As banks shed their stately look and electronics brand Best Buy experiment with glass walls, retailers try to build appeal brick by brick. Thanks to high visibility, a retailers actual building can be one of the best ways to add value to the overall brand.

Despite our increasingly virtual retail world, customers still need physical buildings to establish personal relationships with brands. Besides confining customer experience, buildings also define it. Consider retail banks. There was a time when these structures almost universally had a neo-classical approach to architecture. The message was: Here work old men who know more about your money than you do. By contrast, many of today’s bank buildings look more like salons than replicas of the Lincoln Memorial.

Explains Bill Chidley, chief creative officer at Design Forum in Dayton, Ohio, “Banks were designed with the same dogma as churches. The architecture built trust and confidence and communicated the seriousness of what happens there. When banks like Washington Mutual started to break the mold, they shifted toward being more transparent with smaller, lighter weight materials.”

At the same time, the experience of being in a bank also changed. “In the UK,” says British architect Clive Sall, “the banking system has shifted from being completely formal—from getting people to stand in lines, into something that is more relaxed and informal. Your bank is your friend now.”

John Bricker, director of architectural firm Gensler’s graphics and branding arm Studio 585, says that banks of the past lacked retail presence; what was going on inside remained hidden from outside view. “In a service industry you have less to show, because customers are buying a different type of product,” says Bricker. “But you need to make the environment friendly, accessible, open to the public and inviting.”

According to Sall, who teaches architectural branding at London’s Royal College of Art, the choice of any retail building’s design eventually comes down to maximizing value for money. Banks, he notes, will only continue to build neo-classical buildings if that architecture continues to show a good return on investment. An underlying assumption in architectural branding—the use of architecture to complement brand personality—is that value is added when the building is in line with the other aspects of the brand, making the overall effect greater than the sum of its parts. So long as a brand’s customers express a preference for purchasing products or services in an appealing environment, branded architecture should influence the bottom line.

How architecture translates into customer experience is the key element in all this. “In the case of retail banks,” Bricker says, “customers are pretty much transaction-oriented. They’ve got something in mind they need to do. Before you can sell to them, they need to complete their transactions. Then they are more open to cross-selling and other opportunities. The logic of how you [design] space to feed people information at the most appropriate time is a really important component.”

Nike is a major player in the field of branded architecture. Fashionistas line up in Niketown to spend top dollar for shoes whose less expensive knock-offs might serve them just as well. Of course what they are purchasing is not so much a pair of shoes as the status the shoes confer. However, if Nike, or any other experiential brand, is to continue to project meaning, the brand experience must occasionally be refreshed; otherwise, it goes flat. The brand must have sufficient fluidity built into it to allow it to adapt to changes in the culture.

According to Sall, architecture mediates that type of fluidity. “The architecture is the one place where you can actually physically experience a difference,” he says. If you type in “running shoes” on Google, you’ll pull up thousands of sites. But you’ll never be able to distinguish between the shoes online. Suppose, however, you visit Niketown, and the store looks better than any of the others selling similar shoes. Then the glass steps imprinted with Nike’s waffle-sole pattern lead you to visit the upper floors. Finally, suppose you are treated extremely well by the salesperson inside the store. “That becomes something remarkable,” says Sall. “That’s something the architecture will force upon you and that will create loyalty. Architecture, like advertising, has a legacy.”

Sall believes architectural brand experience has less to do with the look and feel of a store than with the kind of customer behavior that is promoted in that space. “When brands employ architects to look at ways to induce behavior that reflects brand values, that becomes truly sophisticated. If one associates Nike with dynamic spaces and spaces full of gregarious young people who are attractive and vital, people begin to think of that as Nike and its territory. That becomes truly powerful. How the brand includes a demographic and makes it behave in a particular way is where three-dimensional brand experience becomes architecture,” he says.

Architectural branding does not visually represent the brand any more than it represents a product. Rather, it sets out to translate brand values into the language of architecture. Just how that happens speaks to subtleties in the ways that brands and architecture communicate. Unlike such relatively static expressions of brand personality as logo, typeface and color, where the iconography and imagery demand consistency, architectural branding must mimic the fluidity of the brand. Branded architecture has to be able to influence customers and accommodate changes associated with consumer behavior.

Architecture in this way becomes an expression of the experiential brand. Says Steve Diller, partner at the design firm Cheskin and lead author of Making Meaning: How successful businesses deliver meaningful customer experiences, “Casinos are the places where this has really been developed. They’re designed like a maze. They not only shut out the outdoors, but they make it difficult to leave. They deliberately present you with more and more opportunities that unfold as a spiral. As you walk through it, more and more things present themselves to you.”

Even in the context of fluidity, Germany’s Gernot Brauer, who edited Architecture as Brand Communication: Dynaform + Cube, thinks architecture can—and should—be a timeless expression of the brand. “Architecture—the exterior design of buildings—has to, and can, mirror brand values such as high-tech orientation, openness, competitiveness, sportiness, etc. These are in a way timeless. Even older buildings still reflect such qualities if they were vital in the time when the buildings were constructed,” he says.

Achieving that sort of timelessness may pose unique challenges given that the exterior and interior of a building must communicate with each other. The retail space inside a building is about moving products out of the store, while external architecture is about getting people inside. Retail is also very much about the here and now. While buildings typically last decades (if not longer), the life of a displayed product may be only one season. Clearly if the architecture is to harmonize with the merchandise inside the building, it must remain just as fresh and relevant as the products on display, even as the ideas and materials used in the building’s construction begin to show the patina of age.

Transparent storefronts are sometimes used to link a building’s external and internal domains. Says Brauer, “Glass is a fine architectural tool when it is vital to link the inside and outside parts of buildings. An example will be BMW’s customer center at the edge of Munich’s Olympic sports ground to be opened next year. The glass building is expected to attract some 850,000 visitors each year. It has to be closely linked to its surroundings—to the BMW headquarters building and the BMW museum on one side and to the Olympic sports park on the other—and retain show value for some 130,000 cars passing by daily. The whole building has to be a showcase, which leads to the mainly glass structure.”

The Austrian supermarket chain MPreis has attempted to convert the traditional big-box structure into one that harmonizes with its surroundings using glass windows. Featuring floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the Alps and on Tyrolean churches and chalets, the stores defy the traditional big-box approach of shutting out the world to make shoppers concentrate on their purchases.

One of the reasons that US-based electronics retailer Best Buy doesn’t have floor-to-ceiling windows in its stores is that people would try to drive their trucks through them, says Matthew Moore, director of environmental design at ESI Design in New York. However, Best Buy is experimenting with architecture in a concept store to try to grow interest among female customers. According to Moore, women generally dislike the big-box stores. “They actually don’t mind, it turns out, the Best Buy brand. In fact, they kind of like it. But they really don’t like the Best Buy stores. They are too big—or they feel too big.” The concept store, located in Naperville, Illinois, features windows that provide views of the store’s interior, offering cautious customers assurance that there will be no unpleasant surprises inside. Meanwhile, the store’s floor space has been broken up into smaller environments, but left visually open.

Not all brands have had the same success with glass. Says architect Sall, “A brand like Prada will often try to have as much [window] street presence as it can. But the actual economics of expressing yourself through the external architecture is extremely difficult to justify because, as with all retail, what you really do need is a black box rather than a glass wall. If you use your external envelope for exhibiting the product, then you are going to have to rearrange everything in terms of the actual main body of products on the inside. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”

Another consideration is that most businesses do not build from the ground up, but instead lease retail space. According to Design Forum’s Chidley, these retailers have traditionally had to resort to reliance on graphics and color to communicate the brand identity.

However, Cheskin’s Diller thinks there may be lessons to be learned from architectural branding even in these cases. First, by selecting a building that is not overly descriptive, he says it may be easier for the new tenant to assign its own attributes to it. Second, if the building has been designed to accommodate different trends, it will be better able to satisfy new needs, including the expression of a different personality.

Trader Joe’s, the US-based gourmet grocery chain, provides a case in point. The company’s low prices tend to draw customers whose tastes might otherwise exceed their budgets. For reasons having mainly to do with economy, the retailer has often preferred to lease space for its stores in aging shopping centers. As a result, the stores tend to share a characteristic downscale architecture that resonates with the brand. Although the company’s choice of retail space may not have been a conscious attempt to build brand image, it does seem to reinforce the idea that the stores are places to get value for money. Intended or not, it’s a happy consequence that clearly benefits the image.