On hot summer Fridays, workers from the software company Tableau gather at a dock and jump in the water.
The company is based in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, next to the Ship Canal. That’s not an accident – the company capitalizes on its location to recruit workers.
“We even have some people who kayak to work,” said Joni Kimzey, director of recruiting at Tableau. She said the kayaking employees live close to the water. “They walk down to the water with their inflatable kayak and hop on in and come on over.”
Seattle is known for its distinct and quirky neighborhoods, and companies are increasingly using that to their advantage. Fremont is also home to Google and Adobe for example; Pioneer Square now houses the Weyerhaeuser headquarters.
It’s necessary, because there’s a lot of competition for workers in Seattle. The unemployment rate here is low, so companies must get creative when they recruit.
“You have to stand out,” said Jeff Shulman, associate professor of marketing at the University of Washington. “How do you beat Facebook, how do you beat Amazon if you’re a small startup? Maybe you talk about the community. Maybe you talk about the neighborhood.”
At Tableau, Kimzey said Fremont hits what people love about Seattle. There’s culture, water and a touch of eccentricity. It's a neighborhood where you can strip naked, douse yourself in glitter and ride a bike in the annual parade. And the neighborhood had retained its brand of yore as the "center of the universe."
“Our founders chose Fremont over 11 years ago as the place where they really wanted to have this company,” Kimzey said. “It’s become an important part of who we are.”
Kimzey said many Tableau employees live nearby, either in Fremont or in nearby Wallingford and Ballard. She talks about that when she’s recruiting new employees.
“The neighborhood itself is a big draw,” she said, “It was for me when I joined.”
Fremont's vibe was set by artists decades ago. It’s a vibe that appeals to creative programmers, too.
For other companies, moving to a happening neighborhood helps with reinvention. Like Pioneer Square – one of Seattle’s historic neighborhoods that had fallen on hard times.
The neighborhood hired a branding consultant.
“They told us you need to lead with restaurants,” said Leslie Smith, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square.
Smith’s group had been looking to revive a neighborhood that, despite a healthy culture of offices on the upper floors of buildings, lacked successful restaurants and retail spaces on the sidewalk level.
Smith lured in local celebrity chef Matt Dillon, who opened The London Plane restaurant. Other chefs followed.
“People follow restaurants, retail follows food, and all of a sudden, there’s a new economy here. And a new story,” said Smith. “All of a sudden we’re getting picked up by Bon Appétit and Sunset magazine. And it’s like, ‘Wow, time to go check out what’s going on in Pioneer Square.’”
Enter Weyerhaeuser, a timber company founded more than a century ago. Its baby boomer employees were retiring, and younger workers were less likely to get excited about its 45-year-old corporate campus in suburban Federal Way.
So Weyerhaeuser built a new headquarters in Pioneer Square with developer Greg Smith.
Weyerhaeuser spokesman Jack Evans said Pioneer Square will help the company attract the next generation workforce. The new digs helps new recruits rethink their image of the company.
“Most of us have an image of the timber industry as a bunch of guys with handlebar mustaches sitting on a giant log,” Evans said. “But it’s changed, right? And certainly there are positions in this office in this building that didn’t exist a 116 years ago when this company was founded.”
Weyerhaeuser is one of the region’s oldest companies, so it fits in nicely with the city’s storied Pioneer Square neighborhood.
Elizabeth MacPherson of Mithun is one of the building’s designers. She points out a table in a lounge area. The top is a slice from a giant log. Weyerhaeuser employees call it “cookie.” It’s a look that befits a hipster living room – and at a timber company headquarters.
In the lobby, giant video screens give the illusion of walking through a shady forest on a sunny day. MacPherson calls it a powerful space that brings old and new together.
Outside, Weyerhaeuser’s building is modern, with a mirrored surface. But reflected in that surface are the historic buildings, tall trees and brick pavers of Occidental Park. It’s a conversation – and a brand story.
“This is a place where the Northwest timber industry got its start. Yesler Way is a block away. It’s where they used to skid greased logs down to the Yesler mill, 100-plus years ago.”
Of course, it’s also convenient, both in its access to transit – and for its proximity to other companies. By locating in Pioneer Square, Weyerhaeuser can compete for workers who might choose to work at Starbucks, down the street in SODO, or Amazon.
But a company must be careful if it’s going to start thinking about a neighborhood as part of its brand. That’s because branding is partly about simplifying your message, and neighborhoods are complicated.
For example, Fremont is quirky, but it’s also a place that’s become more expensive for the artists who made it quirky. And Pioneer Square is full of history, but it’s also where many homeless people get services.
“A company can’t just take ownership of Fremont, take ownership of Pioneer Square,” said Prof. Shulman. “They really need to include the community members.”
Shulman said companies must try to understand their neighbors. “What are they excited about? What are they fearful of?” Shulman said. “It's about trying to be a part of that conversation instead of driving it.”
If companies don’t do that, they risk being seen as destructive. That’s when you get neighborhoods protesting Google buses. But when companies and neighborhoods work together, they can pull each other up.