How to Tell If Your Architecture Firm Is Doing Vanity Marketing

There are different types of marketing, but one that is really in a class by itself is vanity marketing. Vanity marketing is the name for all the things a firm does solely because the firm wants to – not for any specific business goal. Non-vanity marketing is focused on earning new commissions, ensuring inclusion on RFP lists, attracting top talent. Vanity marketing, on the other hand, is focused on making people at the firm (whether leadership or staff) feel a certain way.

Some real-world examples of vanity marketing:

  • Featuring projects on the firm website because they’re someone’s “favorite,” even if those projects aren’t relevant to the firm’s services, the work doesn’t rise to the level of being on the website, or the photos are dated, out of focus, or grainy. “But Trevor’s been here 35 years and this was his first project. He’d be so sad if it wasn’t on the website” is not a reason to include it. Any project could be the first or only project a prospective client sees. People outside the firm will assume that a project is on your site because it’s an example of your best work, and they will decide whether to contact you based on that. Someone putting together an RFP list won’t know or understand Trevor’s feelings; they’ll conclude that this is what you think good work looks like.
  • Deciding to rebrand or rename the firm without a clear business reason. “We need a new logo. Jane saw the logo for X Firm and now she hates ours so we have to redo it.” Even though this is an expensive endeavor (design fees, all new print collateral and signage, new digital collateral, updating websites and social media, and trademark filings), firms are often quick to jump into this without thinking about how their current and prospective clients will react to a new logo or name. Because the decision to rebrand isn’t strategic, the process of rebranding also lacks strategy. Forget research and business development considerations; the design process will inevitably devolve into Jane handing someone a napkin sketch of something ill-advised and ordering that it be implemented by next Tuesday.
  • Making decisions based on how other architects will view what you’re doing or saying. A client once refused to send out an announcement about a major award, because whenever they saw another architect do that they bristled, and, out of jealousy, mocked the architects and their work. What they could not accept is that unless other architects are their clients, the opinions of other architects shouldn’t be their primary concern. They should be focused on whether the news is something that would improve their standing among prospective clients.
  • Doing big, expensive moves with little ROI just because you want to. One firm spends several hundred thousand dollars per year on videos for their website because they think having a lot of videos makes them look successful. They also think showing off videos on social media or on their homepage is too obvious, so the videos are purposely difficult to find. They receive almost no traffic, which hasn’t persuaded the firm to change its mind. The videos aren’t there for external audiences; they’re there to make the firm feel accomplished.
  • Sending e-newsletters about staff personal news, peppered liberally with firm inside jokes. It might be great that Joe got a dog, but prospective clients probably don’t care and will wonder why you’re sending them an overly familiar piece of news that is also not relevant to them. This firm rationalized its decision by saying that this kind of e-newsletter makes them seem friendly and human. Is being friendly and human the most important thing your firm needs to demonstrate to prospective clients? If things like experience and ability to handle certain kinds of projects are as important or more important, those should be covered first and repeatedly, before entering the waters of who brought potato salad to the company picnic. In this particular firm’s case, there was internal strife amongst the staff, and the firm was hoping that by projecting a “happy” image externally everyone internally would fall in line. Needless to say, that didn’t work to assuage the staff – and it didn’t bring in new work.
  • Tasking a staff member to design and produce all of your materials even though that staff member doesn’t have the skills to do so because it makes that person feel good. An architect can be an excellent designer of buildings and spaces and not excel at typeface selection or print brochure design. If the person designing your print materials doesn’t know how to do it you will end up with pieces that are visually unpleasing, unreadable, or costly or impossible to produce. This means your firm is allocating money, resources, and lost business opportunities to the cause of one employee’s ego.
  • Publishing blog posts that are not relevant, don’t provide value to your audiences, or aren’t written well or proofread. This can be an issue especially for leadership, who not wrongly feel they have earned the right to say what they want to say. However, if your firm specializes in hospital architecture and one of your partners is insisting on publishing his thoughts about the best architectural sites to visit in 2021, there is a disconnect between who your firm needs to reach and what you’re offering people. To further complicate the issue, not all architects are good writers. When a poorly written or typo-riddled post has to be published as-is because the ego of the author demands it, it can make your business development and recruitment efforts that much harder. People may not consciously rule your firm out because of the post, but they will subconsciously think of your firm as one that doesn’t pay attention to details.

The throughline of vanity marketing is an inward focus rather than an external focus. To that end, it doesn’t even technically qualify as marketing, because the purpose of marketing is to reach external audiences. The kinds of “marketing” outlined above will not advance your business growth, and they may even hamper it.
If you’ve realized some similarities with what your firm is doing, how do you get out of the vanity marketing trap? There are two questions you have to be able to answer:

  1. What specific business goal is this supporting?
  2. What would a prospective client think about our firm if this was the only thing they saw?

Sometimes it’s difficult to answer the second question because it requires you to separate out what you know. This is where it can be helpful to have an outside person, whether it’s a trusted person in the industries you work in or a consultant, review what you’re doing and give you honest feedback. The caveat here is to solicit input from people who represent or are experts in the audiences you need to reach; if you’re trying to reach mixed-use developers, for example, the opinion of your physician friend won’t give you the information you need to improve your marketing.

Brian Jones