Brand evaluation has traditionally been seen as a marketing rather than a design issue. Only 30 per cent of European fmcg marketers conduct brand evaluation by liaising with their design agencies, according to research by PI Design International. But as the distinctions between disciplines blur and clients expect more sophisticated solutions, an increasing number of design consultancies are focusing their attention on how they analyse brands in their charge.
Each design outfit has its own methods. Some take a systematic approach to brand evaluation; others feel that anything too structured will stifle creativity. Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong. The range of styles available means clients have a wide choice when it comes to finding a consultancy they can work with comfortably.
Some design agencies follow a set of criteria when analysing brands. Design House uses a procedure it calls “brand value analysis” (BVA). Designers and planners – and sometimes clients – work through a 13-point list of criteria to assess brands. The elements covered include “visual impact”, “aesthetic appeal” and “differentiation and authenticity”.
Group account director David Rosen stresses that, although BVA is systematic, it does not represent a factory farm approach. “We use BVA to come up with a focused brief that designers can latch onto and apply the creative process to. It is not the designing that is structured, but the thinking. The BVA criteria simply help us to be objective about the brand by deconstructing the pack – not physically, but by decoding what the visual elements communicate.”
Chiswick-based brewery Fullers asked Design House to assess packaging for its London Pride beer. The agency applied BVA and found the brand was weak in the areas of “personality”, “information hierarchy” (the emphasis placed on each level of information about the product on the pack) and “heritage”. Design House was then able to concentrate on improving its branding in these areas. It addressed confusion in the “information hierarchy” by making the Fullers logo more prominent and more of a brand endorsement. It helped to re-establish the “personality” of the ale as a credible, quality, local brew by creating the red London Pride shield. The “heritage” of the beer was enhanced by using crafted typography and creating a gold shield for the pack – which suggests a premium pedigree through being shaped like a heraldic family emblem.
Communications consultancy Dragon International specialises in brand development and the management of corporate reputations. The agency describes its approach as strategic. Like Design House, it is wary of attempts to label this as scientific or formulaic.
Director Jane Mann says: “We have devised an audit to help us address key branding issues such as defining a brand’s existing and desired reputation. We have a lot of techniques that we use to engender creativity, but not an off-the-shelf solution. Today’s consumer is pretty sophisticated, so a slapdash approach is not appropriate. We consider ourselves specialists in the management of brand reputation and therefore have to take a strategic approach.”
Dragon’s brand audit begins with a review of the brand’s history. It examines data such as “when” and “by whom” the brand is used, how it fits into its sector and what advertising and promotions support it. A visual audit then looks at how the product looks in-store or, if it is a service brand, what literature and levels of service are provided.
The agency then works on “brand stimulus development” – the development of materials designed to help consumers express and explore core brand values. These might include a range of picture boards covering different personality types, moods or situations; a series of exercises featuring questions such as, “if this brand were an animal/car/country what would it be?” exercises; or a selection of music extracts or fictitious headlines. After the preparation of research material, Dragon carries out research among consumers. It offers an interpretation of that research by commenting on core brand values and how these are expressed and understood by consumers. The agency then makes recommendations on future brand development.
While recently reviewing the branding of Lurpak, for example, Dragon found that the product had developed a strong position as the leading quality branded butter, while keeping its packaging consistent by using silver foil and the colours blue and red. A visual audit showed that the brand was beginning to lose shelf visibility because own-label and minor brands were presenting their packs in similar way.
During research, consumers were asked to draw the pack from memory. Recollections were very accurate, with the silver foil being the dominant element. They were also invited to personify the brand. The descriptions given suggested it was seen as a very successful, but too refined and stand-offish and lacking immediacy and friendliness.
Dragon recommended that the packaging evolve to reflect the brand’s core values: “sophisticated”, “pure and fresh” and “continental” to give the pack impact. A fine silver stripe and italic script were incorporated to enliven it and add warmth.
By using personification techniques to investigate the new look, consumers described the brand as a successful, intelligent, healthy man in his forties to fifties, who commands respect. This contrasted sharply with the perception of Lurpak’s main competitor, Anchor, as an old-fashioned housewife or quiet widower.
Some design companies use a patented system for their pack redesign analysis. Strategic branding consultancy Interbrand calls its methodology “logo value”. Deputy chairman Tom Blackett says: “We normally divide all the features of an existing pack design into elements which are: inviolable or only to be changed after the most careful consideration; important, but which can tolerate substantial change; and relatively inconsequential in visual terms, but required for statutory, marketing or distribution reasons. The most crucial task is to clearly identify the ‘inviolable’ features, agree these and ensure they feature appropriately in the redesigned packaging so that the hand-over from old to new pack is smooth and that all existing visual equity is retained.”
In its corporate re-identification work for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Interbrand was faced with a product the very name of which was an impediment to growth. Kentucky was found to be an unfamiliar place to many outside America, the word “fried” had become a liability in an increasingly health-conscious eating culture and the company had expanded its range beyond chicken. Interbrand found that the Colonel Sanders character – whose face appears on-pack – was a inviolable element of the brand. The colour red was also fundamental, whereas the stripes on the pack, while important, were changed to suggest movement and give a more dynamic positioning.
It is not just corporate and pack designers who have their own methods for evaluating brands. Industrial product design outfit Smallfry advocates a prominent role for the product designer in the branding process.
Yet managing director Steven May-Russell says his product design team is rarely involved in brand development. “Given a free hand, we would use a very systematic approach to establish how well a product performs,” he says.
Smallfry’s technique is to observe, and then question, both regular and inexperienced users of the product; and then get all design team members try the product and evaluate it according to a set of criteria. The designers identify the aspects of the product that are key to the brand, and those which are either generic or superfluous, and work out how well it works or how easy it is to use. Audits of all rival products are carried out and an attempt is then made to incorporate all the good points from all the products tested.
May-Russell says: “When we build the product, we keep reassessing these good and bad points, while keeping an eye on the features and benefits specific to the product, its fitness for purpose and its perceived quality by the consumer. It all could be done in a different way. You can get successful results from spontaneous and instinctive work, but if you want to be consistent you have to be disciplined.”
Research is often a fundamental element of the brand evaluation process. Design company Sheppard Day normally applies an in-store audit as well as qualitative and quantitative research when developing retailer-distributed brands – unless it seems particularly inappropriate or plenty of good, recent research already exists.
Client services director Katrina Symons says: “We have a disciplined approach so that nothing gets missed, but we also rely heavily on expertise within the team.”
Research on bed-purchasing for client Vi-Spring Beds revealed some confusion among consumers and the desire to be better informed. Hard beds were believed to be “best for you”, but the main complaint about existing beds was that they were too hard and uncomfortable. To counter this, Sheppard Day put extra information in the brochures – available from ads and at point-of-sale.
Research also showed that the mattress cover was the clearest indication of product quality to customers. So Sheppard Day used 19th Century wall hangings as the inspiration for a new range of fabrics and found several ways of positioning the brand as more upmarket. This included raising the height of the beds, reshooting all pictures of them – employing higher production values – and making the Vi-Spring logo more elegant.
Consumer research is used by a high proportion of design companies, whether they apply rigid and scientific methods to their brand analyses or not. Many analysis procedures, such as considering the brand in its competitive environment and arranging brainstorming review workshops, are common methodologies arrived at from quite different starting points.
Design consultancy Jones Knowles Ritchie’s attitude sums up the views of many companies opposed to the “checklist” approach. Partner Andy Knowles says: “We don’t believe in applying a fixed formula when it comes to assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a brand’s packaging. Each brand should be considered in its own right, and reviewed according to its individual personality and proposition. Using a checklist of design issues that are pulled out of context is a scientific, rather than creative way, of tackling the problem.”
Springett Associates director of marketing Kate Killeen echoes these views: “You can’t rely on a scientific method for analysing something based on emotion. It’s not that we don’t take the client’s strategy into account, we just try not to restrict the designer by making the analysis process too formalised. Ultimately, we ask the same questions and often will arrive at the same result as if we had gone through a set checklist. Our designers are very ‘brand aware’; we only take on people capable of strategic thinking.”
Killeen points to Springett’s work for soft canned drink brand Seltzer as evidence that brand analysis needs to be approached in fresh and innovative ways every time. However, she admits Seltzer was prepared to risk a radical redesign and that with many brands such an approach would not be appropriate.
Killeen says: “If we’d taken the can and analysed it step-by-step we wouldn’t have got the results we did. The client wanted the drink to be seen as fun and bright, with lots of flavour and lots of different flavours – a drink like a Swatch.”
The result of the Springett designers’ brainstorming was a consensus to retain the clear can because everyone felt it was valuable brand equity. But it was decided to produce a different look for each can within the range to suggest the individual flavour of each particular drink.
All good design approaches – whether veering to the systematic or the unstructured – involve time, skill and in-depth analysis. To judge them by results is difficult in such a subjective business. In the end, clients may find the approach that works for them is more a matter of style than procedural content.