The Idea Factories

KPMG just announced the imminent opening of their impressive new (and enormous) learning and innovation hub, charmingly called Lakeside in Orlando, USA. This comes on the heels of a rash of massive real estate investments in so-called digitally-orientated, ‘innovation hubs’ of different flavours from big tech and consulting firms. IBM recently announced a substantial new AI centre in Albany, New York, and Accenture is getting close to opening its new Hudson Yards facility in Manhattan that will accommodate more than 3000 of its New York employees along with troops of its clients and other collaboration partners. The list is seemingly endless, and although these are all in the US, this phenomenon is being played out around the world.

Sure they ‘did’ digital but their brand reputations in tech were built on IT systems integration

What these and many other similar facilities have in common is their objective – pushing the brands of these tech Titans of the noughties right to the front of the pack when it comes to digital innovation and transformation in the 2020s and beyond.

For a while, these companies were left lumbering in the starting blocks when the global economy pivoted rapidly towards digital. Sure they ‘did’ digital but their brand reputations in tech were built on IT systems integration; installing big computer hardware and software upgrades. Then along came the nimble, digitally-supercharged, disruptors – many from Silicon Valley – who showed the world that a far more rapid, start-up-based attitude to innovation was required. To “move fast and break things” as Facebook’s motto puts it.

One of the challenges of managing the brand reputations of professional service firms is that reputations change slowly, or not at all – in the absence of a major negative news event. That can be an advantage if the world around you also changes slowly, but when sentiments shift rapidly it can be hard to respond effectively. At first the natural temptation is to hunker down and hope that it’s a flash in the pan and that “normal service will be resumed”. By the time the data starts to show there’s a brand problem the scale of the response required can appear a little overwhelming. However, by taking a strategic approach, and treating branding as a strategic investment as important as any other, even the biggest firms can fight back.

These centres symbolise the new ways of working that the modern digital economy demands

Despite their size, these new centres are as much about brand symbols as they are substance (they are also a lot of substance, there’s no doubting that). Taking 3000 people out of their Accenture offices, with Accenture cubicles, and Accenture coffee and thrusting them into a more porous, shared, open environment where they’ll not only bump into non-Accenture collaboration partners by the water cooler, but clients too! Not clients who’ve checked in at reception for a 9.00am meeting in conference room 26.10, but clients who look as much as if they work there as those who get a paycheck from Accenture at the end of the month.

These centres symbolise the new ways of working that the modern digital economy demands, and both pushes and pulls people into a learning experience on both sides of the traditional consultant/client divide. What’s impressive to see, is that despite their size and established cultures these tech giants are responding to their changing environments and potential for their brands to being perceived as off the pace, with big, radical steps not small, incremental ones. The financial investments involved, and the internal disruption caused are not trivial, and in many ways, that’s the point. That’s the symbolism.

Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, Ian is the trusted advisor on branding to leaders of many of the world’s most prestigious international professional service firms and knowledge-intensive B2B businesses across a range of sectors including law, consulting, strategy, technology, engineering, and innovation.