Think about walking into your local Starbucks. What do you see? Who is greeting you? Where is the queue? And, more importantly, how do you feel? These are just a handful of questions that a design team solved for long before that location opened.

But why do these questions matter? And how can brands use this information to make deeper connections with their audiences? This is the first of two posts that will take a deeper dive into the world of environmental branding, and explore how brands large and small can start to think more strategically about their physical spaces.

From the inside out

The best branded environments tell a powerful story about what a brand stands for. It marries space planning, interior design, brand strategy and graphic design in a way that considers how and why people use the space, anticipates their needs at every turn, considers the messaging they might already be hearing in other mediums, and evokes the emotions they should be feeling.

It is a close collaboration between architects, designers, facilities managers, fabricators, and client teams. Done well, users will create a deep emotional connection with the brand—think Disneyland. Done poorly, it can lead to brand confusion and dissonance—consider the bubbliness of Target ads compared to the actual store experience.

Environmental branding can be particularly powerful when applied to corporate workspaces, where company values are starting to shape how companies communicate with employees – and are often used as a recruitment tool.

Understanding the basics

There are three goals that branded environments must achieve in order to be successful.

Inform – Getting people to where they need to go. This involves clear signage, wayfinding and well-illuminated interiors.
Engage –Building emotional affinity for the brand through messaging, digital experiences and space design that aligns with the brand essence.
Inspire – Encouraging people to take action, whether interacting with a digital kiosk, picking up collateral to take home, or sharing the experience with friends.

At a minimum, all branded environments should provide a clear route for accomplishing a set of tasks or intuitively moving people through a space. But a truly memorable environment – the kind that can make a lasting emotional connection – is able to accomplish all three of these goals simultaneously.

Getting started

When deciding to create a branded environment, most organizations make the mistake of skipping ahead to interior design by focusing on fixtures, finishes and paint colors. In reality, there are some key questions to ask your internal leadership team before getting started.


How well-defined is our brand?
Aesthetics alone can’t carry a branded environment. The stronger your brand promise, the easier it will be to develop a space that captures your essence. For example, Costco stores aren’t known for their elegance, yet the sparse interiors, industrial lighting and visible inventory, convey their promise of operational efficiency.

Who is the space for and how will it be used?
This is the most obvious – and sometimes the hardest — question to answer. For B2B brands, the answer might only be employees and corporate partners. For retail brands, this would expand to include everyone from customers to suppliers to the media. And there are likely sub-segments for each of those audiences. It’s important to understand who is using the space and how often, what they are looking to accomplish when they arrive, and what their needs are at both a transactional and emotional level.

What emotions do we want to foster?
Feelings of surprise and delight, safety and security, even trust and transparency, can be powerful influencers that drive people to engage with your brand. And your space should reflect those emotions in many different ways. For example, a bank that stands for trust and transparency should display messaging to that end, but may also want to consider a built environment with glass partitions instead of walls, and furniture that doesn’t obstruct sightlines.

Curious about seeing these principles in practice? Check out our work with BECU.