The Archive February 08, 2014

Praising the Roof

The Importance Of Architecture In Retail Branding

The most influential American architect may not be Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry.

He may not have been named Frank at all.

The most influential American architect might be a Wichita-based artist and draftsman named Robert Burke. In the mid-’60s, Burke created one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable architectural features on the American landscape: the Pizza Hut roof.

Since about 2002 or 2003, Pizza Hut — owned by Yum! Brands — has been de-emphasizing the dine-in design in favor of carry-out and, by extension, de-emphasizing those instantly recognizable brown and red roofs in favor of more serviceable roofs.

The traditional Pizza Hut roof is an example of the sort of retail architecture that, despite being unsung and uncelebrated, still packs a historical and cultural wallop.

It is the sort of unheralded architecture that has immeasurably bolstered the brand identities of the companies that have championed and dispersed it.

Abandoned or repurposed former Pizza Huts tend to take on lives of their own — lives that neither the former or current tenants are (perhaps) entirely comfortable with.

The idea that architecture could be a significant factor in engendering such fervent brand loyalty is not one that caught on too quickly among American retailers.

Since 2008, a man named Mike Neilson has been collecting photos of defunct and repurposed Pizza Huts on his blog Used to Be a Pizza Hut. Neilson has documented Pizza Huts that have been transformed into radio stations, insurance companies, pawn shops, urgent-care clinics, adult toy stores and funeral homes.

The endlessly repeated and endlessly repeatable joke of the blog is that most Pizza Huts will continue strongly to resemble Pizza Huts as long as they stand.

But Neilson and his subscribers are also moved by genuine nostalgia and affection for the Pizza Hut restaurant design that dominated the landscape for many decades.

A blogger named Roman at the website 99% Invisible recalls a routine from comedian Tom Musial, in which Musial describes getting driving directions that featured the following instruction: “Turn left at the place that used to be a Pizza Hut.”

“This resonated with Mike,” Roman writes. “He realized that, because the architecture of a Pizza Hut is so distinctive, he could easily identify any building that used to be a Pizza Hut. The former Pizza Hut was thus a beacon of light shining through a thick fog of impossible directions.”

The relief for many weary travelers of coming over a hill and seeing familiar architectural elements like red or orange roofs and golden arches will endure.

In 2008, former Virginian-Pilot columnist Mike Gruss argued (in somewhat, but not entirely, whimsical fashion) that a shuttered Pizza Hut in his area be preserved as a historical landmark.

“I plead, if there is any justice in this world, don’t force a conversion upon this Hut,” he wrote. “Do not convert it into anything but rubble. Take this moment to think about the good times you’ve had in the Huts. … And if you must, smack a historic plaque on the next big, old-style Pizza Hut you see.”

Nostalgia for the roofs presents Pizza Hut execs with a delicate quandary: how to innovate without abolishing the company’s strongest visual reference point.

One way Pizza Hut has kept the roof front and center is by making it a central part of its logo, as referenced in a spring 2014 press release for the opening of the company’s first dine-in store in Iraq.

“We are taking the powerful Pizza Hut Red Roof icon and accelerating the development of our brand across the Delivery, Express, and Dine-In channels around the world as only we can,” Pizza Hut CEO Scott Bergren was quoted as saying.

The idea that architecture could be a significant factor in engendering such fervent brand loyalty is not one that caught on too quickly among American retailers, according to some experts.

An unwitting pioneer in this regard was Edgar Waldo “Billy” A. Ingram, the founder of the White Castle burger chain. In 1921, Ingram and his partner Walt Anderson decided to launch a burger chain throughout which everything would be rigidly standardized, including its faux-medieval architecture.

White Castle was “the first extensive restaurant organization to have a completely uniform architectural image,” writes Philip Langdon in his book Orange Roofs, Golden Arches, “and the company presented its visible standardization as proof that White Castles had broken free of the unpredictability found in other lunchrooms.”

But Ingram and Anderson’s motivation wasn’t about brand-building. It was about stigma-eradication. Thanks to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, hamburgers and the ground beef that went into them did not have such a good national reputation.

Ingram and Anderson proved that cleanliness and healthfulness could be guaranteed across the chain.

As alluded to earlier, not all franchise-minded retailers immediately embraced the idea that architecture could be a factor in branding, Anne L. Balazs, the head of the marketing department at Eastern Michigan University, told me in an email. “… it makes sense to reinforce the brand with architectural design and yet not all brands developed in the same way, over the same period of time (or in an era that would have understood integrated marketing efforts),” she wrote. “For many retailers, their retail formats were developed in the modern era when buildings were somewhat cold, bold, and universal with a newly found technological influence. … The connection to a brand message was lacking or perhaps only found in the buildings’ logo, color scheme, and signage.”

Jim Salas, assistant professor of marketing in the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University, said in an email that he could think of several examples of early and mid-20th-century businesses that used architecture to bolster brands.

Nostalgia for the roofs presents Pizza Hut execs with a delicate quandary: how to innovate without abolishing the company’s strongest visual reference point.

But they just didn’t think of it in those terms — certainly not the terms laid out in this blog post.

“Think 60 years ago when you went into a Woolworth store you could spend the day shopping and then have a seat at the lunch counter to socialize,” he wrote. “They were the original ‚Äòthird space,’ where families could spend time together and unwind. Eating at Woolworth encouraged you to think of them as a ‚Äòsocial hangout’ spot, much more than a classic retailer.”

However, many mid-20th-century retailers, rather than explore optimal architectural articulations of their brands, merely followed dominant architectural leanings, Balazs wrote.

“Think of a time-lapse photographic presentation of a retailer’s building design over 50‚Äì150 years and the design was developed in a certain architectural aesthetic that did not necessarily connect to the brand name, rather the retailer adapted to the art,” she wrote. “Form led function.”

One need only think of the Brutalist aesthetic that reigned from the ’50s to the ’70s — blocky concrete eyesores that seemed to have been designed by designers with an utter contempt for designing things; shopping malls so drab that they must have encouraged at least as much moping as shopping over the years — to understand how little regard was paid to architecture when some retailers of decades past were strategizing.

And yet some franchise-minded retailers bucked architectural orthodoxy, many of them restaurant chains: Pizza Hut, White Castle, McDonald’s, Howard Johnson’s and Taco Bell (there is even a new website devoted to former Taco Bell stores that still resemble Taco Bell stores).

The archetypal, if discontinued, mansard roofs on McDonald’s restaurants were once so instantly identifiable that, according to apocryphal reports related by the author of the Architecture + Branding blog, they were torn off defunct stores before the buildings could be repurposed.

If true, these rumors prove that the former design of a McDonald’s roof — as unloved by most architectural aesthetes as it most certainly is — was understood by the restaurant chain’s onetime corporate masters to be a powerful symbol, one that couldn’t be left to languish.

“… the chain restaurant is something of a strange object,” Langdon wrote in Orange Roofs, Golden Arches, “considered outside the realm of significant architecture, yet swiftly reflecting shifts in popular taste and unquestionably making an impact on daily life. These buildings rarely show up in architectural journals, yet they have become some of the most numerous and conspicuous in the United States today. The men (and hardly any women) who set out to make money by establishing multiple eating places have ended up making entire environments in communities throughout the nation. Whatever the quality of the results, this is a design phenomenon worth examining.”

Lamenting the demise of one of the last remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurants in the U.S. in an April 2007 issue of the Hartford Courant, Langdon wrote, “What Johnson pioneered in the 1930s — consistently palatable food at moderate prices and courteous, efficient service, in pleasant interiors — made millions of Americans confident about taking long road trips. Yes, HoJo’s roof was a little loud, and, yes, the restaurant standardization it pioneered would eventually make one town look like another, but in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, most people were grateful for a predictable place to eat. HoJo’s was ‚Äòthe landmark for hungry Americans.’”

Of course, the need (perhaps desperate, early on) for a “predictable place to eat” is not now what it was when Ingram, Anderson and Johnson were ramping up their respective businesses.

Some might argue, and have argued, that there are far too many predictable eateries in America these days, that the comfort and certainty that were in short supply in the early days of automotive sojourning have turned into ubiquitous, bland conformity.

It may be that today’s adventurous travelers seek out the greasy spoons that families in the early 20th century tried to avoid (out of fear for their stomachs and, perhaps, their lives).

But the coast-to-coast consistency that was a novel concept when White Castle was launched is still greatly valued by travelers and vacationers, and always will be, Balazs wrote.

The relief for many weary travelers of coming over a hill and seeing familiar architectural elements like red or orange roofs and golden arches will endure.

“Marketing has come a long way,” Balazs wrote, “but the franchising values of identity and consistency are still valued by millions of people for many kinds of products and services.”

Photos:iStock and Wikimedia Commons.

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