What an Architect Knows About Marketing

SAN FRANCISCO Architect Scott Wyatt’s NBBJ has designed sports arenas ranging from the Staples Center, glitzy home of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, and the Cincinnati Bengals’ football stadium to the Seattle Mariners’ Safeco Field, as well as hospitals, corporate headquarters and much more. Wyatt asserts that architecture and marketing have a lot more in common than most people think; he also believes that, in the digital age, being overspecialized is a loser’s game.

No wonder, then, that his Seattle-based architectural firm is growing a branding and marketing division that will also handle outside projects.

Wyatt shared insights gleaned from studying sports fans and revealed what marketing pros can learn from a day at the ballpark.

Q: Why did your company branch out into marketing? Why not stick with your strengths?
A: We find we learn more about design and architecture by crossing disciplines. Collaboration realizes better results. People feel they must specialize because of the complexity brought on by technology. The pressure to specialize really pushes on you in today’s world. But you can specialize so much that you become irrelevant. Great ideas, breakthrough ideas, come from knowing another art or discipline other than your own.

What are the connections between branding and architecture?
I see branding as the chemical reaction in the back of your head that happens when you are exposed to a brand. For instance, when I’m exposed to Volvo, I think of safety. Physical space in a building speaks to you the way branding does. Architecture is a form of branding; it is more than making a place functional. It can affect emotions and decisions, just like great marketing does. For instance, we have worked with Starbucks for almost 20 years and made sure their buildings give the message to every employee and customer about what the essence of their brand is.

OK, let’s apply this to your stadiums. Aren’t they all essentially places to go to see your team play ball?
No, they aren’t. If you want to closely watch the game, you could see it better on your large HDTV screen at home. Why do you go to see live sports? That’s what we, as architects, have to understand. The answer is threefold. It is about the energy and the noise, the spine-tingling feeling you get when the crowd goes nuts. It is also about the hometown pride. There’s nothing like 70,000 people from your area getting together and cheering for their team and themselves. It is a giant town square. And finally, it is a social marketplace where you buy food and souvenirs, play in the video game studio, hang out in the clubhouse before the game and meet friends afterward to talk about the game. It’s a public marketplace. People are going to the stadiums for the experience they get there. Marketing needs to understand how much today’s consumers desire experiences.

How do your stadiums give the target audience the experiences they crave—and make money for the client?
We connect the team and the community in the structure of the stadium. In Cincinnati, we opened up the corners of the classic football stadium bowl so the fans can see the downtown when they are in the stands and the people in the offices downtown can see into the stadium. At Safeco Field, where the Mariners play baseball, we architecturally sliced into the stadium space and put the concourse where you can get food, buy souvenirs and still see, hear and experience the game. You don’t have to lose the game environment when you’re spending money and wandering around. We also added new experiences, like thick glass peepholes behind the catcher in the bullpen where [pitchers] warm up, so you see how fast those pitches are. It blows your mind. So with all these activities, instead of just spending $75 for a ticket to the game, now a fan can spend $150 for a day of experiences. In general, architects have moved away from multi-sport stadiums that removed the crowd from the game, the concessions and each other. Now the goal is to build intimate, one-sport arenas that keep fans close to the excitement of the game and make more money.

How about the Staples Center? It seems pretty different from the intimate style of other newer sports arenas, especially the cozy, retro style of baseball fields that remind people of the history of the sport.
Absolutely, Staples is pure Hollywood and represents the opposite of the nostalgia that is popular with some of the baseball audience. Staples is about seeing and being seen. Every game is like going to the Oscars and everyone wants to see Jack Nicholson there. Basketball in L.A., there’s nothing like it, and the sports center tries to capture that unique quality.

It sounds like there’s a lesson or two for marketers in all these experiential settings.
No doubt. Marketers probably realize that culturally we are moving from an information age to an experiential age. But what does that mean? I think it means that people’s demand for experiences is increasing and growing more sophisticated, while their demand for things is decreasing. From our firm’s viewpoint, to succeed you don’t have to bombard consumers with messages or try to squeeze money out of them. You need to offer the kind of experiences they want and they will respond.

Are there experiences you had early in your career that help you now as you reach for breakthrough ideas?
I volunteered for the Peace Corps 30 years ago and I was sent to Iran. My experiences there have had a bearing on everything I’ve done since. It changed my life. I saw how differently other people see the world. For instance, at one point I had to convince a tribesman that the world was not flat. It really helped me understand the different perspectives of the world. I think a sense of diversity feeds creativity—in any field. In my youth I also worked at Cole & Weber as an art director for clients such as Boeing and Westin. I remember it as being a tremendous experience.