Authentic values

Jul 30, 2018

In the AEC industry, both individuals and firms need to brand and present themselves as ‘core brands for core viewers.’

Christina Zweig Niehues and I are conducting a Building your Personal Brand workshop at the 2018 Zweig Group Hot Firm + A/E Industry Awards Conference in Dallas and we hope you’ll attend. This will be a roll-up-your-sleeves, “git ‘er done” (it is Dallas after all) kind of session, and you’ll come out of it with a much clearer understanding of how to build, renovate, and evolve your brand. So, in preparation for the conference, I thought I’d give you a little background from personal experience, on brand creation and brand destruction in the media.

Personal brand, as we think about it, also includes your firm’s brand. Personal brands are “core brands” distinguished from the mass market brands like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. The Steve Thomas or Zweig Group brand is a different animal than Band-Aid or Bengay. Back in the day you didn’t have to worry about building a brand because that’s what your resume, curriculum vitae, or company’s reputation did. Plus, there were no channels by which to project your brand, other than the mainstream media – three networks and PBS – and newspapers and radio.

Now everyone has a “channel” in the form of a website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram account, and so on, and everyone has a “receiver” in the form of a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Generally, your receiver is always in your pocket, briefcase or purse, so you can always project your brand, and tune in to other brands.

If you think of your personal brand as a media offering which competes for eyeballs with all the other media offerings out there – everything on the web and social media that tries to grab your attention from the London Economist to ads about burning belly fat – then your brand will obey the laws pertaining to building and maintaining brands in the media.

I started thinking about branding years ago on This Old House as our ratings climbed and we became the most-watched regular series on PBS. I continued to think about it as we built the whole Renovation Nation brand on Discovery’s Planet Green. The two shows were quite different from each other – TOH was PBS, Renovation Nation was Discovery, TOH was 30 minutes, Renovation Nation was a commercial hour, TOH was of the “Ken Burns pace,” kind of slow, and Renovation Nation was on steroids. Yet both programs stuck to the “core PBS values” of “Inform, Entertain, and Inspire.”

Inspiration sounds like an outdated value, but really it belongs to the cluster of values known as “authenticity.” Think of the success of Patagonia as a brand. The clothing is produced by the world wide clothing supply chain in factories that also produce Colombia, North Face, and so forth. But Patagonia remains a premier brand because the clothing and the company is authentic, designed and favored by professionals and core outdoors people.

Patagonia’s mission statement is “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Patagonia is a privately held company with in excess of $275 million in annual revenue that has given back in excess of $29 million to environmental causes. Founder Yvonne Chouinard was also the founder of 1% For The Planet, the non-profit which signs up companies to pledge 1 percent of gross revenue for environmental causes of their choice. In a very competitive market Patagonia has stuck to its core principals and therefore has remained successful.

This Old House was acquired by Time Warner in 2001, after which Time Warner was acquired by AOL, and AOL management took over the company. This was just as the dot-com boom flipped to the dot-com bust. The directive went out to increase the revenue from all divisions, including the one in which TOH was placed.

The show programming shifted from content that was professionally driven to content that was thought would attract more ad dollars to the magazine. One of TOH’s original core values was that we gave non-biased, professional advice on products and processes without regard to the size or ad budgets of the company that offered them. In other words, the show was authentic. However, with the shift, in my view, the show began to lose its edge, and its audience, and a great brand was eroded. Some say it was destroyed.

Defending core values requires a kind of fearlessness to stick with one’s inner principals. Once the word “inform” is replaced by “sell,” compromises ensue. One thing we all know is that the general public’s authenticity meter is set to a hair trigger. If they think they are getting sold they will switch off and you probably won’t get them back.

Renovation Nation was a commercial television show. Our brand, our popularity, and our advertising draw continued to build throughout the two-year run of the network. We did in fact integrate sponsors into the editorial, but we did so in a very up-front way. Saturn, the American automobile manufacturer, was a big advertiser and they wanted product placement on the show. We put together a program whereby Renovation Nation and Saturn built Habitat for Humanity houses in Detroit and Philly.

We drove Saturn vehicles on camera, and the volunteers, who were Saturn employees, wore Saturn T-shirts. This represented perfectly up-front and transparent product integration to serve a great cause. It only had a positive impact on our viewership. We not only maintained our integrity but we boosted it by using the business to help solve a social need – low-income housing.

Planet Green, and Saturn, too, fell under the tidal wave of the recession, which crushed the housing sector, building, all building products, appliances, home-related services, financial services, and automobile sales. It crushed, in other words, our whole advertising base. Renovation Nation was successful all the way up to the point when the Planet Green Network was taken down. The show would be successful today if Discovery had been able to tough it out.

My take on the architecture, engineering, environmental, and planning sector is that both individual practitioners and firms need to brand and present themselves as “core brands for core viewers” in much the same way we did in our various television series. In the Hot Firm workshop, we’ll dig into the specifics of how to build and articulate such a core brand, and the various media channels most effective to project it.

I recently went through this exercise myself. Check out, and, a documentary film we’re shooting on the Wild Islands of Maine. I built these two websites in the last year to support these endeavors, and I found it a demanding exercise – and I’m supposed to be a professional! The hardest part was articulating the core value set for each “brand.” For Builders it came down to “Simplicity, Integrity, and Sustainability.” For Wild Islands, it was “Respect for the environment, Respect for the species, Preserve the wild islands.” So between now and September your homework is to think about the core values of your brand, that which defines you as an individual practitioner and as a firm.

The other thing to keep in mind is that brands build brands. So, if you’re wondering why you as the principal of a firm should encourage your employees to build their own brand, my argument is that their strongly articulated brands will help build the strength of your firm’s brand. Encouraging them to do so will only help you in the long run.

The workshop will be lively and fun, and we’ll get a lot of work done. See you in September. Cheers!

Steve Thomas is offering a workshop called “Building your Personal Brand” on September 19, 2018 in Dallas. Registration is open to all. Click here for more details.

Steve Thomas helped catapult This Old House to the top of PBS’s list of the most-watched ongoing series of all time. He went on to highlight green renovation across America on Renovation Nation on Discovery’s Planet Green. He’s a popular speaker, video producer, writer, blogger, photographer, renovator, and branding consultant. He also consults on green, sustainable building, and renovation for clients all over the U.S. He can be reached at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.