How wayfinding amplifies branding in BTR

With brand strategy critical, Director of f.r.a reflects on if it genuinely manifests in the physical Build to Rent environment.

The Fold in Watford | f.r.a. | BTR News
The Fold in Watford. Image credit: Billy Bolton.

In the rapidly expanding Build to Rent sector, competition among developers to establish distinctive identities for their schemes is resulting in a brand ‘arms races’.

By Wesley Meyer, Creative Director, f.r.a.

Some opt for strong multi-site brand catalogues, while others build distinct brands for each community. Some keep their brands quiet and understated. While no single approach is superior, every developer will tell you that their brand strategy is ‘critical’.

Regardless of the approach, if brand is paramount, does it genuinely manifest in the physical environment?

While we can clearly see a brand’s graphics language (colours, typography, logo, etc) in marketing materials such as websites and brochures, is the brand present in the ‘product’ that our residents experience in a Build to Rent environment? For most developments, the building has been designed, construction started, and interiors already defined long before a brand is conceived. The result may be a visually appealing space, but one that is systematically out of step with brand development.

Wayfinding and signage, which sits at the intersection of architecture, interior design and brand, and is typically developed later in the process, can help to bridge this gap. Signage being all about materials, colour, typography, and graphics presents ample opportunity to insert a brand into the environment later in the development cycle. It helps to facilitate the amplification of the brand and deliver on the brand promise for inclusion, hospitality, and service through the human-centric nature of well-considered wayfinding.

So how do we make that happen? Firstly, we must distinguish good from bad. We’ve all experienced a building with terrible signage: poor quality materials, confusing messages, botched installations, etc. The first step in avoiding this result is collaboration. To be effective, wayfinding needs input from the developer, architects, interior designers, landscape, operations and of course the brand and marketing stakeholders in the project.

Deansgate Square in Manchester | f.r.a. | BTR News
Deansgate Square in Manchester. Image credit: Billy Bolton.

A creative studio specialising in wayfinding design, our process always begins with a wayfinding strategy phase for gathering input from all these stakeholders with the result being a clearly defined strategic approach to signage. It’s not about ‘where do we put the signs?’, it’s about why we’re putting signs anywhere at all and what effect are we going to achieve.

While wayfinding presents the opportunity to express the brand in the environment, care must be taken in how it’s done. This is someone’s home after all, and no one wants to feel like they’re living in a brochure. When done correctly, wayfinding is more about ‘translating’ the brand into an environment than it is ‘applying’ it.

For example, the bright colours that work so well on the website, might be better off translated into brass or stone finishes in the environment. Brands with strong typography translate well into signage applications. Locations such as entrances, amenities and even bike stores present opportunities for stronger brand impressions through logos, lighting and graphics. Being more ambitious, many of our wayfinding programmes include ‘placemaking’ interventions such as murals, feature lighting and art, which aid in navigation while adding to an expressive sense of community.

York and Elder in Brighton | f.r.a | BTR News
York and Elder in Brighton.

Well-designed wayfinding also presents the opportunity to use a brand to make the most out of statutory signage in a building. For example, the updated Part B Fire Safety regulations now require prominent signs in lift lobbies. These spaces are a critical touchpoint for residents being seen every time they go to and from their homes.

Although there are strict requirements for size, location and messaging on these signs, with a good design process these signs can use a brand’s typography, materiality, and graphic language to make them visually appealing and a positive contributor to resident experience. Due to our experience, f.r.a. are providing advice to developers to meet these requirements for both new properties and ones which need to be brought up to compliance with the regulations.

Brand expression within the Build to Rent sector is not just a matter of aesthetics, but an opportunity for thoughtful integration of design and function. When done effectively, wayfinding not only reinforces brand vision but enhances the quality of life for residents by creating a sense of belonging and ease of navigation.

Whilst working on 70 community projects and delivering over 22,000 homes in the UK, our studio has seen the Build to Rent spaces evolve and the brands that thrive will be those that understand how to seamlessly weave their identity into the very fabric of their buildings. However, change will remain the constant. Updates to planning and fire codes are just the latest example of challenges to be overcome. Brands that have a strong core vision and can effectively express this in the final built environment will continue to set the standard for a new era of successful communities.