Category Archives: Packaging

Open source – the art of creative collaboration

Collaboration is very much a part of the zeitgeist. Social networks, open innovation, crowdsourcing and an emergent co-design philosophy all point to a breakdown in silos of professional practice and a coming together of previously disparate parties. Across the world, groups with shared interests are using social media to debate, collaborate and act on their ideas in a way that has never been possible before.

In consumer branding too, collaborations, whilst not exactly new, are becoming more prevalent and are taking on new forms, in particular by engaging consumers to generate creative ideas. Over the last few years, companies have started to draw the public into the process of design and development by using crowdsourcing initiatives and open design competitions. The idea, says Joe Bakowski, managing director of graphic design agency Stocks Taylor Benson, is that online crowdsourcing and design competitions allow customers to feel part of the brands they love and use.

‘There is no doubt that crowdsourcing and competitions can be used to generate a buzz around a brand and make customers feel involved and I’m sure it can offer certain small-scale and short term benefits for the brand,’ says Bakowski. ‘By throwing design open to a multitude of people, the brand may also end up with some very good ideas. In fact, with thousands of people submitting, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them in isolation might be better than those from the brand’s design agency.’

A crowdsourcing initiative recently run by Sony, called Open Planet Ideas, has gathered suggestions from people around the world on ways that Sony’s technologies can be repurposed to tackle environmental problems. ‘Open Planet Ideas is an exercise for us to be open and honest,’ says Tak Kawagoi, director of Sony Design Europe. ‘It’s very interesting to use new ideas from consumers and it’s good for us to understand them better.’

To some, this may seem very appealing but there is plenty of resistance to crowdsourcing and open competitions when it comes to actual design work. As this article was being written, a closely balanced yet passionate debate was unfolding on the Facebook page of Adobe’s Creative Juices initiative, a forum set up by Adobe for professional and non-professional designers to share work, ideas, discussions and design techniques. The controversy stems from a competition thrown out to this community to design the new Creative Juices logo, where the designer of the winning logo receives a copy of Adobe’s Creative Suite 5 software.

Some in the community, many of whom are professional designers, feel that the competition is a ruse by Adobe to source numerous creative ideas for free. It can then select the best one and implement it across all its Creative Juices promotional activity, in turn promoting Adobe products to existing and potential customers. Others see the competition merely as an innocent method of allowing creative people to share their work, receive peer recognition and feedback, and ultimately to give the site a community-sourced logo.

Whilst Adobe Creative Juices is a relatively low-key open design competition, it does reveal some of the awkwardness which surrounds public design collaborations, especially on high-profile or commercial platforms. Detractors believe that open competitions devalue both the design process and the skills of professional designers.

Last year, Gap found itself dealing with the seemingly shambolic launch of its new, professionally designed logo. Almost instantly, the new logo – an oddly anachronistic Helvetica and gradient-square affair by New York agency Laird & Partners – was pounced upon by online commentators, many of whom decried it as a big mistake.

In a strange tactical shift, Gap then launched a fleeting open competition to search for a second new logo, asking people to ‘share your designs’. The crowdsourcing bugbear raised its head – free design work for a multinational corporation, anyone? – and in the end the whole thing petered out with a reinstatement of the original blue square logo.

Meanwhile, Marka Hansen, president of Gap brand North America, admitted a mistake: ‘We’ve learned a lot in this process. And we are clear that we did not go about this in the right way. We recognise that we missed the opportunity to engage with the online community. This wasn’t the right project at the right time for crowdsourcing. There may be a time to evolve our logo, but if and when that time comes, we’ll handle it in a different way.’

The Gap debacle says a lot about both the power and pressure created by online social media – and brands’ willingness to bow to it – as well as the treacherous waters of crowdsourcing design ideas. According to graphic designer Ben Stott, brands that feel the need to ask consumers for designs are already lacking a necessary connection with their customer base. In Gap’s case, Hansen’s comments would appear to confirm that assessment.

‘I would be shocked if a client who didn’t already have this type of collaboration as a part of their strategy suddenly asked to do something like this,’ says Stott. ‘But then there are brands like Nike who do amazing things that involve people without [participants] really even thinking about it.’

Two things are coinciding here: the unprecedented ability of consumers to debate and respond to a brand’s behaviour, often en masse, and the increased access to creative technologies, allowing more people to design and produce their own content, whether graphics, film, photography, animation and so on. Crowdsourcing and open competition are one response of big business to these two developments. And whilst not everyone is a great designer, if the crowdsourcing net is cast wide enough there’s a fair chance of a catch.

‘Creativity has been democratised for some time and we are now starting to feel the effect of this on the design community,’ adds Stott. ‘Technological advances raise the bar on what everyone can achieve, making us all content producers. Photographers have had it far worse than designers: everyone is a photographer but, as we know, not everyone is a good photographer.’

So do crowdsourcing and open competition threaten design as a profession? The standard design industry response has been to admonish ‘crowdsourcers’ as devaluing design by holding what is essentially a gigantic free creative pitch. Yet most designers don’t really see the public as a threat.

‘Crowdsourcing is an amusing and enjoyable diversion; if in doubt, ask the populous,’ says Howard Milton, chairman of design group Smith & Milton. ‘But crowdsourcing can never belittle the design profession because we all know it is an amateur pursuit.’ According to Milton, we will ‘continue to dip in and out of this source, but it will never replace a well thought through brand design’.

Stott claims that the industry should react with greater poise to crowdsourcing and open competitions. ‘When the design community comes out and screams it looks like protectionism; like we’re saying that only we can design, using our special powers. I have no problem with it at all – and most examples are generally bad in any case – but I do think it will evolve to become something that is less obvious and unnatural than it is now.’

Design competitions and crowdsourcing may still be in their awkward infancy, but a more tried and tested method of collaboration comes through brands linking with high-profile artists and named designers. Coca-Cola’s tie-ups with fashion designers such as Manolo Blahnik and Matthew Williamson, Citroen’s special edition DS3, decorated by Orla Kiely, Issey Miyake’s and Paul Smith’s reworkings of Evian bottles and Adidas collections designed by Stella McCartney are just a small selection of these kind of brand-designer offerings.

Perhaps one of the longest-running and most consistent artist collaboration programmes is that by vodka brand Absolut. Beginning in 1985 with an advertising poster created by Andy Warhol, the brand has remained committed to strong links with the art world ever since, working with such figures as Spike Jonze, Jay-Z and Damien Hirst. ‘Absolut has a rich legacy of creative collaborations that have ensured the brand has continued to evolve,’ says Vlastimil Spelda, marketing director for spirits at Pernod Ricard UK, Absolut’s owner since 2008.

Of course, professional design agencies should also be capable of evolving a brand, so where do artist collaborations come into an overall marketing strategy? According to Spelda, they are complementary to the more brand-focused design work that is commissioned from agencies. ‘Collaborations provide an effective marketing tool through which brands are able to creatively express their personality. They drive consumer interest and deliver standout and presence within the trade,’ he says.

But Milton believes that if designers were offered the same freedom as artists, similar left-field results could be achieved. ‘There is an assumption that jobbing brand identity is incapable of taking a brave creative leap, yet the ability to grow a brand in the right direction – even in a massive jump – is far more likely to come from the designers who understand and work with brands every day. Regrettably, they are simply never given the chance to fling emotion into the mix because the marketer lacking in real creative confidence will seek to repress and minimise personal risk.’

Absolut’s Flavor of the Tropics duty-free edition was created by design agency Williams Murray Hamm, but agency creative director Garrick Hamm acknowledges that the brand gains something more than just effective design when it collaborates with artists. ‘For Absolut, working with artists is part of an overall strategy. It’s not necessarily about the design output itself – most good design groups should be able to push the brand – but it shows they move in these artistic circles.’

According to Milton, the artist-brand collaboration merely provides a ‘quick PR win’. ‘It’s the addition of cool and the quality by association stamp,’ he says. ‘Basking in the reflected glory of a renowned “creative” might seem attractive to some marketers. For once, they take a hands-off position and let the artist have centre stage, reaping the plaudits and admiration for their daring. This is something few can do when engaging with the “professional” designer.’

In the end, any collaboration rests heavily on the strength and synergy of the relationship. A weak link or a cursory ‘artistic’ flourish will be transparent to consumers, while a committed, long-running programme of focused artistic endorsement could prove very effective. And whether fresh design ideas are sourced from practicing artists, through open competitions and crowdsourcing, or from a standard design agency process, one thing is now for sure: the public, more powerful and vocal than ever before, will respond to the outcome, as Gap discovered.

‘[Technology changes] have turned the world on its head in the past few years and designers have to up their game,’ says Stott. ‘We can’t control everything and we’re no longer closed off from everyone. Younger designers know this – they try things out quickly and online, ditch what doesn’t work and move onto something else. But traditional design has this process: we go away and think and set up a structure. We may have to rethink our process. In 15 years’ time, graphic design will not exist as the profession it is now.’


Case study – Brancott Estate / Sarah Herriot Design

Wine brand Brancott Estate, creator of the original Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, commissioned jewellery designer Sarah Herriot to create a range inspired by the landscape of the company’s New Zealand vineyards. Herriot was selected partly because she was raised in New Zealand and has an affinity with landscape, but also because of the overlap between Herriot’s and Brancott’s customer profile.

‘Our customers are culturally astute, affluent and discerning so we have to work hard to connect with them,’ says Matthew Bird, marketing controller at Pernod Ricard UK wines, Brancott Estate’s owner. ‘A design collaboration is an effective way of reaching consumers. But to make it successful it was really important for us to take a lot of time to build a relationship with Sarah, establishing basis on which we wanted to work together. As a result, there was a lot more time spent upfront compared to a normal design agency process.’

Herriot’s designs include a women’s pendant and a pair of cufflinks, sold via the companies’ websites. ‘It’s important for me to be able to tell people why I’ve made things in the way I have,’ says Herriot. ‘These pieces capture the vineyard’s location and there is the story of where I’m from. But I wouldn’t necessarily do any collaboration; it couldn’t go against my design ethos and I need to feel happy with the process and results, as in the end it will have my name all over it.’

This article was written for Marketing, 14 April 2011.

Profile: Dunne & Raby

There is a tacit language held within every designed object we encounter. And as consumers of physical products we understand, perhaps subconsciously, that objects embody all sorts of references and qualities, such as safe, clean, reliable, futuristic, fashionable, hi-tech, manufactured, bespoke, corporate, ethnic, male or female. These references are delivered through design and really it’s the language of design that we understand.

It is this literacy that self-described ‘technology idealists’ Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are seeking to harness in order to pose questions about how our use of technology may affect our lives in the future.

Design is seldom used in this way, to ask hypothetical questions about wider social issues or the moral conundrums arising from changes in science and technology. But since forming Dunne & Raby in the mid 1990s, the pair have used their grounding in design to create physical objects that propose often quite difficult questions about the impact, use, control and distribution of new technologies.

‘We’re pursuing the idea that design can be a vehicle to pose questions,’ says Dunne. ‘For us, product design is a medium to explore ideas. We use the language of popular design and industrial processes, which people can relate to, to reflect back the types of questions they might normally expect to find in art.’

Both Dunne and Raby lecture at the Royal College of Art and since 2005 Dunne has led the Design Interactions course there. Many of the same lines of investigation are to be found on this course, where there is a blurring of the boundaries between design, art, science and academic investigation.

As a studio, Dunne & Raby also works with industry, usually with companies that see value in a freer, more questioning look at the future use of technology in society. But it is clear the pair feel most engaged when dealing with thoughtful, discursive ideas, free from commercial objectives. As well as this, Raby notes that much of their work undertaken for industry is restricted by non-disclosure agreements and so cannot be openly discussed, rather undermining its strength.

But in an exhibition of new work, created for the 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial, Dunne & Raby will present a series of ‘possible futures’ built around subjects as broad as synthetic biology, ethics and multiculturalism, neurotechnology and euthanasia. Four scenarios portray fictional futures where certain technological applications, all feasible, have caused society to change in some way. The exhibits ask: Is this good or bad? Do we want this? How and why might we end up here?

Writer Alex Burrett and photographer Jason Evans collaborated with Dunne & Raby to visualise these futures, introducing outline characters and mildly unsettling narratives. The scenarios are clearly fictional and not intended as predictions of, or designs for, the future. So in what way is the work a design project, as opposed to a science fiction vignette?

‘The objects we create are a fiction, and often we’re sliding towards science fiction, but they are designed to look realistic and mundane. If we move too far away from that it becomes more like sculpture or art,’ says Dunne. Raby elaborates: ‘Design can show the ordinariness and banality of objects, so the scenes are plausible enough to contain their own questions and contradictions.’

For Dunne, this work uses design to access our ‘consumer side’ – our understanding of the language of designed products – to engage our ‘citizen side’ to think about their impact. ‘In society, it’s not until we buy things that they become real. And in terms of changing and questioning things I think we may be more powerful as consumers than as citizens, so we are using design to bring these two together.’

It may not be design as we know it, but Dunne & Raby’s ‘critical design’ could offer a philosophy to a new generation of multidisciplinary designers wishing to work within a wider social dimension. Or perhaps it is an approach for the growing number of designers already jaded by the unfettered market forces that regularly drive their work.

The 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial runs from 20 November – 5 December –

This article was written for Design Week, 28 October 2010.

Marketing’s Design Leagues 2010

In many ways, design’s star is rising.

Its strategic relationship with business continues to improve and its profile in the media and among the public appears higher than ever. As mass-market advertising flounders, design is inching its way into business structures and boardroom psyches, with major companies now regularly talking about the power of ‘design-led thinking’.

Projects such as the launch of London 2012 mascots Wenlock and Mandeville have sparked debates about design in the national press. Even mainstream TV is interested: in recent months there have been several design-related shows, including the BBC’s The Genius of Design and High Street Dreams, an episode of which featured the input of design agencies Pearlfisher and Blue Marlin.

The very notion of ‘design thinking’ is itself a leap forward because it shifts conceptions of the discipline from something that produces solely a tangible output – a pack, for example – to something that is an approach, a structured thought process that can be applied to many and varied issues. Design groups are keen to promote this strategic clever thinking because it helps them move up the client food chain, earning meatier projects with bigger budgets and a higher value.

Mixed outlook

On paper, the future may look rosy, but in the real world things aren’t so easy. As this year’s league tables reveal, 2009 was tough, with fee income falling significantly for many. ‘There is no doubt that the past 12 months have been an extremely challenging and pretty bloody experience,’ says Andrew Eyles, group managing director of Blue Marlin.

Last year was characterised by the postponement of projects, as clients waited to see when, or whether, the economy would start to recover. Top agency Imagination was one of many to suffer a double-digit fall in fee income and, while agencies of all sizes have been squeezed, those toward the bottom of the table seem to have been hit hard.

Some of that pressure will remain in the year ahead and agencies working for the public sector are bracing themselves for severe spending cuts. The good news, however, is that many private businesses have ended their freeze on investment, allowing NPD and innovation to continue and putting more briefs into the market.

Guy Douglass, managing director of packaging design agency FLB, agrees that things can only get better. ‘(Last year) was really tricky. We only just made a profit, and business and cash flow were difficult,’ he says. ‘But this year is looking positive. There’s lots of work out there, both from existing clients and new business.’

Continued investment during a recession can help brands appear strong. Argos’ brand identity work with The Brand Union, for example, is intended to position the retailer as fit for the future. ‘Customers told us that they want a brand that feels relevant and is well equipped to stay relevant,’ says Siobhan Fitzpatrick, head of brand marketing for Argos.

Research found that customers had a desire to see Argos investing in itself. ‘It sent the right signals out at a time when companies like Woolworths were all closing,’ adds Brand Union UK chief executive Simon Bailey.

Retail spending has just about held up, too, which is good news for those working in FMCG packaging, branding and retail design. ‘The market is still robust enough for consumers to pay for a good quality service,’ says Michael Sheridan, chairman of luxury retail brand consultancy Sheridan & Co, which works with Absolut and World of Whiskies. ‘The value of the pound is also a big factor. Visitors are coming to the UK not just because it’s 50% cheaper than it was in 2008, but because we have a very good shopping experience.’

As Media Square design chairman David Worthington notes, those who stand still in FMCG die. ‘Big brand-owners are very clear on the need for constant innovation, preferring steady and continuous growth, rather than peaks and troughs. Irrespective of recessions, they tend to cut a more consistent path by remaining committed to a product development cycle,’ he says.

Bakery brand Warburtons is a good example of this relentless focus on product development. New business director Jason Uttley says this is what customers are looking for. The company entered the snack-foods sector in March with the launch of ChippidyDooDa pitta chips and SnackaDoodle wholegrain snacks. The brand extension was developed with Anthem Worldwide.

Beyond the shelf

Although FMCG work has remained steady, some of the rules are changing. In particular, brands and design agencies must now think beyond achieving shelf standout, argues Nick Dormon, managing director of Echo Brand Design.

‘Standout is now the baseline – if you don’t stand out, you don’t survive,’ he says. ‘At the same time, supply-chain savings and sustainability programmes have meant the loss of physical presence on shelf as packaging becomes smaller and more lightweight. So it’s about the whole experience. You pick up a product in store, feel it, read it, take it home and use it, put it on a shelf, see it, use it then eventually dispose of it. All these moments are an opportunity to engage with people.’

Norwegian mineral water brand Isklar circles this brand experience with a uniquely engineered bottle design, by Blue Marlin, creating differentiation on shelf but also reducing its use of materials. The brand-product ‘loop’ is then closed by the company’s sustainability efforts, which include full carbon-neutral certification, use of hydroelectric power for its bottling plant and investment in high-end recycling facilities. Each aspect is consistent with notions of purity and nature.

The implications of last year’s precipitous fall in business are still playing out. Although work has picked up, the sector remains fragmented and competitive. In a procurement-driven environment, business has become harder to win and sustain. Dick Powell, incoming D&AD chairman and director of Seymourpowell, believes these pressures are leading to more instances of free pitching and the continued erosion of margins. ‘They are trying to cut the fat out of the design agencies, but there is no fat there,’ he says.

His sentiment is echoed by Eyles, who adds: ‘We are all having to work a lot harder and give a lot more. Some groups have gone for volume and are churning stuff out just to keep the lights running, while other groups have got smaller, leaner and more specialist.’

The pressure is on, then, for agencies to reinvent their businesses. Some are looking to overseas markets for revenue, particularly in the fast-growing BRIC nations. Sheridan & Co, for example, is finding its clients buying strategic and creative ideas to use overseas. As an industry, maintaining revenues from emerging markets requires British design to retain its reputation as a global leader.

Overall, Eyles concludes that the design industry emerging from the recession could look very different from the one that went into it. ‘Design output has to be married to effective strategy and consultancy,’ he says. ‘Often we may not even do any design. It’s now all about the brand – a seamless service of look, feel, tone and qualities. Some clients welcome deep strategic work, others protect their right to control it, but I’m optimistic that design can sit at the heart of this, working from strategy and concept to 2D and 3D output. The squeeze on fees now will just make the industry leaner, more credible and more professional and then the value of its work will come back in.’


As advertisers increase their focus on dialogue with – and between – customers, they are recognising the significance of the whole experience that people have with their brands, from the moment they first see a pack, ad, piece of copy or web page, through to disposal of a product or their interaction with customer service if they have a problem.

The communications environment is rich, complex and rapidly shifting and brands need help to manage these numerous ‘touchpoints’. Ad agencies, design groups and even some digital groups are vying to lead this work. Yet, whoever oversees the process, collaboration between agencies is more necessary than ever.

‘The landscape has become more complex for clients with many different agencies working for them – advertising, branding, sponsorship, interaction, social media, digital and so on,’ says Simon Bailey, UK chief executive at The Brand Union. ‘To have a partner who has helped create the brand itself working to manage all these groups can be very useful for clients.’

The Brand Union adopted this role for Barclaycard, where branding output spanned corporate identity, advertising, direct marketing, digital media, internal engagement, environments, literature, packaging, point of sale, exhibitions and sponsorship. The list of contributing agencies (Bartle Bogle Hegarty, EHS Brann, Balloon Dog, Dare and Vital Marketing) demonstrates how collaboration and oversight are essential in maintaining consistency in a complex, multichannel environment.

This article was written for Marketing’s Design Agency Leagues 2010 publication, 30 June 2010.

Not an option

Big business is entering a new phase in its efforts to become more sustainable. Declamations from the likes of Nike, Puma and Marks & Spencer speak of sustainability being embedded in their cultures, operationally and philosophically.

In the words of a Nike announcement earlier this year, this phase ushers in ‘the next evolution of corporate responsibility strategy [moving] from a risk management, philanthropic and compliance model to a long-term strategy focused on innovation, collaboration, transparency and advocacy.’ In others words, it’s deeper and more serious.

At the same time, consumer-facing brands are flexing and moulding in order to wear the clothes of corporate social responsibility a little more naturally. Recent years have seen a clamour of eco-ethical communications thrown around and on top of familiar brands, decorating them in green, planet-friendly imagery. It felt, in many cases, a bit too convenient and reactive and admonishments of green-washing quickly followed.

‘I think a new theme is happening with corporate sustainability and brands,’ says Dorothy MacKenzie, director of branding consultancy Dragon Rouge. ‘We’re going from something set apart from the brand, or based around token activities, to something that’s embedded in it. The only way of embedding sustainability principles and actions and avoid green-washing is to take it right inside the company.’

Until recently, only pioneer ethical brands really adhered to root and branch sustainable business practice, but it is moving into the mainstream. As MacKenzie notes, once a business as large as Walmart begins to rethink its supply chain, it’s pretty hard to ignore. Partly this is a result of public expectation and the ideological pressure of the day, but mostly it’s about ensuring that a business can thrive, remain profitable and exist in the future.

‘There’s a triangulation of issues within a business for any potential initiative: Do consumers like it more? Is it greener? Is it cheaper? If the answer to all three is yes then you’ll get a green light,’ says Silas Amos, creative director at packaging consultancy Jones Knowles Ritchie. And as MacKenzie adds, it’s no good if you run out of raw materials or if they become too expensive, so care for the environment ultimately makes business sense as well as moral sense. Marks & Spencer, for example, claims its wide-ranging Plan A programme has become ‘cost-positive’, saving £50m in efficiencies during 2009/10.

Designers have an important role to play too. Shell’s work with packaging group Blue Marlin increased manufacturing efficiencies and reduced pack formats to cut plastic use by 9 per cent, equivalent to taking 45 million one-litre bottles out of the system annually. Coca-Cola’s colour management work with Anthem Worldwide rationalised colours globally to reduce printing materials and costs. And Puma’s two-year collaboration with designer Yves Béhar created a fully recycled and ‘boxless’ shoe packaging system that slashes paper consumption by 65 per cent and carbon emissions by 10,000 tons annually.

Seeking efficiencies is just everyday good business practice, but the value it now offers in terms of public relations gives renewed impetus to finding better ways of doing things. And consumer brands need to embody this ethos in a believable, genuine and natural way, not just repainted with an ethical overlay. ‘Whatever you’re saying on sustainability it has to be in the brand’s language, coming from the mouth of the brand,’ argues Jonathan Davies, director of packaging consultancy Butterfly Cannon.

MacKenzie believes that corporate shifts are being woven into brand activity ‘much more naturally and less self-consciously’ than previously, resulting in more creative, coherent branding. ‘An awful lot of communication around this area has been quite dull; one of the benefits of bringing sustainability right into the brand is that you can get better communication and design.’

Unilever, for example, is using sustainability as a driver for company-wide innovation and growth, but this filters down to products individually. So a tongue in cheek campaign for its US men’s toiletries range Axe promotes the ecological virtues of ‘shower pooling’ in a way that is part and parcel of the brand (depicting one man sharing a shower with lots of women, naturally).

So from a branding and business point of view sustainability can be viewed as an opportunity. But from an environmental point of view such changes are arguably just tweaks to the system of mass consumption, not a fundamental shift in the way we live. Global manufacturing businesses and markets will not change comprehensively overnight. ‘Many things are structured in a way that will change over time, but it will be a very long time,’ notes MacKenzie.

Puma’s chief marketing officer Antonio Bertone admits that the company’s global supply chain could not be radically altered for sustainability concerns. ‘The supply chain is the lifeblood of the company and you can’t disrupt that process or it would take years to get to implementation and the cost would go back to the consumer. So our new packaging still had to behave like a shoebox,’ he says.

And there’s the rub. Change is happening, but it will happen slowly. Even Shells acknowledges that by 2050 global CO2 emissions must fall by at least 50 per cent, yet energy demand is expected to double. For all the good intentions, could it be too little, too late?

This article was written for Design Week’s Sustainable Design Supplement, June 2010.

Planet packaging

What does sustainability mean to you? In recent years the term’s currency has increased significantly, with a growing list of ideas, principles and initiatives being pulled together under its umbrella.

Sustainability is about carbon, energy, materials, resources, processes and ecology; but it is also to do with ethics, contracts, responsibility, fairness and localness.

Yet, alongside all these aspects, it is also about marketing and design, because businesses want to talk about sustainability and people want to see it in practice.

One of the most public battlegrounds over claims of unsustainable processes centres on waste and, specifically, on product packaging. UK households throw away almost 6m tonnes of packaging in their waste every year, according to WRAP, an organisation that campaigns for waste reduction and efficient use of sustainable resources.

Packaging provides direct communication between producer and consumer: it is through packaging initiatives and on-pack graphics that brands look to demonstrate their sustainability credentials. This has led to a profusion of messages: carbon-footprint data, recyclability, eco-friendly materials (or, at least, materials that appear so), size and weight reductions, refill pouches, green branding and then, for some, subsequent allegations of ‘greenwashing’.

Designers and marketers talk a good fight when it comes to saving the planet, but whether this noise means anything to consumers is another matter. The findings of a survey by the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment suggest consumers are ambivalent about packaging. ‘They are aware that some packaging is wasteful… [but] they are also aware that packaging plays an important role in advertising, informing, enhancing and protecting. While wanting to reduce waste, consumers are at the same time attracted by luxurious packaging and often choose packaged goods over loose items,’ states the report.

What people say they want and what they do may not always tally. With its Eco Refill pouch, coffee brand Kenco impressively states that its packaging weight is reduced by 97%, but do people want an eco-pouch? ‘Sustainability is a hot topic for consumers, but for most it’s not one on which they base their final choice,’ says Silas Amos, creative director of packaging design group Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR). ‘I hope Kenco does very well, but I fear that consumers may be apathetic toward it.’

These contradictions may stem partly from a lack of certainty on questions of sustainability. ‘Like so many messages on sustainability and the environment – not just in packaging, but everywhere – clarity has not really come through yet,’ says Laura Haynes, chairman of branding agency Appetite, and founder of Zero: Low Carbon Communications. ‘But consumers come in all shapes and sizes, from those who are very aware and informed to those who are unaware, or even apathetic.’

Several brands have been tarnished by accusations of ‘greenwashing’ over the past couple of years. In fact, changes made to the Committee of Advertising Practice codes, with more set to come into force in September, aim to reduce exaggerated environmental claims. Although enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority, the effects of these rules are likely to filter down to packaging design, too. So are consumers sceptical of brands’ efforts?

‘Everybody’s thinking about how they can be nicer – it helps in terms of costs and production and gives you a marketing feelgood factor, but you have to do it in a way that’s honest,’ says Antonio Bertone, chief marketing officer for sportswear brand Puma, which has just announced a major sustainable packaging initiative.

A lot of what passes for environmentally conscious initiatives, and is presented as such on packs, is, in reality, simply good design and manufacturing practice. Clients and designers have always strived for efficiency, elegance and cost savings on materials and energy. JKR’s work with organic skincare business Spiezia, for example, saved the client 12% in packaging costs and the structural design reduced breakages to almost zero, according to the brand’s managing director, Amanda Barlow.

In a similar case, design group Identica suggested that adjusting the ‘shoulder’ angle of the bottles used for Pernod Ricard’s digestif Ramazzotti could reduce the energy and materials used in production, without changing its distinctive shape. According to Identica chief executive Franco Bonadio, this saved the client 20% in raw materials costs. Working with JKR, Stella Artois and Young’s ale have also ‘lightweighted’ their bottles.

Yet according to WRAP, research from Container Lite – a major study into lightweight glass packaging – found that shoppers struggle to detect a 5%-10% difference in glass container weight, even when they are aware of it; in uncued tests, weight differences of up to 40% in empty containers and 20% in full containers went unnoticed. In any case, the research notes that consumers very rarely compare product weights in the supermarket.

So, if companies want to use sustainability as a form of brand differentiation in stores, their initiatives often have to be elucidated on pack, which can lead to a clamour of ‘me-too’ messages.

‘When do you put a green message on a pack and when don’t you?’ asks Bonadio. ‘First it can be a point of difference, but there comes a point when everybody is doing it and people expect it anyway. At the moment, we are going through a transition point.’

This transition has created a hubbub of activity. Brands are changing materials and graphic design language, using third-party certifications such as Fairtrade, Soil Association, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Carbon Trust, and generally grappling with a complex and multifarious set of issues, processes and messages.

Increasingly, consumers expect to see sustainability efforts from the brands they buy, but even then, the consumer position appears to be mixed and sometimes contradictory.

‘People are not going to applaud you for (your efforts in) sustainability because they are slightly aghast that you haven’t been doing it all along,’ says Amos. ‘The best packaging and brands are those that don’t decide that CSR is a ghetto and they communicate it all in a more stylish way. Stella Artois’s recent “Recyclage de Luxe” campaign, for example, was much more fun and stylish than worthy, while Ecover is the old days – it’s all CSR and no style, and it has been leapfrogged.’

Graphically speaking, there is an onus on designers and clients to formulate a clear and considered hierarchy of messages, says Mark Frost, creative director of packaging group BrandMe. ‘There doesn’t always have to be a big flash on the front. You’ve got to get a balance of what should be on pack, while remaining transparent with your messages. There are so many messages we are trying to communicate now that it’s a very difficult task,’ he adds.

Yet these are important messages that still need to be delivered, despite the challenges and possible confusion. ‘I think you should communicate what you’re doing,’ says Haynes. ‘First, it raises the conversation, which in essence is important. Second, it creates greater understanding of the right things to be done. Third, over time, companies may well be required to talk about what they do as a kind of checklist of initiatives.’

As Frost puts it: ‘Lots of things are not perfect, but it’s better than doing nothing.’

This article was written for Marketing, 21 April 2010.

Marketing league tables 2009: the view from design

In the wider world, beyond consumer products and services, one of the most remarkable events of the past 12 months was the successful election campaign and inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the US.

It was remarkable not only historically and politically, but also in terms of marketing, for Obama’s campaign communications and branding have been hailed in design circles and beyond as consistently slick and well-executed.

Street artist Shepard Fairey’s screen-printed ‘Hope’ poster swiftly became its defining image (and an iconic piece of graphic design in itself), but the Obama brand was much more than just a poster. The campaign also embodied a shift in sentiment, important not only to politics, but also in how brands talk to consumers – toward trust, honesty and authenticity.

With malfeasance seemingly rife among politicians and bankers playing fast and loose with other people’s money, public trust has become the scarcest of commodities when it comes to big business.

The design industry is subject to the effect of this in several ways. Design is often the only direct touchpoint between brands and consumers, making an understanding of the mood and sentiment of the day crucial for consultancies advising their clients. At the same time, when companies cut marketing budgets and put projects on hold, agency margins are squeezed.

There is no denying it has been a tough year so far, but the picture for design agencies appears to be mixed: some agency heads are describing conditions as ‘the worst they have been for a long time’, while others are enjoying record business wins as clients shop around for the right partner.

According to Doug James, director at brand consultancy Honey, design agencies need more business acumen to remain profitable and successful. ‘It’s about setting a business up, knowing all the metrics and which ones to watch – the key performance indicators. You need to know where it is you make money,’ he says.

Sara Fielding, senior consultant at consulting firm Results International, agrees that this is a primary concern. ‘There has to be greater clarity and understanding of finances, especially net profitability, not just for the business as a whole, but by client and by service offering,’ she says. ‘Only with these systems in place can they really see where the money is being made and be able to argue factually and convincingly for fairer fees.’

In a recession, the pressure on business metrics is unparalleled, but there are  opportunities as well as challenges in the market, according to Iain Johnston, chief executive of marketing services group Loewy. ‘There are a few things happening on the client side and on the agency side that are coming together,’ he says. ‘There’s more focus on value for money and effectiveness – on exactly what you are trying to achieve. Things you can’t show a return on are the first to go, but there does seem to be a flow of work coming through.’

Not surprisingly, clients demanding greater effectiveness and value are becom-ing the norm. Skincare brand Nude has an ongoing partnership with design agency Pearlfisher and the two are collaborating to become more efficient.

‘A more challenging economic climate can often encourage innovation; it forces us to look at what we’re doing and how effective and efficient it really is,’ says Annmarie Harris, marketing manager at Nude. ‘Design spend, like everything, needs to be well-managed and monitored for efficacy. For brands in fast-moving industries like the beauty industry, to stop spending would run the risk of quickly becoming outdated or worse, irrelevant. However, well-utilised, innovative design can achieve fantastic awareness and be very cost-effective. My advice would be to keep spending, but do it cleverly,’ she adds.

According to Jackie Roberts, senior brand manager for tampon brand Lil-lets, measuring the effectiveness of design investment is crucial. ‘All activity should pay for itself by driving sales,’ she says. ‘While it is difficult to establish the effectiveness of a pack redesign in isolation, it plays an important role in optimising the results of the broader communications activity.’

Loewy-owned product design group Seymourpowell has worked with Lil-lets on the development of a new applicator product. ‘We have invested heavily in the current market conditions to establish this as a better alternative to the market leader in the category. Ultimately, success is measured through sales, but we have measures in place to track individual elements of our integrated communications plan,’ says Roberts.

That efficacy and value for money are being demanded at all stages is due in large part to the rise of measurable digital channels. The continued decline in spend on (and the impact of) traditional advertising appears to be benefiting design generally and in particular digital and packaging, where the ROI is greater.

While digital is becoming more important in brand communications, this does not mean businesses should turn solely to digital specialists to work on brand development, warns Nicolas Mamier, European vice-president of branding group Elmwood.

‘Digital is an increasingly important route for communication and therefore features high on the list of requirements from any agency, but I do not believe that means companies should default to using digital specialists to manage their brand,’ he says. ‘Clients are looking for original brand thinking that makes use of the opportunities offered by digital channels, tools and platforms, not just digital thinking.’

The shift away from traditional advertising also has implications for a client’s strategic needs, says Jon Davies, managing director of packaging design group Holmes & Marchant.

‘Above the line doesn’t hit as many consumers as it used to, which means the high costs do not see enough ROI,’ he adds. ‘But ad agencies have long been the strategic partner for brands, investing heavily in planning support for their clients, paid for by the high fees. Recession reduces fees available and pushes clients to ensure they get ROI. So this old ad agency model is no longer sustainable and clients are looking elsewhere for strategic partners with more relevant products; namely, design and digital. The more grown-up agencies have invested in planning to support this shift.’

By introducing planning to design agencies, their thinking is not confined to creating standout packaging, for example, but ensures that there is a full marketing and communications strategy underpinning and supporting the design work, claims Davies.

The whole story

Bob Blandford, design creative director at integrated marketing agency Haygarth, believes we will see more of this. ‘There will be even more focus this year on brand planning, strategy and positioning. [It is] key not only to design work, but in informing and directing the wider communications strategy.’ In an echo of Obama’s holistic design and marketing campaign, the strategy may well include a ‘story’ that can be promoted through channels such as PR activity, social media and advertising.

One of the most prevalent of these ‘stories’ to hit the FMCG packaging world recently is nostalgia. The apparent reassurance to consumers of bygone days and enduring brands has driven a boom in ‘heritage’ design.

‘There has been a growing number of successful marketing initiatives that hark back to, or celebrate, the past,’ says Barry Seal, managing director of branding group Anthem Worldwide. ‘[Examples include] the relaunch of Wispa, Milky Bar Kid advertising and Marks & Spencer and Selfridges’ anniversary celebrations. This is a powerful and effective way to reconnect to the past and bring back the feeling of the “good old days”.’

Another recent branding theme has been that of the ‘local’. Amid a backlash against globalisation and as consumers focus more on their immediate communities, brands are talking up their local ties or knowledge. However, this is not the same as having a strategy, warns Jim Prior, chief executive of branding group The Partners.

‘I don’t think brands should go down the knee-jerk local response, where they say “Look how we’re in touch with the people of Bangalore”, or wherever,’ he says. ‘This is just a reaction and it rings hollow. It’s the time to be assertive and confident about your brand globally, but be aware that the world isn’t a homogenous place.’

The same can be said of nostalgia branding. Brands with heritage by the  truckload, such as Hovis, can capitalise on it. Jones Knowles Ritchie’s pack designs for the bread brand neatly marry its long history with contemporary colourways and clean typography. Nonetheless, it has to be based on something real and authentic, not simply a tactical reaction. ‘That heritage seems an opportune add-on to a brand could be seen as an indictment of the short-termism of the brand manager rather than a celebration of their ability to catch the wave,’ says Smith & Milton director Howard Milton.

Again, it comes back to the attributes of openness and trust. ‘Consumers are seeking honesty and co-operation and design’s role is to communicate this effectively,’ says James. This is changing the way in which brand language is formulated, according to Terry Tyrrell, worldwide chairman of The Brand Union. ‘Amid this landscape of broken promises and brands, people are sceptical and suspicious. Today’s consumer seeks transparency and authenticity, respects candid answers and expects quality,’ he adds.

This leads to another trend in branding programmes: the real need for change to be internal, as well as external. ‘More clients understand that the way to drive their brand forward is as much about internal alignment as external activities. It’s about understanding and buy-in at all levels of the company,’ says Prior. The Partners has been working with global financial consultancy Deloitte on the firm’s brand positioning of ‘leadership and staying ahead’. According to Deloitte UK head of brand Pia DeVitre, the project focuses on the ‘tangible actions’ of the company and its staff. She believes that working on branding is more important than ever in the current market. ‘This recession has made us focus on the things that really matter,’ adds DeVitre. ‘Brand really matters and we still have budgets to support key components of the brand strategy.’

Broader outlook

Such strategic consultancy includes much more than tangible design work. It is those agencies that under-stand their client’s business issues – and are savvy about providing consultancy outside core design work – that are faring well. ‘Clients need something more than just shelf stand-out and pretty design. This could mean consultancy on distribution methods, cost-savings, materials, innovation and so on – whatever helps their business,’ says Davies.

Materials are a key factor in another major trend affecting brands and design – the ongoing drive toward more sustainable processes. Sustainability is now a key factor in most structural design briefs, whether for ethical or PR reasons, or simply to save money by reducing costs. Design can help brands find more sustainable and efficient ways to deliver their products and services. ‘It’s about being smarter,’ says Harris. ‘With Pearlfisher’s guidance and expertise, Nude is in the process of reworking some packaging to better suit our sustainable goals, without destroying our margins.’

According to Johnston, large-scale FMCG brand-owners are ‘taking a major lead on sustainability’, the fruits of which are likely to be seen in the next 12 to 18 months. ‘The focus is on minimisation in general, from packaging and recycling to supply chains and distribution,’ he says. ‘These projects aren’t going on hold because of the recession and they will make a big splash when they are announced.’ However, he declines to name the comp-anies he is referring to.

There is still some way to go before most companies embed sustainable processes into the way they think and operate. Anthem Worldwide’s parent company, Schawk, recently surveyed major US FMCG and retail companies and found that 83% are being affected by packaging sustainability, but only 28% had a comprehensive plan in this area. The survey also revealed that more than 60% of clients look to design and pre-media vendors for up-to-date information on sustainability. ‘Clearly, more needs to be done in terms of shaping both thinking and best practice, so the design industry has a key role to play in educating the marketplace,’ says Seal.

Sustainability is, perhaps, an overarching issue for most brands now, but all clients have different requirements and problems. Some may be solved by traditional market-ing techniques, others by restructuring a business’ processes or even its culture. Design can tackle all of these because

first and foremost the discipline is about problem-solving, and whatever happens to the various marketing channels, businesses will always have problems to solve.

‘One of the great attractions and anomalies of the design sector is that it’s all sorts of different things,’ says Prior. ‘But designers tend to be problem-solvers. The great consultancies think neutrally about what the solution might be. If there’s one unifying theme across design, I think that maybe this is it.’

This article was written for Marketing, 1 July 2009.

Pack up the gloom

Consumers in Sainsbury’s, who may already be overloading on the orange of the supermarket’s core branding, are now finding themselves swamped in the bright three-tone stripes of its Basics range. It’s a clamorous visual reminder, as if one were needed, of the hard times facing the economy.

As the gloom seeps from high finance down to the high street, purse strings are contracting, leaving retailers and brands jostling for a slice of dwindling consumer expenditure. Moreover, with the battle-ground for these customers very much in the aisles, the final decision over which product goes in the basket, and which is ditched or switched, is driven in no small measure by their pack design and branding.

It is, therefore, a crucial form of advertising that plays out before shoppers, right at the point of product selection. Dave Brown, chairman of design agency The Brand Union, cites its work for Andrex promotional packs as a case in point. ‘When you’re looking at this stacked on-shelf, what you’re really seeing is a 48-sheet poster campaign,’ he says.

This ability to double as visual advertising has always been one of packaging’s primary strengths, but even more so now, as shoppers consciously and carefully adjust their baskets to save a few pennies here and there. While marketing specialists have argued for years that the real battle is taking place on the supermarket shelves, some agencies complain that brands are not doing enough to promote themselves in store.

‘Consumers are starting to take more notice of product presentation in-store,’ says Sarah Hamburger, account director at market research company Spring Research. ‘We know that they read the copy on labels, and this seems to be an increasingly good way to stand out.’

However, consumers are not alone in feeling the financial squeeze. Retailers and manufacturers, too, face budget cuts in their marketing activity. Packaging design is just one element in a gamut of marketing communications channels that need to be considered.

B&Q packaging and point-of-sale manager Jonathan Couper explains how costs have to be controlled in this market. ‘We have reduced the amount we will invest in design for 2009, which I expect is the case for most companies,’ he says. ‘The reduction is not dramatic, as the business still recognises the importance of good design, but we have made a conscious decision to seek out smaller agencies as they deliver greater value and have significantly built on the use of brand guidelines.’

‘Budgets are being cut,’ agrees Jon Davies, managing director of packaging design agency Holmes & Marchant. ‘But it’s not necessarily fees that are reducing; there are just fewer projects around. And clients are asking for more. We have to demonstrate value in real terms: return on investment, awareness, sales, whatever it may be.’

According to Davies, brand owners should not be considering a complete structural redesign because it will not deliver within the first year of investment in the current climate. The trick, he says, is to look at tactical branding work which takes in the whole marketing communications mix, unifying it with a consistent aesthetic and single strategy. This is an approach that Holmes & Marchant has taken for its clients, including Guinness and Cava producer Freixenet.

Kate Waddell, managing director of consumer brands at design agency Dragon, argues that the smart route to keeping a portfolio alive on-shelf is to dovetail some design ‘refresh’ work with a product innovation or addition to a range. ‘If you bring in a new line and tweak the design, you can achieve a halo effect,’ she says. Tweaks and refreshes are less expensive and risky than range-wide overhauls, but not everyone agrees that a conservative approach to design investment is what is required.

‘Packaging on shelves in the multi-brand retail environment is mostly disappointing, dull and predictable, with the majority of ‘new’ design being shy tweaks and almost imperceptible updates of how it has always been,’ claims Nina Jenkins, creative director at Added Value UK, a brand development consultancy. ‘Despite their alleged frugality, consumers still want to be seduced by new options and feel that their choices are fresh and relevant.’

While many FMCG purchases are fairly functional in nature, there is always a potential aspirational element. Jenkins’ assertion that consumers ‘still want to be seduced’ chimes with another observation from Waddell, that shoppers do not want marketing to remind them that they have less money to spend.

As supermarkets’ budget ranges are pushed to the forefront against the back-drop of a struggling economy, it could be argued that product packaging that talks of pleasure and high quality, not just value, will be most successful.

Waddell believes there to be an opportunity for so-called challenger brands, which sit below the well-known brands, to ramp up their premium design cues so that consumers do not feel negative about trading down from the leading brand to save money.

Certainly, many shoppers switch to a ‘checks and balances’ approach to shop-ping, trading down in some categories, but permitting themselves to indulge in others.

In either case, it is clear that the role of packaging design is hugely important in influencing brand perceptions and purchasing decisions. However, the dynamic is far from simple. Many factors remain at play, and a straightforward shift to cheaper, basic ranges is unlikely to be the sole outcome of constrained spending.

Designers agree that it is crucial for clients to keep an eye on the long-term strategy of a product range and that packaging should be seen neither as a ‘cheap’ way to spend marketing budgets (compared with advertising), nor as a relatively unimportant element that can be cut from the branding schedule.

‘Packaging redesign in circumstances like these is often a kneejerk reaction to make marketers feel better – leading to results that are often counter-productive,’ says David Haseler, strategy director at design agency Smith & Milton.

‘The same thing happened in the last recession. The pack is an easy place to do things, and there is plenty of relatively cheap pack design for marketers to find by shopping around.’

As in all areas of marketing, design and innovation, the debate rages over whether it is more expedient to cut budgets or to keep spending through the hard times to renew growth when the economy recovers. Realistically, some brands will benefit from an affordable and modest refresh, while some may need the shot in the arm provided by a more substantial design investment. Perhaps the crux here is the time frame over which brand owners expect to see a return on this investment.

Either way, as Jenkins points out, packaging has a lot to live up to. ‘After the strategy, positioning, advertising and marketing is said and done, the moment of truth is when the shopper is face to face with the choice of packaged products. It is essential that the pack is irresistible, with clear, simple standout from all the others on offer. Cautious tweaks will not engage, but intelligent, compelling and relevant redesigns based on good ideas – that’s another story.’

This article was written for Marketing, 3 March 2009.

Inside track

B&Q churns more than 10 000 SKUs a year. That’s stock keeping units, for those unfamiliar with shop speak. At Tesco they deal with no fewer than 13 000 individual product lines every year. And in a retail world where brand consistency and design clarity are vital, keeping tabs on that lot is no small task. Enter the in-house head of design – the pivotal figure who corrals a company’s numerous design projects and products into something coherent, connected and comprehensible, something the customers can understand.

Of course, it’s not just retailers that need to ensure their design output is always on message. Any large organisation – an airline, bank, public transport operator or global charity, to name just a few – has multiple customer touch points, perhaps overseen by different departments which may or may not be talking effectively to each other. In businesses like these design overview is a valuable investment, helping a company to innovate and respond while also remaining efficient. And the person who holds that position can be a rather powerful design buyer.

‘Tesco used to have an in-house design head, but there was a big gap before I joined and, in the meantime, categories started to fragment,’ says the supermarket’s head of design Alyson Jakes. Previous incumbent Jeremy Lindley left to take up the role of category development director at drinks giant Diageo two years ago and, according to Jakes, even though the supermarket continued to work with design consultancies, consistency started to deteriorate without an internal hand on the tiller.

B&Q packaging design and guidelines manager Jonathan Couper paints a similar picture. ‘Historically, the business has been driven in all aspects by the commercial teams, so design was guided by individual [product] categories. Some category teams did this very well, others less so. But this is a fairly disparate approach,’ he says. To combat this, B&Q management – along with marketing and customer proposition director Jo Kenrick – has set up a team that will police the messy and the random, instead sending out a coherent message across all products and communications. For example, there were previously ‘ten to 15′ different typefaces in use by the company, but now there will be just one.

Like many large businesses, both Tesco and B&Q operate a roster of trusted design consultancies. So why not use one of these groups to act as brand guardian, especially when an external group usually creates the company’s brand identity in the first place? B&Q, for example, recently worked on its brand ‘personality’ with Interbrand. ‘You’ve got to be inside the company to create the degree of change at the speed we need to do it,’ says Couper. ‘A consultancy could do what we’re doing, but not at that speed, and it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. You can’t afford to do that as a retailer.’

Although efficiency and cost savings may be one reason for employing an in-house head of design, it need not be at the expense of high-quality design. An in-house chief can champion design internally in a way that no external group could really hope to manage, despite the sterling efforts of many. They can also make the case for the rostered consultancies and demonstrate how good design management is a bottom-line investment for the business. ‘I show how there is a triangle of benefits from design – aesthetics, function and cost – but design still has to be fought for on a day-to-day basis,’ explains Transport for London head of design Innes Ferguson. ‘It’s used as a business tool in this organisation, not as an optional extra, and you need a good, strong internal team to make sure the quality is right and – in our case – that the taxpayers are getting what they pay for.’

According to Ferguson, an in-house design position might cost about £30 000 a year, but that same person can provide TfL with about £150 000 of work. ‘An outside consultancy could do it, but it wouldn’t provide value for money. And there isn’t a group in the country which could do everything that we need,’ he adds.

In many cases, an in-house design chief reports up to the company’s marketing director, and in smaller business it’s often the marketing team that manages design appointments and projects directly, with no design head intermediary. But according to Couper, having a position between the nitty-gritty of design’s detail and the macro view of a company’s marketing strategy is a great benefit. ‘A marketing director can’t focus on that level of detail, but they do have the overview on the direction of the business and we can ensure that the design fits with that.’

Jakes concurs. ‘I’m the eyes for the marketing director,’ she says. ‘A head of design has really close contact with the customer on the shop floor, which a marketing director can’t. It might be quite hard to sustain this role in a smaller company, but for a bigger business you really need to make sure consistency is there day to day, no matter how good your brand guidelines are.’

This article was written for Design Week, 17 September 2008.

Marketing league tables 2008: the view from design

It’s perhaps a little unfair to kick off a ranging look at the state of play in the design industry with a project that emerged in a flurry of controversy, but last summer’s farrago over the London 2012 Olympics logo neatly illustrates a few things. Significantly, it shows the passion and involvement everyone can feel for a piece of graphic communication, the emotional connection lying at the heart of design’s power to influence. Vocal criticism and defence of the Wolff Olins-designed logo shows that people instinctively relate, one way or another, to the creative ideas it presents. Somehow, although ‘only a logo’, it’s important.

We all respond to visual and physical design everyday, whether it be a logo, a store interior or a juice carton. And our reactions can have a profound influence on the fortunes of the business behind the product, even if designers have often found it hard to quantify this influence. This is one of the major challenges facing the industry.

The 2012 responses also highlight a problem that has long beset the branding industry in particular – the huge focus and weight placed on a logo or corporate identity to the virtual exclusion of all the other work the design agency has carried out. And this is not just in branding: whichever discipline of design you’re looking at – retail design, product design, packaging or whatever – a good design process goes much deeper than the ‘colouring in’ of the final output. Focusing on the ‘physical’ manifestation of design work can sometimes belittle this depth, leading to design becoming a commodity purchase – another obstacle for design to overcome. ‘The value of design and design thinking does tend to get lost or overshadowed when people view it as a commodity, which even some people within the industry do,’ notes Lloyd Northover chairman Jim Northover, whose clients include Lexus and Royal Mail.

Finally, in relation to marketing more broadly, the 2012 marque demonstrates something else too: it shows the relative permanence of design, in this case for at least five years. Although design may provide some of the materials to create a marketing campaign, it is seldom a campaign in itself; typically, design hangs around much longer than an advertising or direct marketing sweep. The importance of good, well-managed design over the longer-term is therefore very high. Yet many agency-client relationships are still conducted on a short-term, project to project basis, while ad agencies win accounts that they often hold on to for years.

Each of these points provides some backdrop to the challenges and issues facing the sector. In many ways, the design industry fares differently to other marketing services, partly due to its culture and structure. In fact, some still question whether it is really an industry at all. To many, its micro-business set-up is that of a cottage industry; one populated with independently-minded ‘creatives’ whose lifestyle proclivities and ambitions often actually eschew huge growth or empire building. There has been nowhere near the kind of agency consolidation experienced in advertising and according to Design Council research, around 60 per cent of UK design agencies employ five or fewer people.

‘It is also an industry which has traditionally focused on excellence of product rather than profits,’ notes Tony Walford, a senior consultant at Results International, a consulting and finance business specialising in the marcoms industries. ‘There are many small agencies run by design practitioners who are passionate about their product, rather than concentrating on the commercial aspects.’ Not that ad agencies necessarily place profits above creative quality, but design agencies do often struggle to balance the two.

As design continues its growth from origins in arts and crafts, there seems to be one cardinal challenge to meet. It must communicate and demonstrate the real depth of value it brings to business. To do this, it must strike up long-term relationships at a client’s boardroom level, breaking free from project based, commodity-bought work and forging deeper partnerships with clients. As Scottish & Newcastle chief executive John Dunsmore notes, continually running with project based work means that design agencies ‘have to roll sixes every year’ to survive.

‘Design is the least profitable of all the marketing services sectors, because we’re treated as a talent commodity,’ says Andrew Knowles, chief executive of packaging design agency Jones Knowles Ritchie, which has worked on Scottish & Newcastle’s Strongbow brand. Doug James, a partner at multidisciplinary agency Honey, which works with Tesco and Harrods, echoes this. ‘These big clients usually see you as a service provider with a specialist skill set, so we have to demonstrate the business effectiveness of our services and show how we understand the commercial requirements of a company. They need to start to realise that we can think for them to some extent,’ he says. Then agencies have to start charging for it. ‘I don’t think consultancies charge appropriately in terms of the impact their work has on a client’s business. But this impact does have to be demonstrated,’ says Interbrand chief executive Rune Gustafson.

According to Paul Castledine, chief creative officer of Birmingham consultancy Boxer, once a business impact is demonstrated agencies have a ‘tangible’ sell. ‘Design must be driven by insight and should be measured in its effectiveness. In essence, we are talking about turning an intangible sell into a tangible benefit,’ he says. Some clients are already demanding proof of design’s effectiveness. ‘We’ve seen big changes in client’s demands. Increasingly, they want their design to demonstrate real effectiveness and request a clear way to demonstrate the value and impact design has had on their brand,’ says The Brand Union managing director Simon Bailey, whose clients include Vodafone and SABMiller.

For agencies able to do this, businesses are willing to pay. ‘You see this come through in the pitch process, where clients are asking tougher questions from their design groups, but are willing to pay for it,’ says Jonathan Ford, creative partner at branding and packaging design agency Pearlfisher. ‘They are starting to realise they can get a good return on design investment and are making sure they get it right, so it can be a long-term investment.’

As Ford notes, long-term partnership-style relationships between client and consultancy are increasingly important. Since its inception seven years ago, UK financial protection firm Bright Grey has worked with design group Navyblue. ‘They are very much a partner in our business,’ explains Susan Sneddon, communications director at Bright Grey. ‘We share the same level of information with them as we would our own marketing team, which allows them to be a true extension of that team. We have the view that we will get more value from our external suppliers if we invest time and money in developing a relationship with them.’

With the huge consolidation of big business – and a concomitant lack of consolidation in the design sector – there are a large number of agencies chasing fewer and fewer clients. In this climate, long-term partnerships are even more important and many consultancies and clients are now viewing their relationships in this way. ‘Over the last year we’ve been working a lot more with above the line agencies and I think this is partly because clients are looking for longer term relationships with their designers,’ says Barry Seal, managing director of strategic branding agency Anthem Worldwide. ‘Ideally designers have stopped being suppliers and are starting to become partners with a business. It’s about having a real relationship with your clients, not just a supplier relationship. I can’t stress this enough.’

Or, as Knowles puts it: ‘If clients give us more lock-in at the senior level we’ll work with them to deliver effective design. But the project nature of the industry terrifies agencies because if the client doesn’t like your face, there’s something in your portfolio they don’t like or they’ve got a mate they used to work worth – bang, you’re out.’

However, for all the challenges in proving effectiveness, winning boardroom buy-in and improving agency margins, the picture for design is not at all bleak. There’s little doubt that the strategic – and financial – value of design is being recognised at a higher level amongst business, helped along by the Design Business Association’s Design Effectiveness Awards and the Design Council’s Designing Demand programme.

‘I don’t sense there’s any boardroom doubt about the value of good design,’ adds Knowles. ‘The uncertainty is more about how they acquire it and manage it. There are therefore huge opportunities for design consultancies to show how design can be of benefit to the business.’

As the economy wobbles and consumer credit dips, design must compete even harder to prove this strategic value to business. As Walford notes, design can be one of the first marketing services to be cut in a tight economic period and the last to be reinstated when things pick up. Indeed, within the last couple of months network-owned branding giants Interbrand (Omnicom) and The Brand Union (WPP) have both cited ‘uncertainty’ as a reason for senior redundancies.

But where agencies demonstrate their strategic understanding of consumer behaviour, along with the power of design to influence that behaviour, corporate chiefs are more likely to keep them in the fold. This is true not only of branding consultancies, but also in product, digital, retail and packaging design disciplines. Before taking the view from some of these sectors, it’s worth picking up another trend that connects them all and perhaps fundamentally changes the nature of all marketing communication.

Shifts in the way we communicate are creating what Seymourpowell director Richard Seymour calls a ‘paroxysmal change’ in the relationship between products, communications and marketing. ‘So much so,’ he says, ‘that most people, including design agencies, don’t know what’s going on; we’re right at the centre of it.’ What Seymour is referring is the transition from ‘push media’ – where marketing activity pushes messages about products and services towards consumers – to a Web 2.0-style of communication where people, everywhere, are sharing, re-appropriating and commenting on these messages like never before.

‘Push media is evaporating. Not the places to put it, which are still there, but what people are doing with it, which is that they’re talking to each other. It’s like going back to the Middle Ages. If the blacksmith in the village is shit, everybody knows about it,’ says Seymour. As an example, he cites a YouTube video that shows how to crack a Kryptonite lock with a biro. The video’s author reportedly said: ‘Your brand new U-lock is not safe’, causing huge implications for Kryptonite’s products and brand.

‘Basically, if you lie, you die. If you promise something great and the product isn’t up to it, there will be an onslaught,’ continues Seymour. ‘So, you start to see a re-emancipation of the object or the product as the truth. In this new order you see a new way of communication developing. If you say something in the old way – “we think this” in a pompous way – then there’s a massive negative reaction. This is a huge relief. It’s honest trading again. We can’t just take some stuff and advertise the bollocks off it.’

If this is the case, it affects not just design, but the way consumers receive all products, services and marketing communications. ‘It’s a fantastic time to be in the creative industries because we’re witnessing a complete change, a new dawn,’ argues Seymour. ‘And it’s not technology, not the “it” of the internet – that’s just the “how”. It’s anthropology; it’s emergent behaviour which arises from the tools we’ve now got.’

This is a version of an article written for Marketing, 8 July 2008.