Branding for buildings: Name your building before the public does

In an attempt to ease the ever-growing housing crisis in London, the government is now looking to relax height restrictions on buildings to allow city planners to build upwards in high-density areas.

This change is an important step in resolving the lack of affordable accommodations for London residents, but it will likely ruffle some feathers. Traditionally, Londoners have had a rocky relationship with the city’s skyscrapers and tall buildings; with nicknames like the Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie, and Trellis, it’s little wonder why.

Branding for buildings
The Cheesegrater building (at center) stands tall. Image courtesy of Flickr user Matt Brown.

These names may sound amusing at first, but having the wrong name or brand attached to a building can ultimately prevent it from developing iconic status over time. For this reason, developers should consider viewing these structures as more than just buildings, and instead as brands themselves. A strong sense of branding vision needs to be established at the very start of the design phase long before the cement mixers roll in.

Pedestrian nicknames given to tall buildings typically emerge after the designs are announced, and are often coined by the public or press. In fact, it has almost become a public sport to think of silly names for new structures. Although developers don’t initially introduce their buildings with names like Walkie Talkie, with no strong alternatives these nicknames are more likely to stick fast.

Branding for buildings: Walkie Talkie building
The Walkie Talkie building brings innovative design to London’s skyline.

For instance, when the plans for London’s second tallest building were revealed last year, the team behind the launch named the building after its location, 1 Undershaft. Because this wasn’t the most imaginative of names, the alternative moniker of the Trellis caught on with the public and press, despite conjuring a mundane and somewhat boring image.

If developers introduced their buildings pre-named, then facile nicknames wouldn’t have a chance to stick. If 122 Leadenhall Street, also known as the Cheesegrater, was introduced to the public with a name that imaginatively reflected its physicality, then public perception would likely be much more flattering. If—instead of being coined by the public as the Walkie Talkie—the 20 Fenchurch building had come to market already christened with an evocative name, like the Willow, to celebrate the graceful leaning design, the more favorable name likely would have stuck.

It all comes back to expectation management. If the public is expecting a Walkie Talkie or Can of Ham, they assume skyscrapers will evoke these symbols. If the public is looking forward to a visual spectacle that transcends other buildings in the capital, they will be far more interested in and excited about the new building.

Branding for buildings: The Shard
The Shard gleams in the London sky.

The Shard is a standout example of how to achieve this. Its name, introduced alongside the building’s announcement, captures its shape in a compelling way while still describing it accurately.

If London’s skyline is to rise further, architects and developers need to reconsider their approaches to branding for the buildings they are set to construct. In doing so, London’s residents will feel more connected to their skyscrapers, recognizing them as feats of design and engineering rather than benign objects, vegetables, or garden furniture.


This piece was originally published as “Make your skyscraper a Shard before the public turn it into a Trellis or Walkie Talkie” by Peter Knapp in City A.M. (23 May 2017). Republished with permission.