Learning to Fly…Again.

Case Study: Birdair

In terms of the entirety of architectural history, tensile architecture – the esoteric branch of design and construction relying on super lightweight materials and forces of tension – is a virtual newborn. It was American engineer, Walter Bird, who helped give birth to the category in the mid-twentieth century, and his innovative engineering and construction company, Birdair, that ruled the roost into the late 90's, boasting annual revenues in excess of $120 million.

Within the category of tensile architecture, the Birdair brand had become a virtual "household" name. Architects would frequently describe any tensile structure featuring PTFE fabric as a "Birdair structure" regardless of Birdair's involvement in its design, engineering or construction. And even though Birdair never manufactured PTFE fabric, the innovative material itself came to be known as "Birdair fabric". But all this success was about to change.

Owing to numerous factors including shifts in market forces, new ownership by a Japanese firm, a de-emphasis on marketing and advertising, a general loss of focus, and mismanagement, Birdair revenues had shrunk to $14 million annually by 2006 – all during a period of economic boom for the building industry. During this period, numerous competitors had entered the market and, through their success with mid-sized projects, at least two of these competitors were beginning to compete with Birdair for the large and highly profitable tensile projects – the project size Birdair had always dominated.

By 2007, a new executive group at Birdair tasked with reversing the company's misfortunes quickly, hired LarsonO'Brien to devise and execute a new marketing plan that would help them soar to great heights once again.

The Strategy

LarsonO’Brien deployed its proven strategic marketing development methodology, Creative ESP™, to produce a detailed marketing initiative, custom-tailored to re-establish Birdair as the leader within their category, regain a dominant share of market, and keep the competition in check.

LarsonO’Brien’s analysis revealed that the company’s greatest points of differentiation among its closest competitors were its vast experience with large scale tensile structures (primarily stadiums) and its robust construction management and installation capabilities – neither of which were being leveraged adequately in marketing or sales. If Birdair could effectively begin demonstrating these strengths, while simultaneously reinforcing the highly complex nature of tensile architecture (from both engineering and construction viewpoints), architects and owners would gravitate toward Birdair as the only sensible partner – regardless of project size.

Photo by Ron Larson, LarsonO'Brien

The Work

Owing to Birdair’s extended hiatus from marketing, there was fortunately a sufficient backlog of completed large scale projects that had not yet been overly exposed in trade media. These projects provided fodder for gaining quality editorial coverage in targeted trades through LarsonO’Brien PR, as well as a new print advertising campaign, website, sales literature, e-newsletter campaign, and more.

First, Birdair’s logo was refined. To emphasize Birdair’s major point of differentiation, the logo would now be accompanied frequently by the descriptor, Specialty Contracting for Tensile Architecture.

Next, LarsonO’Brien went to work restructuring Birdair’s antiquated website, transforming it into a state-of-the-art, powerfully educational, and inspirational resource for architects, contractors, and owners to frequent. The site now lead prospects through a natural progression of qualification, culminating in the capture of valuable lead data, upon which sales could easily prioritize and react in a timely, ordered, and effective manner.

LarsonO’Brien developed a new print ad campaign to appear in architectural trades. LarsonO’Brien chose an extremely wide panoramic aspect ratio to span across two pages of a magazine both to reinforce the enormous size of projects that Birdair works on and to emphasize a key attribute of tensile architecture – its ability to span greater distances with minimal support structure. The ad series won Best of Category from Architectural Record’s Excellence in Advertising Awards in 2008 and was the object of 20 minutes of lively discussion at the awards ceremony.

For responding to qualified leads and as a primary sales tool, LarsonO’Brien wrote, designed and produced a world-class sales portfolio consisting of an elegant three pocket folder to contain a 24-page capabilities brochure and a 64-page project portfolio to showcase Birdair’s extensive experience by documenting 35 of their best projects throughout the world in case study format.

LarsonO’Brien assembled a targeted trade media list and went to work creating editorial content centered on Birdair and tensile architecture’s unique strengths, features and capabilities. These efforts resulted in a continuous stream of coverage for Birdair, educating architects, general contractors and owners and keeping Birdair squarely forefront.

A bimonthly e-newsletter was designed and launched to further develop ties to prospects. Now, every two months, the latest Birdair project and news was delivered to the inbox of thousands of past, present and future customers.

LarsonO’Brien Continuing Education wrote and produced an engaging new one hour AIA CES learning unit for Birdair in both lunch and learn and streaming video distance education format. The new course allowed Birdair sales the opportunity to re-engage with important architectural firms with which they had lost contact over the years. Plus, the on-demand course allowed Birdair to promote and expose the course to firms throughout the world without incurring travel expenses.

The Impact

Birdair experienced 100% growth from 2007-2008, and revenues and profitability scaled. The percentage of Birdair work being bid declined, while the percentage of work being contracted under a negotiated structure increased – a much preferred outcome.

Birdair revenues continued to rise hitting the $95M mark by late 2012. Demand was up, lead activity remained very strong, and Birdair's brand recognition (according to a 2013 brand study by Hanley Wood) regained the #1 position.

Perhaps as a result of the number of overseas jobs designed and contracted by US firms, sales in Europe and in the Middle East showed incremental gains, and both regions hit historic peaks in revenue and profitability during the period.