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"What's My Motivation?" Storytelling in the Theater of Workplace

By Carolyn Moore
Brand & Strategy Lead
Senior Associate, PDR

Workplace strategy and design has a sharp new tool in its belt – brand experience. Borrowing from the sensorial richness of hospitality design, the emotional gleam of retail, and the compelling hooks of good, old-fashioned storytelling, our clients’ work places are also becoming new and compelling communication platforms for their organizations.

Traditionally, the purpose of a workplace was to house people—a real estate challenge. Then, enlightened organizations began to use the workplace as a tool to shape healthy and productive values and behaviors in their people, all in the service of growing overall business performance—an operations, technology and human resources challenge. Now, more than ever, organizations are activating their workplaces to attract talent, collaborators, and investors—a communications challenge.

Personalized, specific, and immersive, these curated journeys through the heart of a working organization bring about the idea of workplace as theater. In telling the organization’s story—its reason for existing—these tours through the workplace offer unique insight, resonate emotionally, and foster authentic human connection, and can do so without disrupting day-to-day operations. Brand experience sets the stage for these narratives to unfold.

Workplace brand experience is more than the requisite logo in the reception area and mural in the break room: it must be immersive and authentic to garner a lasting impression. Brand experience design requires the development of new content that is neither purely architectural, nor purely marketing collateral. The process requires a concerted effort between many collaborators, and most importantly, with the people working on-site day to day. In order to leverage the workplace as a communication tool, select workers must be engaged in the process. Ideally, everyone owns the solution.

At PDR, we have a reputation for solving riddles, and one of our best collaborators challenged us with one that took us to Shanghai, and very quickly became a brand experience solution.

ExxonMobil was renovating and extending its Technology Center in Shanghai’s Zizhu Science-Based Industrial Park. It seemed the project already had all the right players before PDR joined: a global architecture firm, and a stellar client-side communications team advised by a world-renowned brand agency. Why wasn’t it working? Why didn’t it have the WOW they were looking for?

Investigation revealed that the design was sound, but it needed to be more specific. The enterprise-level stories were strong but would truly resonate when fine-tuned to the Shanghai Technology Center’s purpose and audience. Thoughtful rewriting and development would connect with the hearts and minds of prospective collaborators.

Our riddle-solving process felt a bit like adapting a novel for the stage. ExxonMobil was the author; PDR the playwright. Our client authored the original content – the brand, purpose, mission, vision, products, marketing communications, etc.—and we adapted it to suit the Shanghai audiences and to help get the essential stories performance-ready.

Our solutions took form as a procession of bespoke artistic installations designed to clearly carry the broad, relatable themes of perspective, sustainability, fundamental science, leadership, and partnership. An executive visiting the project for the first time during its opening ceremony looked at one particular exhibit and said, “This will win us new partnerships.”

As a team, we bridged a gap—a narrative gap—that wasn’t being fulfilled by marketing collateral, or by architectural design alone. Through some quick and focused research, we learned what would resonate locally, and married existing enterprise-level content with new site-specific insights to become something original and authentic. The themes and stories we crafted were specific, but also flexible and relatable. It was new content the hosts and visitors (our actors and their audience members) could see themselves in, care about, and make their own.

End-user research led to nuanced on-brand content.

A few interviews and group engagements helped us gain valuable insight into how we could enable the hosts to leverage their workplace as a communication tool. We discovered the vital work stories they might tell their guests and each other and organized them into larger themed categories.

Story adaptation and development related enterprise brand values to local audiences.

Our research led us to team-level identities and stories—content that could carry a lot more specificity and authenticity on a person-to-person level. Rather than using enterprise-level messaging directly, we used it as a guideline for these sub-stories that the sales teams or the scientists would identify with, contribute to, and own.

Connecting WOW! moments created a strong procession from entry to exit.

Rather than assigning a few token areas for brand interventions, frequent paths of travel were mapped in their entirety. Storytelling moments were then identified and strung together to create a cohesive branded experience that would last for the duration of any given procession.

Designing exhibits around specific themes became landmarks for processions.

Several themes were written into each intervention to give the host flexibility and control over which stories to tell depending on his or her engagement goals with guests.

Delivering instructions, examples of use, and creative support ensures the stories will be told.

Clearly outlined sub-brand themes, talking points, and anecdotes for each intervention were given to the appropriate internal groups with encouragement to adapt them appropriately for their comfort levels and engagement goals.

So has architecture entered the marketing asset portfolio, or is marketing now also an architectural pursuit? Organizations will ultimately choose their preferred point of entry, but either way it indicates a new reality: that our workplaces hold even more opportunities than before to connect people to ideas and to each other.

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