A few years back, SHR Perceptual Management had a perception problem. Its offices, decorated in shades of pastel yellow and tan, looked perfectly professional — even stylish. BUT THEY also looked like just about every OTHER OFFICE in Scottsdale, Arizona. For a company that touted itself AS ANYTHING BUT conventional, a company that held the philosophy "Perception is reality," the desertlike decor sent the wrong message, recalls Barry Shepard, SHR's president and cofounder.
Not anymore. In 1998, freed from their lease, Shepard and cofounder Will Rodgers moved the company into a new 20,000-square-foot office space. It is, in a word, outrageous. Visitors cross a metal entry bridge to reach the reception desk. There's a wall-sized close-up of a man shouting, curving walls that stop short of the floor like a stage set, cavelike offices without doors, and a floating glass conference table (it's suspended by overhead cables). The soothing sunset hues have been replaced by black floors, black exposed ductwork, and white walls. Designed by a hot architectural studio, Morphosis, which is based in Santa Monica, California, SHR's new headquarters makes a visual statement radically different from that of the old location.
Which makes an awful lot of strategic sense. SHR, which helps companies develop, express, and "live" their brands, is finally living its own brand, and Shepard couldn't be happier. "When our clients visit us here, they immediately see how the space shapes perceptions," he says. "Seeing is believing."
A Brand-New Approach to Branding
Barry Shepard believes that he has found a better way to build a brand — an approach that helps products and services stand out in an increasingly noisy marketplace and that connects emotionally with customers. SHR's approach worked for the hugely popular update of the Volkswagen Beetle. Shepard is hoping for similar success with the 2002 Ford Thunderbird; Boeing's in-flight Internet service, Connexion by Boeing (due out next summer); and the new snack food Wahoos, from General Mills (which has been available in stores since last month).
What's the method behind the brand messages? A brand is best seen as a cluster of perceptions, explains Shepard, and the key challenge is to extend those perceptions to every point of contact with customers. Words alone aren't enough, he emphasizes. Customers live in a world marked by oversupply, overcapacity, and sensory overload. "In an overcommunicated society," he says, "where consumers are inundated with messages every day — 'We're world-class,' 'We've got the lowest price,' 'We make the best-quality product' — visual signals shape perceptions more than words do."
Through a process known as "visual positioning," SHR helps companies define and refine the dimensions of their brand and identify the visual signals that convey those dimensions. By using the right visual vocabulary, says Shepard, companies can speed up the brand-building process significantly. "There are a lot of people who think that brand building takes years, but it doesn't have to. A highly visual brand can trigger the desired perceptions immediately."
SHR's approach to visual branding grew out of Shepard's passion for design. He handles the strategic and creative side of the business, while Rodgers, his business partner of 31 years, courts new clients. That's been their arrangement from the beginning, when the two started a graphic-design company as students at Arizona State University. At that time, they were fraternity brothers who wanted simply to work for themselves. Shepard was an advertising-design major; Rodgers was an architecture major. The third partner, Tom Harlan — the H in SHR — bailed out during the group's first project: its business cards. Shepard, who came up with a multicolor design, thought that the printer could do better. "Tom got so frustrated trying to print up these $30 cards that he quit," says Rodgers. "He said, 'You guys are too picky.' " Truth be told, says Rodgers with a chuckle, Shepard was the picky one. And he still is. Staffers joke about designs passing "the Barry test."
It's not surprising that Shepard sets the bar so high. Tall and lean, he's a former world-class high jumper and member of the 1970 U.S. track-and-field team. Early that year, after clearing a personal best of seven feet, two inches, he was briefly ranked number one in the world. (It lasted until the Russians started their season, he says.) Shepard had his sights set on the Olympic Games in Munich, but just three weeks before the trials, he sprained and broke his ankle while training. He competed anyway, wrapping the ankle in tape and popping aspirin to stifle the pain. Unable to jump 7' 2", however, he didn't make the team.
Shepard's next step was to throw himself into an equally competitive field: the design business. He and Rodgers started out primarily doing brochures for hotels and resorts. That work eventually led to bigger accounts, including SHR's first automotive client, Audi, in 1983. What clinched the deal was SHR's arresting action photos of cars, which came at a time when airbrushed studio portraits were the norm.
Shepard didn't start using the term visual positioning until the late 1980s, but he had long been interested in effective design. As a student at ASU, he submitted his own rendition of a bolder Sun Devil mascot, because he thought that the existing one didn't do the job. (Unfortunately for Shepard, his devil never got its due. Prior to its scheduled debut, the university's alumni voted to cast out the image.)
Years later, Shepard continued to be struck by companies that said one thing with words and communicated something very different with images. "I remember designing annual reports that talked about being innovative, yet which showed an aerial view of a factory, which wasn't innovative at all," he says. "Our whole focus became about visually reinforcing what the company was saying."
Sending the Right Signals
Before SHR can develop a visual strategy, a client's executives, marketers, and product developers all have to agree on the brand message. At the beginning of a project, SHR's brand-strategy team leads a workshop to identify the three or four core brand dimensions. Painful as it may be, narrowing them down is a necessary process for companies that want to communicate several ideas, because "consumers can't hold more than four thoughts in their minds about a brand," says Shepard. Ideally, the dimensions differentiate the brand from the competition. Participants pore over pictures of seemingly unrelated objects, such as watches, buildings, shoes, and people, culled from SHR's archive of more than 8,000 images. The objective is to select images that best represent the current brand, the competition, and the "aspirational brand" — what the client hopes to be.
"If we're working with a car company, we don't use cars," explains Laurie Penn, brand-strategy manager at SHR and a member of the firm's brand-strategy team. "We want them to think differently about their brand than they normally do. The visuals help us to arrive at better verbal descriptions, and those descriptions help us to develop the visual language of what the brand looks like."
To find the visual signals that suggest these characteristics, SHR's visual-positioning team conducts a series of consumer visual-research groups. At one end of the table is a card that names a certain brand dimension; at the other end, a card that bears an opposite or less desirable trait. Consumers arrange a group of images according to which ones best represent each extreme, and then they explain their selections. The exercise translates words into pictures, says Shepard. Using this visual spectrum, SHR detects specific elements such as photo angles, compositions, and layouts. Those findings serve as a guide for designers in the creation of a product or an advertisement.
In the early stages of the VW Beetle's development, when the car was nothing more than an idea, SHR helped designers J Mays, Freeman Thomas, and the rest of their VW/Audi team define the four primary characteristics of the brand that they were hoping to create: "simple," "honest," "reliable," and "original." After conducting consumer visual-research groups, SHR collaborated with the car designers to create a design palette that was based on those dimensions. For instance, because consumers thought of circles as being simple and honest, designers incorporated a variety of circles and arcs in the car's interior and exterior, like a motif. The concept car eventually became the new Beetle, which became the hottest car on the road a couple of years ago.
The visual-positioning research eliminates the subjectivity inherent in most design, says SHR's senior designer, Miles Abernethy. Instead of guessing what will appeal to consumers, designers understand how people interpret visual information, how they intuitively react. The visual signals aren't always what SHR or its clients expect.
In one case, says Abernethy, a toy company that was creating makeup for young girls defined one of the brand dimensions as "confident." As part of its research, the company asked focus groups of girls to choose which bikes represented confidence and which ones didn't. The adults expected them to choose the photo of a modern, futuristic bike. Instead, the girls chose a no-frills Schwinn. "To 8- to 10-year-old girls, confidence means not standing out from the crowd and not falling off your bike and having kids make fun of you," says Abernethy. "They chose the bike they could ride."
Ideally, the visual cues and brand dimensions shape more than an advertising campaign, says Shepard. They influence business strategy, product design, customer service — even the office environment. That's what it means to live the brand. It becomes a thread — a consistent set of traits — running through the entire organization, or, in the case of a large organization, the relevant department.
To help its clients achieve this degree of integration, SHR conducts a roll-in program, helping employees in various departments identify ways to support the brand strategy. In addition to a lengthy and comprehensive report reviewing the visual-positioning process, SHR gives its clients a four-page summary, complete with dimensions and the recommended visual elements. "It's like a design guide that you can slide into your notebook or your pocket," says Teri Ward, SHR's director of marketing. "It helps our clients spread the knowledge through their organization."
Designed for Success
One company that has taken SHR's philosophy to heart is Tauck World Discovery, a travel outfit based in Westport, Connecticut. Last year, its 75th year in business, copresidents and siblings Robin and Peter Tauck realized it was time to update the brand. Despite a growing number of international packages, consumers thought of Tauck Tours, as it was then known, as a domestic operator. Also, the company got extremely high customer-satisfaction marks, but it didn't fully understand why. "We learned we were changing their lives through unique travel experiences," says Robin Tauck. Yet Tauck Tours wasn't marketing itself that way.
With SHR's help, Robin Tauck's company reinvented itself around brand dimensions such as "authentic, engaging discovery" and "genuine personal interaction." "The process gave us a very powerful understanding of what the brand stands for," she says. "It took us away from the bricks and mortar of our business and reminded us of the fundamental components and emotions of travel." The changes included a new name, logo, Web site, brochures, strategy, itineraries, and terminology (tours are now called "experiences").
The result? Double-digit revenue growth, says Robin Tauck, and a staff — 220 in the office, 250 in the field — focused on the same priorities. The dimensions are now so integral to Tauck World Discovery that they are part of job evaluations. "If you're not genuine and personal on the job, then no matter how well you achieve your other goals, you won't get the high rating that you expect," she says. "These dimensions are who we are."
The same can be said for SHR, which Shepard has put through the visual-positioning process. The firm's brand dimensions — "dynamic impact," "genuine partnering," and "strategic discovery" — affect nearly every part of the business, he says: the daylong creative workshops; the Innovative Thinking Conference that the company hosts every year in Scottsdale (Rodgers started the event in 1989); and, of course, its outrageous offices. "There's constant discovery as you walk around this space," says Shepard, after strolling across the bridge from the outside world into the world of SHR. "We believe in the idea of surrounding your customer with your brand, and that's what we do here."
Chuck Salter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer based in Baltimore. Contact Barry Shepard by email (email@example.com), or learn more about SHR Perceptual Management on the Web (http://www.shr.com).
How do you build brands that get noticed and connect with the audience? It's a problem that Barry Shepard, president of SHR Perceptual Management, has tackled for companies such as Audi, Coke, Ford, Mary Kay, and Mattel. Here are some of the ideas behind his approach.
A picture is worth a thousand words. If you want to shape perceptions of your brand, you can't simply claim to have innovative, fun, or edgy products. You have to show it, to communicate the brand expression at every point of customer contact.
Find the hidden emotional connection. Understanding a brand isn't about listing functional benefits. It's about asking, "How do I feel when I'm using this product?" SHR posed that question while working with Rockford Fosgate on a car amplifier that was targeted at teens. The answer? Rebellious and antiestablishment. The amp, which looks like something out of Mad Max, was designed to tap those feelings.
Building a brand requires discipline. SHR asks clients to limit their brand dimensions to three or four core values. That discipline forces companies to decide what matters to them most. The fewer the dimensions, the more effective the message is likely to be.
Brand strategy drives business strategy. Embracing their brand dimensions has helped SHR client Tauck World Discovery decide which trips are right for them. Despite interest from cruise lines to coordinate a tour, copresident Robin Tauck says that a cruise with 2,000 or more passengers isn't the sort of personal and distinctive travel experience that the brand promises. Instead, the company offers small cruises (usually 60 to 80 people), including one to the Greek Isles aboard Aristotle Onassis's former yacht.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.