HOK architects (Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum) are a wonderful example of differentiation. I made this decision after reading about them in John Bentley Mays' column recently, Great architecture, using less 'stuff' in The Globe and Mail. Mays was interviewing the firm's chairman, Bill Valentine.
Here are a few of the things he said that really captured my attention, and are frankly inspiring.
"I'm really interested in using less stuff -- less drywall, less steel, less concrete. We waste [materials] like there was an endless supply of everything."
On HOK's mission:
"At HOK, there are actually very few rules. But the one thing we hope to do, the thing that binds us all, is to enrich people's lives. Not to try being on the cover of every magazine. It's about being helpful in this crazy world we live in, especially in Western culture, where there's money being spent on all kinds of super-crazy things. ... If we can get ourselves wrapped around enriching people's lives as a goal, architecture can be a social implement."
"I know Frank Gehry, I like Frank Gehry. But the whole idea of how twisted can the next thing be, how expensive can it possibly be, how rare a metal on this one -- it's all a step in the wrong direction. I'm hoping HOK will push solving simple problems. That's our glue. We communicate with each other a lot, and try to have a good time, and we try to be helpful. It's that simple."
On architecture's relevance:
"I really worry that, in our profession, there's a schism between what real people think and what architects think. People know what's comfortable. The great cities are seldom [clusters of] these superglassy gizmos."
What this has to do with differentiation:
This firm has put a stake in the ground on who they are. Nothing could be clearer than what the chairman is saying about being helpful, avoiding waste, making things better for people.
They are not trying to be Frank Gehry. They are not trying to be anyone else. They are trying to be the best possible version of themselves. This is the essence of marketing differentiation. It's not so much about the marketing as it is about the mission.
And this no doubt is a major part of the organization's success. Because this firm has some 2,100 employees around the world, and billed $475.8 million USD last year.
HOK web site
"Great architecture, using less 'stuff'", by John Bentley Mays, Globe & Mail, Sept. 28, 2007