Creating the design for a new product can be a hit-and-miss affair. Not every company is lucky enough to employ the likes of Swedish inventor Alexander Samuelsson.
When handed a brief to create a bottle design for Coca-Cola, Samuelsson leafed through the Encyclopedia Britannica where an image of a cocoa bean jumped out at him. He adapted the image and used its outline as the basis for the design of Coke’s contour bottle, which was launched in 1915 and has become one of the world’s most recognisable brand icons. Unfortunately, few designs achieve such longevity or fame.
A conventional technique used as a first step to creating designs from scratch is to develop half a dozen ideas and test them with consumer groups before settling on one. Methodical it may be, but this approach can be wasteful and signals a lack of clarity about the aims of the brand owner.
Ignore us at your peril
Designers believe that all too often their craft is seen as subsidiary to price, position and advertising in the marketing mix and that marketers need greater design awareness. They point to recent developments as evidence that design is rising up the marketing agenda. From mobile phones to Innocent Drinks’ fruit smoothies, designers say product and packaging are fast becoming the major differentiators between contemporary brands.
Whether it is a new product or an extension of an existing brand, having a strong idea of the target market and keeping in mind the consumer insight that drove the decision to launch the product are indispensable. But designers say many companies fail to write proper briefs and some criticise brand owners for delegating the task to junior people who lack experience in the area.
Stuart Mackay, a partner at brand consultancy Ergo, says: “The design industry has made a lot of money on designs that clients never use. Even big clients still give designers a brief effectively saying: ‘We are not sure exactly what we want to communicate here, so if you give us a lot of design ideas we will look at them and try to decide’.”
He believes brand owners need to get a firmer grip on the briefs they write, bearing in mind which elements of a brand’s message needs to be maintained and which can be sacrificed. Siebert Head director Satkar Gidda agrees: “A comprehensive design brief is fundamental, but is rare these days.”
Brand owners should remember that people buy products largely on emotional grounds. They post-rationalise their decisions only when challenged by other people or by market researchers. Since design can be a source of building “emotional values” these values should be clearly worked out in advance of writing a brief. Gidda says: “We provide a template on how to write the perfect brief in order to help our clients brief us properly. If you don’t do this you find that even the basics are often missing, such as what are you trying to communicate to the consumer?”
Search for a solution
Once a clear brief has been written, the search to find a meaningful design begins. How best to conduct this search is a matter of dispute between design agencies, each one promoting its own bespoke method of approaching the problem. Most of the solutions revolve around researching people’s attitudes to products and trying to find the best way of bringing these insights to life. Many designers find inspiration for new packaging ideas by looking at brands in other categories that have a similar positioning and imitating the visual language they use.
Stealing the clothes of existing, successful products in other areas and fitting them onto your own product is less risky than coming up with untried and untested designs. The process, known as “parallel categories”, makes use of established design “clues” that indicate to consumers what a brand is trying to communicate.
Coley Porter Bell (CPB) has used this approach to originate a number of its designs, according to chief executive Cheryl Giovannoni. One example is the bottle for Ten Degrees mineral water, which the agency was commissioned to create by Eden Valley Water.
The project included choosing the name, surface graphics and bottle shape and colour for the brand. Giovannoni says the agency had to develop a premium image for Ten Degrees as it was intended to sell through restaurants at &£3 a bottle and needed “table-top credibility”. Giovannoni says: “We looked at other premium categories to see what properties we could borrow. We wanted to emulate the appeal of wine, so our Ten Degrees design has the look of a claret bottle and has the feel of the glass and the seal leading around the top.”
Another design CPB has developed using parallel categories was for the Cadbury’s Heroes range. The product was intended to hit back at Mars Celebrations, a collection of miniaturised countlines packaged together in a box. The agency came up with the idea of using a Dorothy Carton, the wide-mouthed box used for selling popcorn in the cinema. “We borrowed from the world of entertainment. It was about looking at the way people could eat in a more sharing, snacking and social way – eating on the sofa is a bit like eating at the movies,” she says.
Asking the right questions at the beginning of the design process is crucial to helping the development of effective ideas. Greg Taylor, head of product innovation at design consultancy Elmwood, says brand owners have to ask three questions about their products – what is authentic about a brand, what is its fundamental “truth” (what is its real use for consumers) and whether people would miss it if it didn’t exist. “If you can’t find the answers to these, the brand probably won’t be around for long,” he says.
Elmwood worked on redesigning the “Manor Born” pork sausage range, which took its name from an old television comedy series and featured a picture of a farm. “It wanted a new identity, so we recommended that the owners put themselves on the cover and use their first names,” says Taylor.
Elmwood concluded that in an era of concern over BSE and GM food, having an identifiable producer was an important source of reassurance for consumers. The new Debbie & Andrew’s sausage brand has seen sales grow from &£30,000 in 2001 to &£1m in 2003 with listings in Asda, Morrisons and Tesco.
Taylor admits that there is an element of paralleling in this, given that Debbie & Andrew’s resembles Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
In touch with their feelings
If designers work closely with brand owners to interrogate consumers on how they feel about a product, this can lead to the creation of strong design ideas. However, some believe that there is a downside to handing control of design to outside consultants – be they design agencies or marketing advisers – as their thinking will not be constrained by the technological and commercial costs of the brand owner.
Felix Scarlett, partner at designers Webb Scarlett DeVlam, says: “If innovation is generated internally, there are checks and balances provided by the commercial people in the organisation and that ensures a degree of focus on commercial realism. If it comes from a design agency that has to execute the idea, reason is also there. But if you rely on someone whose business is consumer insight or research, you can’t guarantee there is any commercial realism.”
And brand owners are warned to beware of getting taken in by short-term trends that seem to offer a route to great sales but in reality can be a distraction from creating a long-lasting design. Trying to come up with an iconic shape is more important than tapping into the latest trends, some believe.
Build to last
Pearlfisher creative director Jonathan Ford says: “Many in the design and marketing community are guilty of focusing on the next big and, sadly, superficial trend. What they should really focus on is beautifully holistic packaging that will long survive any colour or image fad.” He believes that this can only be achieved by talking to consumers and finding out what they really feel about products and the way they are used.
Designers would have you believe that there are no easy short-cuts to achieving a powerful design. They advocate thorough research and offer all sorts of methods to aid the creative process. But this is driven by second guessing consumers’ attitudes and takes away the responsibility of brands to show leadership. All the testing and paralleling promoted by designers seems to militate against the creation of powerful new design icons.