RESEARCH AND DISCOVERY
Since 2006, SOZO | Pivotal has worked with this architectural and engineering firm that was founded by the world-renowned architect of the same name in 1895. Our relationship began when the firm’s strategic board determined that it was time to embark on a comprehensive re-branding strategy. This wasn’t just about going for an identity refresh. It was about penetrating deeper into the soul of a company that Albert Kahn started more than a century ago. It was about taking what happened then and pairing it with what’s happening today. The Albert Kahn Family of Companies’ roots were firmly planted in the shadow of the industrial age and beginning of the automotive industry. Today, the firm had completely diversified into various market segments and disciplines. Leadership was looking for a partner that could take them through the entire process; a firm that clearly understood the importance of strategy before design. SOZO / PIVOTAL was that ideal match.
The message presented to their audience — both internally and externally — wasn’t clear and it was far from current. SOZO / PIVOTAL was charged with identifying the true brand as perceived by the audience and then working to better align the brand with a message and imagery that was consistent with the firm’s vision. The vision that leadership had for the firm was disjointed from the reality causing the audience to scratch their heads. What was Albert Kahn Associates? Where are they today? Past efforts to re-brand only touched the visible surface and any client, associate or employee quickly saw that the firm was indeed doing outstanding and innovative work today but having a difficult time showing it. It was a scenario that so many companies rich with history tend to experience. What could they achieve on top of their already significant successful if they had a stronger brand position?
The program started by gaining a thorough understanding of the firm’s current brand position. Exhaustive research, interviews and surveys were conducted and a comprehensive visual audit of all existing materials and communications allowed SOZO / PIVOTAL to see what was and what wasn’t effective in their marketing approach. The discovery revealed a variety opportunities, but most importantly it showed that the company was indeed confusing what it is with what it was. It was also afflicted by the “piling on” on new ideas, initiatives and business segments that weren’t strategically built into the company’s DNA. Rather than look at how an idea would fit into the Kahn vision, it was quickly shaped, molded and plugged into the environment in an oftentimes haphazard fashion. Over time, this sort of corporate gunk would eventually stymy the message. The various corporate names and divisions lead to confusion and a lack on identity even amongst the internal team members. Senior members marched to one set of orders that were more reminiscent of the 1960s while new hires didn’t quite understand what the 1960s had to do with the 2000s. The firm’s message was written in the past. Thankfully their actually efforts always remained innovative.
As a result of this understanding, the SOZO / PIVOTAL team in many ways became a member of the Kahn family and was able to take this over-arching history and creatively develop a way to visually bring it all together. It started by clearly defining and articulating a new tone of voice and corporate identity direction for Kahn. It also took steps to further eliminate any confusion by reducing the various public names that each service area and division was being called. The name “Kahn” was the constant and the design team decided to focus there. This wasn’t an exercise in slashing and burning. Conversations with leadership, legal teams and clients allowed SOZO / PIVOTAL to understand the reasoning behind all these name variations. Slowly we were able to break down into the core of what Kahn was all about and validate the brand architecture recommendations we were suggesting.
The core elements of the brand development included the new Kahn-only identity and overall messaging. The identity design required a couple of versions and evolutions in order to get it right. One version focused on a company that is constantly pointing to the future and looking forward while also keeping a tether on its past achievements. The icons presented effectively communicated this message, but the preference was to make it less literal and go back to the drawing board to what the company was about rather than what it was going to do to strengthen its message. Another direction and part of the refined designs explored and took into consideration the elements of the Golden Ratio that are proportions and dimensions found in many natural creations as well as art and architecture. It was here that we struck a strong connection with architecture and engineering while also telling the story of a perfect ratio between the past and present, the clients and their trusted advisor as well as the veterans and up-and-comers worked toiled within the talent-rich environment of the Kahn offices. “The Perfect Ratio” has endured as a perfect tagline marrying Kahn’s rich history with its exciting future. The Kahn icon is created within a golden rectangle. The arrow-like design pointing out from the ‘N’ has been dubbed the Phidias after the artist responsible for the building of the Parthenon — an architectural marvel embodying the golden ratio’s math.
This is where the story made the design so much stronger, memorable and enduring. This was how the company and its people were able to own the Kahn brand and take it to their audience.
When taking a company in a new direction in terms of brand position and identity, it is extremely important to bring along the entire team on the adventure. The SOZO / PIVOTAL account team conducted “brown bag” lunches to further explain the reasoning behind the re-branding and to help answer questions about the visual and not-so-obvious changes happening within the company and its culture shift. Add in language and cultural differences with Kahn do Brasil and the Portuguese-speaking audience in South America and the challenge only becomes more difficult. “What is Branding” and “Questions, Questions, Questions” seminars were conducted by SOZO / PIVOTAL creative directors as team members were encouraged to meld the message into their own words and ideas.
Working with a talented internal marketing department has its advantages and the Kahn experience was no different. SOZO / PIVOTAL worked closely with Kahn’s marketing staff to ensure that this re-branding would endure even after our intense collaborative had ended. By creating and delivering a compelling storyline and solid brand identity guidelines, the Kahn internal marketing team was able to carry on the design tone while not stifling their own creativity.
With their feedback offered through the discovery surveys, the entire company had been along for the ride since the project’s start. Their contributions throughout every phase helped SOZO / PIVOTAL create an enduring brand strategy and identity that was truly a part of the company and a reflection of everyone’s efforts. It was time to implement the new look and message. This started internally and worked its way out to external audiences. Kahn invested in these internal branding efforts by allowing SOZO / PIVOTAL to create a series of communication pieces that would ultimately unveil the new Kahn brand and naming architecture. The 250-plus team had already seen fragments of the new identity and had a taste of what was to come, but now was the time to see all of their feedback come to life and reveal the culmination of eight months of focused effort. SOZO / PIVOTAL connected the dots, from the bizarre interview questions asked early on to the way the tone of voice was drafted and adapted to other messaging tools. These communication pieces answered the remaining questions and effectively introduced the re-brand to the most important audience segment — the Kahn team.
Now it was time to introduce a new Kahn to its external audience. Their assistance also gave clarity to what Kahn meant to them and how that perception measured up against the firm’s vision. In some ways it was quite different and in others it was refreshing to hear the great things people had to say about the company and its rich history and passionate team. A series of visual communications pieces as well as a letter from the CEO at the time was sent to everyone on their vast mailing list. The message reiterated that Kahn was still the same company that they grew to know and respect, but was a company that was transitioning to a place that respected their current achievements and recognized today’s Kahn.
Over the next several months a new corporate website was created by SOZO / PIVOTAL. The site was de-cluttered and simplified to make room and allow for the new message to grow, highlight the leadership and showcase the projects that were currently underway. The site also served to clear up confusion to what it was that Kahn did. Again, this was a Kahn site first. The subsidiaries and locations were secondary and the message was clear that every piece of work conducted by the company was stamped with the Kahn name.
SOZO / PIVOTAL also helped Kahn create an attractive proposal development kit that would allow the firm to differentiate itself among its competitors in a typical RFP process. This included proposal packaging and layout and provided the proposal-writing teams the tools to create a unique proposal that would help elevate Kahn to the top of the list.
The popular Kahn Update quarterly newsletter was also re-designed and brought back to life after going on an inconsistent editorial schedule for the past several years. The new version maintained the high quality of paper stock and photography that readers came to expect, but the content and information was enhanced as the editorial staff focused more on current, innovative projects and trends in the industry. It was always more than just a newsletter and now it once again became something that readers looked forward to receiving in their mail. It served as a publication that was more about informing the reader than about promoting the happenings at Kahn.
Another area that was important, especially to an architecture and engineering firm like Kahn, was its office interiors and signage. Headquartered in Detroit, MI in the New Center’s Albert Kahn Building, Kahn’s offices now embody a creative atmosphere that is welcoming and informative. History and projects adorn the walls on all levels and the Kahn identity system has been implemented to bring cohesiveness to the branded environment. Photos of Albert Kahn blended with architectural photography of projects past and present portray a visual “perfect ratio” in the space.
The company was also committed to refocusing its attention on its inner culture and how they were going to attract the best and brightest talent within the architectural, engineering and design industry. For too long, Kahn was perceived as a stepping stone to other opportunities. Retaining talent and creating culture that would keep people engaged in their work at Kahn was important. Culture cannot be created through branding, but our efforts to communicate to young professionals reaped benefits that allowed Kahn to build awareness as a company that was no longer tied to its past. It was a company that was committed to sustainable design among other contemporary principles. To further embed the new look and feel into the company, SOZO | Pivotal created an entire suite of marketing materials incorporating the new logomark, color palette and messaging that focused on recruiting and retention.
Overall, the implementation took several months and in many ways is still a work-in-progress as new projects, opportunities and new market segments open up for the Kahn Family of Companies.
Today, SOZO | Pivotal continues to support Kahn in a number of ongoing branding and design initiatives, including the writing and production of this video that was produced for their involvement in the 2011 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Strong branding and positioning is a never-ending effort and the leadership at Kahn realizes that.