Take a peak inside the thinking behind the Populous brand and its approach to content marketing.
I recently spoke with Gina Stingley, Marketing Manager and Associate Principal at Populous, about the firm’s content marketing and branding efforts. Already one of the world’s leading sports architecture firms, Populous is in the process of expanding its practice into new markets surrounding its core strength of sports and convention center design.
Inside the Brand and the Strategy
Q: Let’s start with the positioning of the firm. Populous has been widely recognized as one of the world’s leading architecture firms for sports facilities. You are now expanding the practice beyond sports. Could you tell us about the thinking behind this?
When you think about a lot of the sports projects that we do, more often than not a new sports facility is an anchor to a broader urban development effort. For example, our work on Target Field in Minneapolis; that project was a huge success because we really explored the relationship of the building with the city. There’s a reason why the transit station is placed where it is and there’s a reason that we designed a bridge to connect with what was then the northwestern edge of downtown. Had we not thought about that project broadly, I’m not sure that ballpark would be as successful as it is today in expanding Minneapolis’ urban footprint.
To be clear, it’s not that we’re getting away from sports by any means. It certainly will always be the foundation of what we do. It’s just shifting the focus from the sports buildings to the experiences we create in society, really. When you think about the buildings we create, those are really the anchor points of a community. You’ve got the airport, the convention center, the sports buildings and the connecting fabric that weaves those high traffic and high icon places together.
Q: Let’s talk about the Populous brand. In a market full of founder names and letter strings, Populous really stands out in just about every way. Talk a bit about the impetus of the brand and some of the thinking behind it.
We worked with Katherine Jones at Milkshake in Austin, Texas to develop the name and the brand. Early in the process, she put up a slide depicting the “alphabet soup” of the industry. Everyone looked the same and was saying the same thing. So, we really wanted to step out from that noise. The other trend we saw was a lot of inwardly focused attempts to describe practices. We weren’t comfortable with that either. Instead, we chose a name that directs attention to the people and communities we serve; that is very much in keeping with our philosophy. Ultimately, the Populous brand has allowed us to have a lot more fun than 3 initials ever did.
One of the fundamental building blocks of our visual brand has been our approach to photography. If you look back 6 years, nobody was showing photography with people in it. Really, across the industry, no architecture firms were doing that. One of the fundamental tenets of our brand is about the experience people have in our buildings. So, we made it a priority to bring people into our project photography. This approach has humanized our work. But beyond just the photography, the name Populous has allowed us to tell a story about what we love to do – design the places that draw people together.
Q: How do you feel the Populous brand has impacted the firm?
What the Populous brand does for us is lend instant credibility to fresh thinking and innovative ideas that we couldn’t do if we were “alphabet soup” and just like all the others. At least in branding, it seems to me you either want someone to love you or hate you. The worst thing would be for someone to be indifferent about you. And, that’s what the brand Populous did—people either loved the brand name or hated the brand name when we launched and it created a conversation. That’s exactly what we wanted it to do.
A Look Inside Web + Content Marketing at Populous
Q: Tell me how you’ve organized your marketing department to support your content marketing efforts?
We’re structured vertically — similar to how Andy has structured things at DLR Group. We have a coordinator focused on the collegiate market, one focused on baseball and soccer, one on the NFL, and one on convention centers and arenas. And, now we’re branching into some new areas like aviation and campus and urban planning.
It’s worked well for us because it’s enabled marketing coordinators to build stronger relationships with the architects in our practice in order to develop quality, strategic content. We also have individuals who lead the website, PR and social media who work hand-in-hand with the coordinators and architects in developing content both for the website and for external publications. Our group talks nearly on a daily basis about the importance of creating great content. All of us understand how important it is to our overall marketing strategy and we all buy into it. I think that goes a long way in pushing a strategy through, when everyone on your team sees how their work can fit into the broader goals of the firm.
Q: Where do content ideas and topics come from? How do you plan content at Populous?
Most of it comes from ideas generated by us. We work hard to stay abreast of current trends in our industry. And, of course, we look at what’s coming down the pipeline in terms of leads and opportunities to the business. It’s really no different from a newsroom. We create an editorial calendar that ties to what’s happening in the industry and relate it to how we’d like to position our practice.
We conduct one big annual planning session with each market and then we re-visit it regularly as the year progresses. Our coordinators meet monthly with the leaders of each of our different segments.
Q: How is content developed? Does marketing ghost write for people? Or, do architects and designers write things themselves and ask marketing to edit and create the final draft?
To be honest, it’s a little bit of both. It depends on who we’re working with. Some of our architects are very comfortable writing. Others will provide us with some bullet points and ask us to develop a draft. And, for some we’ll conduct interviews then distill it down. That said, I do like it when architects write. It’s not only a great way to demonstrate their thought leadership and for us to introduce both our established market leaders and some of our up and comers to promote our firm. But, it helps their growth, as well.
Q: How do you use your content as part of your business development strategy?
To the extent we can, we use content a lot. Many of our projects are highly confidential because they’re in the public realm and funding is not always secure. As a result, a lot of the projects we’re pursuing can’t really be talked about publicly so we have to be really careful about not giving away too much into what we’re doing online. But, to the extent we can, we will use content to support our business development efforts.
For instance, last year we did a really big push around collegiate football. We partnered with USA Today on a survey of college football fans – why they attend games, what they like about their experience, and what keeps them coming back. We developed a number of blog posts around it. We also did a really fun program with The Robb Report. Every year they release an Annual Gift Guide for the world’s wealthiest individuals. For their 2013 guide, we designed a backyard stadium with seating for 100 spectators. We tied both of these programs into a campaign that culminated with the opening of McLane Stadium at Baylor University. The campaign ended up extending all the way to December 2014 when Baylor hosted ESPN College GameDay. We had some fun with that on social media as well.
Q: Tell us a bit more about your research with USA Today. How did that come about?
In our practice, we always talk about how to tap into the hearts and minds of the people who use our buildings because that’s what our brand is all about. We’re really interested in understanding the experience people have in our buildings no matter the type—a stadium, convention center or airport. So, with the collegiate campaign, we thought, “How can we reach thousands and thousands of people?” Luckily, we have a very strong relationship with a reporter at USA Today and we reached out to him and off we went.
Q: Has that research on fan experience changed how you position the firm?
What it did was it supported our position of truly understanding the fan experience by talking directly with the fans themselves. That, coupled with the cumulative work over the past couple years on the topic has certainly reinforced some of the conversations we have with universities about the experience they want their various user groups to have.
Q: How do you promote and distribute your content?
We don’t do a whole lot. We don’t do email campaigns. We don’t feel like that’s the most effective use of our time and our marketing dollars. But we do try to repurpose our content as much as we can and share it on an individual basis where it makes sense — either directly with clients or within business development pitches and presentations. For instance, we made Fast Company’s list of the most innovative companies 3 times in the past 6 years—we’ll use that as evidence of the innovative nature of our firm in our business development pitches.
Q: Are there any particular technologies you use to support your content marketing efforts?
[Laughing] That would be Excel. There’s not much from a content perspective. We do use Crowd Booster and Tweet Deck as part of our social media efforts and, obviously, we rely heavily on Google Analytics and the information it provides.
There’s a lot of talk about social media and the amplifier it can provide for content, but we find more people finding our blog posts from Google search than anything else. So, what that’s meant to us is that every blog post has to be content rich—no fluff.
Q: In our work, we talk about the importance of the 3 P’s of an A/E firm website. This is the idea of bringing together the people, the projects and the perspective dynamically and intelligently. Your current site launched in 2012, and you were doing that well before most anyone in the industry. Talk about your thinking on that.
If you are going to be successful as a professional services firm you have to highlight your people because at the end the day we are what make up the firm. Our reputation and our relationships are what build our brand and so that was really central to the site’s design.
Q: Are you able/willing to share any of the outcomes you’ve seen from your content marketing efforts? Have you had any clients or projects that initiated through your website and content efforts?
I have two current examples that I wish I could share with you but we haven’t quite won yet. We haven’t pushed them across the finish line so maybe if we talk again in 6 months I can share those. I will say that we have seen our ability to link content, public relations and social media strategy as an effective way to get us in front of clients. There’s no denying it helps to open doors, create conversations and establish credibility.