’t a place you want to spend time, it isn’t going to attract anyone. When you walk into a building, it should have a vibe.
Was the geographic location intentional? How does that affect the brand of the building?
Absolutely, it’s part of the brand in that it’s part of the story. When you’re looking to move to an area, to buy a house, you have this checklist of things: I want it to be walkable, to be safe, to be near certain things. I had this checklist of things that had to be here. One of them was public transportation, another was to have that story.
Downtown Atlanta is kind of overlooked. It’s the physical center of the city, but it was always just the place where the Hawks play or the place where tourists go. It never was a vibrant neighborhood. But over the last 10 or 15 years, as all these in-town neighborhoods come back strong, downtown is sitting in the center of that. As a startup guy, you have to think ahead — you don’t actually want to buy at the top, you want to create the next thing. So we looked at parts of town that are emerging and changing, because I want my building to help create and drive that. Downtown checked off that box.
Do a building’s residents (or for a startup, a product’s customers) define the brand, or vice verse?
I think first, and this is for anything, you have to define the brand. You can’t build a product based off only customer feedback, because you’ll be constantly iterating- one person says it should be red, the other says blue. You have to define it and tell people what they want, and then over time, people start to feel the affinity for it themselves.
Give me an example of one thing about this building that was done to create the brand, but that I wouldn’t even realize is intentional.
There’s a lot. But my favorite might be something we’re looking at right now — the sign outside on the street. This building cost almost a million dollars. The renovation cost a million. That neon sign cost $810, and it’s the most-photographed thing of this entire building. It probably gets photographed two or three times a day. We wanted to create something truly iconic, and that isn’t always the most expensive.
We obsessed over what window we were going to put it in and decided to place it in the alley instead of the main street to make it more delightful and surprising. We wanted to create a moment that makes you feel like you’ve been here: a defining moment.
That sign- it reads “Made With Soul in Atlanta”, which is essentially the tagline of this building. What does that mean?
Everything says “Made in Wherever”; this bottle I’m holding says “Made in China.” There’s this watch company that did customer research, and they discovered that Detroit had meaning, so they literally relocated their headquarters and their brand from Dallas to Detroit so they could write “Made in Detroit” on all their watches instead of “Made in Dallas.”
“Made in Atlanta” is a really vanilla statement. And I have realized that the difference between companies that I really care about and those I don’t is that I care about companies that have a soul. Soul is an intangible thing: you may not be able to pinpoint it, but, especially in a brand, you know it when you see it. So “Made With Soul in Atlanta” is our attempt to make Atlanta mean something.
Switchyards in three words:
Soul, gritty, a feeling (hey, Tavani, that’s two words!).
If Switchyards was any person, alive and dead, who would it be?
Ryan Gravel. He’s a forever Atlanta guy.
Your favorite Switchyards social media channel (in regards to its brand)?
Images via Switchyards-based Jason Seagle.