How to Rebuild Construction's Image

In 1996, Apple verged on bankruptcy. The company had failed to adapt to a rapidly changing industry and was paying the price. Construction finds itself in a similar situation today. Due to a widespread neglect of new technology and processes, the industry faces dismal productivity rates and billions of lost dollars. Though cause for some panic, it’s also a reason for excitement, as those who turn themselves around stand to reap substantial gains.

Unfortunately, construction is also caught in a negative cycle. Its poor public image prevents it from attracting fresh, innovative talent; and its lack of fresh, innovative talent prevents it from changing its image. The cycle needs to be broken before construction can move forward.

By making construction appeal to bright, young talent, the industry can boost its embrace of technology and reverse its productivity decline, escaping this trap. Essentially, construction needs a rebrand. The easiest way to understand this is to look at how Apple rebranded itself back from the brink of death.

Apple's turnaround hinged on two major things: innovation and image. While the comparisons aren’t 100% equal, as we’re looking at the actions of one company vs. the actions of an industry, construction nonetheless stands to learn a lot from the Apple of 1996.

If individual construction firms can successfully follow Apple’s model on a smaller scale, the industry as a whole can experience a turnaround.

Rebranding Construction

Wired published an incredibly prescient article in 2002 detailing the success of Apple’s branding. Here are a few key takeaways:

- It’s Simple: The brand feels like something people intuitively understand.

- It’s Ethical: The brand associates itself with improving the world.

- It’s Emotional: The brand builds a community that people feel connected to.

Within these three points, there’s a goldmine of opportunity for industry players. Construction has a huge ethical and emotional aspect, but it hasn’t capitalized on it.

Barbara Jackson, author of the textbook Construction Management: JumpStart, makes this point rather well in a section titled “It’s Just Construction.” She points out that the public only identifies unique structures with the designer, not with the general contractor. Because, after all, “it’s just construction.”

She later goes on to observe:

“Our society does not take the contributions of the construction industry very seriously. But it should, because without these contributions, this world would be a very bleak place. When you walk out of your office, home, or classroom today, just take a good look at the world around you. I want you to notice the houses, the churches, the hospitals, the shopping malls, the theaters, the baseball stadiums, the bridges, the streets, and even the cars driving around. None of these would exist without construction. There would be no cars, or any other manufactured products, because there would be no manufacturing plants - no Nike shoes, no McDonald’s restaurants, no Gap stores. There would be no commerce, no transportation, no manufacturing. Progress and construction go hand in hand - we can’t have one without the other. Our society, our economy, and our culture are all dependent upon the construction industry.
Picture of young construction worker looking dirty

Construction is an incredibly human activity. The key to changing construction’s image lays in staking claim to the truth that construction literally builds our world and enables our progress.

By taking these ethical and emotional realities and communicating them simply and effectively, the industry can shift its image, engage the public, inspire youth, and use that momentum to reverse its negative track-record.

It all sounds great in theory, but also feels like too lofty a goal to put into practice. However, with small, actionable steps implemented on a per project basis, construction firms will slowly shift the industry's image on a local, then national, then global scale.

How Construction Firms Can Change Their Image

To change its image, construction must engage the public. The industry needs to shift attention toward its numerous benefits while minimizing its negative stereotypes. The best way for this to happen is through a grassroots style effort. Why? Because construction is fragmented. In the US there are over 650,000 construction employers, all focusing on different specialities in different regions.

Change in the industry won’t come from one place; it must come from the concerted effort of thousands of firms across hundreds of thousands of individual projects. Every firm also has motivation to take part, given that the ones who don’t truly risk being left behind.

What exactly does a grassroots movement to change construction’s image involve?

It can be any number of things, but here are few we feel will be most effective:

Become a part of the community around your sites

The typical response to a new construction site is groans of resentment.

It's not a completely unwarranted reaction, as construction tends to come with increased noise, congestion, and dust.

While you can’t change the negative side effects of a construction project, you can try to minimize them by engaging the surrounding community. If people feel like they are involved with your team and understand your work, they’ll be better able to process the negative emotions they may have toward your project. Additionally, by becoming more aware of the day-to-day activities of a construction site, people can become more familiar with the details of a construction career.

The basic idea is just to make friends and to make your company available to the community. Through these interactions you will help build an understanding of what construction does and why. You’ll generate interest in the field while reducing negative perceptions of construction sites.

How can you do it?
  • Appoint a liaison to visit the homes and business surrounding your site.
  • Explain the project, and provide contact information should they have any issues or questions.
  • Create a publication to highlight progress and feature employees.
  • This is a great opportunity to use drone footage to promote your site.
  • Add a personal touch by featuring different contractors and describing their roles.
  • Be sure to detail progress and call attention to any major disruptions construction may cause.
  • Remind employees they are representatives of not just the company, but the industry as a whole.
  • Respectful and friendly engagement with the community is imperative. One negative interaction can ruin your entire effort.
  • Offer tours of your site when safe to do so.
  • Make friends and make your company available to the community.
  • If there are community events taking place, ensure a couple representatives from the site attend.

Join recreational sports leagues

Picture of cleats and softball

Similar to becoming part of the community around your construction sites, having your company join a recreational league is another way to get your foot in the door with people who otherwise might never be exposed to the industry. It’s also a good opportunity for your employees to de-stress and have fun with their co-workers.

The point here isn’t so much to educate people about construction and what you do, but just to build friendly relationships that associate your business and construction with nice, fun people. All you have to do is enjoy yourself and socialize.

How can you do it?
  • Ask your employees what sport they would like to play.
  • Use Google to find a rec league, then sign up.
  • Have fun!

Make visits to local schools

Schoolkids in front of heavy construction equipment

School visits are one of the best ways to generate interest in construction, and they should take place at every level of education. This is an opportunity to educate children and young adults on all aspects of a construction career, and get them to start planning to enter construction early.

Many young adults aren't aware of the construction opportunities available to them, and this is a chance to show off all the cool shit that happens on construction sites. Also, be prepared to come with data when speaking to high school and college students. Job opportunities and salaries are a big motivator for young adults, and having hard numbers will help boost interest.

How can you do it?
  • Reach out to school administrators and use Google to find high school/college career fair opportunities.
  • If visiting a career fair, be sure to have internships or entry level positions available.
  • Prepare a brief presentation about your industry that’s targeted to the audience.
  • For younger children, explain the basics of construction and entertain them with some of the cool equipment.
  • Be sure to bring along your technology.
  • Drones, construction videos, and AR gear are all fun things that kids don't often get to see up close.

Have a strong web presence

construction web presence icon

The internet is the first place people go when they want to know more about something, and all of this outreach will naturally generate web traffic. Your website should be built to engage not only potential clients, but also the public in general.

At the bare minimum, be sure to maintain a blog that details the progress of all your sites, highlights the accomplishments of your company and your employees, gives examples of the technology you're using, and provides engaging visual material.

You should also maintain a resources section that provides people with information on construction in general, as well as information on how to get involved with your company. The sky's the limit when it comes to your web presence, so be sure to have a little fun as well.

How can you do it?
  • Your website should be run by your marketing team.
  • Explain to your team what you want, and work with them to shape a final product that meets your goals
  • If you don't have a marketing team, look at hiring a freelancer.
  • Sites like Upwork will let you hire someone that can build out a site for you, and set it up so you can update it yourself.

Participate in charitable causes

Charity is important for every business to engage in. You can give back to the community while getting people interested in your business and industry. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Construction for Change are no brainers for construction firms, but anything that you're interested in is a good avenue to pursue.

However, for helping out and engaging young people, there is one option that is particularly effective: offering a scholarship. Scholarships generate interest in your field, give back to the community, and help a motivated individual further their career.

How can you do it?
  • There are a few simple steps to offering a scholarship:
  1. Set aside the amount of money you want to donate
  2. Establish the criteria for applying
  3. Put out a call for applications
  4. Pick a winner
  • Once you announce the winner, you can contact the school’s bursar office to deposit the money directly into the student’s account.

Treat your sites like prime retail property

Construction company billboard ad on construction site

Construction sites are often on highly visible real estate. This is an ideal chance to advertise for free in a location that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars. Any signage you put up will likely have to be negotiated with the developer, but that doesn’t mean you should neglect this opportunity.

You can use this space to:

  • Provide a QR code for your website
  • Tell people where they can watch your progress
  • Advertise your scholarship or charitable event
  • Highlight some of the cool tech you’re using

This is an easy and cost-effective way to engage everyone who passes your site, and let people know there is a lot more to construction than what they’re used to.

How can you do it?
  • When negotiating your contract, be sure to include terms that allow you specific rights to advertise on the site.
  • Get your marketing department involved.
  • Because you will have so much visibility, it's important that your advertising is well thought out.
  • Hire a freelancer if you don't have anybody in-house.
  • As mentioned before, a freelancer can put together a campaign for you if you don't have the marketing staff.

Implementing a Community Engagement Plan

The above ideas are meant to get the juices flowing and provide tangible examples of how you can lead the charge when it comes to changing construction’s image. Pick and choose among them to test what works best for you. You should also toss the ideas around your company and see if anyone comes up with something original. As long as you’re getting the community positively involved and engaged in construction, you’re accomplishing the goal.

To make sure your firm actually undertakes the above initiatives, let’s look at a general step-by-step process to make this happen:

1. Create a community engagement plan to be distributed to all of your sites

  • Decide which of the above initiatives you’re going to pursue.
  • Draft out a plan that details the steps you will take and who will be responsible for each.

2. Get leadership to sign off on it

  • This needs to become official company policy, so make sure it goes through your official channels.
  • If you're having trouble convincing people, remember that community outreach is also fantastic marketing. These efforts should go a long way in drumming up business.

3. Appoint a public engagement leader for each site

  • Someone working on the site needs to be put in charge of handling all the public outreach and activities for the site.

4. Make sure the initiative is distributed among all contractors

  • For this to work, everyone needs to be aware of what’s going on and agree to the terms. One bad apple can ruin all your efforts.

5. Get Feedback, review, and revise

  • Make sure to review these activities with everyone to get feedback on how your program is going. Ultimately what you want to see is a spike in public interest and more engagement from young people.
  • Note which efforts are generating the most results and re-double your investment in those. If there are some that are slacking, see if you can figure out why and make adjustments.

Where Does Construction Go from Here?

By re-branding itself, construction can attract the talent that will drive innovation.

Within this challenge, there’s a ton of opportunity. The more players that take part in transforming the industry, the more ideas that are circulated and the more creativity that takes place. It’s not going to be an instantaneous effect, but shifting public opinion is never easy.

Remember, to get people to change their feelings toward construction, follow Apple's example: keep it simple, ethical, and emotional.

The industry needs to remind people of the power of construction and how much of the modern world is literally built by the industry. Eventually people will go from "it’s just construction" to "wow, it's construction."

The future: digital transformation

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Interested in other opportunities for innovation?

While construction has an image problem, it also has a productivity crisis.

To navigate this crossroads, check out our pieces on effective communication, collaboration, and project management within construction.

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