Storytelling to strengthen and humanise architecture and engineering brands.

In his presentation, for the Disrupt Symposium held in May 2022, global marketing and communications professional from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, SOM, Fadi Asmar emphasised the importance of storytelling which can strengthen and humanise architecture and engineering brands. He elaborated on the idea of focusing on connecting your architecture brand with clients through a string of storytelling. Creating content for a brand which embodies storytelling while being relatable to the public is how a firm can strengthen its position. 

Project Name: New United States Courthouse – Los Angeles
Photographer/Artist: Benny Chan | Fotoworks
Copyright: © Benny Chan | Fotoworks 

Disrupt Symposium is a go-to Business of Architecture event hand-crafted for architects, engineers and construction experts to share their experiences in practice operations. We are creatives, excited about changing the world by delivering projects that shape our communities and urban spaces. But, oftentimes, we get overwhelmed by the business side of our profession, and since all around the world the AEC industry is lacking in business education – we all need to find our own answers. Oftentimes we feel alienated by this process since the topic of business and success is still taboo in this industry. 

Disrupt Symposium is here to put a stop to that, and introduce an environment of learning and support in our community. 

During the event, we ask key questions like:

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How to hire and retain our teams?

How to grow

How to communicate our value effectively through powerful marketing strategies?

How to be more profitable and even how to leave a legacy behind and retire proudly of personal accomplishments. 

New Disrupt Symposium is coming up on 1-3rd Nov 2022 with a new set of amazing speakers, who are C-level directors and leaders of key architecture practices to have them share with us their day-to-day efforts towards running better practice operations! It is them and their unique expertise in business which influence the success of the practices they work for!  

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Leading with the examples from SOM and how the firm adopts these ideas and focuses on the concept. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” SOM uses the concept of presenting ‘one hero shot’ of their projects to display the project and promote it.

Fadi Asmar, a photographer himself and with marketing knowledge knows the impact a good picture can bring. Architectural photography is a very crucial part of the investments for any firm and becomes a key element in narrating these stories about the project and the brand. It is a need that a brand must fulfil to impress its clients, followers and viewers to keep them up to date on the latest designs and projects created by the firm. Along with this, it is important to encourage the clients to choose your firm’s brand for their next project and even recommend it to others.

Whilst good architectural photography of a project helps in capturing the building, it only remains a small part of the story; an enormous amount of time and resources go into the process of reaching the final stage. This is true for any architectural project and the firm needs to display that process as well to tell a complete story. Behind-the-scenes images and work-in-progress stories have always remained hidden or unknown to people. Lately, it has become a topic of intrigue.

Designers know better than anybody that the journey is more important than the destination. Sometimes, the process is the only story that should be told, specifically in the areas of research or architecture innovation; which benefits the entire industry.

Project Name: 875 North Michigan Avenue (formerly John Hancock Center)
Photographer/Artist: Dave Burk
Copyright: © SOM

There is a dire need to humanise the AEC brands and Fadi explains that at the end of the day, we are in the business of selling service and it is important to put weight on the human element of the work and let the viewers, clients, academics, potential clients connect with the brand on a more personal level and with the team who is a vital part of that brand. To simplify, Fadi breaks it down into two parts – ‘Why it matters?’ and ‘How to do it effectively?’

Project Name: Denver Union Station Hub + Transit-Oriented Development
Photographer/Artist: Magda Biernat
Copyright: © Magda Biernat Photography

Why does it matter for Architecture, Engineering and Construction firms to brand effectively?

Humanising the work is more like an opportunity for the brand to engage in a direct conversation with its users while also serving as an opportunity to be a part of authentic discussions. Fadi quotes that “people respond to people and data proves it”, following with the pictures of Instagram analytics data, he describes the SOM’s recent social media posts.

One post with a more human approach outdoes the typical architectural photography post. Both the posts while standing on the same level in terms of likes are placed very differently when engagement is involved which means people have interacted with the post, shared it and talked about it. Data shows that the post with the human approach did 150% better than the typical architecture post. Looking at architects as storytellers they want their stories to be viewed and reached as many people as possible and build a diverse audience base. As Fadi says:

“Being relatable, relevant, and interesting drives more traffic to your content and brings a diverse audience.” 

SOM’s other social media campaign gave an inside look into their work by showing project tours and explaining the project with voiceover, its elements, the concept and the design process and challenges. It allowed the followers of SOM to hear the voices behind the project and get the correct information directly from the creators which became a better means of connection. SOM’s marketing team noted that these types of initiatives brought in more viewership and interaction. 

Yet, another example of a marketing technique that SOM uses is focusing on not just multimedia promotion but presenting stories from the office on different social media platforms. Showcasing the human element of SOM is a very important part of their brand building by highlighting key people at key positions in the firm. Publishing interviews of people working at SOM be it, partners, directors, principals and so on; allows clients to know and look into the profile of the people who are in a position of leadership at the firm. Their thoughts might resonate with the audiences who look them up on the internet and if a potential client builds such a personal connection with another person who is associated with a brand, it automatically raises the value of that company. It also presents SOM as a company that embraces diversity and helps them to better engage with their clientele.  

Project Name: 100 Mount Street
Photographer/Artist: Brett Boardman Photography
Copyright: © Brett Boardman Photography

“This allows us to nurture existing relationships, and build meaningful connections with our audience across different disciplines.” – says Fadi Asmar

SOM is also an interdisciplinary firm with structural engineers, architects, urban designers and interior designers working on the same project and which means that new and diverse content comes from all these different disciplines. Personalising this helps in building more authentic connections. This also involves taking a different approach to the website that defines the company, balancing the AEC element of the company and the human element. It allows the readers and viewers to reach out to the people associated with the brand and talk to them directly by elevating the content and showcasing the people behind the greatest designs that are happening today.

“As storytellers, this is an opportunity to tell stories clearly, and communicate more effectively.”

Press releases that SOM does typically involve quotes from their designers, engineers and clients; to tell the stories from their lens. Giving the example of the Manhattan project, Fadi describes how they involved the engineers to talk about the navigation of challenges required to successfully execute the project. Similarly, SOM involved its designers and engineers of the 800 Fulton Market, Chicago and included their ideas and quotes in the press releases. 

Project Name: Manhattan West Development
Photographer/Artist: Miller Hare Limited
Copyright: © Miller Hare Limited

Historically SOM has always shown its work to the public through exhibitions as it is a multidisciplinary firm which addresses almost all areas of the architecture, engineering and construction industry. Whether it is exhibiting at the Venice Biennale or curating their own exhibitions, SOM craves more person-to-person interaction when talking about their work. This is a crucial part of conveying the story but it is done only when there is a message that needs to be passed on through the work of SOM. Taking architecture and engineering out of the box and focusing on the human element involved, participating in the panel discussions and discussing the experience and learnings; talking about the improvements that can be brought in the future. These are the discussions that should happen in the industry and are necessary for the collective growth of the individual, the brand and the fraternity. In a setting like this where it is close to a limited number of people, social media becomes a means to reach a larger audience and allow them to take part in these conversations online. 

All of the reasons bring out an essential point, adding a human touch is important for any brand be it AEC or not as it becomes more relatable to the people.


So, how to do it effectively? 


Pay attention that what is being said is in line with the branding, professional, to the point and not overdone. Fadi describes the different types of content which can be personalised to the needs of the company.


Technical Content

The content which is displayed in exhibitions tends to be on the technical side so the question arises, how can it be made human? Given SOM’s example, Fadi talks about the project he worked on which was a new machine-learning initiative. After the 2017 Mexico City earthquake, SOM sent a team of architects and engineers to help with the reconnaissance effort. They did the damage assessment and analysed the buildings that were at high risk and sent the data to the earthquake engineering and research institute. Upon looking closely at the data and realising that it is very time-consuming they involved machine learning in the process which made the task less tedious and more accurate. The personal and human element in this situation was involving the people from SOM visiting the area and discovering the needs of that place. After machine learning was used for damage assessment in Mexico City, it became a very helpful tool that was used in other projects as well. SOM created a small documentary involving the people who were working on this project, talking to them and understanding their experience. 

Project Name: Urban Sequoia
Copyright: © SOM, JCFO | Miysis

Another example where SOM added a human touch to their communication was when they showcased the design for the Morphing Pavilion. Being a very technical concept, it was important for SOM to post it on their social media and focus on why it needed to be posted, and SOM’s reasoning behind focusing on such research initiatives. Such technical content which might be difficult for someone to understand there can be better presented by pushing forward the people who worked on it, so they can simplify it and communicate the idea better.

SOM’s collaboration with universities and students allowed the firm to reach out to people directly involved in the architecture field and be a part of a hands-on experience in researching and building. One collaboration led to another and through this initiative, they grew their audience on various social media platforms.


 Industry Events

Events are opportunities for companies to humanise their work and allow people to learn more about the staff and their stories. Fadi gave the example of international women on engineering day where SOM did an interview and profile the women in the engineering department. Conducting a question-answer round or allowing the means to advise young women who wish to be a part of the industry can help in engaging with the audience. All of this can be done through several social media campaigns. The analytics of the social media post by SOM on international women in engineering day gained more attention and became the most engaging story of that year, this further proved that people appreciated such content and sought to learn what the firm was doing and how they were doing it. A similar initiative was taken to celebrate engineer’s week at SOM which garnered more audience and viewership that week

Project Name: Burj Khalifa (formerly Burj Dubai)
Photographer/Artist: Nick Merrick | Hedrich Blessing
Copyright: Nick Merrick © Hedrich Blessing

Celebrating Diversity

This is very relevant content and should be done by all companies to celebrate the diversity of their employees. In recent years many companies have come forward to show their support and appreciation for their employees and embrace diversity in the workplace. SOM did a series of interviews with their employees, talked about personal experiences and allowed the viewers to know a person rather than an architect, designer or employee. Companies also need to take up initiatives to celebrate global events like international women’s day, Black history month or pride month and inspire change in society. This can be done by interviewing the people, the challenges they had to overcome, and their ideas and perspectives.

One key thing to keep in mind, there are several initiatives and a lot to do these days, but depending on the size of the firm one needs to be very careful and understanding of how much content is to be shared, is the content relevant and does it add value to the brand? It is important to understand which social media content is working for the brand and which isn’t. Balancing and diversifying the content is crucial for building a successful brand image. It is also equally important to be consistent, relevant, professional and to the point in creating such content.


If you enjoyed the learning and value packed into this article, you can not miss the next Disrupt Symposium which is coming 1-3rd Nov 2022. It’s a virtual, global event. We meet on zoom in a webinar format and will be joined by some of the biggest and most established architects and practices today, to discuss topics of Practice Operations. Don’t miss it, get your tickets now: