When the creative director of design consultancy Blackburn’s talks about the agency’s projects – the majority of these being new product development (npd) – as so many “babies”, he is not simply expressing abstract devotion.
John Blackburn means that the gestation period for a new product is normally nine months.
It can be dangerous if the process takes much longer, he suggests, since it implies that details are being tweaked to death. A “delivery” which is premature by one or two months is not as serious, he says. “But I think there is something amiss with a client which wants to get a product out in six months.”
Blackburn emphasises the steps necessary to take a new product from innovation to success with consumers. A recent development for the Reh group of new German wines – “The Bend in the River” – shows the importance both of a consult-ancy being involved from an early stage, he says, and of sensitive research.
“The client treated us as true consultants, and not just as designers of funny labels,” says Blackburn, explaining that this included involvement in selecting the wine to be marketed.
High figures are always bandied about for the likelihood of new product failure. This, together with the anecdotal examples that are always available, seems enough to make both brand managers and designers extremely cautious about npd.
But consultancies are having to strike a balance between the need to beat the statistics with a successful product and the need to cope with shorter lead-times. For many consultancies, Blackburn’s nine months – or even six – is a rare luxury in a packaged goods sector where brands are vying with each other to win the race to market, and where retailer own-label is often the fastest of all.
Bill Wallsgrove, creative director at Coleman Planet, believes many consultancies actually lengthen lead-times because of unrealistic attitudes towards costs and technology. The idea for a new product may be handed over from the marketing department of a major brand, with the brief to create innovative packaging. The designer may then come up with the most fabulous concepts, he says, which are simply impractical from the point of view of materials costs and the technology required to make them.
“We have an internal packaging technology department, and we also have an associated research business,” explains Wallsgrove. “The technological audit is a key part of the early stages of any project, and we can test credible ideas with consumers as development progresses.”
Like many consultancies, Coleman Planet has left behind the simple “designer” tag, with its ivory-tower associations, in favour of something more in tune with clients’ marketing and manufacturing perspective. “We deliberately do not call ourselves a design company, because that is just one of the skills we have,” says Wallsgrove. Having the technology, marketing, research and creative skills in-house gives the ability to speed the process of a new product, he says.
The traditional image of the npd mill is of a slow, drawn-out system to a set format. This offers the opportunity for an integrated consultancy like Coleman Planet to propose fresh, faster and – as the company sees it – more suitable approaches.
Another common perception is that structural innovation is largely responsible for slowing down the process. Having your own modelling and prototyping facilities in-house can be one way of de- monstrating that this need not be the case.
At PI Design International, these facilities include a CNC (computer numerical controlled) mill. This allows designers to build a 3D screen-modelled pack, so that a client can be holding a given structure within hours of seeing it on screen. Because PI’s workshop on the same site also includes a vacuum former, pressure former, injection moulder and blow moulder, the same client can obtain a moulded prototype in days.
This technology was used in developing packaging for the chocolate drink concentrate which extended Kraft’s O’Boy brand. After an initial launch in Sweden, the new product along with the redesigned core range is being rolled out throughout Scandinavia. The concept for the bottle was developed in a matter of weeks, says PI, and the whole project took less than six months from start to finish.
Npd will always be time-sensitive because of the fear that a competitor will recognise the same opportunity and get there first, even where a specific challenge has not been identified. But the strategies of major brands often do revolve around beating competitors to filling a precise gap in the market. At that point, the opportunity of making a dent in market share with a new product can have everything to do with speed.
This was the case when PI developed an identity for a new draught-in-a-can cider, Strongbow Smooth. “Bulmer had critical timing because it knew a competitor was going to launch a product of its own,” explains Don Williams, creative director of graphics at PI. “It was about to launch. We had to get there first.”
Even though it started with a huge range of possible product positionings, personalities and brand names, the Strongbow Smooth project was completed to Bulmer’s satisfaction again in less than six months.
Since then, the design has won a Best in Metal award from the Metal Packaging Manufacturers Association.
As with structure, faster design of graphics is being helped by technology. “Lead-times are getting shorter because of the increasing number of technical tools,” explains Williams. “As soon as the ideas are there, they can go straight onto the computer.”
In the midst of all this concern for speed, Steve Kelsey, creative director of structure at PI, sounds a note of caution. “Although our clients know us to be among the fastest consultancies in the business, fulfiling consumer needs is not about getting the wrong solution to market more quickly,” he warns.
Brand manufacturers envy retailers’ ability to trial new own-label sub-brands and range variants at short notice and with minimal risk. “The multiples have a huge asset in their ability to stick something on a shelf and research it for real,” says David Rivett, managing director of Design Bridge. “If the products don’t work, they’re simply pulled. It’s a short route to doing something that would take the brand manufacturers much longer.” This way, a retailer can achieve in weeks what may take a brand months to produce, he says.
Adding insult to injury, as designers for the major brands point out, is the retail ploy of selecting suppliers – after such issues as price, quality and prompt delivery have been dealt with – on the basis of their ability to come up with a steady stream of marketing ideas.
Consultancies are fighting back from the brands’ corner by stressing their understanding of the consumer perspective. “As a company, we live in the world of tangibles,” says Nick Verebelyi of Design Bridge Structure. “Consumers don’t inhabit a world of abstract concepts – they live in a world of product deliverables.”
For this reason, says Verebelyi, an early vision of the product is important in order to arrive as quickly as possible at something tangible. “The designer has to ask, what is this thing actually going to look like as a product and as a brand?
“The traditional attitude has always been that the creative process starts broad and conceptual, gradually becoming less abstract. That is costly, takes a lot of time – and is very high-risk,” he says. Design Bridge Structure inverts this process, he explains, identifying a focused point early on, but working from several of these for more informed creative thinking.
Design Bridge worked on a project for Finnish distiller Primalco, which was looking for a new vodka brand for the Russian market. The aim was to create an identity – and a price – that came midway between the premium international vodkas and the locally-made brands. The result was Maximus.
The nine-month project followed Verebelyi’s model of working from tangible manifestations of the brand and pack executions, exploring what the consultancy calls a “creative bridge” between the intended positioning and the consumer. Selecting the name was a key part of the project.
Many companies designing for brands agree with Verebelyi that differentiation – now more crucial than ever, whether in redesign or npd because of the threat from copycats – is inseparable from the issue of ownership.
The Design Show
The Design Show, which takes place at the Business Design Centre from October 28 – 30, will bring together over 70 design consultancies exhibiting their products and services.
Now in its second year, The Design Show has 50 per cent more exhibitors and an expanded seminar programme. In response to last year’s visitors, the seminar programme has widened its remit to include design’s role in sponsorship, direct marketing and in creating exhibition stands.
Topics discussed in the seminar programme include: “Defending your brand against copycats”, and “Brands as lifestyles – the brand experience”.
Among the keynote speakers are Tony Key, head of design at the BBC; entrepreneur James Dyson; Jon Turner, head of global design at The Body Shop; BT’s David Mercer; Philip Dewhurst of Railtrack; and BAA design manager Lorna Wayne.
Exhibitors at the show include Conran Design Group, Interbrand Newell & Sorrell, Pentagram, and Seibert Head.
The three days will also feature the DMA/Marketing Week Design Effectiveness Awards – now in its seventh year. The finalists across the 18 categories come from industries as diverse as packaged goods, charity, retail, leisure, telecoms, automotive engineering, publishing, entertainment, and broadcast.
The judging panel, chaired by Paul Kirk, managing director of Rover Cars, included Christine Caskell, personnel director of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars; Mike Sommers, partner at Price Waterhouse; and Miriam Mawle, head of research and development at Hasbro Europe.
The winners will be announced at the Awards dinner, which takes place on Monday October 27 at The Grosvenor House, Park Lane, London.