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Brand globalisation is bringing product design to the fore. Catherine Osborne finds out how agencies can ensure products maintain their identity the world over, while being sensitive to local variations.

Historically, retailers have sourced products from all over the world. Once a design was decided upon, the product was dispatched, complete with brand bible listing the dos and don’ts of its design. It provided a framework from which offices around the world would recreate it. Unfortunately, this huge tome went largely unheeded, so that the product design would often differ throughout foreign territories. Such was the extent of creative leeway in other countries that in some cases the design was unrecognisable.

With individual markets becoming almost obsolete, retailers are under pressure to make their products globally available. As a result, design companies are being forced to rethink the packaging process to ensure retailers get quality and reliability, without spending a fortune in the process.

Martyn Withers, a consultant at brand consultancy Dragon, says: “Because of costs and labour efficiencies, our biggest headaches have always been achieving consistency, and ending up with a product that looks the same as the next one on the shelf, even though they’ve come from different sources. It’s like painting the Forth Bridge. Agencies and clients need a reference from which to work.”

M&K Design chairman Paul King previous worked on the clients’ side, and his experience bears this out. “Our buyers would develop packaging for a range of products only to find that each company we used would create different packaging and use different printers,” he says. “Most of the time, if we used 28 companies, we’d end up with 28 different types of red. The brand wasn’t consistent, which meant the customer couldn’t appreciate its value.”

Naturally, it was always possible to ensure that retailers ended up with a uniform product, but ensuring this happened was an expensive undertaking, and not one that many retailers were prepared to carry out.

“Clients will invest a huge amount of money developing a concept, but they won’t spend the time and money necessary to make that concept happen in, say, Australia, North America and China as well,” says Brandhouse production technologist Jonathan Couper.

“Many clients don’t really think about the logistical side of making it happen. I’m always under pressure to provide the best possible result for the least amount of money possible.

“Packaging is crucial in customer choice, as one product can be chosen over another in a split second. But packaging is the last thing to be considered, and is often left to the last stage when it is far too late for it to be done to the best possible standard,” he adds.

“People seem to think that because packaging gets thrown away, it’s not important. But customers should be able to expect the same quality of colour regardless of what country they are in.”

Another thing that many retailers forget is that designers are only part of the process. Brand managers, deliverers and marketers are just some of the disparate participants that make up the end result. “After product suppliers do the deal and get the cheque, they often cut costs by using the wrong paper, or cheaper products,” says M&K’s King. “The design company doesn’t always see proofs, but we are in the firing line if the product doesn’t look as good as it should. We have to police the process very carefully to ensure that quality remains utmost.

Specialist materials

“Some companies do ensure packaging by specialising their materials – Tesco is an example – but it’s not as common as it should be,” he says. “Many of the retail brands get products that are poorly produced and printed, which reflects badly on the brand.”

With so many problems besetting the industry, new ways of ensuring quality and uniformity have become paramount. Design packaging consultants Creative Leap felt that articulating the essential truths of its brands was an overriding concern, so when William Grant & Sons asked for a new global brand identity for its Grant’s Family Reserve Scotch Whisky, Creative Leap decided to establish a brand communication that would represent all the elements of Grant’s in a way that could be carried on a global scale.

Catering for different markets

“The problem was how to market the biggest scotch brand in the world,” explains Creative Leap director Trevor Bradford. “Different markets see scotch whisky in different ways. In the UK it’s an almost reverential drink, often for slightly older people, whereas in Spain young people drink it in clubs with Coke. The cultural differences are very diverse and we had to embrace all local markets.

“Grant’s has four key qualities – family history, commitment to quality, making the best dram in the valley and a consistency of quality, so it’s the same no matter where you’re drinking it. By pulling these together we established an integrated strategy that went beyond packaging. The result was the triangle, which is the footprint of the unique bottle shape of the whisky. That mark is the only representation of the Grant’s whisky bottle globally, and is uniform on a worldwide scale.”

Another product that has achieved strong product identity through packaging is Absolut vodka. “It’s all about how a global brand can be distinctive, and how it behaves in a global way,” explains Mike Branson, managing partner at creative consultancy Pearlfisher. “If you’ve got an icon, which in this case is the bottle shape, you have to keep building on that icon. That’s how we designed the illusion of the orange for the Absolut Mandarin brand.

Brand identities

Creating these brand identities was a slow process, as it meant learning limitations while employing new techniques. Creative Leap stayed with the brand book idea, updating it in a way that allowed less room for erroneous manoeuvre. “Grant’s in Essence is a vision piece rather than a brand manual,” says Bradford. “It’s also available on CD Rom, and both the book and the disk are supplied to everyone who works on the Grant’s brand around the world, whether marketers, PR people or ad agencies. It’s a benchmark for all aspects of communication.”

For Pearlfisher, creating the idea and then making it global was a simple idea that needed thought and commitment. “Sometimes you can do more than you think,” says Branson. “Absolut is produced in a more standardised way now, but when it was launched, the glass was made in France, the spraying done in Wales and the graphics were applied in Sweden.

“It’s necessary for the designer to work closely with the printer if global differences are to be avoided. Another way is to standardise the buying of the repro. If the repro is bought centrally, you’ll always have a common benchmark for control.”

Ensuring the design reflects the identity of a product within each market can be tricky, as the identity is tied up with materials, form and structure as well as design.

Springpoint director of corporate identity Chris Holt says: “It’s the role of the brand manager, design management team, market researcher and purchasing team. To create the right result you’re looking at the co-operation of those four strands at the very least.

Knowing the local markets

“However, the most important thing with an overseas market is to check that market itself. Although someone, often head office, has to make a final decision, it is foolish not to fully consult the relevant expertise in the first and last instance before making your design and marketing decisions. Being a design management expert in this country doesn’t make you an expert in, say, the Middle East.”

Given the varying nature of both products and markets, it seems obvious that the greater the strategic input, the more flexible the design system can be. If input is forthcoming from all areas, the resulting rule book will inevitably be far clearer and simpler, reducing the margin for error significantly.

Dragon’s Withers adds: “Once you’ve got your style guide, that should give you the identity – the size, position and pack formats. It will also show acceptable levels of colour differentiation. You can create a framework from which people can work, which can be available on CD, in books or, as is becoming more common, on the Internet. This way, different markets can remain true to the look and feel that the brand requires while giving them the freedom to tailor it to local markets.”

This “think global act local” approach could be the winning formula that enables design companies to ultimately deliver a cohesive image in-store. Creating a template for success that brings with it worldwide recognition and a high degree of acceptability that has enough flexibility to fit local markets is an elusive endeavour, but not impossible.

Global recognition

Holt says: “I remember being in Istanbul recently, and, feeling peckish, I nipped into McDonald’s. While it had the familiarity of any other McDonald’s, there were certain nuances about the products and presentation that were quintessentially Turkish. That’s what I’ve spent 30 years doing, and what we continue to strive for – flexibility, while keeping its inherent feel. Balancing the two requires skill and expertise.”

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