Q: You have received many awards, including “Travel & Leisure” Design Champion Award. All your projects are sensations. What is the philosophy behind your approach to branded architecture?
A: Any answer to that question has to be multi-dimensional. There is no single answer. Overall, we work with great, sensitive and talented architects, then hold to a basic philosophy that has scalability. I know that I’ve received lots of kudos in terms of the design aspect of the Aman Resorts, but in the hospitality industry those aspects are more than just design elements because our product is not a single element. It has many facets.
Like clapping hands, for example. One hand by itself cannot produce sound. You need two hands to clap. That’s how it is with hospitality. The right things must come together – the critical elements of design, hardware and software. The experience you get is in the service element that results from these critical pieces coming together.
Q: For Aman, an important branding decision you made was in the naming of the overall brand, as well as in each resort. You use “aman” as a prefix, so there is Amanpuri in Thailand and Amangani in the USA. What is the story behind the name “Aman”? And how does it relate to the brand pillars?
A: The word “aman” means peace, security, safety, shelter, protection, in several languages. We use that prefix and adapt the second part of the name to the location.
The Aman brand has become associated with tranquility and serenity, much like the original meaning behind the name. The brand is not pretentious – the resorts are located in pristine places where there’s not a large hospitality industry; it’s relevant to the location, it has consistency.
Consistency doesn’t mean sameness, but rather a sense that you look at whatever the element is and you see a common link, a common identity and feeling. Every element is an ingredient in the perception of the product.
Q: How do you create a brand that is founded in something auditory, such as silence?
A: If you analyze the personality profile of an Aman “junkie,” they’re high-powered people. They therefore come from workplaces, social areas or lifestyles that are busy. So what they look for when they break away is the opposite. You never feel a buzz when you walk into an Aman lobby because there are never enough people to form a crowd and make you feel that buzz.
Everything is simple. Everything is down to earth. All those elements contribute to the wonderful feeling of peace and tranquility. That is what all Aman properties have.
That’s why you’ll never see a television in the bedroom. You’ll find lots of books in the room, which suggests that you should be reading a book. We can bring a TV into the room, but the number of guests who request that is extremely low.
Q: How did you go about establishing, and then continuously delivering on that brand promise?
A: Aman has stood out and been successful over the years because of consistency in branding and design. When branding and architecture reinforce each other consistently, you will gain permanence and the advantage of leadership. Quality products, consistently delivered, across many years and countries.
Q: What other branding and architectural factors made an impact?
A: I think it’s also fortunate timing. I’ve often thought that if I’d started Aman ten years earlier, it might not have succeeded. The same goes for ten years later – we would have had to play catch-up with someone who was leading the industry. This fortunate timing has nothing to do with intelligence – it’s pure luck!
The brand caught on because it was different – the concept was contrary to the industry mantra at the time, which was, “bigger is better.” We were told that our concept of doing projects with less than fifty rooms would never succeed financially. We know now that wasn’t true. We deliberately chose not to have more than fifty rooms, and we picked locations that were “not yet discovered”. Both of these decisions were contrary to the industry trend at the time.
Q: How did the Aman brand pillars influence the architects’ design?
A: As far as building the product, we didn’t want any pretense. It had to be very honest, very true. We didn’t want expensive materials or excessive spaces. It was all about good design. That became the foundation of the brand. Then we presented the concept to very intelligent architects and that gave them the direction we wanted.
Q: How would you describe your relationship with architects on your projects?
A: I’m not a hotelier. I started life as a journalist, then became a publisher and in the latter part of my life, I turned to the hotel business. So my easiest explanation is that my relationship with architects is like the relationship of a good editor with a good writer. The true credit should go to the writer, not the editor. But the editor contributes to the ultimate product.
Q: Aman has become a synonym for unmatched services – how did you achieve that?
A: Service means a great deal to us and we wanted to be consistent in that. By “service,” I’m referring to three elements. One is the functional. That’s not very difficult. It’s just a matter of training. The second is an aspect people don’t pay enough attention to – that’s intangible services, like a genuine smile, the desire to please, a feeling. The third element is efficiency. In the end, it all comes down to cost. Labor is the biggest cost factor in the experience delivered by a hotel. If you’re working in low labor cost areas, the ratio may be five employees to one guest. In high labor cost areas, there is smaller staff but much higher efficiency, meaning productivity. That balances us out so we can go to a higher ratio, like three employees to one guest. We can afford to do that and reap the reward for paying the higher labor cost because you get much more personalized service.
Q: What advantage has your unique approach to the hospitality industry made for the brand and user experience of Aman?
A: One reason is lifestyle. That is why I opted to go for less than fifty rooms per resort; with the special little touches and attention to detail that a big hotel company can’t offer. And not because they don’t understand it or because they don’t appreciate it. They simply can’t do it because they have so many rooms with such short guest stays. Their staff doesn’t have the capacity or the time to memorize the guest’s name and appearance. They don’t have the ability to form a connection. Even if your staff is very polite, in the morning, the guest will hear, “Good morning, Sir.” At Aman, the guest hears”Good morning, Mr. Zecha,” or whatever the guest’s name is. Those small details make a difference. It’s not because we’re so good. It’s just that our chosen format favors more intimate service.
Q: Where do you think professionals are missing the mark when it comes to branding and architecture?
A: Within the hospitality industry I wish there would be more focus on the smaller, intimate, personal-attention brand concepts, instead of continuing the big bulk hotels. For those who are more contemplative and certainly more environmentally concerned, there will always be a market.A starchitect writing the history of yesterday and tomorrow, an interview with Robert A.M. Stern
Q: Many have referred to you as the architect who inspired the term “starchitect.” How would you describe your personal brand?
A: It’s true I have been labeled a star architect, but I am not interested in the star approach typical of many talented architects who design buildings as if they were self-portraits.
Instead my partners and I hope to stand for a seriousness of purpose, scholarly approach, commitment to quality, responsibility to the community and to the environment. We seek to honor our brand—with the full knowledge that getting the brand right is tricky, and making every effort to be sure that it evolves appropriately in the face of new challenges. We’re always worried about it and we don’t take on a project if we don’t think it’s suitable for the brand.
Q: What do you think about branding for architecture?
A: I am interested in how you have a brand that is based on a personality. And then what happens when the personality disappears – whether the personality retires, like Calvin Klein, which happens a lot in fashion, or dies, like Coco Chanel. We still have Chanel as a brand. So what does that mean? Now what about architecture? Certain brands existed in architecture long after the progenitors of an identifiable approach. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, or SOM, is a brand. In this office we’ve been thinking about Robert A.M. Stern Architects, and then almost by accident RAMSA appeared as the short acronym that was on working drawings and in contracts. So now Robert A.M. Stern Architects/RAMSA is, in a way, a brand. This is something my younger colleagues and I think about a lot as I get older and they move forward into the future.
Q: What would you say RAMSA stands for as a brand?
A: Our many different kinds of “product” range from houses to office buildings, to residential buildings. We seek an appropriate individual identity for each. Our brand seeks to unite the work and to share an attitude. For many architects, design is an applied science, an exercise in systems technology. We respect technology and seek the very best systems to realize our designs, but we stand for architectural design that has a strong foundation in the history of architecture; that moves the story forward incrementally rather than by explosive leaps and bounds.
Q: How does the RAMSA brand compare to others in the profession?
A: Not every architect or designer is by talent or inclination inspired to connect; many seem intent on piling breakthrough upon breakthrough. They seem more interested in breaking the mold than anything else. Typically, these are what Mies van der Rohe derided as “Monday morning architects.”
There are a few in architecture who break the mold in such a profound way that they do create an iconic brand based on a singular approach
Q: The Seventh Art produced three branding books for the iconic 20 East End Avenue project. We created them for the sales office, to familiarize prospective buyers with the project’s narrative. One of the three books was dedicated solely to you – entitled “Process,” it explained how the building came into being and RAMSA’s design process. How would you summarize RAMSA’s signature process?
A: The narrative in the branding book is typical of how we work in general. We work in teams, with studios led by design partners. At 20 East End Avenue my partner Paul Whalen led the team in close collaboration with our partner Michael Jones. My job is to work principally at the conceptual level and then to monitor the progress of a design, a process that continues until the ribbon is cut and frequently even after that. I think people are interested in how we work, in how we translate a series of sketches and models into working drawings, and to see to it that the buildings fulfill a wide range of expectations—our clients’ come first but also the expectations of the public.
We research historic precedents, which may have nothing to do with immediate context but a lot to do with the kind of building we’re designing.
Q: Seventeen books have been published about you and your firm’s work. It would be an understatement to conclude that the public is fascinated by you. From your perspective, what do you think onlookers find most intriguing?
A: Our books make it possible for others to delve into our work process and to look at the repertoire of details that we have developed over the years. They want to see how our team works together but we also acknowledge that clients need a design leader. Of course there are many people who work together within the relationship between clients and architects—and we strive to have enduring relationships with our clients so that they will remain loyal to our brand. Some architects like to be seen as authoritarian figures, imposing their vision on the client. And some clients like that; they want to be told what is good.
Q: Can you elaborate on branding for institutions and what are the impacting factors?
A: Mixing up styles on a college campus, for example, sometimes works, opening up the conversation, symbolizing broadening horizons. But often it doesn’t work. If you depart from what you have established over a long period of time, it can add spice to the stew, as it were, with some new flavor—as Yale did in the 1950s and 1960s. But if you add too much spice you are likely to compromise the integrity of the whole. It depends on the degree of departure, I suppose, and the quality of the departure, and the timing of the departure. Those are things I think about a lot: the degree, quality, and timing of departures from an established brand—or within the brand, which is the hardest to pull off.
*This is an excerpt from the upcoming book by The Seventh Art’s founder, Michel Mein: “Branded by design: Construction at the Intersection of Architecture and Branding”
Crisis, Scarcity, and What’s in a Name
Q: You started your real estate career leading the branding and marketing efforts for high-profile projects, like Trump Tower. When you started your own firm, The Sunshine Group, in 1986, you were the exclusive marketing and sales agent for iconic properties such as Time Warner Center, One Beacon Court, Trump International Hotel, Tower NY and 40 Bond. You became the Chairman Emeritus when your firm merged with the Corcoran Group, and now you’re the strategic adviser for Fort Partner, advising on the development and sales of projects such as Surf Club Four Seasons hotel and Private Residences in Miami Beach, where you achieved over $1 billion in sales and sold for record price per square foot. In your long career, spanning several decades, you’ve seen the intersection of architecture and branding change – what have you noticed about this evolution?
A: I think branding and architecture usually go hand-in-hand. They’re co-created.
When buildings go to market without having a strong brand they often don’t succeed.
And you’re right, I’m associated currently with the developers for all the Four Seasons Hotels and Residences on the Atlantic coastline of Florida. Now Four Seasons is an amazing brand in itself, and doesn’t need to be “developed” – it’s a brand that everyone immediately recognizes and associates with quality.
However, as far as the rest of the market is concerned and how it evolved over time – I’ve seen it become more difficult, because so many people have adopted different brands and have overused them.
It’s difficult to identify a brand that’s not already overused. There is now a scarcity of brands that are still meaningful.
Q: While working on the development of One Columbus Circle at Time Warner you led The Architectural Design Showcase where you invited top renowned designers to participate in this project – each furnished and put their signature on different units within the property. This became a showcase of the artistic potential of the residences, which attracted a great deal of media and public attention. The building was branded as one-of-a-kind, a hot conversation topic. It was a tremendous success – one that will go down in the history of branding. What are your thoughts on this ingenious implementation of branding?
A: The showcase was photographed and published in two editions of Architectural Digest and also featured on live television and live news shows, like Good Morning America and Goodnight America. It had a tremendous amount of live notice.
It attracted an extraordinary number of people who either heard about it or read about it in Architectural Digest Magazine and wanted to visit the showcase while it was live on site. There were lines and lines of people wanting to get in. The most interesting thing was the number of eyeballs that viewed it!
Not only did we get great publicity for the project, but this helped accelerate sales and absorption, and also allowed us to increase prices over time.
Q: One Columbus Circle is an interesting example of the intersection of branding and architecture because there are two towers within the property – the North Tower and the South Tower. Over the years, there has been much discussion about how to name the project and each of the towers. What impact do you think the branding decision, the name of the tower, made on the building?
A: I have a very distinct point of view about it because I remember when 9/11 happened – right in the middle of the marketing and sales of this development. Sales of high-rises virtually stopped. It was at that point when I finally convinced the developers to make it the Mandarin Residences. And the Mandarin Residences succeeded in spite of 9/11, when the South Tower continued to be almost stagnant. It was a crisis, a very severe crisis. Today, the Mandarin Residences command a much higher price than the South Tower. Because of the brand.
Q: What other projects have you worked on that are interesting examples of the intersection between branding and architecture?
A: One Beacon Court in Manhattan is a good example because it began with a brand we wanted – a prestigious address – and the architecture had to change in order to realize that brand. Before we could get to the conclusion of calling it One Beacon Court, I had to convince Stephen Ross [Chairman and Founder of Related Companies] to create the entrance of the building through the courtyard because originally it was conceived with an entrance on Lexington Avenue. We couldn’t call it One Beacon Court if the entrance was on Lexington Avenue. So we had to create the courtyard, and that was what convinced high-end buyers to buy there. It was then associated with Beacon Court and not Lexington Avenue. With the Bloomberg Tower near there and the residential buildings nearby, that was an important decision.
Q: For One Beacon Court, what impact did the decision to start with branding and then tailor the architecture make on the project?
A: For the developer that was a major decision. For years we were thinking about the court and designing it out of cardboard and making sure it was the right proportions, the right size, the right court. It was an expensive addition to the architecture but a very meaningful one – and it had to be perfect. It adds probably a thousand dollars per square foot to the residences.
Q: What impact does working on teams and across fields of expertise make for branded architectural projects?
A: On these projects, you have the brokers sitting at the table next to the developer, next to the architects, branders, and graphic designers. Sixteen or twenty people working together can be very interesting, and it can be beneficial to have so many brains come together for this sort of vision.
However, even with all the people coming to work together, you still need people at the top to funnel the input, to make sure it is correct and makes sense.
Q: You were Executive Vice President for the Trump Organization. How did that experience impact your understanding of the intersection between branding and architecture?
A: Working with Donald I learned to use marketing to create value in developments. The most significant thing we did was prove that Trump Residencies were worth $1,000 per square foot more than the residences down the block or down any block of any city, or any resort, or any place.
We accomplished that by developing value in the name brand.
This had to be developed through different methodologies, which included architecture, design, services, amenities, and management. Trump always retained the management of his own buildings, which made a huge difference.
Q: Trump’s brand is well known internationally and has been successfully exported to different places in the world. How did the architectural design impact the Trump brand and its ability to go abroad?
A: Trump design was intended for foreign markets, since Trump devotees are international people. And his design was meant for international buyers who loved it.The influence of branded buildings on dollar signs and demographics, an interview with Stephen G. Kliegerman
Q: Brown Harris Stevens Marketing is an industry leader. You have overseen more than six billion dollars in sales, representing over five thousand units in the New York City area over the last five years alone. What are the reasons clients select you?
A: I think the decision comes down to our team. We have excellent marketing and design acumen, in addition to over thirty years of experience in the NYC market. This gives us deep industry knowledge. Beyond that, clients recognize how important honesty and integrity is to us and how we stick to the highest level of moral and ethical values.
Q: When considering their intersection, which metaphorical street do you cross first: architecture or branding?
Q: You have first-hand experience in the luxury real estate market, spanning over thirty years. How has the role of branding in this market changed?
A: Many clients still operate with an outdated perspective of the business from back before competition was so stiff. Back then they didn’t need to separate themselves from the pack. Now, everyone must.
Often, our greatest struggle is convincing our clients that product identification is required for success. Great architecture is not enough without the right branding and awareness.
Q: What has your experience working with branding firms taught you about the unique background required for branding architecture?
A: Amongst many other projects, we’ve worked with branders on multiple projects, including Oosten and 200 Amsterdam Avenue, with The Seventh Art. These projects showed me the importance of working with branders who have architectural backgrounds. They are able to go deeper into the architecture and what it should be, helping to translate the information I give them about the target audience, property, and current trends in the marketplace into architectural moments that will speak to those insights.
Q: How do a project’s brand and architecture interact with one another?
A: All along the way, we are informing not only the branding process but also stepping back to see how the architecture of the building speaks to the branding identity and our target market. In this way, the architecture and the brand inform each other throughout every step of the process.
Q: Have you ever seen branding influence the architecture of a project?
A: Yes, for example on a project near Columbia University campus, we were struggling with the first architectural designs that came out. No one was happy with the identity and then architecture. So we called in branders that created mood boards to succinctly convey how to create the iconic building we were hoping for. What the branders outlined was very visible and the brand identity astutely conveyed the inspiration and aspirations that the current architect just didn’t seem to be able to pin down. After the branders did their work, it just clicked. The architects were able to take that idea and create a façade that everyone loved and fit the building.
Q: How do you see your role in the development of a building’s brand?
A: We have a deep reserve of informed insights about the audience’s wants and needs. We then incorporate and provide that information to other teams on the project – developers, architects, branders, and others – in order to create the resumé of the buyers.
Overall, our job is to inform the other key players on the project while still allowing the branders to translate that information and transform it into a unique identity. We have opinions about designs and feedback along the way, but try to always let the creative teams take the lead.
Q: How important do you believe branding is for real estate properties?
For a project at 150 Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, we literally created a personal biography and even some life stories about the people who would live there. In the end, we attracted exactly those people.
For Oosten, The Seventh Art spent six months creating concepts and background stories for who the buyer would be, who would affiliate with the more grownup style of living. That thoughtfulness came through in the final product and buyers really appreciated the brand and design acumen. It attracted buyers who would pay a bit more for a neighborhood that wasn’t as famous as the surrounding or nearby ones.
Q: What financial impact can great branding make for real estate?
Great brands have a three-fold financial impact.
First, effective branding helps with absorption and can reduce the time that a developer would have to carry a project.
Second, well-branded properties are better safeguarded against a down market wherein you have to be more competitive in order to make your product stand out and convey its value.
Third, properties can demand higher prices, often five-to-twenty percent higher than the average sales price in the neighborhood, depending on the target audience and numbers.
Oosten is a great example – the average for that neighborhood was $900-1,000 per square foot, but we were able to close at $1,400 and beyond per square foot.
If you can attract a buyer to a product that surprises them, they are willing to pay more for it while still feeling that they are getting great value.
Q: What social impact have you seen branded buildings make?
A: The branding for Oosten is a great example of the social impact that branding for real estate can make. The project is located in an area that had a shady past and near a historically very insular cultural community. We needed Oosten as a brand to communicate to people that our development would be part of an inclusive community, that it would be accepting and welcoming and not to focus on the stereotypes of the narrative. We also emphasized access to Manhattan and infrastructure and restaurants.
Now that Oosten has become such a success, it has opened the door to other new developments in the area and attracts individuals from new demographics. The branding has changed the makeup of the community and brightened the future for that area.
Q: What would you say to branding and architecture students about working with sales and marketing professionals?
A: You need to have an open mind and accept that one doesn’t exist without the other. Take time to appreciate that no one has the One Solution. You need to collaborate and hear everyone’s input, then filter out noise, find the commonality, and ensure that commonality matches your hard data.
Q: Is branding for architecture more an art or a science?
A: Branding architecture is both art and a science, but the science part is much smaller. Even when looking at price points, market data, et cetera, all of those factors are affected by the design, amenities, location, and so on.
Q: What is the consequence of architecture ignoring or undervaluing branding?
A: Then the product suffers. Your building could be extraordinary but not accepted. Even the greatest architecture still needs a spokesperson. If you ignore branding, what you’re really doing is ignoring the target audience, ignoring the market data and trends, ignoring the desires and narratives that attract and give meaning to the architecture.