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Brand Engagement: Getting to the “Why”

The subtle details of design can embody clients’ missions, motivations, heritage and history. Shown here: Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, Illinois. Photos by Stephen Kellogg and Christina Visscher © Gensler

When reading the 2013 Gensler Brand Engagement Survey results, I was struck by the many parallels between the ideas about consumer brand engagement and the way that our brand design discipline delivers work to our own customers. Much like the customer engagement pyramid that inspired our research, we seek to meet expectations, meet desires and ultimately meet our client’s unrecognized needs. We do this by engaging our clients in a process that includes three steps—Define. Design. Deliver.


We typically start every project with an information gathering and brand visioning workshop. For larger projects, this engagement is more robust and may include services such as user observations, user group workshops, surveys and market research. All of this sets the stage and gives our team a solid understanding of the client’s brand, the user groups affected, the desired outcomes and the preferred look and feel.

We recently embarked on a project with Tribeca Flashpoint Academy in Chicago. During a three-hour visioning session with the client team, we discussed the school’s past, present and future; talked through and took a tour of the space; and showed the client team sample images, revealing their preferences for how to capture the personality of the school. Our next step is to go back and do two quick-fire sessions with the students and faculty/staff. This process of engagement allows for buy-in by all user groups and gives our design team an understanding of what success will look like for this client.

Going into these sessions, both the client and our design team have preconceived ideas of what they want. Through this initial engagement, we will undoubtedly reveal some things none of us anticipate, and that is where we will find the sweet spot, revealing an unexpected need. It is these moments that craft the storytelling in the space, create deep meaningful connections, and allow us to deliver design that differentiates.

A visioning session that engages each of a project’s stakeholders can reveal a client’s innermost needs and wants. Photo by Michael Shaub © Gensler


In Simon Sinek’s TED talk, he explains the Golden Circle: every organization knows “what” they do, some know “how” they do it, but very few know or can articulate “why” they do it. Our job as brand designers is to get to the why—to understand our client’s core purpose, cause, or belief. We pride ourselves on understanding each client’s unique DNA and how to best represent them in their space.

When Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana came to Gensler to relocate and enhance their regional headquarters, we found in them a client who understood the why of what they do. As we unearthed their goals for the project, we were able to tap into the heart of the Girl Scouts and reveal that emotion in the space. It was to be all about the girls since they are the focus and mission of the organization: “Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place.”

Although it is also an office space for staff, the regional headquarters, now called “The Gathering Place,” has been designed to welcome, accommodate, challenge and inspire girls and their leaders as a special meeting space. As such, 40 percent of the space is now devoted to programs for girls, volunteers and partners. The accomplishments of the girls are memorialized in a history museum, while the graphics in the space highlight the attributes of Courage, Confidence and Character, as well as showcase the historic symbols and outfits through the years. The overall feeling in the space supports the why of the Girl Scouts.

Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana brings the organization’s mission to life and gives girls a dedicated place to gather. Photo by Antuany Smith © Gensler


Another compelling finding of our Brand Engagement Survey is the human touch that propels brands to super stardom. The parallel here is in the outcomes of our brand design work. Often a graphic has dual readings. Upon first glance, it may appear to be one thing and upon further inspection, it is actually a whole lot more.

We recently completed a major building addition to the historic Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, a venerable institution in the city. Every moment and experience of the Genevieve and Wayne Gratz Center was designed to serve the public and create a beacon of hope in Chicago for an organization whose mission is to be a light in the city. The identity and visual communication systems of the project had to reflect this mission by using the language of the Gothic legacy and creating something new, meaningful and modern. To a casual visitor, the featured Donor Wall is a beautiful reminder of the hundreds of generous donors involved in this important project. If that visitor happens to be guided through the space, they may also learn that the individual pieces are inspired by the historic leaded glass windows found along the courtyard walls. The diamond shape is maintained and the colors are an expression of how the leaded glass panes reflect the sunlight in different hues.

The act of learning the back story of how this historic element inspired a modern donor wall installation reveals the human element of the design. It is this personal interaction that draws you in deeper and keeps you there. It underscores why our clients do what they do and is the essence of why we love what we do.

The donor wall within Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago reflects the venue’s historic leaded glass windows. Photo by Antuany Smith © Gensler

Kim Lindstrom is a leader in Gensler’s Brand Design practice in Chicago. As a Project Manager, she integrates transdisciplinary teams to deliver powerful brand experiences across many project types, including workplace, retail and healthcare. Looking forward, Kim is energized by the potential of environmental brand communication to make a difference and add unique value for the organizations and communities we serve. Contact Kim at kimberly_lindstrom@gensler.com.

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    Brand Engagement: Getting to the “Why” - Lifestyle Strategy and Design - Gensler

Reader Comments (4)

Great blog post, Kim--a very good read!
01.24.2014 | Unregistered CommenterMahsa Tousi
"Getting to the Unexpected Need" is so well put. In the interests of time, many [myself included] want to slap acceptable answers on the 5W + 1H questions. Unfortunately, that's easily seen [by others] for just what it is.
02.3.2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrendan McSheehy
For engaging a brand ,It is necessary to get your consumers confidence by interacting with them through E-mail,Social media or by any other way .It is also necessary to create a new customers and strengthen the old ones .
To be a stickler, a design of antiquated window is nothing to do with any sort of a fundamental "why". It's a stylistic reference.

Don't get me wrong, it's all well and good, a neat little bit of design style tie-in, and on a functional level a window is a display, the whole structure of small assemblies rendering out to a bigger picture is quite valid. Certainly this is perfectly OK design, but on a brand insight level there isn't much in the idea.

Why is a much bigger deal than that, really, it has to involve a very serious value statement.

Of course, if you're working for churches commemorating the collections of donations, this is a pretty medieval sort of a legacy, that's the truth of the wall. The "why" was generally the problem back then, what medieval religions know about branding and management consultin, the most ruthless businesspeople today would live in awe of those feats of manipulation and wrangling found in the medieval era and dark ages.

To me, as a modern designer, the thought of having a religious establishment as a branding client is extremely, extremely dicey. I am not saying I wouldn't, but certainly the likelihood of them not approving of my research into their values and truths might well not be palatable, it is pretty unlikely I'll be approached by either an islamic organisation or a christian organisation, frankly.

So this is a job well done, really, but it is not a job of brand research per se, it is just good functional design with a tactful avoidance of contentious client issues.
02.9.2015 | Unregistered Commenterda bishop

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